Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
I'm on vacation this week, so I've scheduled my attempt at a vacation post card below for any of you looking for my usual Monday post. If you are reading weekly, I'm very grateful for your giving me your time. Thank you.
Photo of roses and Vive la France sign placed near French Embassy in Rome, credit Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images
Until Thursday night, July 14, I was drafting a follow-up on last week’s post about why rhetoric matters in the world at large that ranged from Black Lives Matter to next weekend’s movie releases.
Then the terrible attack in Nice, France, happened.
Frankly, my first thought was that they're right. It is “just rhetoric.” What good is talk in the face of such horrible actions? We have to stop offering condolences and hashtags and speeches and eulogies and stop changing our Facebook photos and DO something about it.
But as the initial anguish edged toward despair I realized: Where do those horrendous actions come from? Why would someone think to plow a truck into people celebrating independence? As I write this post the news reports can’t yet confirm whether the perpetrator was connected with any terrorist organization, but they are calling him a terrorist. What makes a terrorist? Many, many things, of course, including material realities and things that evade rational explanation and things we can't possibly understand. But surely part of what makes a terrorist is rhetoric—rhetoric used for bad purposes.
Rhetoric can persuade people to do evil as well as to do good.
In last week’s post, I cited and linked Obama’s speech after the Orlando shooting, Taha Abbas’s listing of the names of the dead after the bombing in Baghdad, the photo of bystanders surrounding a baby carriage in Dallas during the shooting at a protest rally, and #blacklivesmatter, and each, I said, is rhetoric. “These are all rhetoric,” I wrote, “And that’s a good thing.”
Today, I cite (but will not link to) an ISIL recruitment video, Moroccan soccer fans chanting “ISIS, ISIS,” a photo of US soldiers’ bodies being dragged through Mogadishu, and #[AllEyesonIS]S. These, too, are all rhetoric. And that’s the bad side of rhetoric
Rhetoric is not empty. It is not just rhetoric. Rhetoric is powerful.
So at the moment we might feel the need to do something, anything. We want action not talk. But once again the rhetoric called for now is for condolences, for healing and unifying. And the rhetoric called for now is to persuade people to agree to actions that might help prevent terrorism in the future.
In a small, small way, one action that might help minimize terrorist propaganda in the future is rhetorical education. Learning to see the practice of persuasion can help minimize its effects on us. We can learn to recognize how someone is linking our goals and aspirations to their motives. We can learn to spot the language choices that make someone a martyr rather than a corpse. We can learn to notice the power of rhetoric, and to decide for ourselves what we believe and how we want to act.
That’s true whether the rhetoric is for good or evil. Whether the rhetorician uses persuasion for purposes we agree with or ones we resist.
After my post last week and before the terror in Nice, Adam Banks, a former colleague and now professor at Stanford University, wrote a series of tweets that did a great job of capturing what rhetoric is and why it’s important for us to teach.
I was especially struck by Adam Banks' rightful turn to the need to study rhetoric in order to understand it.
That last tweet appeared July 12, not July 15, but this moment, too, shows why rhetoric should be central in education. It surely will not stop terrorism. But the more of us who are aware of the powerful effects of rhetoric the more of us who can notice and resist being persuaded against our better selves.
Because, fortunately and unfortunately, talk does lead to action
personal photo of headline USA Today Sunday, July 10, 2016 "Rhetoric not meant to be taken literally?"
Rhetoric gets a bad rap
I opened up the USA Today insert in my local newspaper Sunday to find this headline: “RHETORIC NOT MEANT TO BE TAKEN LITERALLY?" Here’s the article, with a video report of the story though without the grabbing headline. Aside from the discouraging political comment in the article— that voters might not expect politicians to follow through on their campaign promises—I was struck by the popular meaning of the word “rhetoric.”
It’s just rhetoric. It’s not real.
I study rhetoric, and as an academic subject of study rhetoric is real. Rhetoric is the way language affects people. When I teach rhetoric as part of writing courses, I’m trying to help writers learn how to write more effectively—for their writing to have the kinds of effects they want it to have, whether they’re writing a business memo, engineering project report, research paper, memoir, greeting card, or tweet; whether they're choosing photos for their personal websites or creating slides for a speech.
So rhetoric for me is a good thing, a necessary thing. This post is not news for my readers who study or teach writing or communication. Aristotle wrote about rhetoric in the 4th century BCE, defining it (in one common translation) as
the art of discovering the available means of persuasion for the given situation
Linguist Anne Curzan offers a brief informed history of the meanings of rhetoric in a radio interview on Michigan Radio on “Rhetoric: positive, negative, or both?” She notes that the word “rhetoric” has a long history and gives a definition of rhetoric as
the art of using language effectively in order to persuade others
Curzan also notes that “rhetoric” today is often used to mean just “talk” as opposed to reality.
Ah, there's the headline--rhetoric that’s not meant to be taken literally
Rhetoric has become associated with politics and with empty talk. As in
“It’s just rhetoric”
A quick search for “empty rhetoric” on DuckDuckGo brings up this headline on Frontpage.mag (an online magazine that asserts that “Inside every liberal is a totalitarian screaming to get out”)
OBAMA DELIVERS EMPTY RHETORIC ABOUT ISIS
Searching “just rhetoric” revealed this headline on Inequality.org (a website of the Institute for Policy Studies)
The New War on Inequality: Just Rhetoric?
The problem for me as someone who studies rhetoric is that everyone understands what those headlines mean. It’s not a good thing for Obama to deliver empty rhetoric, or any rhetoric at all for that matter. That would make him just talk, no action. If the war on inequality is just rhetoric, then no one is going to do anything about it, not really. And if rhetoric is not meant to be taken literally, then it’s just rhetoric, not real, not something to believe (the meaning of “literally” here is another interesting word use—are we supposed to take the politicians’ rhetoric metaphorically?)
Curzan defines the problem for me and others who study rhetoric as a positive or neutral thing
Once words take on negative connotations, it can be hard to bring them back to more neutral ones
Those negative connotations give me lots of grief in explaining my work to others. And the lack of recognition of rhetoric’s positive power brings me pain for the misunderstood opportunities.
I study rhetoric—how language influences others when the “truth” isn’t as simple as a matter of the facts but requires judgments and values and beliefs in particular situations. I don’t actually study that empty talk that lets people get away with not doing anything. If I tell people I study rhetoric—or tell students a class is about rhetoric—most either don’t know what I mean or assume I study how to manipulate people into believing what isn’t true.
In fact (or is that “in rhetoric)?), most of the time when we’re using language the “facts” aren’t what's in question. What is true isn’t so obvious. The “truth” isn’t often about the facts but about perspective. So how we say something makes a difference, even when we’re trying to be as honest as possible. Trying to get others to see the world as we experience it is rhetoric.
Obama’s words after the Orlando nightclub shooting are rhetoric:
This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship, or a movie theater, or in a nightclub. And we have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be. And to actively do nothing is a decision as well.
Words made even more powerful when heard and seen as well as read
youtube video from abc news of Obama's speech after the Orlando nightclub shooting
And when Taha Abbas recites the names of the dead after the July3 bombing in Baghdad, that is rhetoric
photo of Issa Obeida, a victim of the July 3 truck bombing attack in Baghdad, photo collage AP photos
Posting a photo of bystanders surrounding a baby carriage in Dallas during the shooting at a protest rally is rhetoric
Screenshot of bystanders surrounding stroller during Dallas shooting from kesq.com
#BlackLivesMatter is rhetoric.
gif of scrolling #BlackLivesMatter from the-weird-wide-web.tumblr.com
These are all rhetoric. And that’s a good thing
Rhetoric is how we try to express what matters to us so that others might understand.
That’s why rhetoric enters in. Not because we’re trying to dodge reality or offer empty talk instead of action but because we have to use this imperfect language system to express what we think and to try to reach others. People, including politicians, can misuse that system and can use rhetoric to hide and lie. But that’s not the fault of rhetoric. That's the fault of dishonest politicians and liars.
Since negative connotations are so hard to break once they’ve begun, and since, in the end, words mean what people use them to mean, I don’t hope to change the common meaning of rhetoric. But for those of you who might be reading my blog, where the word “rhetoric” might mean something more interesting and important than empty talk, I’m glad to take this chance to say what rhetoric means to me. And for those who are watching the world at these pivotal moments, pay attention to how we try to express what we think and influence others.
Because rhetoric gets a bad rap. Rhetoric is necessary. Rhetoric matters.
"Genres can be a tidy way of understanding what you might expect overall from a story, a shorthand that there will be elements in this tale that speak to you as a reader. Genres, however, can sometimes draw artificial lines that people don't cross. I will admit there are genres I thought I didn't read . . . until I did."
Three years ago, in a column by the Readers' Services Coordinator at my local public library, Polli Kenn discussed the library's then new "Genre Book Club." Once a month, the library staff "puts together a list of highly rated and representative books in a genre," which readers can then request, read, and discuss.
I've been on a library kick in my blog lately, mostly because of National Library Week--and my passion for libraries--but I've been wanting to write about this column independent of libraries every since I read it.
Because Kenn writes about how genres define and perhaps limit what we read.
Kenn points out that readers can have favorite genres they read--and ones they don't read.
I know that's true for me, that I read some genres more than others because I know I like them. I like what I can expect from a mystery, and I don't like what I (think I can) expect from a romance (though Kenn's column tells me I might like romances if I would read one written by Courtney Milan, Julia Quinn or Eloisa James).
The "shorthand" that is a genre label captures basic elements that makes someone (a librarian? a bookseller?) categorize a book as this genre and not that genre. And there's a much bigger story here, too, as there is for most things genre, about the greater commercial value of some genres over others, the stretching of a genre category by publishers and marketers in order to help a book sell--but that's another post another time.
I do read much more widely in nonfiction genres and in what Amazon calls "literary fiction" (what a baggy category that is on Amazon, and it includes many of what I would call romances), so it's not like I read only mysteries.
But when I'm tired or stressed and just want to pick up something for fun, it's easy to pick up a mystery and know puzzles will be solved, smart people will win out, and life will all make sense. Unless, of course, I'm reading a mystery by John Harvey or other mystery writers who like to upset conventions, but even then I know, after their first book, to expect the conventions to be upset. Mysteries are my comfort genre (thanks, Leighann Dicks, for the concept and term!)
But Kenn suggests, rightly, that I might be limiting myself by reading only preferred genres, and that I should stretch myself to read good examples of other genres--even romance?
My resistance to the idea shows up in the fact that I first ended that last sentence with an exclamation point--even romance! and couldn't do it, ending it with a question mark instead--even romance?
I know I also enjoy reading science fiction, but not yet fantasy, so there's another genre I could stretch myself with, maybe more easily than with romance. Each of you might be able to suggest other genres I should cross into. When Kenn wrote three years ago, the next month's genre in the Genre Book Club was "urban fantasy," so the genres you like might be broad or narrow, but there will always be other categories we could explore. What genres do you think I should try?
Since that column, the library developed and posted on their website reading lists for 19 genres from the Genre Book Club. I've already read some in Dystopian Fiction--Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Hilary St. John Mandel and Cormac McCarthy--but the reading list recommends other exciting possibilities. Of the other genres they've listed, I've hit a few Food Memoirs, Historical Fiction (I've read only the non-romance type, being too ridiculously consistent, I suppose), Horror, Humorous Mysteries, Magical Realism, Mysteries (of course), Noir Fiction, Science Fiction, Short Stories, Suspense, Travel Writing, True Crime, and Women's Fiction (these are all their labels, created to draw readers to a monthly book club).
They have other reading lists on the site, too, including a Social Justice Book Club, Roadtripping, and, my favorite category name, "To Be Continued: Books to Read Later," ones you want to read, just not right now.
So many genres, so little time.
I could also stretch myself into other genres they have reading lists for, including LGBTQ Graphic Novels. Every list has something that looks great, that I'd like to read.
Except romance. I still can't get myself to cross into the romance genre.
I bet if I dug into why I haven't read romances, I could see all sorts of things about myself. Genres do show us stuff, reveal who we are, individually and socially. Janice Radway wrote a fantastic book called Reading the Romance, exploring who reads romances, what they offer, how they're marketed. Now there's an example of a great scholarly book, if you're looking for one.
And I bet if I tried reading romances, I'd learn other things about myself and people. So I'm willing to try if you'll tell me about a romance you really love. I won't judge. I promise. I don't like to think of myself as biased against any genre, without even having given it a good try with a good example of the genre.
Because that's the other part of genre-crossing, of course. You have to read a good example of the genre to give it a fair chance. When we read a particular genre a lot, we learn what we like and we can seek out authors or recognize what makes a particular book good--for us. But when we're new to a genre, as Kenn says, we need help finding the good examples so we don't just reject the genre outright based on one poor text.
And here I am back to libraries, darn it. Librarians can suggest examples of genres for you to read. And their website is full of reading lists and recommendations, even individualized ones. I just can't seem to get away from libraries. It's become National Library Month for me, rather than week.
But social media is great for reading suggestions, too, whether literary or scholarly genres, fiction or nonfiction. So feel free to post your genre suggestions--and a good example of it--on my Facebook post or Twitter feed.
What about you? Do you comfortably cross genre lines in your reading? What really good romance should I read to stretch myself? What other genres should I try? Men's Rural Utopian Short Epics, anyone?