Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Words Matter, Always
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.
Once In a Lifetime
I had planned to capture my day of the total solar eclipse through its genres, but I realized something in the middle of the day
When an event occurs but once in a lifetime, there’s no recurrence to establish genres.
There’s no recurrence to establish eclipse genres.
As a genre-watcher, I’m used to noticing the things we do in conventional ways—not just because they’re expected but because those ways make sense rhetorically. Weddings include invitations, gift registries, and vows. You say I have to give a wedding toast? I’ve never given one before, but lots of other people have. So I look at what others have done in response to similar situations.
But a total eclipse? There’s no pattern, no expected response, no conventions.
At the community center in the small Kansas town I went to, in the path of totality, we heard a talk from a professor/astronomy buff on the eclipse. (There’s a recurring genre for you, though not one particular to the eclipse.) In this talk, I learned that a solar eclipse happens, if I remember right, about four times a year somewhere. But a total solar eclipse across the width of the US? Once in a lifetime.
So how do we respond to such a one-in-a-lifetime experience?
I don’t know of any typical response to an eclipse. I mean, c’mon, who gets to see multiple total eclipses? Even the eclipse fans who travel the world to experience them see only a handful.
Last week, I wrote about the genres that do get used for the eclipse—maps, certifications, safety warnings, and such. And my day did include those, along with the lecture, a bake sale, and some toasts.
But even small talk differed from the usual. We didn’t chat about where we’re from/what we do for a living as much as we talked about the eclipse. Some of us were recording the temperature every ten minutes, asking whether anyone was hearing birds, gauging the wind speed and direction. I reported when the cicadas started singing ten minutes before totality—not something they do every day; not something I do every day.
We talked about what we were hoping for, dreading—lots of talk about the weather and use of weather apps and predictions. We shared optimism and promises from the weather experts, followed by rain predictions and dashed hopes. Our location got solid cloud cover at the minutes of totality.
But we did see the sun peek through during the eclipse, and that rare occurrence brought strangers hollering to each other, “It’s out! It’s out!” and others rushing to get glasses in place and huge smiles. Not a typical everyday action.
And we saw the shadow approach us over the hill and the entire horizon glow with sunset. And we pointed and called out to each other.
And we saw then the dark drape over us suddenly, to total night, in a way none of us had experienced before. And we were quiet, without words.
Then the dark lifted back up, almost as quickly. And we looked at the retreating shadow. And at each other.
And we applauded.
Not your typical performance.
Some experiences don’t recur, and we don’t even perceive them as recurring. I remember going outside to experience a solar eclipse once before in my lifetime, but not a total eclipse. If I’m ever fortunate again to be in the path of a total solar eclipse, I’ll know to hope for clear skies, check the certification on my eclipse glasses, and watch for the 360-degree sunset. But I hope I’ll never think of an eclipse—of any kind—as anything other than a unique and special event. One to experience with as few expectations as possible, and as much unconventional presence in the moment as possible.
I might even recommend such a response to any important event, even ones where conventions are well established. Like weddings, which might recur in our culture but happen just once for any individual (we hope).
I hope your eclipse experience was memorable, wherever you were, however much cloud cover you had, and however far out of the path you were.
And may we all have many moments in our lives that merit our unique attention, our silence, and applause.
For those of you hoping I would publish on the genres of the apocalypse (since the eclipse has been associated with so many superstitions and rituals), here are some links to the material I've been reading with some fascination:
How eclipses were regarded as omens in the ancient world
How ancient cultures explained eclipses
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
Choosing a Response
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.