Friday, December 16, 2016

Famous Speech Friday: Dilma Rousseff's post-impeachment speech

We have so many expectations for our speeches, so many results for which we are hoping in advance--publicity, investors, votes, next steps, a crowd persuaded to our point of view. So it's rare to find the speaker who approaches a speech feeling as if she had nothing to lose, and with that, a willingness to risk all and say anything she wants.

Such a moment came in late August, after Dilma Rousseff, Brazil's first woman president, was impeached by that country's senate, ending her term leading the country. Depending on where you stood, that moment was the answer to corruption charges, or the coup by a parliament of an innocent leader. Is she guilty as charged? I don't know enough to say, but I can observe that this was one of several notable and successful attacks on women leaders in 2016. 

For Rousseff, it was a coup, and her statement following the senate decision minced no words. Following a short greeting, she said:
Today, the Federal Senate has made a decision which shall go down as one of history’s great injustices. The senators who voted for the impeachment have chosen to tear the Brazilian Constitution apart. They have decided to interrupt the mandate of a president who did not commit a responsibility crime. They have condemned an innocent person and executed a parliamentary coup.
And later, she described the coup in terms of how it would affect others:
The coup is against social and union movements and against those who fight for their rights in every sense of the word: the right to work and to protect labor laws, the right to fair retirement, the right to housing and land, the right to education, to health, to culture, the rights of young people in making their own future, the rights of black people, of indigenous people, of LGBT people, of women, the right to express oneself with no repression. The coup is against the people and against the nation. This coup is misogynistic. The coup is homophobic. The coup is racist. It is the imposition of a culture of intolerance, of prejudice, of violence.
At her 1970 trial
In between, she wove data about her popular votes, alluded to her jailing and torture under a previous military coup, and ended with these words of encouragement to Brazilian women:
To the Brazilian women, who covered me with flowers and affection, I ask them to believe they can. Future generations of Brazilian women will know that the first time that a woman became president in our country, sexism and misogyny reared their ugly faces. We have built a one-way road towards gender equality. Nothing is going to take us back.
What can you learn from this famous speech after an impeachment?
  • If they're going to put the spotlight on you, use it: No going gently into that good night for Rousseff, who'd seen enough power struggles to understand that she should speak for herself, even if the occasion was an ending not of her own choosing. Despite the outcome, there's no need to hide or be silent. She must have decided to make a strong showing, whatever happened, and this strong statement puts her marker firmly down.
  • It's not about you: Even if it feels like a referendum on you personally, know your role. If that was to represent a broader set of groups, speak to them and not just on behalf of yourself. Your message will go further that way. Reaching out specifically to women--in the same way Hillary Clinton later did in her concession speech in this year's election--also is a way of saying, "Don't let them try to shame you as well. Hold up your head with pride and move forward."
  • Remind us when history repeats itself: Seen in a larger context, Rousseff's impeachment is the second coup that attempted to put her down--but also could be, in its own way, just as dangerous as the first. If you've witnessed or experienced something similar to what you're speaking about today, lend us your perspective for a more layered and nuanced statement.



(Official photo of President Rousseff. Photo of her 1970 trial from the Records Administration, the National Archive of Brazil Ministério do Exército Arquivo do Exército Praça Duque de Caxias. Note the military dictatorship's judges hiding their faces from the camera.)

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