The President's speech
I am going to do a brief analysis of the President's speech, which was delivered at the ceremonial opening of the third session of our tenth parliament on July 11, but I find myself at a disadvantage: I only have the print version of the speech.
I was out of the country when he gave it but I would have preferred to have at my disposal a copy of the videotaped version or, if not, a copy of the audio-taped version. Surely, this is not too much to ask for in an age of digitisation where podcasts and video-clips of every blessed thing are available on the Internet. I went to the President's website in merry anticipation of finding all three versions of his speech, but all I could find was the print version (disgraceful, if you ask me) and so all I have is text divorced from body language and what some people call vocalics, that is, use of the voice to add tone, pitch, stress and the like to the communication of message.
And so I read the text and, well — sorry, Mr President — I was disappointed. I thought, the President is the highest office in the land — and, as he taught most of us that day, the holder of the office is the head of Parliament — and he doesn't have capable speech writers? I sensed a good heart in the words and noticed some grasp of some of the imperatives of the way forward. But what I mostly experienced was incoherence and preachiness. Gosh, the President was giving his last speech to the parliament, "according to plan'', and he was being an incoherent preacherman!
You know, when we listen to or read or watch (in the case of signers) what others are telling us, we attribute intentionality to them, whether their message is clear, vague, or incoherent. There is something they want to tell us, we tell ourselves. So the President was telling us something. Let's see what it is he was telling us in the following paragraph:
"Some may say that I have the right to orate as I please, given the context, but I have come to realise that we have become conscious of our rights, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. While not making light of entitlement and inalienable rights, particularly human rights and equal rights, we may want to consider them in the context of the collective, so that we may accelerate our advancement, as a nation. And as I mention equal rights, I muse about equal opportunity and ask myself whether we, every single one of us, should not be more concerned than some of us seem to be, about equal opportunity. If that is achieved, in respect of all of us, then, what we do with our opportunity will be up to us and no one else can take responsibility for our success or failure. Moreover, we need to remind ourselves that equal opportunity is not the domain of any individual or group in our diverse population. Decisions taken in this Parliament must be such as to ensure even-handedness and transparency in policies that affect the welfare of all our citizens. There must be equality of opportunity and merit must count above every other consideration.''
(Yes, I know: the paragraph is long but thank your lucky stars that I didn't choose one of two others that are much longer.)
The first sentence is contrasting a speculation with a realisation, both of them his own. The speculation is that some would want him to "orate'' as he pleases — talk at length, I take it (but "orate''?) — in the given context — not the national context but the narrow one of the ceremonial opening in a room with parliamentarians, right? And the realisation is that "we'' — Who? The whole nation or the Parliament (he, the senate, and the house of representatives)? — are conscious of our rights "to the exclusion of all else''. But what does consciousness of rights have to with his orating as he pleases? And what can the latter quoted phrase mean? What's "all else''?
The second sentence stays with the theme of rights but shifts to placing them in the context of "the collective'' — individual rights informed by the rights of all other individuals, right? — in order for us to "accelerate our advancement, as a nation''. But how does considering rights in such a context speed up our advancement? And why that pesky comma before "as a nation''? To slow down the sentence in order to focus the listener/reader/watcher on national advancement rather than on the advancement of the parliamentarians? Isn't "our'' sufficient?
The rest of the paragraph — five sentences — shifts from rights to "equal opportunity'' and shows the President meandering from "every single one of us'' — Who? The parliamentarians? All citizens, including babies and the mentally disabled? — needing to be more concerned about that kind of opportunity than about rights, to achieving that concern somehow, to taking responsibility for what we do with our opportunity, to equal opportunity not being the preserve of a few in our diverse population, to parliamentarians' duty to be even-handed and transparent, and back to equal opportunity being the most important consideration.
So the paragraph dances us from a strange contrast between presidential orating and a selfish view of rights to a superficial consideration of rights to an incoherent discussion of equal opportunity. In the process, it taxes our inferential ability, quite unreasonably.
To make matters worse, the President makes most of his points in the speech by preaching rather than arguing. In the target paragraph alone, there are three instances of "must'' and one instance each of "need to'' and "should''.
In the speech as a whole, there are 31 instances of "must'', nine instances of "should'', and six instances of "need to''.
Disappointing, I say.
• Winford James is a UWI lecturer and political analyst