- Heremeneuti.ca: The Rhetoric of Text Analysis
Sounds like he talked a hate speech, doesn't it? Now, analyze that. (Wright, NAACP Speech)
In the lead-up to the 2008 US Presidential election the news media became interested in the conflict between what Barrack Obama had to say about race and what his spiritual mentor Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. had to say.1 The news media presented Obama and his spiritual father as in an oedipal drama. Obama the son tries to distance himself from his father-pastor to win the presidency while Wright struggles to continually correct the record while getting attention unlike what he is used to getting from the pews. Both, in different ways, are trying to tell the media what should be talked about and how. Both want the attention on more substantive issues and, in trying to redirect us, have given moving and important speeches on race and America (by which we meanIn statistics, the mean is the arithmetic average of a set of values. When used in text analysis, the set of values is the distribution of words in the source text, and the mean value the word with the occurrence rate closest to the average. For more information, see the Wikipedia. Return to Glossary. the USA). Both have been trying to use the attention to redirect us to what "this time we want to talk about", or, to use Wright's blunt phrase, they challenge us directly: "now, analyze that"!2
Of course the media know where the engaging human story is and it is in the age-old conflict of the son and his father, as the son comes of age as a leader.
But, what if we took them at their word and looked away from the pulpit-and-pews drama. What if we take them seriously and look at what they say. What if we try to "analyze that" looking for the similarities and differences between their speeches. Are they a generation apart in their thinking or are they caught in the headlights of the media?
So we decided to quickly analyze and compare a speech by Obama and one by Wright. There are ironies to this analysis, but those will come out later. This is an experiment, but that too will come out.3
The two speeches we chose to look at are:
Why these two texts?
Much of computer-assisted text analysis is essentially about counting and comparing. One thing the computer can show you is differences in word use, but what the computer shows you is just something to think about - we will need to interpret the something. What then stands out in their words as differences worth thinking more about?
One of the first things we noticed was that Obama uses the word "time" far more often than Wright.4 In fact, at the climactic end of Obama's speech, he repeatedly uses the phrase "this time we want to talk". This table shows a concordance A concordance is a gathering of passages that "concord" or agree. Usually it is a gathering of passages with a sought for word. Concordances are a form of reading tool that go back to the Middle Ages. They are typically lists of words with their appearances. A concordance for the bible, for example, would have entries for all the content words of the bible in alphabetical order. Each entry would include information about where the word appears and some context. Searching for words on a computer now typically returns a concordance called a Key Word in Context (KWIC) with the sought word down the center and a few words of context on either side. Google returns a type of concordance when you search for a word with an example of the word in context for each page it recommends. See the Wikipedia entry on Concordance (Publishing) Return to Glossary. of all the instances of "time" in Obama, see for yourself:
Repeated phrases like this are always an indication of something, in this case they are at the climax of Obama's speech and tell us two things.
And what are the five things Obama wants us to talk about? They are a fairly traditional list for Democrats that includes education, health care, jobs along with the war in Iraq.
But there is a difference, and that is that for Obama these are issues that transcend race. "This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children." For Obama an election is about the common issues that affect all races rather than our differences.
The thrust of his speech is that this election time should be about the issues that Americans (both white and black) have in common, not about the issues that hijack elections (for the Republicans).
Interestingly, when we looked to see if there was a similar repeated phrase in Wright's speech we found one, "we are committed to changing the way" that is similarly located at the climax of the speech and is similarly used to draw attention to the change important to Wright. The distribution graph for "committed" shows how it is distributed towards the end of the speech similarly to how "time" was distributed in Obama.
A concordance A concordance is a gathering of passages that "concord" or agree. Usually it is a gathering of passages with a sought for word. Concordances are a form of reading tool that go back to the Middle Ages. They are typically lists of words with their appearances. A concordance for the bible, for example, would have entries for all the content words of the bible in alphabetical order. Each entry would include information about where the word appears and some context. Searching for words on a computer now typically returns a concordance called a Key Word in Context (KWIC) with the sought word down the center and a few words of context on either side. Google returns a type of concordance when you search for a word with an example of the word in context for each page it recommends. See the Wikipedia entry on Concordance (Publishing) Return to Glossary. of the word "committed" in Wright shows a patternIn text analysis, a pattern is a string of characters (such as a word or phrase) or regular expression to be searched for within the source text. Return to Glossary. of similar phrases that he repeats:
Again, that which Wright and his audience are committed to is at the heart of what Wright has to say and has to do with changing the way we see and treat ourselves and others. The heart of it is two words that show up with text analysis as used more by Wright: different and deficient. Wright wants people to see and treat each other as different, not as deficient. And it is not just about race.
In the past, we were taught to see others who are different as somehow being deficient. Christians saw Jews as being deficient. Catholics saw Protestants as being deficient. Presbyterians saw Pentecostals as being deficient.
Folks who like to holler in worship saw folk who like to be quiet as deficient. And vice versa.
Whites saw black as being deficient. ...
Europeans saw Africans as deficient.
Strangely Wright also goes on about differences beyond those between people like differences between African and European music. These differences of rythm illustrate something important for Wright.
Now, what is true in the field of education, linguistics, ethnomusicology, marching bands, psychology and culture is also true in the field of homiletics, hermeneutics, biblical studies, black sacred music and black worship. We just do it different and some of our haters can't get their heads around that.
This is the difference between Obama and Wright. Obama sees challenges common to all and Wright sees differences that need to be recognized in order to be treated.
Obama is running for President and wants us to turn away from difference so we can see the challenges we have in common - what is deficient in the country as a whole. Wright is not running for election (though he is dealing with the media attention from an election), but is a minister and asks us the audience to make a commitment to how we see and treat difference.
Obama is trying to turn electoral discourse to political issues that administrations can solve. Wright is trying to turn away media criticism to focus on individual change - the changes we as individuals can commit to.
Obama talks about Wright, but otherwise is talking to the American public. Wright references academics, as if to say that his position isn't so extreme, but otherwise is talking to the NAACP and not about Obama. Obama needs to distance himself from Wright, and Wright probably doesn't want to cause any more trouble of Obama.
So what do these two have to say about race in America? First we should note that race is still about "black" and "white." Here are the most frequently used words in both speeches.
"Black" is the highest frequency word after "I", and "white" is up there, though it should be noted that Wright only uses "white" 4 times compared to Obama's 27. It is also worth noting that neither of them uses the phrase "White House", preferring the less coloured "Oval Office."
In sum, Obama is talking to all races, and he goes out of his way to talk about his white grandmother. Wright, on the other hand, is addressing the NAACP and talking from the perspective of the black church.
Obama distances himself from Wright's use of "incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike." Obama has some sympathy for his "religious leader's effort to speak out against perceived injustice", but unequivocally condemns Wright as being divisive.
As such, Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems - two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.
Wright on the other hand is insisting that there are real differences, and by implication divisions that must be acknowledged even if politically charged.