Paul Achar is a consummate professional and earns his living coaching public speakers, studying and critiquing speeches, and helping the public make sense of speech acts. His approach is deconstructive in nature.
He takes an entire speech and breaks it into various acts or parts. Then applying symbolic interactionism theory—the notion that the various acts are symbols that represent some reality—tries to understand what those who view the speech interpret the various speech acts to mean.
The approach has several assumptions. One is that the choice of the symbols a speaker uses is deliberate; that those symbols are universally understood, or interpreted to mean the same thing.
The other assumption is that the audience makes the same interpretation of those symbols. It is, of course, the responsibility of the speaker to chose the symbols to use. The symbols can be broken into a variety of parts: the verbal and non-verbal.
The choice on what symbol to use is intentional or non-intentional. The public tends to hate overly scripted performances— preferring more spontaneous ones. The later are viewed as authentic and authenticity is a factor in believability. The two streams—the scripted and non-scripted—often compete for attention.
Last week, we were treated to a high-profile speech act whose main players were Cord leader Raila Odinga and Gatundu South MP Moses Kuria, but whose cast included the other now popular ‘Pangani Six’ and the other two Cord co-principals on the cast of leading opposing politics.
The setting was a popular restaurant in downtown Nairobi that is not necessarily associated with the most sophisticated cuisine. The furniture was average, décor not much to speak of but yet the occasion was certainly a speech act complete with its photo op session.
Achar is yet to deconstruct this speech act in his blog but was the speech useful to the country? The importance of the lunch time speech was not so much on what was said but rather what was seen—the non-verbal.
Raila and Kuria are both simultaneously symbols and reality. Scientists tend to get it wrong by assuming there is one reality. The obstinacy of the audience means that they independently interpret the symbols even if at some point a more collective image may emerge. Fish, the delicacy in the menu, certainly means many things depending on where you stand.
However, while a lunch setting is a speech of a type; scenes of protest that Raila has been associated with, are speeches on their own right of another type. Similarly, the fiery speech deliveries, the type of which Kuria was accused of, are also speeches of a different type. But the properties of the two may overlap in many ways.
What would thus a collective reading of the lunch speech mean? To assume a uniform answer would be misleading given the notion of audience obstinacy. Kenya has the near equivalent of left and right divides even if what informs it is not necessarily based on perceived ideology of economic conservatism.
Thus, that divide would drive the reading of a speech of this nature. And while the speech is the same, the message derived would be different depending on where one stands. Did the speech soften the images of the two leading symbols at the table—Raila and Kuria?
Would it lead to greater acceptability of the actors within the constituencies of opposing participants? Would it lower the political temperature? Suna East MP Junet Muhammed was probably right in suggesting for a probation period but anecdotally it is safe to say the speech was probably more beneficial rather than remain indifferent.
The report of Kuria’s speech led to protest in some parts of the country. In a theatre where labelling is a precursor to destructive acts, it is important to humanise the ‘other’. When the ‘other’ appears to be like ‘us’ then he becomes normal and not a caricature.
For fishmongers, it would appear that only normal people can enjoy the speech of fish eating. And normal people seldom do bad things. It at least leads to the planting doubts in the mind. So a fish eating Kuria may be normal after all and thus acceptable. Let Achar analyse the speech. Writer is Dean, School of Communications, Language and Performing Arts at Daystar University