Trippingly Off The Tongue
It was thrilling to watch the speeches given by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School yesterday at the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC. The seventy or so people attending the St. Croix, VI march saw our students do a fine job too. The beauty of watching these young people speak either in DC on my computer, or at the gazebo in Christiansted was that they used the art of rhetoric so well. Their style matched the venues they were in and the audience in attendance. They all knew their audience.
Courage is essential for speaking in public no matter what the audience. A young girl sang a song at our local event while the sound system dropped out on occasion. She kept going, unfazed by the loss of her accompaniment. She had a single purpose which she accomplished with clarity. Given the nature of things here, post-hurricanes, she was doing what successful Islander’s do: carry on! She personified the people of St. Croix well.
Those students who spoke at DC represented the constituency of high school students well. They represented humanity well, too. I only saw four of the speeches on RawStory.com; they were superior to almost every speech university students gave in my Basic Public Speaking course over the years. They had to be. They addressed the world, not a classroom nor 75 islanders. Given the motivation and impetus of the occasion they came prepared. They were coached as anyone destined for this kind of notoriety would be rehearsed. The speeches were tailored for the individual’s concerns with the topics they had addressed in previous interviews and public comments. They were short and to the point. They made use of rhetorical flourishes appropriate to the speaker. Mr. Hogg was political, addressing politicians by name. Mr. Wind used the rhetorical trick of repetition with his, “you have chosen death” summations. The steely determination of Ms. Tarr put the NRA on notice with intellectual force.
Then there was Emma González with the most daring statement of all, silence. As a rhetorical technique it was more theatre than public address. It took a chance most would never take. She began by discussing the six-minutes and twenty-seconds of gunfire, she reads a list of names of the dead, then abruptly stopped talking. The quite absence of words had a force no language could duplicate. Her slightly androgynous short-cropped hair, sedately flaired jacket and torn jeans added to the effect of her gutsy presentation. Her choice had no guarantee of success. She had faith in her choice; that makes her an artist. Whoever the editor of the live broadcast was understood what was happening. They showed the reactions of the crowd and her classmates on stage. The dramatic question on everyone’s mind seemed to change as silent time moved along. A brief chant begins and dies out. The tears, the occasional flicker in her countenance, the movement from one thought to the next was clear – it told the audience she was doing this with intent. We needed to wait to learn the reason behind this choice. You could see the questions in those reaction shots: Is she OK?, What’s wrong?, What is she doing? This is intentional isn’t it, but why? I’M GETTING NERVOUS. Please explain what is going on. The alarm goes off, she speaks again and there is a collective deep breath from everyone. She makes a simple declarative statement: “The shooter has ceased shooting and will soon abandon his rifle, blend in with the students as they escape and walk free for an hour before arrest. Fight for your life, before it’s someone else’s job.” then walks off stage. The camera follows as she falls into the arms of two friends who seem to say, “It worked! You did it!” I had tears in my eyes during the silence and as the video ended. It was powerful.
One clear thought. Short evocative statements. Clean and clear ideas.
Today the NRA is crying sour grapes about the march calling, “carnival” about the atrocities of children who want to live. The bitter, sour, old men look childish in doing so. To use that particular word with its latin derivation, ‘of the flesh,’ is grossly inappropriate. These kids watched as guns destroyed the flesh of their classmates and teachers in a brutal way. To use it here is sadistic. The Republican puppet master, the NRA, has devolved into the most sadistic force in society; whatever good may have been present at its inception has fled and taken all the common sense and morality with it.