The Context of Context

When they heard his words, they were shocked by their vehemence. They were “taken out of context,” as the popular excuse goes. He tried to assure us that when you look at the entire sermon, it was perfectly in line with the congregation’s beliefs, not nearly as inflammatory as the little soundbites that the “media” keeps playing over and over and over again.

“Have you read the entire speech? Next question.”

Yet the difference between the words and the speech from which they were extracted don’t seem entirely distinct. So if it is not in the speech itself, where is the context of these words that fire up the Right and puzzle the Left?

It is the context of culture, a construct of the environment of the ecosystem of the mind. We all have a perspective, and the trick to great oratory is knowing how to give context to that perspective. Barack Obama has the gift of an agent of change to understand the world through the perspectives of others, so the social context of his speeches can be broad and sweeping and – if he loses track – unintentionally alienating to some segments of the public.

Reverend Wright, on the other hand, is so used to basing his context on the perspective of his congregation (which may or may not be the perspective from which he originally viewed life), that his speeches are intentionally narrow and sharp and targets like an arrow, but an arrow meant more to incite than to wound. It’s what preachers do. They speak to their audience. They incite and they excite. They know what it takes to grow their garden.


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