Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Like many of you, I’ve been following intently in recent weeks the revelations about and upheavals over sexual harassment and abuse. From media mogul Harvey Weinstein to recent celebrity Aziz Ansari, in workplaces and personal experiences of all kinds, the stories of exploitation, abuse of power, and straightforward abuse have been many and frequent. Our eyes are newly opened, or opened wider, or no longer averted. And time’s up.
There is so much to say about the issues and effects of sexual harassment and abuse, and many wise people have been commenting (here and here, for two examples) and posting much more expert responses than I could possibly make. But I’ve also been mulling over some of the ways that language and genres may be influencing the actions and explaining some reactions. So I thought I’d try some initial thoughts out today. And because I want this blog to extend beyond university folks, I’ll be trying to write without some of the precise nuances and academic complications that the topic surely needs.
So here’s some of what I’ve been thinking.
Both genres and language give us the usual ways of saying and doing things, ways that seem “normal” to us.
Some of those usual ways are simple responses. In the US, if someone says “Thank you” we respond, “You’re welcome” (or “no problem” more commonly these days). If someone asks us for directions, we usually start giving directions, if we can. If we don’t offer directions, we make an excuse instead—“I’m sorry, I don’t know where that is,” or “I’m sorry, I’m really late for an appointment.” I hope we don’t rudely say, “Look it up on your phone, idiot!” But that response is possible—just not usual.
Most of us tend to go with the usual way of doing things. It’s an easier path.
The usual way of doing things and what seems the normal way of acting are not always as simple as giving directions—and they’re not necessarily a good thing. The usual way is not necessarily, in the end, an easier path.
From some of the reports out of the entertainment world, “business as usual” involved some men of power requiring sexual acts from women (and men) over whom they had power—and the less powerful women and men responding by complying or not.
And after that initial response, there was more response—or non-response
“Business as usual” included the less powerful ones shutting up about it, being silent, telling friends perhaps but not reporting it.
“Business as usual” also included the less powerful ones reporting it and complaining, using whatever genres were available to them.
“Business as usual” sometimes included payoffs or settlements with non-disclosure agreements, or the less powerful ones losing their jobs or losing future jobs.
What happens when “business as usual” doesn’t work anymore? What happens when we want to respond differently, maybe even “rudely”?
What happens when time’s up for the usual way of doing things?
The usual way can no longer be the usual way. Now more powerful women (and men) have been speaking up, supporting the less powerful and rejecting the usual way. Time's up on business as usual.
After “business as usual” is not only disrupted but no longer normal, what will become the new usual actions?
How do we know what to do, how to behave when the usual way is no more?
We go searching for other ways and genres that might already exist, for one thing. For women and the less powerful, leaders have shown the way with new actions already becoming the usual ones. No longer responding with silence, people post #MeToo and #TimesUp or share their stories or give speeches and protest and so much more. These new actions and new words disrupted the usual, and now they’re showing the new ways to behave, what could become the new usual in response to sexual harassment and abuse. Speaking up. Publicly shaming. Reporting and demanding consequences.
What about the harassers and abusers? Their usual way has been disrupted because of those powerful responses to their usual actions. Actions and genres are linked, one responding to another. If the usual action doesn't get the usual response, it's changed. A response to an action can change that action.
Historically, for language and genres, if a usual way no longer works for us, we might stop doing it. When was the last time you referred to a mimeograph machine? Or responded, “Groovy, man”—non-ironically? Or left a calling card at someone’s house? Or handwrote a personal letter on stationary rather than sending an email? (Well, some of you might be gracious enough to have posted personal letters rather than status updates.)
So (in a historically rational world) the powerful may stop harassing and abusing the less powerful, not only because it’s no longer considered the usual way but because it’s no longer an easy path. Not because the usual harassing ways have changed so much as that the responses to that harassment have changed.
For sexual abusers and the sexually abused, I’m hopeful that the usual ways in US workplaces are gone for good, with sexual demands becoming unusual and charges and consequences against those who act abnormally becoming usual.
But not all of the new usual is so clear. Some new ways of acting and speaking are still developing, and the new usual hasn’t fully developed. For genres and language, change most often takes time. It sometimes takes generations for new ways to become the usual, the norm.
And genres rarely operate in a void; they’re related to other genres. So if one usual way of acting changes, others around it will feel the effects. (How will flirtation change? In what new ways will the powerful abuse their power?)
New genres often develop from old genres, even when the old ones don't fit well. And there is some danger that people will take up old ways of doing things before new ones are fully established. Have you heard acquaintances or commenters worry that women will now be treated with Victorian propriety or placed on pedestals or excluded from workplace settings for fear of harassment? Those commenters are looking to use previously existing genres, lamenting, “How do we know what to do, how to behave when the usual way is no more?”
They’re looking for the new usual, for an easier path. But they’re looking behind rather than forward. They’re looking at past usual ways that have already been rejected and replaced. In the long run, we would no more return to those old ways of acting without change than we would dig out the old mimeograph machine.
It will take time for new ways to develop and even longer for new ways to become the usual ways. The disruption of the usual harassment didn’t happen overnight, even though the news of it appeared in a relatively short space of time. The replacement of the old ways with new ways won’t happen overnight, either.
If these usual ways work at all like language and genres, the old ways won’t die quite so quickly or easily as we’d like. In the transition time, new words and genres will be tried, some will work better than others, some will be more popular than others, and some will become the new usual ways of speaking and acting.
But if these usual ways work at all like language and genres, the old ways aren’t likely to come back either. No more creating the usual carbon copies of powerful men abusing their power. Now that’s groovy, man.