Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Mass shootings have become so common that genres are emerging in response.
What an awful statement about our current world.
The deadly mass shooting in Las Vegas on October 1, 2017, stood out in numbers, but it was, according to New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza’s source, one of 338 mass shootings this year.
338 mass shootings this year
In response, politicians give speeches, news reporters conduct interviews, law enforcement gives press briefings, and social media light up with eyewitness videos, expressions of horror and sympathy, debates over gun rights and regulation, and hashtags. And the NRA goes silent.
These responses have become almost ritualized, as Lizza notes about Washington politicians’ responses. They are genres emerging.
Look at the president’s speech Monday morning after the Vegas shooting. Lizza describes it as a classic “thoughts and prayers” version. I’d list these conventional moves:
"Hundreds of our fellow citizens are now mourning the sudden loss of a loved one, a parent, a child, a brother or sister. We cannot fathom their pain, we cannot imagine their loss. To the families of the victims, we are praying for you and we are here for you. And we ask God to help see you through this very dark period."
"Melania and I are praying for every American who has been hurt, wounded or lost the ones they loved so dearly in this terrible, terrible attack. We pray for the entire nation to find unity and peace, and we pray for the day when evil is banished and the innocent are safe from hatred and from fear."
President Obama’s responses to the many shooting during his presidency actually differ from that pattern. At least in two speeches—immediately after the movie theater shooting in Aurora and the murder of children in Sandy Hook—Obama developed his own pattern:
Instead of a “thoughts and prayers” speech, I’d call this one a “hold them close” speech.
After Sandy Hook:
"So our hearts are broken today -- for the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers of these little children, and for the families of the adults who were lost."
"This evening, Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter and we’ll tell them that we love them, and we’ll remind each other how deeply we love one another. "
“We may never understand what leads anybody to terrorize their fellow human beings like this. Such violence, such evil is senseless — it’s beyond reason. But while we will never know fully what causes somebody to take the life of another, we do know what makes life worth living”
"At the end of the day, what we’ll remember will be those we loved and what we did for others.”
Neither “thoughts and prayers” nor “hold them close” speeches emphasize a call for public action. Both call for private acts—prayers and hugs—but not primarily for public response. That’s probably appropriate at that moment, immediately after the terrible event.
But Obama did call for gun control legislation in a later speech after Sandy Hook, and he hinted at it in the immediate speech:
"And we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics."
But of course nothing happened.
And then we have Las Vegas.
The 338th mass shooting this year
And we have “thoughts and prayers” speeches. And interviews with other politicians offering thoughts and prayers. And social media posts offering thoughts and prayers. And online shouting matches about gun control and gun rights. And a hashtag.
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.
Offer your thoughts and prayers
Use the hashtag
Sympathize with the loss
Vow to treasure your loved ones
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.
Something different like legislation, policies, regulations.
Something different like debate that considers not simple opposition but real options
Something different like news media interviews not about how politicians feel but about what politicians will do
Something different like social-media-organized activism in the streets rather than in a hashtag
Activism. Challenges. Options. Legislation.
Even this call for legislative action may be an emerging genre. Lizza calls for it. Democrats call for it. I’m calling for it.
So let’s disrupt that response, too, by using some other existing genres to keep the call for action from falling into a void:
Write a letter or make a phone call to your representatives
Start or sign a petition.
Organize a demonstration and make a protest sign
Let’s not move on this time.
Let’s not blame incomprehensible evil and leave it at that.
Let’s offer not thoughts and prayers but rather ideas and actions
Let’s not let these genres become conventional, expected, the norm
Expect something more.