But, Look…

I like hearing Obama speak, but one of his verbal tics, the overuse of “look” or “but look” has started to rub me the wrong way.

I’m not the only one who has noticed this; Julia Keller writes,

Obama’s affection for “look”—which he sometimes swaps out for ‘Understand’—may date to his days as an instructor at the University of Chicago law school. The word does have a certain professorial—and some might say, condescending and even belittling—ring to it. The implication: “Look, buddy, here’s why you’re all wet.”

I know we all have our favorite rhetorical strategies.  I personally use “perhaps” when I don’t actually mean it.

Here’s the particular way Obama’s using “look.”

Obama on Meet the Press yesterday:

But, look, if you look at the unemployment numbers that came out yesterday, if you think about almost two million jobs lost so far, if you think about the fragility of the financial system and the fact that it is now a global financial system, so that what happens in Thailand or Russia can have an impact here, and obviously, what happens on Wall Street has an impact worldwide, when you think about the structural problems that we already had in the economy before the financial crisis, this is a big problem and it’s going to get worse.

Obama on 60 Minutes, September 21

It’s rolling back the Bush tax cuts. It’s closing corporate tax loopholes. But look, I don’t make a claim that we are going to be able to eliminate our deficit within my first term as president.

Obama’s debate with Hillary Clinton during the Pennsylvania primary, April 16

Well, I’m happy to start with a response. Look, this has been an extraordinary journey that both Senator Clinton and I have been on and a number of other able candidates. And I think very highly of Senator Clinton’s record.

But, look, the fact of the matter is, is that both of us are working as hard as we can to make sure that we’re delivering a message to the American people about what we would do as president. Sometimes that message is going to be imperfectly delivered because we are recorded every minute of every day.

Well, no, no, look

Look, in my hometown of Chicago, on the south side of Chicago, we’ve had 34 gun deaths last year of Chicago public school children.

And I think that most law-abiding gun owners all across America would recognize that it is perfectly appropriate for local communities and states and the federal government to try to figure out, how do we stop that kind of killing?

People talk a lot about looking in politics, what we might look at and how we should look at it.  Clinton used the word “look” a lot too in the debate, as well as “see.” For example

See I think we have to look at what we’re trying to achieve here somewhat differently.

And it means taking a hard look at what we need to do

And I would look for a way to use all of our former presidents.

Clinton’s usage strikes me as more standard, less noticeable, and far more conditional.  She is sometimes assertive with her “see”, but then tempers it with an “I think”.  Or she proposes that we “have to look” or “should look”, but then doesn’t go on to say what we should conclude.  Obama uses look in this way as well.

But the “but look” from Obama that has caught my attention seems to assume that if we turned our attention to the same evidence he has, we too would come to the same conclusions.  Instead of the invitation to entertain another viewpoint that “look” could be, in this case it’s more prescriptive. He’s telling you to share his way of understanding the world.  Perhaps this is also more noticeable to me because I find Obama a rather centrist candidate, and when I look, I see the solutions in a much more anticapitalist, lefty way.

I am certainly not suggesting, as some on the right have, that Obama’s repetition is a deliberate attempt to hypnotize us. I don’t even think that the repetition either effectively proscribes the weighing of alternatives or deliberately solicits acquiescence. After all, David Crystal remarks  during his defense of SMS abbreviations is that what annoys people about some linguistic oddities is their overuse.  The word “like”, he observes, can be a very useful quotative, but when it’s a speaker’s every other word, it sounds terrible. 

I think Obama should limit himself to one or two “but, look”s per week, simply because if he’s truly pursuing a strategy of consensus-building, too many “look”s is not rhetorically effective in engaging those who are prone to disagree with him.


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