Obama at Tucson

The power of language

There are moments when language changes life - when the course of events is changed by choosing the right words at the right moment.

It would appear that such a moment happened on Wednesday 12 January 2011 in Tucson, Arizona, when President Barack Obama gave a speech to commemorate the victims of a massacre outside a local supermarket the previous Saturday.



Basic facts: Wikipedia article ... astonishing that a compehensive factual article in great detail, festooned with links, is available less than a week after the event - encyclopedias weren't always like this!

News reports:

CBS News - 'Complete coverage' ... indicates the range of reporting techniques: background, features on individuals, photos, videos, commentaries & opinion

Fox News Insider gives a history of Fox coverage ... 'thread + comment' format - all stories related to the main theme, and you can join in chat rooms to comment - if you're signed up. Pages and pages and pages of it - overkill ?


Fox News comment: 'Return to 1990s mindset ...'

James Fallows' blog in The Atlantic ... scroll down for a mass of interesting comments about the shootings, but more particularly about the concept of 'civility' in US political life

Gallup opinion poll, 10 January 2011 ... support for gun control weakens

The speech

Full text of the speech given in the New York Times (note that the speech as given has minor, but interesting variations)


  extract, with guiding questions ... (begins at 16.05 in the recording above)

Using the extract

The extract marks the point where Obama changes gear - where he introduces the overarching message that he wishes to convey. He has given an elegy for each of the dead, remembered sensitively the living, paid tribute to those who gave help - and the extract begins with a bridge from the latter's heroism to how society in general should respond.

The force of this part of the speech is that it uses relatively simple language to express very profound ideas about the ways in which we all, always, try to come to terms with terrible events. We wish to "honour the dead", we "demand explanations", we "cannot and will not be passive" - but what Obama really wishes to achieve is to raise the tone of debate, to "make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds".

The principle that responsible debate about serious issues should be caring and sensitive is of course central to the IB's view of education - and part of the value of paying close attention to this speech is to understand and learn about the value of such a moral position.

Apart from that, key skills that students should practise are:

> identifying key phrases

> grasping the overall point

> responding to the 'address' of the speech

> detecting and analysing structure

It is up to you, naturally, to decide how to deploy this material. Probably the best way to start, to me, is simply to play the video, and then discuss respectfully how you and the students have responded. This is a real speech about real events and real people who have died.

The guiding questions

Standard good practice would be first to ask the students to read the extract, and then ask for any basic problems with vocabulary. Then give out the worksheet, and get the class working on the tasks :-

Key sections

Simply asking students to underline key phrases or sentences encourages focus and selection. Not all sections of a text have equal weight.

The crucial element of the task is the instruction " Be prepared to say why you think these are the most significant " - collect which sections the students have underlined (there should be quite a good measure of agreement), and then discuss why those sections stand out.

Summarising the argument

This should be seen as the logical extension of having selected 'the important bits' - although, clearly, the key sections may not be exactly the same as, or cover entirely, the underlying argument.

Encourage the students to write the summary in as few words as possible - and to use their own words, not simply quote bits from the passage. Re-processing the ideas through one's own words is a vital element of getting a real grasp of an argument.

[This process of re-phrasing as simply as possible is practised in Summarising patterns ]


The task aims to emphasise the consistent use of the pronoun 'we' (and the related pronouns 'us', 'our', 'ourselves'). The simple selection of a very basic pronoun creates the whole relationship between speaker and audience - and this is a profoundly effective rhetorical technique.

Much of the power of the speech is that Obama insists on "we, the people" - he places himself, as President, on the same human level as everyone. The grammar chosen makes a very forceful moral and political statement.

In addition If you have the full text of the speech available, it might be a useful exercise to get the students to scan for the pronoun 'I'. They should identify all points where 'I' appears, and then analyse what is the effect / purpose of the pronoun in each case. Here are my calculations :-

* 'I' appears three times within quotations - i.e. not referring to Obama

* Obama uses 'I' referring to himself eight times, in a significant pattern :-

- twice at the beginning, really to place himself within the 'we' group ... "I have come here tonight as an American who, like all Americans ..."

- six times at the close of the speech, usually related to the verb 'believe' ... "I believe we can be better." This is where he asserts leadership, by stating his own view.

Sentence structure

Get the students to analyse the two sentences, bearing in mind the concept of 'climax / anticlimax' - does the force of the language rise or fall as the sentence progresses ?

The second sentence is fairly clearly 'climactic' - but the first is more problematic: does it rise or fall - or is there a 'sting in the tail' ?

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