Obama and his Audience

There can be many responses to the Cairo speech each depending on how one wished to incorporate it in one’s agenda for the future.

This is most obvious in the realm of politics: some want to see it as a hopeful point of departure and do not wish to be critical; others see in it the need to support Obama in his struggle with his domestic constituency that restrains his genuine aspirations; yet others read it as a reiteration of the Bush policy couched in more sophisticated words. Depending on the agenda some wish to emphasize the positives, others the negatives.

This blog is not about politics. Our focus is pedagogy and analysis that serves the interest of pedagogy. We often choose political themes to illustrate pedagogical points simply because students engage readily with issues that are topical and of wider significance.

Our perspective on the Cairo speech was determined by our pedagogical orientation. It simulated a classroom exercise in which the text was given to a group of students who were to think of themselves as part of a non-Western audience affected negatively in the past by American foreign policy. The group was asked to identify the points in the speech that such an audience would find weak and unconvincing.

This was a very academic exercise and one of our objectives was to highlight the importance of keeping one’s audience in mind. As we had mentioned, every audience is unique and its characteristics need to be considered carefully before an interaction.

In some cases this is very easy to grasp especially when the audience is self-selected. Thus the audience that goes to a show by a stand-up comic wants to be amused. On the other end of the spectrum, the audience that attends a majlis during Muharram wishes to be made to weep. It would be a disaster to mix up the needs of these two very different audiences.

Political audiences are more difficult to read because they are more of a mixed bag. Here we make some very broad and summary generalizations for the sake of discussion.

American political audiences who have never seen adversity or been at the wrong end of history want to be roused. Different segments of the audience prefer different ways of being roused. There are audiences for the Bush style of macho cowboy aggression, for Kennedy style idealism, for the Martin Luther King style message of hope, and for the Obama style that is an intelligent mix of all the other three.

American audiences respond to the personal anecdote, the hard-luck story, the heroic overcoming of odds, and the reiteration of the American dream like few other audiences in the world. Even Europeans view the American audience and what appeals to it as something quite different from their own traditions.

Non-Western audiences, especially those that nurture deep hurts and grievances, a sense of injustice and humiliation, have different needs. If there was a constraint to use a one-word description, it might be said that they do not want to be roused – they have been roused and let down too often. They wish to be respected.

This was the difference between Bush and Obama. Bush did not give them respect and Obama did. But Obama’s respect scratched the surface. It used the right salutations, the appropriate language, and acknowledged the heritage of his listeners. It aimed to mollify their sensitivities and flatter their egos.

But did Obama respect the intelligence of his audience? Here the verdict seems more mixed. As we mentioned in the earlier post, just because this was an address to a Muslim audience did not imply that the audience wished to listen to selective quotations from the scriptures and be told of what God wanted.

This audience might have responded better to a more forthright discussion of the critical issues. Even a frank portrayal of the difficulties in pursuing certain courses of action could have elicited a genuine appreciation of the obstacles in the way of getting to where Obama wants to lead the world.

The question we want to discuss in this forum is whether Obama read his audience right?

Knowing one’s audience is an issue that has significance beyond the Cairo speech and beyond politics – it is at the heart of all communications, all attempts at persuasion, and all efforts at marketing.

Some socioeconomic situations make it easier to realize the nature of this phenomenon. Take a country like Pakistan with a colonial history where there are two broad groups in society – the English-educated, English-speaking elite and the others who communicate in languages other than English. The ways of persuading these two groups to a point of view require very different approaches. Again, if the constraint was to generalize with a one-word characterization, it could be argued that the first group is swayed more by deduction, the second more by precedent.

This might be difficult to accept as a first reaction. Try an experiment. Take an English language op-ed that you find particularly convincing. Translate it into a local language and give it to a local language speaker not familiar with English. Ask him or her the degree to which the message was found to be convincing. It is not that the local language speaker cannot be convinced or is impervious to logic; it is just that he or she has to be convinced in a different way.

This would be a great experiment for a journalism class.



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