Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
If you’re watching the news these days, you’d find it hard to miss reports of the “confirmation hearing” of Brett Kavanaugh for Supreme Court Justice. I watched “Dr.” Christine Blasey Ford “testify,” including “responding” to questions from the “prosecutor” hired by the Republicans. And I watched “Judge” Brett Kavanaugh “defend himself” by making “statements” and “attacking” Democrats.
As the quotation marks suggest, I’ve been trying to make sense of Thursday’s events through the strange mix of words and genres used by reporters and the Senate panel itself. Many very smart people have written about the events in terms of the “he said/she said” nature of sexual assault trials, and others have compared this hearing to the “interrogation” of Anita Hill in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearing.
Is it a hearing or a trial? Or something else?
It’s a hearing, according to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
If we take the word literally, the Senate committee should have spent a lot of time listening, asking to hear what people have to say. News accounts reported that only 5 Senators were in the room to hear the testimony offered from a survivor of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The others didn’t hear Aalayah Eastmond.
Perhaps that lack of listening supports its being called a “confirmation” hearing by many accounts. Notice the presumption of confirmation in that label. Perhaps a man hears what he wants to hear to confirm and disregards the rest (apologies to Simon and Garfunkel).
Of course, words carry many meanings that are not literal, including the word “hearing.” As a genre, a hearing carries with it precedents and prior knowledge (hence the many comparisons to past confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominees), procedures and conventions (hence the formality of people testifying in front of a panel, the polite references to “Dr. Ford” and “Judge Kavanaugh”), and ideologies (hence, unfortunately, the politicizing into Republicans versus Democrats, the turn-taking by party, questions becoming political statement-making, and each person testifying being treated differently by the different parties).
It’s a trial, according to the prosecutor
Most obviously, what made it seem more of a trial is that the Senate Republicans on the committee hired a “prosecutor” to do their questioning of Dr. Ford. Someone was on trial and needed to be prosecuted. Rachel Mitchell has been called a “sex crimes prosecutor” and a “sexual assault prosecutor.” Her official title was “chief of the Special Victims Division and deputy county attorney,” according to Fox News, but she is currently on leave.
She is always called a “prosecutor.” Her job has been to prosecute those who are accused of committing sexual assaults of various kinds. In this case, that would be Brett Kavanaugh. Instead, in this case, she was hired to question Christine Blasey Ford. If you listened to her part of the hearing, you could tell that she was hired to “prosecute” Ford, the alleged victim of the assault. Surely not Mitchell’s usual role. In fact, when it came time to question Kavanaugh, the accused, the Republicans took back their questioning role and cut out the prosecutor.
Who was the target of the “prosecutor”? Who was being prosecuted? Words matter.
It was also a trial in how Ford responded to the prosecutor’s questions. She answered all questions directly and succinctly, with relatively little elaboration and some fumbling efforts to check her records for accuracy before answering. Just the facts, ma’am (apologies to Sgt. Joe Friday and Dragnet).
Or maybe it’s a brawl, according to Kavanaugh’s attack mode
Not so for Kavanaugh’s testimony. No semblance of a trial, or even a hearing, with orderly questioning and deliberate and careful responses to questions. He made statements. He answered some questions and not others. He asked the questioners questions.
Many have pointed out the difference in how Kavanaugh and Ford responded to questions. They often attribute it to gender differences, claiming for Ford a timidity and desire to please while for Kavanaugh a brashness and aggressiveness not permitted to many women.
I would attribute it to genre differences as well. What genre did the two think they were acting within?
Unlike Ford, Kavanaugh chose to treat the event not as a trial, or even a hearing. It was not about the facts and only the facts, sir, as it seemed to be for Ford. Instead, he made it about a defense of his name (as most put it), and a fight, a battle. No careful answering of questions, checking his records. Instead, he spoke angrily, denied the accusation of ever assaulting anyone, and attacked his Democratic questioners.
Or maybe it’s all of the above
Kavanaugh and Ford were not interpreting the situation in the same way. They were acting in different genres, based on different assumptions and conventions.
And neither of them was acting as if this were a job interview. Nor was the prosecutor. Nor were the Senators, who either accused or stroked the two people testifying.
Although Senator Graham was speaking on Kavanaugh’s behalf at the time, his description may be the most accurate for both Ford and Kavenaugh: "This is hell."
In the end, I don’t think it came down to “he said/she said” because that assumes he and she are reporting their versions of the same events. I found Ford’s testimony credible, heartbreaking, enraging, and unnerving. I believe her.
Kavanaugh wasn’t asking me to believe his account of the same events. He wasn’t trying to convince me with the facts. He was asking me to take his side and defend him, not against Ford’s accusations but from the Democrats’ “sabotage” of his nomination. He wasn’t trying to offer evidence because he wasn’t testifying at a trial or hearing. He was in a fight. I still can’t tease out all the genres he was drawing on—or Ford, for that matter.
And I can’t discover all the genres the whole scenario was enacting—farce, circus, and sham have all been suggested.
How can you follow the rules when the rules keep changing?
I’m an optimist and believer in transparency, so I look for what might have rescued this fiasco. Greater clarity from the Senate Judiciary Committee about exactly what genre this “hearing” was going to be and what genre of “testimony” they wanted and what genre of “question” would be permitted. The rules change when the genre changes.
Such explicitness about a genre, such transparency in the rules, can help give access to a situation’s newcomers as well as pros. I'm not naive enough to think that that was the goal for many on the Senate committee. Many of the participants in this situation were insiders, had been here before, knew the unspoken rules and what strategies would be allowed or even effective. One person was a first-timer, a newcomer, a novice in this genre game.
As Ford said quietly to her lawyer in response to a questioner and the traps hidden in the question, “I don’t understand.”
I don’t understand either. But I know that the conflicting genres made this game one with even higher stakes than before—people’s lives, and the reason-based, apolitical justice system on which our democracy depends.
On TV or in budget documents
Aww, I was trying to stay in the holiday spirit. I had a post prepared with my own version of a Hallmark Christmas movie.
But the current administration just had to mess with words again. I can’t let it go by when people are messing with words. And in this case, there was a similarity that was too good to ignore.
7 Words We Cannot Use in Budget Documents
7 Words We Cannot Say on Television
Sound familiar? If not, you’re in for a treat.
Background—The federal administration has, according to the Washington Post, given the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies within Health and Human Services a list of seven words or phrases that cannot be used in agency budget documents.
Here’s the HHS list:
“vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”
Other government agencies have been given other lists of words to “avoid” but the HHS list of 7 words was the most recent and best reported. The HHS protested that the CDC officials weren’t told they couldn’t use those words at all, just not in anything related to the budget.
Sort of like “dirty words.” You can use some of them in some contexts, just not in all contexts.
In 1972, the incredible comedian and social commentator (same thing in those days, right?) George Carlin started performing a routine about the
7 dirty words you can’t say on television
That’s right. There were 7 of them. Too bad the federal administration didn’t have someone on staff with a better sense of humor who would have recognized the similarity. Or, come to think of it, maybe there was someone on that staff with enough of a sense of humor to recognize it and let it go. I like that idea.
7 dirty words you can’t say on television
7 dirty words you can't write in budget documents
Carlin complained that no one would give a list of the words not to say. As a kid, you find out by trial and error (or parental smacking, in his video) which words you can’t say. Then you discover that some words are okay sometimes but not all the time. The word “cock” is in the Bible, but you can’t say it on TV. Today, Carlin might add that you can say, “What a sweet little pussy,” but not “I’d grab some pussy.” (Maybe you CAN say the last one, at least so far.)
So Carlin compiled a list of the 7 words that you can NEVER say on television. They are also words I would never say on my blog, except that, as he said, it depends on context. There are words you could say with friends but not in church. In this case, I’ll say there are words you can say when we’re talking about words that I wouldn’t say otherwise. I can’t blur out Carlin’s words with asterisks and still make his point. Skip over the next two sentences if seeing dirty words will offend you.
Here’s Carlin’s list of the 7 words you can never say on television:
“Shit piss fuck cunt cocksucker motherfucker and tits”
Carlin’s delivery in this routine, of course, makes the list hysterically funny. The seven words are delivered rapid fire as one continuous phrase without a pause. I’ve inserted the youtube link to the best part of this routine. Please watch it if you can.
Carlin has a lot to say about the rhythm of the list, too, and why the two multi-syllabic words are both needed. So I might reorder the HHS list just a little bit, to make the seven words more effective rhythmically:
“vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, evidence-based, science-based, and fetus”
Say it rapid fire as one continuous phrase without a pause and you get the effect.
“vulnerable entitlement diversity transgender evidence-based science-based and fetus”
Carlin’s routine involves frequent repetition of the list of 7, delivered as one seamless phrase. Repetition, repetition, repetition. He’s making a point, of course, or several points.
Words are words, until we decide some have special meaning or power. Carlin says the 7 dirty words are words we’ve “decided” not to say. Here we are today with the federal administration telling others what words they’ve decided others can’t say. At least the a list. Maybe after too much trial and error (smack!).
Carlin stressed that these are words you can never say on television. The HHS protests that these are words banned only from anything to do with the budget approval by Republicans.
Carlin goes on to list other words that might be candidates for the list. The list of dirty words keeps getting added to all the time, he says. The words he lists become raunchier and raunchier as he goes on, and the list becomes longer and longer.
The HHS list becomes longer, too. The Washington Post reports that HHS agencies have been given other words not to use, too.
“Obamacare,” not Affordable Care Act
“exchanges” not marketplaces for insurance
The State Department uses “sexual risk avoidance” instead of sex education
The list of words not to say keeps getting longer and longer.
Somehow it’s not as funny when the HHS says it.
In his routine on euphemisms (euphemisms could be a topic for a whole other blog post in the future), George Carlin reminds us that changing the name doesn't change the condition. Then why change?
Because words do matter. What we call things doesn't just reflect the culture of the moment but can have an effect on the culture longer term and can have an effect on real people, on our humanity. Carlin runs through the changing words for the brain condition of many veterans after war, from "shell shock" to "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder" (and now just PTSD). “The humanity has been squeezed completely out of the expression,” he says, and then “the pain is completely buried under jargon.”
I'll bet ya if we'd a still been calling it "shell shock" some of those Vietnam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time"
Words matter. Banning words matters. Speaking truth matters.
We have to be careful about words because words can hurt, words can harm others. But the words used to disguise truth are lies, not kindness. Manipulation, not empathy.
Who is speaking the truth today that George Carlin spoke for earlier generations? Who has the courage to say the 7 words you cannot say, whatever those words might be the next time?
By now, I expect many of you have seen the New York Times article on a white supremacist (he says he should be called a “white nationalist”) and, I hope, the parody of that article in The Atlantic. (My thanks to my friend and colleague Frank Farmer for the links).
The article in the Times, written by Richard Fausset, seems a typical profile, a genre my journalism students have taught me about. They’ve been assigned to write profiles in high school to capture the qualities of a person, to use the quotidian details of everyday life to show what the person is like. But they’ve always described writing profiles of people they admired, or stars in high school, or a local character.
Writing a profile of a white supremacist creates a similar effect, and that’s the problem. The whole idea of a profile is to make the person seem normal. Writing a profile of this Nazi sympathizer asserts his normality. That’s what the profile genre does. The author may have been trying to make another point, but you can't fight the genre's effect.
You can see that normalizing in the article's title: "Voice of Hate in America's Heartland." He's not from someplace special like the east coast or California, but from the middle of the US of A. The original article described the Ohioan’s bigotry in casual comments amidst a dinner at Applebee’s and lunch at Panera’s. It described how he and his wife dressed, like normal people. How they ate, like normal people. What their wedding was like, like normal people. There was even a mixed race couple at his wedding, and he’s okay with that being their thing, he says. He likes Twin Peaks and Seinfeld. His tattoo is as apple pie as his bigotry.
Online he praised the “comrades” at the Charlottesville rally where a woman was killed. He added “Hail Victory” in English instead of its German translation, “Sieg heil”
Hence the Atlantic’s parody, by James Hamblin, entitled, “Nazis Are Just Like You and Me, Except They're Nazis.”
I’ve written before about how words matter, that the choice of words we use to label things, people, and actions make a difference, but in a way we might not always notice.
The same is true for genre. Genres matter. The choice of genre we use to account for things, people, and actions make a difference, but in a way we might not always notice.
Choosing to profile this white nationalist is choosing to make him normal. That’s what profiles do.
Since the profiled white nationalist liked picturing what America would have looked like if the Germans had won World War II—happy white people and swastikas everywhere—let’s picture what this guy would have looked like if the genre had not been a profile.
Suppose that the reporter instead had chosen to write an investigative article, with photos of him and his signs at white supremacist rallies instead of him and his cart at the grocery store? With interviews with experts in bigotry and Nazism instead of interviews with his wife and his band buddy?
The writer says he wanted to see what made this man be a white nationalist, but he didn’t achieve that goal. How could he, in a profile? Unless normal living makes bigots of all of us, then tracking the normality of this man’s daily life is not going to discover the roots of his hatred. That’s more the goal of a critical biography, or investigative reporting, or academic research and its translation into science reporting.
By mimicking the feature of profiles, the Atlantic parody pushes back against normalizing Nazis and hatred. It calls out the Times’ claim that they are doing a service by helping us see how common such hatred has now become. The parody uses many of the same words and phrasings but even moreso the same structure, tone, appeals, and details.
Demonstrating that it’s not just the words that normalize; it’s the genre.
Because a profile doesn’t just show ordinariness; the profile creates ordinariness. How bad can he be? He’s just like us.
Well, he’s not like me. And I reject the implied generic claim that just because we both like Seinfeld we are both the same. His bigotry and hatred are what made him special to the reporter. His bigotry and hatred should have been what the reporter featured.
Contrast the man’s statements in his interviews with the man’s statements on social media.
Genre makes a difference there, too.
The spread of hatred on social media has also normalized it. Tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram photos, and on to the newer platforms—these spaces can be used to share and like family photos, funny cat videos, quotations from ongoing events, or political rants. Setting racist slogans and images of swastikas alongside our funny videos, birthday wishes, and happy photos makes them shared, by their very definition. We can delete the posts, unfriend people, or avert our eyes, but the genre makes them common among "friends."
What might not be acceptable in a conversation becomes usual in an online thread. That’s part of what is making users demand more filtering on social platforms. But it’s not just the content that needs filtering. The words alone don’t do it. It’s the genres those media are used for.
Some genres are meant to spread hate, bigotry, racism, fear. How do we filter those out?
The existence and rampant spread of those genres of hatred make the Times’ profile even worse. A profile isn’t meant to spread hatred. It isn’t meant to normalize bigotry. But it will normalize whatever its subject, and that’s what happened here.
The writer should have chosen his genre more carefully. As the parodist did.
What are your genres making normal in your life? What do the genres you read and write and speak and compose do? Is that what you want?
Let’s hear it for genre awareness.
In my blog, I’ve regularly chosen a timely holiday as my topic, taking the event of the moment to explore how we shape our lives and how our lives are shaped.
Some, like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Halloween, let me explore personal meanings. Others, like Labor Day, Memorial Day, and Thanksgiving, have let me learn more about the holiday and even push back against some of the ways we’ve ended up acting within them. Occasionally, a holiday has let me play and make a fool of myself (yes, I’m thinking of my versions of the Twelve Genres of Christmas!)
But Veterans Day? I began at a loss. The day must celebrate Veterans, right? I mean, that's what it's called.
It took learning more about the other things this day has been called for me to understand what this day could—should—be about.
Words do matter.
Although Veterans Day hasn’t been a holiday our society has done much with recently, veterans are getting more attention in general now than the not-so-distant past (since 9/11?). They’re regularly brought center stage and applauded now at sporting events, given priority boarding at airports, offered discounts everywhere. And for Veterans Day, I’m sure that the holiday must also have received more attention recently. In my own town, the locals did resuscitate the Veterans Day Parade for the first time in many years, and people joined the parade or stood in the cold and mist to recognize Veterans Day.
But how else is the day acknowledged? We don’t get mail delivered that day, so opening our empty mailboxes may remind us that it’s a federal holiday. Do we even know how it differs from Memorial Day? They’re both about honoring soldiers, right?
I was pleased when I found the history of Veterans Day on the US Department of Veterans Affairs website because it showed me origins and meanings of the day that go well beyond what I understood. It showed me the original name--Armistice Day. And it showed me the original words of the proclamations. I found those words moving, and ones we should do better at sharing and acting upon.
"To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…"
“It is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations”
“This date,” of course, refers to November 11. The date is not a random one. The original Armistice Day celebrated the armistice, as the website explains: “an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. For that reason, November 11, 1918, is generally regarded as the end of 'the war to end all wars.'”
After World War I did not end all wars, after World War II, after Korea, the day to recognize the Armistice, the cessation of hostilities, became Veterans Day, the day to honor the veterans of all wars. From commemorating a ceasefire to commemorating soldiers.
We may have given up on the notion that we can end all wars, but the “optimism of will” that created this day originally should persist in how we honor this day. After the horrors of World War I, the people of the United States resolved not to honor their veterans but to honor the armistice and to keep the armistice going by rebuilding connections with other nations and other peoples.
The concurrent resolution by the US Congress on June 4, 1926, deserves to be read in full:
Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals and the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed, and
Notice the celebration of the resumption of “peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed.”
Notice the commemoration through activities “designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.”
Notice the invitation to the people to observe with ceremonies “of friendly relations with all other peoples.”
We understood then.
Having undergone the devastation of a brutal war, the hostility between nations, we understood the need to build peaceful relations, mutual understanding, and friendly relations with “all other peoples” and their nations.
We understood then.
What a different response to the situation today. The VA website ends with a statement of the important purpose of Veterans Day today:
"A celebration to honor America's veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good."
Only some of the original meaning remains in that statement. Certainly, we should honor veterans of all wars. Certainly, veterans deserve respect for their service and sacrifice.
But let’s notice those last four words, “for the common good.” And let’s define “the common good” as it was in the origins of this armistice day, as what was good for all peoples of all nations—mutual understanding and friendly relations. Let’s recommit to “patriotism” and “love of country” as doing what is good for our country by building global understanding and peaceful relations.
The world is different today, I know. September 11 has changed the meaning of November 11, even if the word for the day had never changed. We can’t depend on relations among nations to preserve peace. Some reject the possibility of mutual understanding; others are unwilling.
But how does it change the meaning of November 11 to focus not on the armistice but on the veterans? I’d like to think our goals remain the same—peaceful relations that will reduce the chance of more people becoming veterans of wars. In the Commonwealth of Nations, Armistice Day evolved into Remembrance Day.
So let's remember what we're remembering.
Let’s honor our veterans by recognizing what they have sacrificed and by doing everything in our power to keep others from having to make such sacrifices in the future. Let’s honor our veterans by reducing the number of future veterans.
Next year, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, at the moment of the ceasefire, I will remember how it began, and I will understand better, and I will look for ways, even in these times of divided and dispersed hostility, to rebuild mutual understanding and peaceful relations with all peoples.
I feel a bit like Linus at the end of the Charlie Brown special proclaiming the true meaning of Christmas. But I hope a difference here might be that some of you, like me, might not have known of the original call behind Veterans Day, the original commemoration of armistice,
“to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding.”
That’s a purpose that calls for a different sort of response.
We understood then. Can we understand now, too?
Let's all meet for Armistice Day