Keywords: Exigence, Audience, Constraints
Oftentimes as students, we wonder what motivates speakers to give a speech and how they approach their structure. One of the best speakers of all time, Ronald Reagan, has been very effective in getting his point across to his audiences and motivating them to overcome the obstacle that they may be facing. In Reagan’s Challenger address, his goal was to persuade the audience to overcome the fear or hesitation they might be feeling after the tragedy. In this chapter, I use Lloyd Bitzer’s rhetorical situation, with its three main components—exigence, audience, and constraints—to analyze Reagan’s speech. Without the tragedy, there would be no point for the speech. As students of rhetoric, we may wonder what makes Reagan such a good speaker and what strategies he uses to make his audiences feel certain ways. Analyzing the Challenger address intrigues me because I want to see the mold of one of Reagan’s speeches.
There would be no reason for the Challenger address without the actual event happening and affecting the audience in such a way that the President needed to address the people of the United States. The explosion of the Challenger is the exigence within Reagan’s address. The event happens and is a problem in the world. Reagan is able to affect the emotions of the audience. The situation needed a response, which is what Bitzer’s theory is about. In the address, there are phrases and ways of addressing the audience directly. They are effective because of the specific situation and audience. Reagan not only reassures the nation, he also urges his audience not to give up on the support of NASA and the risks they take. He overcomes the audience’s fear by challenging them to stay courageous and brave and to keep exploring.
Reagan addresses directly the highly unusual situation and the constraints he faces. He states “Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d planned to speak to you tonight to report on the State of the Union, but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans” (Reagan 1). Bitzer says that a situation is the cause of a speech and shapes its characteristics. “Each reader probably can recall a specific time and place when there was opportunity to speak on some urgent matter,” (Bitzer 2). Reagan acknowledges that he was planning on delivering the state of the union address, but instead he is forced to talk about the tragedy at hand.
Reagan does an outstanding job persuading the audience to overcome their fear and not to let the Challenger disaster make them hesitate to explore space. He urges his audience to remain strong and courageous. He states, “I’ve always had great faith in and respect for our space program. And what happened today does nothing to diminish it… We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.” Reagan relies on pride, resilience, strength to urge his audience to overcome fear and despair. He also reassures his audience about the expertise and scientific knowledge of NASA and all the people who work there. By letting his audience know that he is not fearful and he still believes in the space program, they should also not hesitate in their full confidence of NASA.
Bitzer’s theory of the rhetorical situation is a tool that can be applied in every situation; this is what makes it so universal. Richard Vatz presents a counterargument to Bitzer, as a challenge to the premise that discourse emerges as a response to a situation. Vatz argues that it is not the situation that requires the rhetoric but rather the speaker’s ability to choose what they want to speak about. In response to this challenge, I argue that a situation has no bias in it. For example, the Challenger shuttle exploded after take-off and as a situation it has no outside opinion affecting what happened. It simply happened, out of anyone’s control. But how a speaker decides what topic to address in response to that situation, in the way Reagan demonstrates with the Challenger address, has an enormous potential on the audience.
In this chapter, I have analyzed Reagan’s Challenger address through Bitzer’s rhetorical situation. Reagan urges his audience to overcome their fear, even after such a tragic event, and persuades them to continue to be courageous and brave and explore space. From now on whenever I hear a speech, I apply Bitzer’s theory to see how effective I think the speech is, especially when responding to an urgent situation. I challenge you to do the same.
Bitzer, Lloyd F. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 1, no. 1 (1968): 1–14.
Vatz, Richard, “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 6, no. 3 (1973), 154-161.