Thursday, September 21, 2017

When a great speech comes back to haunt you: Speaker credibility

Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi has become a beloved figure, thanks to all the trouble she has endured in pressing for human rights. But today, the activist-turned-leader of her country is under fire for failing to condemn publicly the systematic persecution and ethnic cleansing of the Rohinga, a Muslim minority in Myanmar.

The persecution includes burning entire villages, raping women, and shooting adults and children for no reason; some 300,000 have been forced to leave the country for Bangladesh. And her words in two famous speeches are now being used to measure her non-response, because they are so different in content and tone from what she is not saying today. The speeches, once so well-received, have put the lie to her action/inaction--and her failure to act has negated the credibility of the speeches in the eyes of many.

Silence and speaking have marked the public career of Daw Suu, as she is known. After a military takeover in her country, she was imprisoned under house arrest for 15 years, effectively silencing her voice of protest. We've covered here her 1990 Freedom from Fear speech as part of Famous Speech Friday, given before her arrest, and in that speech--a great psychological study of oppressors--she said:
It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.
As I noted in that post, these words were not held back for the stirring end of the speech, but were thrown down early in the speech, a direct and bold challenge. There is nothing reserved about this speech, which had credibility because it not only spoke truth to power in defiance, but because it went beneath the surface and analyzed the real motivations of her country's oppressors in a way that speeches rarely do. It is worth reading again.

Freed in 2012, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and her acceptance lecture at the awards ceremony also has become a touchstone speech about human rights. Here's a passage that is coming back to haunt her today:
Are we not still guilty, if to a less violent degree, of recklessness, of improvidence with regard to our future and our humanity? War is not the only arena where peace is done to death. Wherever suffering is ignored, there will be the seeds of conflict, for suffering degrades and embitters and enrages.
And yet here we are in 2017 with the speaker appearing to do just the thing she decried: Ignoring suffering. New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof has an excellent analysis; Kristof has covered issues about human rights, women and girls, and international violence for decades and really captures the dilemma and the gap between Daw Suu's words and her failure to act in this important case. Like many observers calling her out now, it's the speeches he comes back to, again and again.

Kristof does have some direct clues, despite her silence, and shared the criticism from human rights leaders:
Based on a conversation with Daw Suu once about the Rohingya, I think she genuinely believes that they are outsiders and troublemakers. But in addition, the moral giant has become a pragmatic politician — and she knows that any sympathy for the Rohingya would be disastrous politically for her party in a country deeply hostile to its Muslim minority....Another Nobel Peace Prize winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, wrote a pained letter to his friend: “My dear sister: If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”
The Reverend Tutu nailed it with that comment, something that all women who strive to have their voices heard should heed: If the price of your power is your silence, the price is surely too steep.

Just yesterday, Daw Suu finally addressed the issue in a speech that appeared to nod to both sides, not a satisfying answer to her questioners. She avoided the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York this week, and this speech came nearly a month after her last public statement, an unusual period of self-determined silence. But worst of all, reports said, "[h]er speech was remarkably similar in language to that of the generals who had locked her up for the better part of two decades."

What can an ordinary speaker learn from this extraordinary circumstance?

First, I think it highlights something we choose to forget or ignore many times when we give a speech. A speech is a statement of belief. We assert things in speeches, and defend or decry them. We share opinions. We put our marker down: This is what I think, believe, hope, expect. We ask others to share our views, vote our way, act in our behalf or that of our cause. Not in every speech, but in many of them. We push ideas, and ask you to accept them, even applaud them.

But sometimes, perhaps, speakers forget or choose to ignore the speeches they've given. Not so the outside observers, who can use your speeches as a measure of what you said then versus what you are saying now. This happens, of course, more with public figures like Daw Suu, or U.S. presidents, or members of Congress or parliaments, and it should. Speeches are a public statement, and yes, they can serve as a measure of your credibility--a truth no matter how famous or ordinary you may be.

I've learned from working around the world that in many countries, the idea of formal speechwriting and even rhetoric--just a system for organizing thoughts into language--are considered dirty words, thanks to their misuse by politicians and despots intent on saying one thing and doing another. The misuse of speeches in this way undercuts entirely the credibility of speechmaking. In some countries around the world, one does not identify oneself as a speechwriter, or talk about having prepared a speech, or having someone else prepare a speech for you--all for fear of looking like you are just manufacturing propaganda. And that's a shame, although a realistic reaction to the misuse of speeches.

In a democracy, however, we still look to speeches as an important part of the process--and scrutinize them as well, using words to hold the leaders the account. The widespread criticism of Daw Suu is a part of that process, the outside world holding her to account for her words. It's a great reminder to speakers that your words can indeed come back to haunt you and your credibility, so choose with care.

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