Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
I am pushing to meet a big deadline March 1, so I'm afraid my blog is getting little attention this week.
But my looming deadline is for an edited collection, and it got me pondering a question I've been wondering about for many years:
(Okay, this is probably just of interest to my academic readers, but here goes)
What do we call all those scholarly pieces of writing we do that appear in different forums? I write scholarly articles (published in scholarly journals), and my university's official credentials repository says that scholarly articles have to be separated from book chapters. But my book chapters appear in scholarly edited collections, and they look a lot like my scholarly articles published in scholarly journals. To me, my scholarly articles and scholarly chapters are the same kind of writing.
But do we have a name to collect them all?
One of the reasons I'm thinking about this now is that I'm working on an edited collection, and the previously published pieces in it are referred to as "essays."
Now, I'm in English, and one of my colleagues used to be an expert on "the essay," and you can be sure this guy was not thinking about non-literary writing. "The Essay" used to be said with rarefied tones and a turned-up nose. But scholarly "pieces" often get called scholarly "essays." Not in the Montaigne sense of essay or any of those 18th-century essayists like Addison and Steele that I used to study and love or the contemporary literary essayists who do nature writing or travel essays.
Am I missing something? Why don't we have a name for all those scholarly pieces, whether published in a journal or a book, that represent the short-form (not book) version of our scholarly research?
I must be missing something. Or there's something weird about our academic culture that we have this genre we've written a long time and we don't have a common name for it? Or my university is weird in insisting that scholarly articles are not the same as scholarly chapters? (I did used to call them all scholarly articles, and I didn't know I was lumping together different things.)
Okay, so comment, please, with your five-paragraph theme or scholarly article or quick comment on what you call that thing, or why it doesn't have a name, or what's so obvious I'm a dolt for not knowing it.
My deadline hits this week, so I hope to be back at full strength next week.
Here we are again.
On some deep level, I can't believe I am here again, arguing for more than thoughts and prayers in response to another mass shooting. This one at a school.
I could just repost my blog from October 23, 2017 on "Generic Responses to Mass Shootings," after the ineffective responses to the murders in Las Vegas left a lot to be desired. I used the same photo from above, and that photo was from 2013, in response to a different mass shooting.
I'd have to add to it a shockingly different response from the man residing in the White House this time, though.
Here was my description of the usual, sadly now generic, responses to mass shootings last year:
When a type of event becomes so common that genres emerge, we lose some of our awareness of the situation. No need to think about how to react or what to say. Just follow the script.
But the man in the Oval Office has created a new version or even two. One response is to offer thoughts and prayers and then blame it on someone else.
Blame it on mental illness--even though records show that many perpetrators of mass shootings do not show signs of mental illness except for the obvious one needed to commit mass murder.
"There is little evidence to support the idea that individuals diagnosed with a mental illness are any more likely to commit a crime of gun violence than anyone else. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, fewer than 5 percent of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the U.S. between 2001-2010 were carried out by individuals diagnosed with a mental illness."
--Amanda Z. Naprawa, "Mental Illness and Gun Violence," Berkeley Wellness Newsletter, June 14, 2016
And here's a new one: Blame it on law enforcement and the FBI! Your own--and our own--enforcement and security forces.
Way to make us feel secure. Even 17-year-old students understand POTUS's job better than that. David Hogg, a survivor of the massacre, said on "Meet the Press":
"You're the president. You're supposed to bring this nation together, not divide us. How dare you."
Not only did the president point the finger of blame elsewhere and offer no mention of guns, though the numbers do show that violence and deaths increase proportionately with the number of guns in a country. A study published by the School of Public Health at Harvard University found that, across nations with higher incomes, "more guns = more homicide."
The man who is the president even added a new twist to how to respond to mass shootings--go to your resort for the weekend and try to deflect attention onto other news (the indictments from the Mueller investigation of Russian influence over the election that put him in office). And be sure to twist the news so that it's all about you!
So the emerging presidential genre in response to mass shootings:
Offer thoughts and prayers
Point a finger at someone else
Go to a resort
Turn attention to another topic and how innocent you are
It's all about you, after all.
At least his advisors were smart enough to warn him not to play golf this weekend. Too soon. Next weekend
Regardless of the failure of the man in office to unite or secure the nation, we can still try again to act in more effective ways in response to ANOTHER mass shooting in the US.
I could simply repost my conclusion to the post after the shootings in Las Vegas, this time saying it in response to the responses to the shooting at a school in Florida:
We can’t let that happen in response to mass shootings. We have to disrupt the business-as-usual model, we have to disrupt the genres, to make something different happen.
Nothing much happened after that one. No legislation passed. No new regulations or policies. No complex debate. No different response from the news media, holding legislators accountable. Not much more social action than hashtags.
Here are the facts about numbers of shootings from a University of California, Berkeley Wellness Newsletter of 2016, two years ago:
On average, an estimated 32,514 people die from gun violence in the United States each year and an additional 75,962 people are injured by firearms. Between 2007 and 2011, an average of 62 children under age 14 were killed every single day. There are over 17,000 children (age infant to 19) who are shot by firearms per year, whether intentionally, accidentally, or otherwise. In fact, American children are “sixteen times more like likely to be killed in unintentional shootings than their peers in other high income countries.” And gun-related deaths are expected to exceed automobile-related deaths in 2015. To put a point on it, 89 people die in America every day from gun violence. Want an even crazier statistic? In 2015, on average, a toddler in America shot someone once a week.
Nothing has changed since 2016 except more deaths, every day.
It is easy to despair.
But I'm at least a bit encouraged at the moment by the response of many of the survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida, who are calling out the president and vowing to lead the charge toward gun regulation, beginning with a trip to Tallahassee to demand action. I'm encouraged that those powerful students are calling for demonstrations against gun violence on March 24.
The surviving children at Sandy Hook weren't old enough to lead the charge to ensure their school shooting never happened again, and their parents did what they could within their gaping grief. And it happened again, in Florida, on February 14, 2018.
The survivors at Columbine High School in 1999 had not yet seen the lack of response that has become the norm now. They could not have known that guns would remain unregulated so that the mass shooting at their high school could happen again, in Florida, on February 14, 2018.
But these students now--and the millennials who have vowed to join them--are leading the way, are changing the generic response to mass shootings, are disrupting the norm and insisting that this time something different happen. These students are becoming the change agents.
They are calling out the politicians who accept donations from the National Rifle Association. They are citing the fact that the Trump campaign accepted $30 million dollars from the NRA. They are rejecting the statements that it's about mental illness, that the victims should have reported the shooter, that nothing could be done.
As Emma Gonzales, one of those surviving students, said in her speech, "We call BS!"
Action. Legislation. Regulation. Attention to the role of guns in these shootings and doing something about that.
Creating a new norm, I hope, creating a new generic response that doesn't turn away or point a finger or let time pass and forget that we must do something real.
So accept my call from last October:
Write a letter or make a phone call to your representatives
Start or sign a petition.
Organize a demonstration and make a protest sign
And let the young show us the way and follow those leaders to true action:
Join the anti-gun demonstrations on March 24.
May my next birthday, February 14, mark not another mass shooting, not a year of more shootings, murders, violence--in our schools and in our streets--but a year of committed action against the insanity of gun non-policies in the US, resulting in new laws and safer communities.
We can always hope that this time it will make a difference. That we can make a difference.
Why we can’t tell others what sexual abuse/harassment/assault/rape means
An article circulated on The Conversation (great resource, if you’re not already signed up) that defined the distinctions between sexual abuse, assault, harassment, and rape, and all I could think was nope, that’s not what they mean to me.
The authors are much more expert on the subject of sexual abuse than I am. Sarah L. Cook, Lilia M. Cortina, and Mary P. Koss described themselves, accurately I’m sure, as “three scholars who have specialized in the scientific study of sexual abuse, rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment over several decades.”
Their article helpfully detailed the ways courts, laws, and, I assume, the science they study have defined the different terms, all quite informative. I was glad to know it and to have read it. They explain that, “Many people want to understand these behaviors and work to prevent them. It helps if we are consistent and as precise as possible when we use these terms.” I agree. But then their next paragraph is where I ran into trouble:
“But what does each term mean?”
Ah, meaning. Now that’s not so simple.
There is often a tension between the narrow meaning constrained by legal documents or scholarly fields and the more public, social meaning of what words mean to us. The more specialized meaning may be more scientific, but the more public meaning is more persuasive. It's what people mean.
“Rape and sexual assault have been used interchangeably in coverage of events leading to the #MeToo movement, and this practice, though unintentional, is confusing.”
That is indeed confusing. Unfortunately, outside legal courts, meaning resides not in statutes or regulations or scientific distinctions but in people’s use. A word means what people use it to mean, and that is always going to be confusing.
One example is the meaning of “sexual abuse.” The authors tell us that sexual abuse applies to children, not adults. The victims of Larry Nassar, children, were victims of sexual abuse, which they explain this way:
“Sexual abuse can include many different things, from touching a victim in a sexual manner to forcing a victim to touch the perpetrator in a sexual way to making a victim look at sexual body parts or watch sexual activity.”
Those actions, unfortunately, do not happen against only children. The authors later describe what counts as sexual assault:
“The term sexual assault can describe a range of criminal acts that are sexual in nature, from unwanted touching and kissing, to rubbing, groping or forcing the victim to touch the perpetrator in sexual ways.”
Although the authors say this term is confused with the term rape, I’d find the overlap with sexual abuse at least as confusing.
My point is not to argue against the clear definitions these authors provide. I even agree that it would be helpful if the news media would define and use their terms more carefully, especially if the media used terms consistent with the legal charges likely to be brought against a perpetrator.
But when it comes to what the words mean, it’s the women and men who are using the terms who tell us what it means.
In fact, the next scandal that erupted after this article were the claims made against White House staff secretary Rob Porter. As the media and the ex-wives reported it, Porter “abused” them. The current president might avoid using the word "abuse" in his Twitter protest but the media and, more importantly, the women with black eyes did use the term.
So “abuse” does not apply only to children.
As the authors acknowledge in the end, the experiences of people are real, whatever they are called.
And their experiences are often horrific.
If they consider the behavior against them as sexual violence (what the authors describe as the broadest term), then they experienced it as violence. If they call it abuse, they likely experienced abuse. If they were feeling harassed rather than abused, then that’s what it was, even if the action might have included unwanted touching, which the authors would categorize as assault. Can a woman feel raped even without penetration, which the authors say is a requirement for the term? I’m confident of it.
Meaning lies in our individual experiences and our societal contexts. You and I might both have learned the word “dog,” but your dog might be a Great Dane while mine is a Yorkie. We might both see a person on the street and describe her as “running” or “jogging” or “exercising.” We might both see a man leaning into a woman at the end of the bar, but I might say, “Look at that guy harassing that woman,” while you might say, “Look at that couple flirting.” We may all have learned to talk about sexual harassment and sexual abuse--or more likely NOT to talk about it--but what counts as harassment to you might be abuse to me.
I am not NOT NOT NOT saying that harassment, abuse, or assault is in the eye of the beholder, or that some men who have been charged with assault can duck by asserting that the term means something different to them. The ACTIONS are the same. The social condemnation of those actions is the same. Whatever we label it, the wrongness of the behavior has finally been called out.
By calling it what it is—harassment, abuse, assault, rape, or violence. All terms that mean WRONG
That woman at the end of the bar is the only one who knows whether what’s happening is flirtation or harassment. The man MIGHT also know, but maybe not until the difference has been pointed out to him. If she says “leave me alone,” he’d better know the difference. Time’s up on his claim that he was just flirting when he continues to harass her.
A skunk may say it’s a cat, may even BELIEVE it’s a cat, but it still stinks like a skunk.
But we will not settle the meanings of words through legal definitions or court cases or what we think the terms SHOULD mean.
Words mean what people who use them mean by them.
The authors also acknowledge that the meanings aren't fixed--
“Definitions, criminal and otherwise, change with social standards. This time next year, we may be writing a new column.”
I would revise a bit to say that definitions, criminal or otherwise, change with social use. With our new willingness to say out loud and our new willingness to listen as people proclaim, "He abused me!" "He harassed me!" "He raped me!" "He assaulted me!" will come new uses of these words. With new uses will come new meanings.
As we have with every other word in the language over many centuries of the history of our language, we will work it out. We will communicate.
And others will know what we mean. As long as we keep listening.
There’s way too much to talk about this past week. The Nunes memo release, the State of the Union address and response, the Nassar testimonies, the Grammys, the Super Bowl, murders and accidents and ICE arrests of upstanding community members and so much more. I’m sure many of our heads are spinning. A poor blogger like me who sees genres and language everywhere can’t keep up.
So I’m going to narrow down—to one Super Bowl ad. It’s a Tide Ad.
What a fantastic display of genres in this ad! Moment after moment of playing around with the type of ad it might be. Is it a car ad, an ad for diamonds, a beer ad? Nope, it’s a Tide Ad. (I was so thrown off by the genre play that I heard the tagline the first time around as "It's a Tie Dad." To be fair, there were lots of men in ties.)
We start one with a car driving down a remote road, the sound of the engine purring, then a close-up on a well-dressed man driving that luxury car. He says in a low, manly voice, “Yeah, just your typical Super Bowl car ad. Right?”
Ah, it’s a car ad!
We see the same man in a bar, with a bottle of beer sliding down the bar toward him and his laughing friends. “Or,” he says smilingly as the beer bottle slides by him and hits the ground, “a hilarious beer ad.”
Ah, it’s a beer ad!
OR “Whatever ad this is,” he says as we see him dressed all in white in a clamshell with clouds all around him, moody and surreal, an ad for
Leaning over a fence dressed in a cowboy hat and jacket, next to a grizzled old ranch hand, our spokesman drawls, “But, it’s a Tide ad.”
Now he’s carrying a clipboard and wearing a short-sleeved yellow dress shirt and tie, with glasses, with a caption below “Get Insured” and an 800-phone number above unreadable fine print. But he says matter-of-factly, “It’s a Tide Ad.”
“What makes it a Tide ad?” the mechanic asks. “No stains. Look at those clean clothes. What else would this be an ad for?”
The ad continues through ads for diamonds (soft music, male hands draping a diamond necklace around an elegant woman’s neck); pop (beautiful people of multiple colors laughing together on a beach and holding a bottle of Fizz); mattresses (soft close-up on bed and woman’s soft voice saying “Fall into the sleep of . . .”); shaving cream or razor (man shaving in mirror); infomercial “medical” self-improvement products (before-and-after photos beside the words “Build Your Muscles. Order Now”); artificial intelligence home assistants (“Meet the new . . .” as the machine lights up);
In the last scene, spokesman on couch with wife and children, basket of laundry in front of him. “So,” he says, “Does this make every Super Bowl ad a Tide ad? I think it does. Watch and see.” Ends with the tagline, “If it’s clean it’s got to be Tide.”
Tide is claiming all ads are Tide ads because everyone’s clothes are so clean. By the end, each fake commercial ends with the actors looking down at their clothes. We’re supposed to notice how clean they are. So some of the fun is also pulling the curtain away from commercials and something we may never have noticed before—the actors’ clothes are often so clean. So it must be a Tide ad.
What fantastic play with the types of ads AND with the ways we recognize ad types.
For me the great fun was the conventions they used to trigger our thinking of a certain kind of ad.
The car engine purring down a road at sunset—car ad. (The driver turning and talking to us suggests there might even be a Matthew McConaughey for Lincoln car ad genre.)
Friends laughing in a bar and focus on a beer bottle—probably a beer ad. Then the surprise, the bottle slides past them and crashes, everyone laughing—ah, a funny beer ad!
All the quick markers of the other genres—the particular music, the distinctive images, the layout, the camera work, the settings and costumes of the actors, the voice types and intonations, and sometimes the actual print on screen (phone numbers, “order now”). We recognize the type of ad immediately, if we’re from US culture or familiar with US ads.
We say in genre studies that genres are more than just sets of formal conventions, but here are examples to demonstrate that those formal conventions definitely matter in how we recognize a genre.
Of course, the context around those conventions is crucial. Each of these appeared on our TV screens at a break in the action of the football game. We already knew they were commercials. And we expect certain kinds of commercials, especially during the Super Bowl.
Perhaps the most interesting one is the “Whatever” commercial. The one with obviously significant images and important messages but you can’t tell what it’s advertising.
During yesterday’s ads, one ad showed a series of babies of many ethnicities, looking adorable one after another, with a female voice welcoming the babies into the world and assuring them that “we are all equal” even though some people might be threatened by them. Support for equal pay, loving who you want, going where you want, being heard and not dismissed. Ends with “Change starts now.” Good message. Then “Are you with us? T-Mobile." Um, like we have to sign up with T-Mobile as our phone carrier in order to be part of positive change? Uh, hello?
Those are “Whatever” ads, now that the Tide Ad has given me a name for them. They’re advertising something, but it could be almost anything, as long as it’s very very serious and important. Advertising whatever.
Super Bowl ads might be a special case, but I don’t think so. I have long used the “This is a Generic Brand Video” poem and video to illustrate how we can spot genres by forms and how genre conventions lead us to interpret in particular ways. Originally a poem published in McSweeneys, it was then made into a video, which is itself in some ways an ad for the company that produced it. I’ll link both here for your further enjoyment. You can immediately recognize the poem as a poem, can’t you, even without reading a word? Not only the layout, but where it's published
But probably all genres have their particular conventions in particular contexts that trigger in us particular expectations. Ah, this is a car ad. Ah, this is a spam email. Ah, this is a horror movie. Ah, this is a cat video. Ah, this is a menu. Ah, this is a tax form. Ah, this is a to-do list. Ah, this is a grocery list. Ah, this is an academic paper. Ah, this is a news report.
We don’t even need to register the genre so consciously because it’s just there, in our memories, triggering our behavior, suggesting how we should act.
Of course, as the Tide Ad shows, people composing those genres can trick us, can use our conventional expectations for humorous purposes—or even to lead us to misinterpret. To get us to start watching a horror movie as if it were a comedy and be extra-startled. To click on a link that steals our password. To watch a Facebook video as if it records something that really happened. To read fake news as real news.
Or composers can confuse us, giving us no indication of the product advertised, or showing a car ad while asserting it’s an ad for laundry detergent. Even then, we know:
It’s a genre!
Does this make every text a recognizable genre? I think it does. As the Tide Ad says, watch and see.