May 8, 2009
Obama's Self-Actualizing LanguageBy Lee Cary
In the minds of his believers, Barack Obama has only to utter words and they become so. It is a phenomenon somewhere on the border between politics and religion.
In the arena of Biblical scholarship called the New Hermeneutic, spoken words can become self-actualizing language events. This power, reinforced by media adoration, was an effective element of Obama's campaign speeches. And it continued to be effective into his first 100 some days in office.
First, we'll review (aiming to be succinct) a school of Biblical criticism based on the notion of self-actualizing language. Then, apply it to how Barack Obama uses language.
A self-actualizing language event displays the power of the spoken word to make manifest that reality to which it refers. In the Biblical narrative, that power falls solely within the providence of the divine, either directly, or through an agent like Moses who parts the waters with powers not his own.
The creation story in the Old Testament book of Genesis is the premier account of self-actualizing language. God speaks and order emerges out of the chaos. God says "Let there be light," and the divine word makes it so.
Beginning in the mid-1960's, a group of New Testament theologians, mostly from more liberal, protestant seminaries, proposed an exegetical approach called the New Hermeneutic. Its working hypothesis was that the Church evolved from the language event that was Jesus of Nazareth. His spoken words actuated his followers to proselytize; their effort led to the formation of the Church.
Proponents of the New Hermeneutic said that understanding Jesus' teachings as the generating event of the Church obviated the need for a literal interpretation of the incarnation and his resurrection, as well as the miracle stories. By their reasoning, the New Hermeneutic demythologized the traditional, literal interpretation of much of the story of Jesus as the Christ. All, that is, except the language that could reasonably be attributed to the historical Jesus. The language event of the historical Jesus led to the birth of the Church. His words alone did it. The rest is mostly myth and embellishment.
Here's the connection, now, between what's above to the language Barak Obama speaks.
Throughout his presidential campaign, Obama invoked Change and Hope as self-actualizing language events. In the dual context of the racial aspect of his candidacy, coupled with widespread negative feelings about the Bush administration, a majority of voters willingly, enthusiastically, suspended critical thinking and accepted Change and Hope as self-actualizing language that would materialize upon Obama's election. As noted by the American Thinker's Randall Hoven, that hope represented wishful thinking. It was also wistful thinking. An emotional longing for something new, with little focus on what new meant.
Now that he's president, Obama continues to use words as self-actualizing language events. For example, during his 100th day anniversary White House press conference, he said,
Gitmo wasn't closed when he spoke those words; it isn't closed today. It'll remain open for months as his administration struggles with what to do with the detainees. Yet he spoke the words as though the closing had already happened. And in the minds of some of his followers, it essentially has.
One can explain his phrasing as the rhetorical projection of a future event into the present. Sort of a verbal promissory note. But, when you refract it through his campaign language, it becomes another example of a pattern. It's just one blossom of his self-actualizing use of Hope and Change.
"Transparency" is another example. The President, and others in his administration, use the word in the context of claiming transparency for the government. Citizens can, it's alleged, see into the workings of an administration with nothing to hide. It's transparent.
The claim of "transparency" aims to evoke the positive image that Obama's is an open presidency, unlike the previous administration. The concept of openness self-actualizes in the mind of some, as, for them, him calling it transparent makes it so.
The words "fiscal responsibility" aim to conjure up an image of leadership competence. Obama proposes an astronomical budget and then, from the same lectern, extols the virtues of fiscal responsibility. In this case, words trump reality in what is the gold standard, literally and figuratively, of self-actualizing language events where words are disconnected from reality. It's as though God said "Let there be light," and even though it stayed pitch dark, the people proclaimed the light as good.
"Bipartisanism," and all the verbiage that surrounds it, is another expression that creates a non-existent reality. Obama uses the word "bipartisan" and some think, "Look, he's trying so hard to be bipartisan." Reality is again countered by the language event.
Saying "fair" expresses a commonly desired value, and the speaker becomes fair in the minds of the listeners by having uttered the word.
And you can almost hear the power generators hum by saying "clean energy" and "alternative energy sources." The words alone are so seductive to those who have willingly suspended their critical thinking abilities that they'll entertain no suggestion that alternative energy sources are a long way from significantly reducing our reliance on coal, oil and natural gas.
Such is the power of self-actualizing language when effectively used, and uncritically heard, by those who've made a deep emotional investment in the person behind the voice.
It moves close, does it not, to fostering a cult?