The Intercultural Competence of Barack Obama

Barack Obama Culturally CompetentOn the Necessity of Cliché and Barack Obama’s Rhetoric

On February 19, 2008, New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks, under the title “When the Magic Fades”, opined:

“Up until now The Chosen One’s speeches had seemed to them less like stretches of words and more like soul sensations that transcended time and space. But those in the grips of Obama Comedown Syndrome began to wonder if His stuff actually made sense. For example, His Hopeness tells rallies that we are the change we have been waiting for, but if we are the change we have been waiting for then why have we been waiting since we’ve been here all along?”

Then, on February 25, 2008, Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times wrote in his column on “Obama and the art of empty rhetoric”:

“I have watched Mr Obama speak live; I have watched him speak on television; I have even watched his speeches set to music on a video made by celebrity supporters (www.dipdive.com). But I find myself strangely unmoved – and this is disconcerting. It feels like admitting to falling asleep during Winston Churchill’s “fight them on the beaches”speech. I will admit one thing. Mr Obama has a nice, gravely voice – which is perhaps a legacy of his days as a heavy smoker. But his most famous phrases are vacuous. The “audacity of hope”? It would be genuinely audacious to run for the White House on a platform of despair. Promising hope is simply good sense. “The fierce urgency of now”? It is hard to see what Mr Obama means when he says this – other than that some inner voice has told him to run for president.”

Well, politicians hardly ever say what they mean and hardly ever mean what they say. As Konrad Adenauer, the first German Chancellor after WWII, famously commented on his possible successor Ludwig Erhard: "He's totally unfit to be chancellor, he believes what the says."

To believe that political rhetoric should be logical, should radiate substance, should convey competence is the kind of thing one might hear in a political science class, it is however not what will guarantee political success. Moreover, to analyse and scrutinise content in political speeches misses the point completely. Relevant in a speech is not the logic of content but how the speech as a whole is emotionally perceived.

The success of Barack Obama’s campaign is, needless to say, due to a variety of factors. One of these factors is his intercultural competence by which I mean here: Keep it simple, stay on message, keep your message open. “Yes we can” is appealing because it purposefully does not address what we can.

That is too general, that is a cliché people often say when they want to dismiss a certain point of view. To label something a cliché is a killer-argument. Like saying an argument is illogical or empty rhetoric.

Truth is that we need clichés and that we cannot do without generalisations. The trick is to employ them intelligently. We use for instance “the Japanese” or “the Americans” despite our knowing that it would be rather doubtful if this typical Japanese or American really exists. Yet even if the clichés we entertain in regard to national characteristics might not withstand further scrutiny, it is a social fact that we constantly, be it in speech, be it in writing, refer to them. As Timothy Garton Ash some time ago reported in The Guardian:

“Madam Secretary, this will work in practice but will it work in theory?” The reported remark of a senior French official to the then American secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, sums what both the Americans and the British like to think of as a profound difference between French and Anglo-Saxon ways of thinking. But here’s a curious role-reversal to mark the 100th anniversary of the entente cordiale between France and Britain: on the Iraq war, Blair was right in theory but Chirac was right in practice.

The question whether Garton Ash’s assessment regarding Iraq is correct or not is not my concern here. I do however feel that his playful handling of cliché is done in a way that we would be well advised to pursue.

To effectively communicate in a nation as culturally diverse as the United States of America one needs intercultural competence. By this I do not mean that you conduct a poll to figure out what the Texans like to hear, by this I mean that you bring your message down to the lowest common denominator. Let me elaborate:

One way of communicating across cultures – young and old, male and female, urban and rural folk live in different cultures that are usually divided into a variety of sub-cultures – is to rely on generalisations. Take pictures for instance: the less realistic they are, the better the chance for successful communication – just think of the pictograms at airports.

Immigrants from all over the world populate the United States. The number of languages spoken, according to the National Virtual Translation Center (www.nvtc.gov), is 311. That means differences in mentalities abound, but that also means that people speaking so many different tongues in a country they emigrated to must share a common vision. And they do for they all hope for a better life, they all hope to leave something better behind.

What Barack Obama and the people around him understand so well is that there exists a deep layer of the unconscious that the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung called the collective unconscious, a term that indicates that there is, in the words of Joseph Campbell, “a common humanity built into our nervous system out of which our imagination works.” Words like ‘hope’ and ‘change’ tap into this common humanity and are felt as motivating.

The devil lies in the details, people say. No wonder we prefer generalisations and clichés.

By Hans Durrer

© Kwintessential Ltd

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