Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
A week from today, a 70-mile swath of North America will be plunged into darkness as the world comes to an end. Or maybe we’ll just experience a solar eclipse. To-may-toh, to-mah-to
The media are filled with stories about what to expect and how to prepare, including dire warnings of blindness and permanent eye damage from looking at the sun with the wrong glasses. I was one of many who received this week an email from Amazon notifying me that the expensive, ISO CE certified solar eclipse glasses I’d bought a month ago are no good and will kill me if I don’t throw them away immediately.
Well, okay, Amazon warned—quite rightly—that the glasses were not sufficiently protective and should not be used at all during the eclipse. And Amazon acted—quite rightly—to post an immediate credit to my Amazon account rather than risk a lawsuit when the certified glasses I bought from their site rendered me blind.
“Damage your eyes,” “permanent harm,” “not much doctors can do.” Some pretty dire warnings this week, and you’d have to be blind already not to have seen the warnings—and even then you’d have heard them.
Blindness or any kind of permanent eye damage is no joking matter. Get your glasses, even if you’re outside the swath and plan only to glance up to see what’s happening in your neck of the woods. Wear ISO certified glasses (printed on the inside of the ear piece) approved on the non-fake-news list of approved manufacturers. We got four replacements yesterday from Kroger's Dillon’s grocery store for the price of one of our fancy ones.
With that, I’ve already prepped you with four of the genres required for adequate preparation for the solar eclipse:
What else do you need to be properly prepared? A map. Specifically at least three maps:
Alternative genres to the highway and back road maps could be
I don’t know—is resignation a genre? I think so. Resignation is a reasonable response to the situation. Just as silence can be rhetorical, lack of action can be a genre. And different people could respond with inaction in different ways, depending on their circumstances:
I’m fully into a different response—passion and excitement about the whole thing—but I’m working my way toward resignation, part two. I’ve done my best, I have a plan, and it might or might not work out. I’ve prepared with my replacement solar eclipse glasses. I’ve mapped my spot, have a route to it, and lucked into a local guide for the back roads. I’m working weekends to be able to take the Monday off work.
Oops, another genre I forgot to include
And one more. One critical, essential, absolutely not to be ignored genre that will make all the difference in whether our experience is fantastic or a major disappointment--
Unfortunately, that last genre isn’t one we can control. No swapping in a cloudy day for ISO certified clear skies. Maps can help only if you can fly to parts of the country with less cloud cover this time of year, and even then . . . look at the heat wave in the Northwest this past week and the unseasonably beautifully cool weather in Lawrence, Kansas.
Maybe the most helpful genres in the end will be the warnings—be sure to have proper glasses! Be aware the weather might not cooperate!
Then we might all need resignation. Either the weather will cooperate or it won’t.
If it does, and if we’ve planned our route and made our reservations, and if we’ve gotten the right glasses, then maybe other genres will be there
Here’s one last genre for us all—good wishes:
May we all experience the total eclipse of the sun in our own best way for us.
PS I plan to post on the eclipse next week, too, though involving a bit more of the apocalypse
I can choose how I want to respond to a situation. But there are limits. That applies in life as well as in writing, as I learned this past weekend with my own horrible experience with United Airlines. More on that story below.
First the rhetoric part:
In writing studies, especially in genre studies, we sometimes talk about writers responding to a rhetorical situation. (For fellow rhetoric geeks, I’m thinking first of Lloyd Bitzer’s almost deterministic "fitting" response to a rhetorical situation, then to our defining genres as typified responses to recurring rhetorical situations.) But that idea of a rhetorical response has gotten a lot more complicated.
Nowadays, we talk more about how writers can choose which genre they want to use to respond. I can choose whether to respond to a friend’s death with a eulogy (Bitzer’s classic example), a sympathy card, a phone call, or a sad face emoji on Facebook.
And we talk more about how choices can be limited for writers with less power, awareness, or experience. So I might not be invited to give a eulogy. Or I might be young or less experienced and not know that a sympathy card is a possible response. Or I might respond with a sad emoji without even thinking about how my friend might feel about it.
But most of the time, we can choose how we respond—with what genre, using what language or media, in what ways. One of my main goals with all the posts to this blog is to help people be aware of their choices and make those choices deliberately.
Now the story part:
Friday afternoon, my spouse and I were returning from ten days in Berlin, Germany. I’d gone to lecture and help lead a doctoral seminar at Freie Universitat , and we’d added four days to tour the city of Berlin. After a 90-minute flight delay and 8 ½ hour flight from Berlin to Newark NJ airport, we went through customs, picked up our suitcases and rechecked them with United Airlines, as instructed. We even asked an agent there about our connecting flight home and were told what gate it was leaving from.
Since we now had over 6 hours to kill in the airport, we travelled to our connecting terminal and headed to the airport bookstore for browsing. (No surprise there, I bet.) We were leaving to find a restaurant to kill another couple of hours when we got a text alert. United announced that “air traffic control” had cancelled our flight. We could see an agent for options.
We found the nearest agent, who informed us that the next flight she could get us home on was on Sunday. Yes, Sunday. Two days later.
Then she told us that United would not put us up in a hotel. The cancellation was due to “weather” and not United’s fault.
Then she told us we could reclaim our baggage or they would hold it and put it on the flight in two days.
When we said we would of course pick up our baggage for staying somewhere for the next two days, she mentioned that our bags would be available for us to pick up in one or two hours.
How did I choose to respond?
I had choices, but at first I responded without thought, purely out of shock and dismay. She surely couldn’t really mean that they would cancel our flight on Friday, not get us home until Sunday, and not put us up in a hotel? That couldn’t be right, could it?
My genuinely dismayed response continued. Weather couldn’t have caused the delay. We were looking out at gorgeous skies, not a cloud in the sky! We knew it was beautiful weather at home and had been for days. What did she mean caused by weather? How could that be?
So my shock and dismay led me to my automatic academic response—questioning. I must have misunderstood something. There must be something more she could tell me to make this something rational rather than a Kafkaesque waking up as a cockroach (see The Metamorphosis). One minute I’m browsing the bookstore, the next I’m in a crazy land where nothing makes sense.
When my questions met with repetitions of the same nonsense, I began to realize my powerlessness. I couldn’t respond with reason to persuade her to do something different. She wasn’t giving me that option. I couldn’t book a flight on another airline that had seats without taking a huge financial hit. I couldn’t forego air travel altogether since the train, bus, or car would take days to get me home, and I couldn’t walk it (though that’s now my preferred mode of transportation—at least it’s somewhat under my control!). United had left me with no options, with no power.
And United clearly didn’t care.
So I responded with anger. Another default option. When being harmed yet powerless to do anything about it, people get angry. I expressed my anger. That was another response without deliberate choice behind it.
From denial to anger, both responses ineffective and neither one a genuine choice. (For those of you who know the five stages of grief, I did next try bargaining a bit, with searches on other airlines’ sights, requests for hotel vouchers and eventually even for a toothbrush—with no success. And I may have run through a smidgen of depression, the next stage, if my tearing up at the lost baggage office counts. I’m still trying to reach the fifth stage of acceptance. This post is a part of that process.)
Not all choices are genuine choices
At the time (or two hours later, after questioning, arguing, and bargaining unsuccessfully, and tracking our bags down in two different terminals), we chose what seemed the only response open to us—we accepted booking on a flight at 6:40 am two days later and left the airport.
Was that a choice? Or just accepting the inevitable? Did we have any other choice in that rhetorical situation?
We could have tried to reach United through someone other than the sneering and indifferent “customer service” representative (that’s what her name tag said, I swear!). We could have insisted on speaking to supervisors and repeating the process, or tried to reach someone through social media (I did try but United didn’t respond to my tweets or Facebook messages tagging them).
I could have chosen—notice I think it would be a choice at this point—to continue questioning and arguing. I could have staged a protest in the middle of the terminal, or tried disrupting United’s business in another way—and probably been hauled off by security, but at least it would have given me a place to stay for a while. Maybe if I got thrown in jail I’d even have a bed for the night. Or a more comfortable bed in a hospital if United decided to repeat their past and have me dragged away.
But being able to act in any of those ways falls short of truly having choices. Having true choices requires having some power to make a difference, to have at least the possibility of reaching a goal. So none of those seems a genuine choice. I didn’t have the goal of going to jail or a hospital. I wanted to go home.
So when we say that people can choose how to respond, we need to take into account possible emotional reactions that might be beyond deliberate choice. People are humans, after all, and humans have emotions. And emotions lead us to responses that might not be choices.
And when we say that people can choose how to respond, we need to take into account how much power they have, and whether they have enough power to have a choice.
Saying people have a choice when they really have none misleads people into thinking there might be something they could have done differently, to the dreaded “if only . . .” And saying people have a choice when they really have none leads to blaming people for being powerless, for what’s beyond their control.
And being indifferent to people’s powerlessness leads to anger and resentment, back to emotional responses. Hence my current feelings toward United Airlines
What genuine choices do we have?
I do have some genuine deliberate choices now, including some involving writing and genres.
I could write a complaint letter to United Airlines about the cancellation, handling of the situation, conflicting information, and bad customer service. I could request compensation for my expenses and inconvenience.
I could contest the payment for the airline tickets through my credit card company and let them hash it out. That would involve filling out a letter explaining what happened and why I’d contest paying the airline.
I could fill out United’s online complaint form to object to the “customer service” representative’s actions and inaccurate information.
I could use social media to spread the word about my experience and try to persuade others to #boycottUnited.
Whether any of these would be effective, I don’t know. #unitedsucks is a pretty common hashtag out there, and United has been apologizing a lot lately, even if badly. But each possible response has at least a chance of some compensation, some positive result.
And there is another genuine choice—to do nothing. To let it go.
Not responding is a genuine choice in response to a situation. There is sometimes more power in not responding, in choosing deliberately to respond with silence or noncompliance.
In my case, not responding would let me begin to put the horrible experience behind me. As my Facebook friend Julie Drew described her own response to the same experience with United, I could take “the financial hit rather than the rage stroke.” I could decide that letting it go would be better for my health and well being, holding the cost to what it has already cost me instead of adding more in time and stress and anger.
In life as in writing, we can choose not to respond. And sometimes not responding is the more powerful choice.
Which response will I choose? I honestly don’t know yet. I tend to fight for fairness and justice for other people, so it’s hard for me to let it go when I feel someone (including me!) has been treated unfairly or unjustly. That’s even more true when the unfairness comes from a corporation.
But letting it go might be the wiser choice. I’m likely to lose a lot of stomach lining and time with no guarantee of success. And I like time and serenity more than money (a luxury that comes from having enough money, I know).
One response is already certain. We have sworn off ever flying United again. Our experience confirmed what so many of our family and friends have experienced in the past, with United cancelling and rescheduling flights when flights didn’t have enough passengers, changing their flights to times that have made them miss wedding dinners, and stranding travellers for days, as in our case. Our friends and family tried to warn us, but I guess we didn’t believe it enough. We do now.
And you might have noticed that writing this post is another response to the situation, though a complex one.
Choosing to write this post in this genre lets me try to help others by potentially keeping even just one reader from flying United and experiencing the terrors of the unfriendly skies.
This choice also lets me regain some small bit of control over the situation, turning the experience back into something I can understand as rational.
And this choice lets me vent a bit but in a way that lets me distance myself from the negative emotions I experienced at the time.
When I say that writers can choose how they respond to a rhetorical situation, I am saying so much more than just choose a genre. Choose what matters most to you, choose actions that give you power, choose how to respond to life.
And, if you have a choice, never ever fly United.
Once again, words matter.
You may have heard the sad news that US Senator John McCain has been diagnosed with cancer. You also may have seen the excellent column by Noah Berlatsky John McCain Isn’t “Fighting” Cancer
Berlatsky points out the dangers of the military metaphor for those with cancer. If everyone with cancer must “fight hard” to “battle” against cancer, then what do we think if they die from cancer? They’ve lost the war. We don’t like losers. Maybe they didn’t fight hard enough or long enough. Maybe they just weren’t strong enough.
Maybe it was their fault.
So maybe that awful thing wouldn’t happen to us because we’re stronger, we’d fight harder.
Oh we wouldn’t say that out loud. We might not even realize we’re thinking that. But words are insidious, as I've written before, especially when they’re metaphors that carry whole worlds with them. Like the metaphor Disease Is War. So we have battles and fighting and weapons in that war. We have winners and losers. They reflect our culture’s ways of viewing the world of disease, and they influence the way we think and experience our worlds. I’ve written about the importance of the words we choose several times now. It keeps coming up because
Berlatsky points out that McCain’s cancer, glioblastoma, is an aggressive one, hard to “defeat.” His father-in-law lived a bit longer than a year after the diagnosis. My own friend with glioblastoma lived just months before he died. My friend was very strong, physically and emotionally, but he died anyway. This is a tough disease. It’s likely to win the war. As Berlatsky says,
“It’s extremely fortunate that McCain has excellent, government-provided health care. The fact that he does will improve his chances of surviving glioblastoma far more than his bravery or willingness to fight. And if McCain gets very sick very quickly, that’s not a sign that he didn’t fight hard enough.”
If we see disease as war, then our experience of disease must be aggressive, agonistic, difficult, a battle and a struggle to win/survive. But some people make other choices. Some people choose to experience their disease differently, as difficult as that is in this culture. Some people reject the war metaphor.
My friend decided not to do everything possible to “fight” the glioblastoma. He chose to live with it as long as he could. What metaphor can I use for that choice? Instead of “battling” cancer, he accepted it.
Another friend with breast cancer and then ovarian cancer did everything she could, but she didn’t “fight” it. She never wanted to see herself in a battle. Not this smiling, kind, and gentle woman, not this Buddhist. As her obituary put it
“She accepted every new physical limitation on her life as part of a new normal”
Life includes suffering as well as joy. Disease happens—to the strongest and the weakest of us. It’s not her fault she died. It not his fault he died. It’s not a question of how hard McCain battles.
That’s hard to hear for people experiencing cancer and trying to keep living—people who want to be “survivors” of cancer, and their loved ones who want them to “keep fighting.” Our cultural metaphors and use of words are hard to shake. Berlatsky added into the mix Barbara Ehrenreich’s expose of Americans’ positive thinking, including an insistence that those with cancer stay positive as they fight and battle cancer.
My favorite commentary on the topic comes from Judy Segal, a scholar of medical rhetoric, in her very readable article on “Breast Cancer Narratives.” She recounts the hostile reaction Ehrenreich and other women with breast cancer get when they expressed negative perspectives about their own breast cancer, with respondents on various media implying that they would be responsible for their own death if they didn’t stay upbeat and keep fighting. Not only do you have to be a soldier in the cancer war; you have to be a happy soldier.
But rejecting the battle metaphor doesn’t mean you don’t get the treatments you want or endure more suffering in an effort to rid yourself of the disease. You don’t have to either “fight harder” or “give in.” That’s the metaphor talking. People with cancer can seek out treatments and change their diet and do everything they’re advised to do to try to get better. My gentle friend did all that. But they don’t have to let their lives become a battleground. They don’t have to become a military soldier if that’s not their approach to living.
Words and metaphors are so powerful that it’s hard for us to separate the experience from the metaphor. Lots of people respond to questioning this cultural metaphor with outrage: “You have to fight! This kind of talk encourages people to give up! If you’re not tough you won’t survive. You’re going to kill people if you tell them they don’t have to fight cancer. It IS a battle.”
Yes, it seems like a battle because that’s how we’ve talked about it and that’s how we think about it. Yes, pursuing treatments might help someone live longer, if they have health insurance to cover it. Yes, enduring some treatments is very difficult and takes a strong will and determination.
But dealing with cancer might allow a more peaceful approach. Take the new metaphor emerging from all the people who are still alive after receiving a cancer diagnosis, even though they haven’t been “cured.” Those people are “living with” cancer. They’re getting treatment, but it’s for the long-term. It’s hard to keep fighting a war for the rest of your life (see the US experience in Afghanistan). It’s not giving in to accept reality and find a way to live with your physical body, whatever state it might be in.
That new metaphor might be a way to view cancer of any kind, with any prognosis.
John McCain is now living with cancer.
Such a metaphor would let us all express our sorrow for his suffering and our good wishes for him, without requiring that he begin struggling and fighting, without returning him to his days in an actual war and his survival experience as a prisoner of war. He need not be a prisoner of this cancer. He need not make his remaining life a battleground.
A new metaphor gives us new ways to express our sorrow and good wishes:
John McCain is now living with cancer. May he live well, as long as he lives.
May we all live well with whatever our bodies bring us, as long as we live.