Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Sunday night was the Emmy award show for television. I like TV, and I like award shows (I know, there’s something not right about me). But at the Emmy’s this year, the acceptance speeches were remarkably dull. Maybe because they were so formulaic.
I wrote about acceptance speeches after the Oscars in February, when the announcers screwed up the Best Picture winner and the folks behind La La Land gave a non-winning acceptance speech. When is an acceptance speech not an acceptance speech? When the speakers didn’t win.
But last night’s Emmys held no such surprises. In fact, the show held almost no surprises, as almost every winner was the expected one (go Julia Louis Dreyfuss! And oh yeah, The Handmaid’s Tale)
So the expected winners gave the expected acceptance speeches.
Here’s the acceptance speech formula, at least from last night, move by move:
In most award shows, I can point to a particularly funny or awkward acceptance speech, somebody who goes off script for at least a word or two. Other than “Lizzy” Moss being bleeped a couple of times, I remember only two different moments.
One was Sterling K. Brown, who won Best Drama Actor, objecting to how loud the music was when it was playing him off and he kept talking anyway, even though he was right it really was loud and you couldn’t hear a word he was saying and then they went to commercial. Somehow he missed the part of the formula about how long an acceptance speech can be.
The other was Ann Dowd, because she made the genre visible. At the end of her quite nice and moving acceptance speech, she finished with, “My husband is here and I love him so. He’s Larry Arancio. And my children. I have some beautiful children and their names are Liam, Emily, and Trust, and I love them to pieces.” I heard it as a recognition that, oh yeah, that’s what people do at the end of their speeches. And I may not be thanking them for my own independent life and work, but I have family, too, don’t ya know.
Maybe I’m reading into it. But I noticed it. And I liked it.
So there you have the Emmy award show this year. There were also, of course, the announcements of the awards. The one off-script moment from that genre was probably the funniest line, other than Stephen Colbert’s opening monologue. Dave Chapelle was set to announce the nominees for an award, and he commented on the number of black people at the show (he counted 11). After saying he’d skipped rehearsal (and was clearly adlibbing), he said he'd start reading off the teleprompter--"Shout out to DC Public Schools.”
Maybe all the winners should add to the formula a thanks to the teachers who taught them to read and write. But no, that would make the speeches go on waaaaaay too long, and the orchestra would have to bring in trumpets to drown them out, and I’d be way past ready for bed.
Or is it Them?
On this particular day in the US we’re dealing with two devastating events--
Both disastrous events causing lost lives and physical destruction. Both causing shocking trauma and lifelong fears. Both changing how people act in the world, what they trust, how safe they feel.
Some say the hurricanes are bringing us together like 9/11 did, reuniting Americans after such a long period of divisiveness politically and socially. But I’m not so sure.
I’d have to ignore the fact of economic divides—yes, the hurricanes hit neighborhoods of different economic strata, but the residents differed in their abilities to evacuate and will differ in their abilities to recover financially.
And then I’d have to ignore the language used. Writing and speaking about the hurricanes, people express horror and sympathy for what has happened or is happening to “them.” Not “us.” “Them.”
After 9/11, even though the murders happened in specific East Coast locations, the terrorism happened to us, to Americans. It was directed at us, so we took it that way.
Of course, hurricanes are (mostly) natural events, not political plots, no matter what Rush Limbaugh claims. Harvey didn’t have it in for Americans. Irma isn’t trying to destroy the United States and its people.
But when politicians give speeches to rally support and uplift spirits, they haven’t been talking about how much damage the hurricanes are doing to us, the US. When governors or mayors encourage “us” to keep our spirits up or tell us “we” can make it, they explicitly include only the residents of their states. Texas and Florida, not the United States.
Yes, in some ways, that focus on the states makes sense. Governors represent their states, so you might expect them to address their own residents first and foremost. Governors have authority only within their state, to make proclamations and send aid. And the hurricanes did cause damage, death, and suffering directly to Texans and Floridians, not to all Americans.
But the governors’ emphasis has been on what makes the residents of their states especially strong, or especially able to deal with hurricanes, or especially resilient and helpful—separate and apart and explicitly not as Americans. It’s not Americans coming together to help each other, to rebuild, to prepare. It’s Texans. It’s Floridians.
I’m certainly not resentful that I was left out of reassuring speeches, even though I’ve watched the events with horror. Luckily I was watching, after all, not experiencing. But that is true for most residents of Texas, too. They were watching, sometimes from some distance. But the governors have chosen to emphasize the unity of the state, not the United States.
The results for Florida are still to come, as I’m writing this, so I’ll be listening to hear how Governor Rick Scott addresses the people afterward. Early on, he tweeted that "FL knows how important it is to be prepared.” Texas Governor Greg Abbott, on Good Morning America, praised not Americans but Texans for their on-site actions:
"You have to be proud to see the way our fellow Texans have responded," Abbott said, "whether they be the first responders or just neighbors helping neighbors to deal with this overwhelming catastrophe."
Even for actions that everyone in the world could take, Gov. Abbott still referred only to Texans. When he called for a day of prayer, August 31, he called for a day of prayer in Texas alone, calling people of all faiths in Texas, not in America, to pray as "one united people." He can’t declare a day of prayer for all Americans, but he didn’t even invite all Americans to join in.
I don’t mean to take anything away from the governors or from the anguish dumped on Texans and Floridians. They have every right to band together as Texans, as Floridians, and to be proud of how they unify to act together.
I’m simply pointing out that there are times when we in the United States see ourselves as Americans, and times when we see ourselves as members of smaller communities. Texas. Florida. After 9/11, New Yorkers had a special place of honor for enduring the greatest loss of life. And I’m sure there were speeches at the time encouraging New Yorkers and praising the resilience of New Yorkers. But they were also Americans, and the hit was taken by all Americans.
What does it mean that the hit of the hurricanes is being taken by Texans and Floridians, not Americans?
If that attack on our shores were being seen as an attack on America, we might all see ourselves as responsible for the recovery. To some extent that’s happening. The federal legislature is planning an increase in funds for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. National relief for Hurricane Harvey has already been promised. And announcers at sporting events everywhere are calling for donations, and people everywhere are donating.
If we saw the hurricanes as threats to all of us, not just Texans and Floridians, we could be rallying and fund-raising for our cities, our houses, our infrastructure, not for theirs.
If we saw the hurricanes as threats to all of us, not just Texans and Floridians, we could be talking about what happens after immediate cleanup and repairs, about what caused this to happen and what we need to do to keep this from happening again, in the future—to us.
If we saw the hurricanes as threats to all of us, not just Texans and Floridians, we could be talking about how important it is for all of us to be prepared for the next weather catastrophe.
But it’s not happening to us, just to them. So we can donate money, and we can stay glued to the Weather Channel until the most recent hurricane has passed by or weakened. Then we can return to our lives, those of us who are Americans but not affected directly by that particular hurricane, by that particular bit of weather, by that particular change in the climate.
And we can pretend that it’s not happening to us, just to them.
Alt-left, alt-right, and words creating false equivalency
The eclipse could distract us only so long from the terrible violence and divisions in the world. The eclipse made many of us see our position in the universe more clearly—an experience of our smallness and our commonality that, for a brief moment, brought some sense of shared humanity. And this past weekend we in the US had another reminder—the devastating Hurricane Harvey and the disastrous flooding of Houston and one-quarter of the people in Texas that continues still.
But even those singular experiences fade faster than the repeated violence, terrorism, and hatred around the world.
The meanings of those repeated experiences are shaped by the people who comment on them, who tell us what those experiences mean. And those meanings become cemented through repetition, especially through the repetition of words.
“Alt-right,” not white supremacists
“Alt-left,” not counter-protestors
In the face of this effort to create false equivalency between neo-Nazis and those who oppose racism, I feel the need to return to a point I’ve written about several times in several ways.
The words we use matter
If you have time, I’d ask you to reread a few of my earlier posts, to build the many ways the importance of the words we use plays out (there are more posts on words and meanings, but here are the most relevant today):
How Words Reflect and Shape Us
What does Alt-right really mean (though I would come down harder on the term today)
As I wrote before:
The words we use come from who we are, as individuals, a society, and a culture. Words reflect our values and beliefs, our ways of viewing the world. And they reflect our history, who we have been. And words may then shape our views of the world, too, influencing what we see and how we see.
Or even whether we call a car wreck an “accident”:
Instead of “accident,” highway patrols and safety agencies are using the words “crash” and “wreck.” According to Mark Rosekind, director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,
Or, from a more recent post, think about the ways our words present cancer as a battle. Maybe new ways of treating cancer will shift patients from “survivors” of a war to cohabiters or roommates, people “living with” cancer long-term.
Words will always shape our perspective, like it or not.
But, as journalists and other truth-tellers recognized in the early days of the current US presidency, “alternative facts” don’t become factual just because Kellyanne Conway says they are. They’re still falsehoods at the least, lies at the most.
The danger lies in letting the words pass, as I argued before:
If we come to accept statements contrary to documented facts as “alternatives” rather than wrong, then there’s nothing keeping anyone from asserting anything. In fact, [then press secretary Sean] Spicer argued that Trump can keep claiming with no substantiated evidence that millions of illegal votes were cast in the election, causing him to lose the popular vote, because it is his “long-standing belief.” The fact that there’s no evidence to support that claim—in fact, there is evidence to the contrary—matters not at all if “alternative facts” are justified by “belief.” We are indeed in a post-truth world.
We have the power to resist.
My comments on sexual assault being dismissed as “locker room talk” have become relevant again:
“The power of naming is that it’s not individual, but collective. One person can insist on framing it as “locker room talk,” but the framing succeeds only if others accept it. That’s the difference between naming and “spin.” Any publicist can attempt to spin a story, to reframe what happened in a different light. But naming comes from the culture that’s there, the beliefs and attitudes emerging from who we are and who we want to be, a framing already present among us.
We still have the power to resist the renaming before it becomes so insidious that we stop noticing it. We are not yet in Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984.
(Adding to a bit of an earlier post again:)
When resisters are chided for being “alt-left” because they are an alternative to hatred, beware.
When pronouns define a “we” that excludes large numbers of people* and a “them” that now seems to include you, beware.
When well-established scientific evidence becomes part of a “debate” with “two sides,” beware.
When the powers-that-be use the word “Islam” repeatedly and only in the label “radical Islamic terrorists,” beware.
Now is the time, as it is happening and we can still recognize it. Don’t let powerful individuals usurp the power of naming. Assert our collective power to resist. Insist that our collective culture is not post-truth but knows the difference between fact and belief. Insist that we all, without excluding anyone, must watch what we say. Because we know these alternative truths--
Resistance is not futile.