Friday, July 10, 2015

Famous Speech Friday: SC Rep. @JennyHorne's Confederate flag speech

When elected representatives in South Carolina began to speak about whether the Confederate flag should be removed from the statehouse grounds--a debate that began after nine people, including a state senator, were gunned down and killed at a church bible study in Charleston--I heard lots of reined-in, coded rhetoric. Even the video of Governor Nikki Haley's speech calling for the removal of the flag is labeled to say she "discusses" the flag.

But tamping down the controversy with tepid language stopped late on Wednesday evening this week. Just as the legislature seemed to be permanently at a standstill over this issue, South Carolina Representative Jenny Horne rose to her feet to protest the attempts to load down the bill with amendments, in effect delaying debate and its passage.

Her speech was both procedural and passionate. Maybe you didn't think that was possible, but it's part of a great tradition in outstanding legislative speaking: At the moment when all seems lost, we Americans love an elected official who can rise and extemporaneously sum up both the feeling and the finer points of the legislative process involved in a particular fight on the floor. In this debate, there'd been plenty of public speaking. The rhetoric showed the deep divisions between the sides, and one representative introduced amendment after amendment--each with a 20-minute or so speech--to keep the bill up in the air. But Horne's angry speech turned the tide, in rhetoric and results.

Much of the coverage of Horne's speech emphasized that it was "emotional," as women's speeches are often described. Yes, her voice cracked and rose higher. She shook with rage, and she clearly came to tears as she spoke. But why not call it by the precise emotion? Angry, frustrated, fed up would have been my adjectives.

That emphasis on emotion in the media took some attention away from the excellent language and delivery. This speech is nearly devoid of stumbles and fillers. She wasn't using notes, and she told the Washington Post her remarks were not planned in advance, but her sentences are beautiful and forceful. To deliver that high level of language in the moment, while overcome by emotion, is a tour de force of public speaking, something to be celebrated.

More important for a legislator at a critical moment, it worked. Horne's main goal was to stop the amendments and to allow the bill to move forward, and her words broke the logjam. The bill was passed, 94 votes to 20, in the wee hours of the morning yesterday. The bill calls for removal of the flag from the statehouse grounds within 24 hours of the its signing by the governor; it was approved by the state senate earlier. By the time you read this post, the flag may already have been taken down.

Here's one of the memorable passages in Horne's speech, in which she follows emotion with proper legislative action:
I cannot believe that we do not have the heart in this body to do something meaningful, such as take a symbol of hate off these grounds on Friday.

And if any of you vote to amend, you are insuring that this flag will fly beyond Friday. And for the widow of Senator Pickney and his two young daughters, that would be adding insult to injury, and I will not be a part of it. And for all of these reasons, I will not vote to amend this bill today.
You'll have to watch the video to hear how she emphasized those sentences. What can you learn from this famous speech, just four minutes of fire and ire?
  • It's okay to be emotional on emotional topics--but keep going: A primary reason Horne's speech was so effective, and so widely noted, was its emotion. Her anger, frustration, and passion come through clearly, and also helped her move past the tears and choking voice. I've come to think that one of the ways we silence women's voices is by criticizing them for displaying emotion when they speak. In this instance, you can see that it mattered more to Horne to say her piece than to worry about the very real emotions she was displaying. Her anger conveys urgency in a long, drawn-out debate.
  • Turn a common metaphor to your own special purpose: We talk all the time about "legislative bodies" without even giving a moment's thought to the fact that it's a metaphor, so often do we use it. Horne pushed that metaphor further, saying, "I cannot believe that we do not have the heart in this body to do something meaningful." She emphasized "heart" and "body" vocally, to underscore the metaphor effectively in a line that took the legislature to task for failing to act.
  • Counter your opponent's rhetoric with yourself, when you are able:  Many Republicans demurred when asked their opinions on this issue, some noting the flag's place in their heritage. Horne, also a Republican, saw that bet and raised it, to use poker parlance, saying: "I am sorry; I have heard enough about heritage. I am a descendant of [Confederacy President] Jefferson Davis, O.K., but that does not matter.” To my ear, the use of "I am sorry" and "O.K." are neither apologetic nor filler, but words used purposefully in debate mode, almost taunting her opponents. 
As the Washington Post noted: "Horne’s fiery speech, bolstered by her reminder that Confederate president Jefferson Davis was her ancestor, injected new energy into what appeared to be a flagging take-down-the-flag faction and helped pave the way for a 1 a.m. vote to remove the flag from the state capitol."
Here's her tweet at the end of the matter:
Please do listen to and watch this speech here or below for a great example of top delivery during an emotional statement. You also can read a transcript on Daily Kos.

Rep Jenny Horne Confederate flag speech

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