Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
I will be out of commission this week with shoulder surgery. I'm sorry to miss the genres of Halloween. Feel free to post your own Halloween comment. And feel free to browse in the Archives or Previous Posts. I hope to be back in the blogging business November 7
Locker room talk or sexual assault? The power of naming and framing.
Today, I respond to a challenge. On Twitter, @GenreResearch challenged me to take up the topic of locker room talk. Fortunately, I had ahead of me a long car ride home from a conference, and I spent an hour of it engaging the topic with two smart friends. So I return this week to an earlier topic for my blog—the power of words. In particular, the power of categorizing, of naming what happened.
By now you’ve probably watched the video and listened to the recording of Donald Trump speaking to Billy Bush on a bus, telling stories of his actions with women. You’ve probably heard or seen many articles, commentaries, broadcasts, tweets, posts, memes, skits, excuses, defenses, accusations, and jokes about it.
Lots of smart, thoughtful stuff said about it, as well as some ignorant, mindless reactions. The one meaningful slice of this event I want to comment on is the power of naming.
Trump calls what he said on the bus “locker room talk.” Others call the recording a confession of “sexual assault.”
@GenreResearch himself offered a thoughtful chain of tweets on why the exchange was not at all locker room talk. (I show you just the start of the chain below.)
He also points to what I wanted to explore in this post—the significance of the name itself.
Those different labels—locker room talk or sexual assault—frame what happened in drastically different ways, and they reveal drastically different pictures of our culture and its attitudes. Along with the name comes a whole script of who is doing what to whom, in what context, with what significance. The name entails a whole frame of reference for understanding what's happening.
In an earlier post, this past June, I talked about how words reflect who we are and also shape who we are. It matters whether newspapers report the acts of a “murderer” or a “terrorist.” It matters whether police shot a “suspect” or a “citizen.” It matters whether she is “a leader” or “pushy.”
It matters whether it’s “locker room talk” or “sexual assault.”
So it’s not just a simple question of matching up the definitions with the actions.
What Trump said may or may not match up with what all the athletes and others, male and female, describe as what’s said in locker rooms.
But calling it locker room talk asks us to accept an image of guys just being guys, buddy bragging about sexual conquests, more talk than action, no harm done.
What Trump said may or may not match up with the legal requirements for charging someone with sexual assault.
But calling it sexual assault frames it differently. It asks us to accept that touching women against their will is attacking them, that men—even men with lots of power and money—don’t have the right to kiss a woman without her consent, that harm IS done.
Just the possibility of calling it sexual assault announces that things have changed. Our culture has changed.
Jessica Leeds told of her encounter with Trump on an airplane over thirty years ago, when “his hands were all over me,” including up her skirt. Things were different back then, she says. “The culture had instilled in us that somehow it was our fault, the attention that we received from men, that we were responsible for their behavior. You didn’t complain . . . If something happened to you, you just bucked up and went on.”
Rachel Crooks reported that in 2005 Trump kissed her on the mouth in an elevator at work. She avoided him from then on, including not attending the company Christmas party, because, she said, “‘I can’t do anything to this guy, because he’s Donald Trump.’”
But today, being Donald Trump isn’t enough. The same actions today are called sexual assault, not something women should just accept as guys being guys but as something everyone should object to. Reviewing the history of what was considered sexual assault, Amanda Taub in a New York Times article notes the cultural change
One three-minute recording of Donald J. Trump boasting about how his stardom gave him license to grope women’s private parts appears to have prompted the kind of change in public consciousness that usually takes decades.”
Whether that change has been long coming, as others in the article say, or has suddenly sped up, the naming of it makes it public, visible, and undeniable.
The power of naming, making different perspectives visible, can change the way we see old and new events. With a new name comes a new frame for understanding who is doing what to whom, and why.
On the video, after the Trump-Bush exchange, we see Trump step off the bus toward the woman scheduled to interview him. His buddy Bush insists that she hug the man who had just been commenting on her legs, objectifying her. She doesn’t know what we know, but we heard the talk behind those actions. Now that the public consciousness has changed, it’s hard not to see that “c’mon, give him a hug” as another powerful man requiring a woman to allow unwanted physical contact to be able to do her job, as an assault rather than something to be accepted as the way things are.
In a Medium essay posted just this week, Jordan Belamire writes about her experience being groped in a virtual reality multi-player game. With the vividness of virtual reality, she writes, "it felt real, violating."
Who has the power, not just in Trump’s encounters with women—where it’s clear Trump asserts his power to dominate women—or in a virtual reality game--where virtual groping makes the space unwelcoming for women--but in categorizing those encounters? As Belamire writes, "As VR becomes increasingly real, how do we decide what crosses the line from an annoyance to an actual assault?" Who gets to say what happened?
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.
That gives me hope.
But finally a question (thanks to Feministing via the Mic Network for pointing this out):
Now that the unwanted kiss has been reframed, has that changed how you see the photo at the top of this post?
Whew. Challenge accepted and completed.
For over three decades now, I’ve written academic articles. For over three months now, I’ve written blog posts. Guess which one I find easier and which one I struggle with? But it’s not because writing a blog is harder. It’s because I’ve been writing academic articles for three decades.
Part of my struggle with writing this blog has come from learning to do something new. That’s always a challenge, though a good challenge. I struggled when I learned how to use online resources in my teaching. I struggled learning how to use twitter (okay, so I’m still figuring that one out a bit). I struggled when I tried to learn to sing (in front of people). I trust you’ve had your own struggles with learning new stuff. It’s hard.
But learning to write a blog has been a struggle not just with the unfamiliar but with the familiar. I’m all too familiar with writing scholarly academic articles, and that has been getting in the way of my writing blog posts for a broader audience.
Take a look at some of the big differences I’m adjusting to. (Already I can see that this post is going to demonstrate what I’m talking about—I’m struggling to keep it from being too academic-y.) So, some realities of blog-writing:
The good side of the last point is that I can mess up one week and get to try again the next week. Some of you who’ve been reading my blog for a while (thank you, thank you, thank you!) have seen the messes as well as a few successes.
My very first blog post, on the Psychology of Genre, summarized an article from the New York Times by Tom Vanderbilt about cognitive research on categories. I found it fascinating! But my blog post used terms like “rhetorical genre scholars” as if readers knew who that was. And it included sentences like these:
“It offers psychological backing for many claims of rhetorical genre studies: that we put symbolic acts into generic categories, that those genres are social as well as cognitive and shape us even as we shape them, but that genres are not fixed and we can change them. But beware, especially with our students, of the habits of mind that genres can instill and make difficult to disrupt.”
Phew. And I began that paragraph with, “You can see why I was so excited reading this article.” Yeah, maybe not.
I was learning, and that first post showed I still needed to learn a few things to shift me away from my academic article habits:
So far, my most successful posts have been the series of three I wrote on apologies: good ones, bad ones, and impossible ones. It got comments, on the blog and on social media. Some people shared it. And some kind souls told me how much they liked it. So sometimes I’m able to leave my habits from writing academic articles behind and give the blog post what it needs.
This particular post? Not so much. It’s too long (I’m shooting for 750 words; this one is over 1100 so far.) Those bullet points are too long, and there are too many of them. Where are the illustrations? And why should you want to read it? What’s in it for you?
I'd intended to comment on more individual posts, but I've run out of space. And I'd hoped to share more links to others' tips on writing good blogs, but there are so many of them, especially commercial ones. One good column I found on academic blogging that applied to non-academic, too, was "So You Want to Blog (Academic Edition)" from Liana Silva on the University of Venus blog, from Inside Higher Ed.
I had two reasons for starting this blog. I wanted to reach a broader audience because I think seeing genre and language and rhetoric can improve lives. Being able to see means being able to change or make a difference. I can apologize better once I see how it works, and that can help me with relationships that matter to me.
And I wanted to write more often in non-academic ways, for fun. I like to write. And I was losing my flexibility by writing all academic all the time. This post was hard for me but fun—reflecting back on what I’m learning and how it’s going.
I’ve been having a great time writing this blog, whether or not anyone reads it. But if you’re seeing this, you’re reading it. And that makes it even better.
I’m sorry, but I have to return to apologies again.
Oh wait, I can’t be too sorry about that or I wouldn’t do it. But recent events connected to apologies just seem too hard to ignore, and they connect once again to our own apologies. The recording of Donald Trump's lewd comments about women prompted him to record another apology of sorts. And early in last night's debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton, Clinton offered a litany of Trump's actions for which he had never apologized. "He never apologizes for anything to anyone." Trump responded with his own accusation that Clinton owes Obama an apology. And on it went.
In August, I wrote on this blog about good and bad apologies, exploring what makes a good apology and then, in a second post, what made some apologies feel bad. But these recent stories have helped me spot gaps I was ignoring, other ways apologies do and especially don't work for us.
First a quick reminder of the qualities of a good apology, based on Harriet Lerner’s recent work. Here’s how to offer a good apology:
So a good apology might say, “I’m sorry that I broke your phone by using it as a hockey puck. I promise not to do that again.”
Some people apologize badly by choosing their words badly: "I'm sorry you feel that way. But you made me do it."
But sometimes apologies don't work even though they look like they should.
Let me run through some examples that I keep thinking about.
I've often genuinely said, “I’m sorry I interrupted you. I’ll do my best not to do it again.” But I’m an interrupter by family upbringing. I sincerely regret interrupting you, and I know that it’s rude in interactions with people other than my mutually interrupting family (it may even be rude within my family). But it’s highly likely that I’ll do it again. I’ve been trying to correct the habit for at least 20 years and I still do it. Maybe I haven't fully committed to not repeating the action. After all, I’ve corrected other bad habits in that time. Or perhaps I can’t change that habit on my own.
Some actions that would seem to deserve an apology may come not from a bad habit but from a personality disorder or difference in the brain that someone really can’t control without some professional help. Should a person with autism, for example, or postpartum depression, or narcissistic personality disorder apologize for their behavior and promise to be different? Repeating Lerner’s caution from the earlier post seems appropriate here:
People can apologize for what they do. They cannot apologize for who they are.”
Hillary Clinton’s apology for calling Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables” might illustrate this one since, as Gail Collins points out in her NY Times column, Clinton began that insult with “To just be grossly generalistic . . . “
“You can’t say you’re sorry for something you admitted was wrong when you were saying it.” –Gail Collins
Apologizing for doing something you knew was wrong at the time reminds me of a saying my mother had—one of her many, many words of what I fondly call brutal wisdom
“People feel guilty so they don’t have to do what they don’t want to do.” –my mother
These words applied, for example, when I felt guilty for telling the mother of six kids I was busy when she asked me to babysit and then telling the mother of one infant I was available that same night. I confessed my guilt to Mom only after I was caught. (It turns out the two couples were going out together that night. Oops.) According to my mother, feeling guilty made me feel better about behaving badly, while still letting me not do what I didn't want to do--babysit six kids instead of one. I felt guilty about it, but I still did it. Guilt as absolution, I suppose.
Apologies can be false absolution, too, letting the apologizer do something they wanted to do even knowing it was wrong. Apologizing to the mother of six after the fact would have been disingenuous, insincere. Clinton's apologizing to Trump supporters may have come across as similarly insincere. “I’m sorry” doesn’t cut it when you know at the time what you’re doing is wrong but you do it anyway. Especially if you just might do the same thing again the next time.
Some other circumstances might make me question the apologizer’s motives, sincerity, and commitment to change.
“I’m sorry I assaulted you.”
“I’m sorry I called you all racist/sexist/homophobic names.”
“I’m sorry I abused you.”
There are limits to what an apology can do.
On the flip side, some people apologize for everything, even when they shouldn’t.
In a comment on the post about apologies that bring up bad feelings, Stephanie Carpenter pointed out that some apologies are “clearly uncalled-for,” as when some people apologize for having been in a bad mood. Many people apologize for having feelings and needs, just being in the world, for taking up anyone else’s space and time (yep, I’m afraid I’m included here sometimes)
“I’m sorry” when I reach the door at the same time as someone else.
“I’m sorry I was grouchy earlier today.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t help you move to your new house after I broke my leg.”
“I’m sorry I forgot to put sprinkles on the cookies I baked for your birthday.”
“I’m sorry I say I’m sorry too often.”
OK, maybe I’m exaggerating. I’m sorry.
I'm amazed at how frequently apologies have been in the center of the news in the US this summer and fall, and not just for the elections. They keep refusing to be ignored. The apology has become for me a very complicated genre. That makes it even more interesting, and for that I’m not sorry.
Reese Witherspoon I'm sorry from thisyearsboy.tumblr.com via GIPHY