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I Come to Eulogize Kobe, Not to Praise Him

What’s up rhetoric nerds? Welcome back to RhetoricLee Speaking, a podcast committed to banishing banality one speech at a time.

This week, RhetoricLee Speaking is proud to be part of The Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival 2020 on the theme The Digital Future of Rhetoric and Composition. Be sure to check out the other participating podcasts:

I am your hostess with the mostess, rhetoric professor Lee Pierce, she/they pronouns, hater of anecdotes, loather of cliches, and lover of a good eulogy.

Basically, a eulogy is a speech given when someone dies. If you look it up on Google, the place where words go to die,  the results will say something like, “a eulogy is a speech praising someone who has passed away.” 

For example, back in January basketball legend Michael Jordan gave a eulogy for other basketball legend Kobe Bryant after Kobe died tragically in a plane crash with his daughter Gianna. Several people spoke at the televised memorial service, from Olympic medalist Diana Taurasi to Shaquille O’Neil. Each of their speeches praised Kobe’s attributes: dedication, commitment, love, and duty. But Jordan’s eulogy was the cornerstone. Commentators praised the speech because it was “tearful,” “moving,” and “heartfelt.” 

I agree that Jordan’s speech is AN example of a eulogy. But I disagree that it is a model for ALL eulogies. If you let Google tell you how to write a eulogy, then Jordan’s example is textbook–it praises Kobe for a bunch of different attributes, all of those attributes are probably what anyone would select if asked to give a eulogy for Kobe Bryant, all of those attributes are positive, and they get thrown in with a few insider anecdotes  (we know all about anecdotes from episode 14), and, of course, a few jokes.

But a eulogy can and should be SO much more than that. Which is the point of today’s episode. First, it’s a lesson in this thing called epideictic rhetoric–pronounced ep-ih-dike-tick–which is the larger genre of speeches of which a eulogy is one type. Second, I want to move through Jordan’s speech to show where the cliches dampen the tribute he’s able to pay to Kobe and also to show where he could have taken the speech to a new level. What that will reveal is the value, not of dedication or praise or sacrifice or whatever, but of being a pain-in-the-ass, a nag, someone so focused on the details that they don’t let up. And that’s what I want for Jordan’s eulogy; if he wants us to be more like Kobe, then I want that to mean being more of a pain in the ass. A pain in the ass about our hobbies, our planet, about who is paying off our politicians, about social justice and accountability for people in power. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Now, to be clear, I have no beef with Jordan. The man isn’t a speech writer and it would be crazy to expect him to push the envelope of meaning right after someone he cared for passed away and he’s in charge of helping the nation grieve the loss of a beloved national hero. 

I’m not saying that Jordan SHOULD have done anything differently. I’m saying that it’s a problem that neither he nor anyone else saw that things COULD have been done differently. We all just kind of accepted Jordan’s mostly cliche speech as the best that one can do to not only honor the memory of the dead, which is the secondary, not the primary purpose of a eulogy. But, more importantly, we thought that Jordan’s eulogy was the best that we could do to use the loss to re-evaluate our collective values and attitudes, which is the primary purpose of a eulogy. Or at least it should be. But Jordan, like most of us, has been taught that a eulogy is a speech where you say nice things about the dead in the safest and least offensive way possible. But, if we look at how the epideictic genre has been theorized for the last, I don’t know, 2,000 years, then we can see that the least-offensive-eulogy possible is a dishonor, not an honor, to the dead. 

Put another way, if Kobe is the man that Jordan and America thought him to be, then Jordan’s eulogy does not honor THAT man; it honors a thoroughly mediocre, cliche man. Except in a few parts that we’ll get to later. First, let’s talk epideictics. 

Write Better Eulogies

So, for a long ass time, there has been this theory that there are basically three genres or three types of speech. That’s different from saying there are three types of speechES. You can combine the different genres in a single speech.

Those genres are:

-deliberative

-forensic

-epideictic

Deliberative is like what they do in Congress. They deliberate. About what should happen, what should be done–policy stuff. Action-based. 

Forensic is like what they do in Courts. They fact-find. About what did or did not happen, whether there was intent–truth stuff.

Epideictic is everything else that’s left over when you’re not  thinking about what’s true or what should be done. The epideictic is about what matters, our standards for judgment, what we want to represent–it is the value stuff.

And it’s hard to get people to talk about value stuff if they’re put on the spot. Take the masks. Healthy people who don’t want to wear masks cite all of this science about nanoparticles–that’s forensic–and complain about the Constitution and big government–that’s deliberative. But the truth of the matter is that healthy people not wearing masks isn’t a factual or a policy issue. It’s a value issue. Their comfort and getting to do what they want to do, what they would call “freedom” but I would call “entitlement,” is more important than the benefits of a mask to the rest of their society. It’s a value debate. And for many people, like our President up until recently, the value of “I do what I want” trumps the value of “I help out other people.” THAT value system is the same as Cartman, from South Park. 

I have the opposite value system. And I can quote science and the Constitution too. Both me and the anti-maskers have more than enough evidence to say that our position is true or right. But really we’re arguing about a value system. It’s a decision. Which set of values do you want to espouse? 

What sets the epideictic speech apart from other types of speaking is its emphasis on value. Specifically, the epideictic speech is defined as a speech that shapes its audience’s beliefs by praising and/or blaming a subject for a value that the subject does or does not represent. We can represent this definition with a basic equation:

SUBJECT + VALUE x (PRAISE or BLAME) x OCCASION = EPIDEICTIC

The most common error speakers make is that they are too concerned with their SUBJECT and not enough with the VALUE that the subject represents. But the topic of the speech is far less important than the value that the speech attaches to the topic. 

So, you might give a speech, a eulogy, about a loved relative. And it’s full of stories about that relative, things that people said about them, where they worked, their family. If you read any obituary, you’ll see this is the case. It’s basically a biography, it’s full of facts. There’s no consideration for the value, the meaning, of this person’s life, which is the whole reason we have eulogies in the first place.

Now, Jordan actually does a pretty good job with the value. He has a good balance of facts and anecdotes about Kobe’s life and the values that Kobe represents–the meanings of Kobe’s life. For example, early in the speech he shifts gears from Kobe to what Kobe meant. “Kobe inspired me,” says Jordan, “to be better.”

Jordan’s connection of Kobe to “being better” obviously had some serious traction because just a few days ago, Nike released a commercial, narrated by Kendrick Lamar, titled “Better.”

People are going nuts over this commercial. SB Nation calls it “overwhelmingly powerful”–hyperbole is always a red flag that there are cliches afoot. Here’s the rest of their analysis:

Better asks the audience to apply Kobe’s commitment to excellence to everything in our lives. From sports, to social change, to teaching others, to being a parent — it imagines a world where everyone works to the fullest to achieve in their field, like Kobe did in his […] it’s a stunningly poignant moment” (there’s that hyperbole again) mere months removed from Bryant’s tragic death. It’s a good day to reflect on the things that are important in life, and cherish what we have.

https://www.sbnation.com/nba/2020/8/24/21399584/kobe-bryant-new-nike-commercial-powerful

Okay, right, I get it. Kobe was really good at a lot of things. He was a great ball player. A great Dad. A great businessman. He would want us to be better. 

But what the fuck does that MEAN? Better. What does better mean? What do I do with better? It’s a flat value. It lacks depth. I’m not even sure better can be a value because what’s the opposite? Be worse? Nobody is going to argue in favor of worse. So better doesn’t really tell us anything specific, it doesn’t take any kind of risk. It has no teeth. 

“Be better” is, ironically, an incredibly mediocre theme for a tribute to a man who is supposed to exemplify all of these superhuman qualities. 

But…Jordan has additional reasons why he finds Kobe inspiring.

The Passion of Kobe Bryant

“Be better” is the piece of Jordan’s speech that Nike picked up but, in fact, it was the word “passion” on which Jordan’s speech mostly focused. The word appeared 6 times in Jordan’s speech and 12 times across all of the speeches at the event. According to Jordan, Kobe should be remembered for his passion, a quality of character that includes the drive to succeed and devout commitment. 

This kid had passion like you would never know,” said Jordan. “It’s an amazing thing about passion. If you love something, if you have a strong passion for something, you would go to the extreme to try to understand or try to get it.

Michael Jordan’s Eulogy for Kobe Bryant

As we willingly re-open the wounds from Kobe’s loss on the occasion of his birthday, it would be tempting to return to Jordan’s central theme. After all, what word better encapsulates the spirit of Kobe Bryant, a man whose nickname as the Black Mamba for his killer work ethic, than passion? The man went from a sports superstar to a business superstar and built an empire before the time that most people start a retirement account. What could account for that kind of drive other than passion?

Passion is a tempting meaning to assign to anyone’s life. It’s a big word, flexible; it makes us think of tremendous drive and great aspiration. It has a grandiosity and a familiarity that makeS people nod when you say it, as if to say, “ah, yes, passion…I know exactly what you mean.” Passion is believed to be a common trait of high achievers. In a world of media-bred apathy and isolation-driven mediocrity, passion is a word that names all that is missing from the life of the average person who will NOT be remembered. 

Certainly, in the throes of grief, days after the news of Bryant’s death, passion was a fitting and suitable way to remember his life. Jordan, after all, is not a speechwriter; he’s a professional athlete. 

Professional athletes, like the corporate ethos in which they are saturated, like words like “passion”—they talk a big game without requiring anyone to look too closely. But like the scrutiny of footwork, or the slow-motion replay of a post-up move, close attention shows a more complicated picture. Passion is a word that, when closely inspected, reveals a little bit of being out of control, of being just a little too ‘bout it ‘bout it.

I remember a particularly trippy episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that began with a monologue on passion. 

That’s some dark shit. But it’s still the same passion that Jordan is talking about. It’s just that this monologue let itself go off the rails a little bit; it dug into passion a little bit more than a Nike-sponsored cliche would allow.

So what, exactly, is passion? It’s a question that everyone needs to ask themselves about any word they’re going to use to make sense of someone’s life.

The magazine Real Simple published an article last summer titled, “6 Secrets to Writing a Memorable Graduation Speech.”  The article did not explain what exactly makes something memorable–they didn’t ask themselves what, exactly, is memorable? They just kind of threw the word out there. 

Tip #3 is “Stick with a Theme.” That is good advice. Here’s the rest of it:

If you’re trying to string together a bunch of quotes that have nothing to do with one another, you’re going to confuse your audience more than inspire them/ Find one core message or a theme that really resonates, and build the rest of your graduation speech around it.

Not bad advice. Except…what’s “resonates”? What does it mean? How does a theme “resonate?” What’s the criteria for resonance? Why would you want a speech to resonate? What’s the catch? What’s the risk of resonance?

Same problem with Jordan’s use of passion. How is passion different from dedication? What does it mean to leave it on the floor? More importantly, what’s the catch? What’s the risk of passion? 

The Buffy monologue is willing to dig in a little deeper into those questions and, as a result, passion gets fleshed out and made interesting.

In the monologue, passion sounds an awful lot like love, an emotion that the monologue believes to spring from passion. But passion is not only love. Passion also sounds like ecstasy; what’s the difference? Well, because when love becomes ecstasy it becomes dangerous. The monologue acknowledges that there’s a risk to passion–it involves excess, a loss of control. Uttered by none other than a blood sucking vampire, words about passion have a different sense than they do in a giant sports arena. But even in a giant sports arena, where it has been made safe for all audiences, passion retains its seeds of danger and disarray.

Passion has a side that is not beautiful and is not honorable. In 2003, Bryant settled out of court for a rape accusation while he was still with the LA Lakers. Had that case occurred in the era of #metoo, the world may have seen that case in a much harsher and potentially more honest light, also potentially more dishonest light. It’s impossible to say. #metoo was also a movement born of passion.

But whatever the facts in Kobe’s case, it’s certainly the cases that the anger and power and impotence and entitlement that drive the rape culture in which professional sports are saturated is part and parcel of this “passion” that we are all meant to so eagerly hail. 

At Kobe’s memorial, WNBA star Sabrina Ionescu praised Kobe for the way he would “invest in us with the same passion and drive and respect and love as he did his own daughter.” That passion with which Kobe loved and reared his child is the same passion of the blood-sucking vampire and of rape culture. 

Passion is both vacuous and dangerous. For another occasion, such as an opening monologue to a television show about vampires, teenagers, and sexual morality, it might be a worthy theme to explore in its complexity. As a way of making sense of loss and tragedy, however, it must either appear empty or offensive. 

Passion is both too vague and too obvious a value to associate with Kobe for it to make an impact on the audience–for it to “resonate” in the words of Real Simple magazine. 

“Be better,” “have passion,” “leave it all on the floor”…these are familiar meanings for Kobe’s life. Literary theorist Brian McHale would call them “sanctioned associations”–connections that we’ve heard before, that take no risk, that make no contribution to our imagination. As opposed to an unsanctioned association, which makes a new or different connection between a subject and a value that makes the audience think about new possibilities for connections in their world. It’s the unsanctioned associations, when done well, that resonate. 

Luckily, Jordan does, in fact, have a fabulous unsanctioned association hiding in the margins of his speech. Kobe is a man of passion, yes; but he is also, to quote Jordan, “a “pain in the ass.” 

Go Forth and Be a Pain-in-the-Ass

Now, Jordan only uses that particular turn of phrase, “pain in the ass,” once in the speech. But he uses other words and phrases to describe Kobe that yield a similar result, calling him “a nuisance,” “wanting to know every little detail about life,” and “an aggravation.” 

Jordan has two particularly memorable lines in his eulogy. Memorable because they stand out in their specificity, in their attention to detail. The first is when Jordan’s describes the text messages that Kobe would send sporadically throughout their friendship. The second line is similar. Jordan describes a late-night call he received from Kobe about a year before his death.

He used to call me, text me, 11:30, 2:30, 3 o’clock in the morning, talking about post-up moves, footwork, and sometimes, the triangle.

Michael Jordan’s Eulogy for Kobe Bryant

He sends me a text and he said, ‘I’m trying to teach my daughter some moves. And I don’t know what I was thinking or what I was working on, but what were you thinking about when you were growing up trying to work on your moves?’ I said ‘What age?’ He says ’12’. I said ’12, I was trying to play baseball.

Michael Jordan’s Eulogy for Kobe Bryant

Jordan’s attention to the little things in each of these anecdotes is valuable not only because it adds a kind of there-ness to the speech that is otherwise eclipsed by the generalities and life lessons, but also because it performs in its composition exactly the kind of pain in the ass that Kobe was. 

Jordan paints Kobe as a man who paid attention to the smallest, most minute detail. We’re talking about one of the greatest basketball players of all time, yet, when it came to teaching a 12-year-old how to “work on their moves,” he needed to recruit assistance. Why? Because he needed to recreate the specific thoughts and challenges and internal monologue that a 12-year old would encounter. 

Kobe knew that he was so good at the sport that he can’t create the nitty-gritty step-by-step instructions that a new player would need. He’s too far removed. He needed to be able to speak his daughter’s language, to see the moves the way that she sees the moves. To be a good teacher, Kobe needed nuance and specificity. He needed to be willing to be a pain in the ass.

At one point in the speech, Kobe uses the word “competition” to describe this same set of characteristics, but I don’t think that’s quite right.  It that doesn’t feel like competition to me. That feels like being a pain in the ass, like being a nag. It’s that “little brother” motif that Jordan used throughout the speech to tremendous effect. This is the danger of plucking the values from common sense instead of thinking long and hard about what, exactly, the words mean. Being a nuisance, a pain-in-the-asss about how you use your language is NOT about being a grammar nerd or correcting people on pronunciation. It’s about being intentional and thinking in creative and sometimes risky ways about what, exactly, you are trying to say. Not doing that is how Jordan winds up at passion, again, even though what he’s describing is far more interesting than that. And, by the end of the speech, he will wind up square in cliche land with the obligatory “live in the moment” eulogy sign off.

It’s not that Jordan did anything wrong. He probably meant every word of it. Right after someone has died, “live in the moment” feels like a very profound lesson. But the cost of using that cliche is that the best part of the speech, which was struggling to hold on to begin with, gets completely eclipsed and people are left with the same old message about the life of a man who is supposedly not just the same old human. That’s the opposite of “resonates.”

So, to wrap this up, the first time when the world grieved Kobe we were told to carry forth his passion. Six months later, on his 42nd birthday, let’s take a new meaning from our refreshed suffering. Go forth and be a pain in the ass, be a person who obsesses over the minute details of language, of how you do things, of social justice or how you treat people. Be a person who thinks long and hard about how to take the perspective of a novice learner, who is always looking to be challenged, not because you’re competitive, but because that’s how take your shit to the next level

If you want to call that “passion,” fine, but I preferred Jordan’s other word: nuisance. 

rhetoriclee
rhetoriclee

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