In language, rhetoric, style

The 50th anniversary of his death has put John F. Kennedy firmly back in the spotlight. And what strikes me about Kennedy is that he is Mr Contrast. Not just in the startling differences between his public persona and his alleged private peccadillos, but also in the way he uses contrast throughout his speeches.

Right at the beginning of his inaugural speech in January 1961, Kennedy hits his audience with a triple of contrasts:

We observe today not a victory of a party but a celebration of freedom, symbolizing an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change.

If we remove the contrast we immediately see its power:

We observe today a celebration of freedom, symbolizing a beginning, signifying change.

Without the contrasts, the speech falls flat; with the contrasts, the speech begins with rhythm and power.

The speech continues in this vein. Professor Max Atkinson, author of Lend Me Your Ears, has estimated that Kennedy peppered this speech with contrasts every 39 seconds. Sometimes he uses phrase reversals such as:

Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.

But he also makes us of three part lists where the final line contrasts with the first two:

…we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves …
not because the Communists may be doing it,
not because we seek their votes,
but because it is right.

Again, if you remove the two contrasting lines starting with “not because…”, the speech lacks rhythm and emphasis. By using the first two contrasts, Kennedy throws a blazing arc-light on his final line: “because it is right”.

Kennedy ends his inaugural with maybe the most famous ever example of ‘chiasmus’ – phrase reversal:

And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what, together, we can do for the freedom of man.

So far we’ve looked at the benefits of using contrast in terms of rhythm and power, but David Edgar, writing in the Guardian in November 2013, argues that using contrast is a powerful tool for highlighting choices or conflicting worldviews:

“Contrasts reveal binaries and present choices, …So Kennedy’s contrast-laden speech was (predominantly) about what he saw as the conflict between freedom and tyranny.”

Perhaps it is this feature of contrast that makes it such a powerful tool. By presenting people with stark choices, contrast urges action upon us. At Rice University in 1962, where Kennedy launched America on its project to reach the moon, he said:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,…

You’ve got to love that “not because they are easy, but because they are hard”, haven’t you? That’s really socking it to the doubters and cynics.

Finally, there’s Kennedy’s speech at the Berlin Wall in 1963. For the over-literal, Kennedy has gone down in history as a man who said he was a jam doughnut. For anyone who’s actually seen the speech, however, there can be little doubt that his use of contrast struck an inspiring chord:

Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was “civis Romanus sum.” Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

For me, it’s this ability to galvanise opinion, strengthen resolve and rouse people to action that mark out Kennedy’s best speeches. And a lot of this is down to his consummate mastery of rhetorical contrast.

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