Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Bitzerian Analysis of Ronald Reagan's Challenger Speech

(This essay was written for a graduate level rhetorical theory course. The aim of the assignment was to apply Bitzer's rhetorical model to a an artifact.In this instance I chose the Challenger Speech given on January 28, 1986 after the tragic space shuttle explosion.)

Due to the tentative and unpredictable nature of the human condition, some of life’s most emotionally tense moments are thrust upon us without forewarning or prior preparation. The unexpected passing of a family member, friend, or some other significant person is an example of an emotionally tense life situation which calls for immediate response. Since such events strike many chords simultaneously, in the early stages of responding to such loss, it is often difficult for individuals to know how to express themselves as their impressions are still forming. In cases where prominent public figures suddenly pass, a similar tentativeness is experienced. Though the deceased may not be known personally, many people are touched by such situations out of empathy for the family or because it jars them into a self-conscious awareness of their own mortality. Knowing how to formulate appropriate thoughts and emotional responses can be very challenging in the immediate aftermath of such an experience. Brief eulogies offered by prominent civic leaders are often a means by which the broader public learns to orient their response to the passing of public officials or otherwise significant public individuals. This essay examines how eulogy is used by political leaders to assist an audience to respond emotionally to the sudden and unexpected death of compelling public figures.

On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger Mission (Flight STS-51L) was launched from Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 11:38am EST (Stathopoulos, 2010). The crew consisted of seven astronauts, and included among them, was a junior high school history teacher from New Hampshire, named Christa McAuliffe, who had been chosen from a field of thousands of applicants to be the first civilian in space. Soon after lift off, tragedy struck as the shuttle disintegrated into a ball of fire 73 seconds into flight (Oberg, 2006). Broadcasted on live television, millions of people watched in shock and dismay, including students from all over the nation, as a plume of smoke erupted across the sky and thousands of pieces of shuttle debris scattered far wide like bits of a porcelain vase dropped upon a concrete floor. On that very evening, President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation from the Oval office, eulogizing the Challenger crew members and consoling an emotionally shell shocked audience. This 4 minute and 8 second speech is the artifact considered for analysis in this paper. The so-called Challenger Speech is particularly suitable for attempting to understand how political leaders make use of eulogy to assist an audience to respond to emotionally traumatic events of national consequence since the Challenger explosion was viewed live by millions of Americans, including hundreds of thousands of students in classrooms across the nation, which in turn, called for a special message by the nation’s president.

In this essay Lloyd Bitzer’s metatheory of rhetoric will be used to analyze Reagan’s Challenger Speech. Foundational to grasping Bitzer’s model is understanding how he conceives of rhetoric. He argues that because rhetorical appeals exist in time, they must also exist in space; therefore, situations are rhetorical (Smith, 2003, 7). A rhetorical situation is defined as a “natural context of persons, events, objects, relations, and an exigence which strongly invites utterance” (5). Because rhetoric is situational in the way defined here, then, every rhetorical situation consists of three components: an exigence, an audience, and a set of constraints.

Applying Bitzer’s model begins with defining what a rhetorical exigence is. According to Bitzer, a rhetorical exigence is not merely a problem or defect in a given situation, rather, it is a defect or problem that can be modified and changed by rhetoric (1968, 6). If a situation cannot be modified by rhetoric, it may be an exigence, it is not however a rhetorical one. To somewhat clarify what he intended by this distinction, Bitzer described kinds of situations which are not rhetorical as “whatever comes about of necessity and cannot be changed--- death, winter, and some natural disasters, for instance--- are exigences to be sure, but they are not rhetorical” (6). The second component of a rhetorical situation is an audience. Understanding a rhetorical exigence prepares the way for understanding a rhetorical audience. What constitutes an audience is not merely that it consists of a body of auditors who are equipped with the capacity to receive and process a verbal message. A rhetorical audience “consists only of those persons who are capable of being influenced by discourse and being mediators of change” (8). This construction of audience coheres with Bitzer’s broader concerns about rhetoric in that verbal appeals are responses to situational exigences for the purpose of inviting audiences to participate in modifying the situation and thus resolving the situational problem. Thirdly and finally a rhetorical situation consists of constraints. Constraints are essentially the available means of persuasion found in any situation. In Neo-Aristotelian fashion, constraints are divided into two categories: situational constraints and personal constraints. Situational constraints include “beliefs, attitudes, documents, facts, traditions, images, interests, motives, and the like” inherent to the situation and personal constraints including the speakers character, logical proofs, and personal style (8). Constraints, when used by a skillful rhetor, who grasps the situational exigence and understands why and how it must be remedied, can be effectively used to galvanize an audience and equip it to modify the situation in a recommended direction.

The analysis of the rhetorical situation of Challenger Speech begins with the exigence. Due to the visual experience of viewing the death of the seven astronauts on live television and the suddenness and unexpected nature of the Challenger explosion, the nation as a whole was confronted with the problem processing and appropriately responding to the deaths of seven ordinary people thrust into national prominence by virtue of their occupational involvement with the nation’s space exploration program. The rhetorical exigence then is twofold: assisting the audience to mourn properly and to not allow the unexpected tragedy to stall space exploration and thereby to stymie progress. The primacy of the second exigence is evident from the thoroughgoing emphasis on the exploration theme throughout the speech. If the audience accepts the exploration theme as a frame for viewing the death of the astronauts they will receive practical guidance in mourning for the deceased; instead of allowing themselves to be bogged down in the mire of lamentation and sorrow they will embrace the fallen as heroic pioneers whose memory must be reverenced with somber admiration and gratitude. Further, viewing the unexpected tragedy in terms of the inevitable sacrifice of exploration will thus remove the natural fear of a repeat shuttle calamity which could imperil future exploration and stand as an obstinate impediment to future progress.

Identifying the rhetorical audience addressed by the Challenger Speech is the second step in analyzing the rhetorical situation. Four separate groups are explicitly identified as the audience in the body of the speech: the nation, the family of the astronauts, the school children who were watching, and NASA employees. In view of the rhetorical situation, the whole body of the speech, and the aim of the message, it is evident that the rhetorical audience is actually comprised of both mourners and explorers. The mourners are those who feel empathy for the family and those who may be tempted to brood over the tragedy, interpreting it self referentially as a sign of their own mortality. Mourners may be identified with any of the four categories of audience explicitly referenced in the speech who can be moved to express reverence and honor toward the fallen and to view them as noble, heroic, and brave explorers. The explorers are those members of the audience who may be members of any of the four groups addressed, but are open to viewing the death of the astronauts less as a tragedy and more as an inspiring example to follow through participating in erecting the scaffold of progress through a relentless pursuit of daring exploration.

Analyzing the situational constraints comprises the final aspect of applying Bitzer’s rhetorical model to the Challenger Speech. The first constraint contained in the speech is the belief in progress. Though not explicitly referenced in the speech, progress is the underlying theme which gives coherence to the constraints spelled out in the speech. Progress was a central theme in Reagan’s view of reality, and he often expressed that idea in connection with the belief in American exceptionalism. One aspect of American exceptionalism, on Reagan’s view, which was widely shared by many American’s in the 1980’s, was that America was exceptional because of its relentless pursuit of progress. The notion of steady progress was easily reinforced by common sense appeals to the staggering changes in technology in 20th century which completely reshaped nearly every aspect of American life, from transportation, to media, to home appliances, to personal computers, and much more. Progress was a cultural watchword of 20th century culture and a citizenry intoxicated by the practical applications of technology could easily be persuaded that nothing should be permitted to obstruct its forward motion. If America then was to continue to maintain its exceptionalism, it must continue to progress technologically; therefore, excessive mourning and fear of future catastrophe must not be permitted to impede further space exploration.

If progress is the underlying theme which gives the Challenger Speech coherence, then the theme of exploration is what puts feet on progress and causes it to be propelled forward. In a direct reference to the school children of America who watched the explosion on live television, President Reagan addressed their fear of the bitter, unintended consequences of exploration saying, “I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons.” Of course, the point is obvious, progress is fueled by the inertia exploration, and sometimes, the fire of exploration is fed with the flames of sacrifice. However, since the cause of progress is noble, then the casualties of exploration are a small, if not inevitable price to pay.

Next, the qualities of the explorer who blazes the trail of progress are eulogized. Those qualities include bravery, risk seeking, and unrelenting dedication. Throughout the brief address, Reagan repeatedly referenced the bravery of the astronauts calling them “courageous,” “brave and daring,” and by contrast, “not the fainthearted.” The risk seeking character of the explorer is described and celebrated as a divine gift imparted to the willing, that “special grace, that special spirit that says, "give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy." Finally, the dedication worthy of the explorer is hailed as “complete.” The character of the explorer is described and celebrated both to inspire a new generation of explorers and as a means to move the mourners to replace tears with the reverent adoration of those, who, like the seven astronauts, bear the torch of exploration into the dark and dangerous crevices of the universe in order to draw the world with them into the exciting progress of the future.

Finally, a great cloud of witnesses, who experienced the tragic fate of the seven Challenger astronauts are marshaled to testify to the paramount importance of progress through exploration and sacrifice. The speech is bracketed by two notable examples of sacrifice in the service of progress. At the beginning of the speech Reagan mentions in a fairly veiled way the three astronauts who had perished in the Apollo 1 training accident in 1967. At the end of the speech he made an extended and more explicit reference to the death of noted explorer, Sir Francis Drake, off the main coast of Panama. The temporal nature of the bracket is constructed to show the both the peril and progress of exploration. In Drake’s day, the oceans were the vast unexplored frontier which swallowed up a myriad of faceless and nameless explorers who set sail to unlock the secrets of the earth. So heroic and diligent were these individuals in pursuing the task of exploration leading to progress, that in just a few short centuries the new frontier was no longer vast sweeps of ocean but the very stars which enabled the early sailors to navigate the mysterious high seas. By 1986 multiple shuttle flights had come and gone, each time expanding human knowledge about space exploration, and promised ever expanding frontiers of discovery and exploration. In view of these prior sacrifices, to allow the death of a handful of astronauts, however tragic it may be, to deter further exploration would be even more tragic than the loss of the seven, because it would jolt the forward grind of progress into a halt and would dishonor the sacrifice of so many who paved the way to precipice of the frontiers of space exploration. The lesson drawn from history is an obvious one: progress is the result of standing on the shoulders of those who made sacrifices in the past to help each new generation of explorers to see just a bit further down the corridors of the unexplored and lead humanity to achieve and experience the joys of even greater progress.

Leaving the Challenger Speech artifact and its specific rhetorical situation some conclusions about the general nature of how eulogies of political leaders help audiences respond to the unexpected public tragedies, can be now be drawn and set forth. First, eulogies of political leaders offered for public benefit focus on shared ideology to help frame death’s meaning. Such ideologies must be broad enough to encompass the breadth of a given audience so it can be shared by all and flexible enough to be adapted to the different systems of belief maintained by those in the audience. For example, the ideology of progress is broad enough to be shared as a value by both theists and atheists, but is flexible enough and generic enough to not offend specific sectarian faith systems held by members of the audience. Second, eulogies of political leaders offered for public benefit lead the audience to take concrete action to remedy a situation. Eulogy functions not merely to contextualize loss through the use of ideology, it is also functions as a guide for the audience, showing them how to live in view of death. A season of mourning is fitting and appropriate, but grief must give way to acceptance and finally, action. In other words, grief is not an end itself, it is a means to a greater end. It is a means to the end of learning how to live life informed by the same principles and values which sustained the exemplary models and sacrifices of those who have gone before us. Third, eulogies of political leaders offered for public benefit motivate to action through extolling certain virtues that support the action called for by the eulogy. Just as rhetoric exists in a situation for the purpose of addressing a real problem, so action lives and moves in the context of character and values. For example, in the Challenger Speech, Regan calls not just for action, but for a specific kind of action, action characterized by bravery, diligence, and risk-taking in the service of exploration and progress. So then, qualities and values are to be drawn from the actions of the fallen and then praised and commended to the audience for personal appropriation.