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.
sharing their righteous anger; singing their righteous song
A woman dressed all in black steps out of a pew and onto an altar. She walks up to the podium, tears in her eyes, looks out at the church filled with people dressed in dark dresses and suits and down at the casket.
What will she do next?
Probably one of three things:
Sing (perhaps Amazing Grace)
Read a poem or a verse from scripture
Deliver a eulogy
From that scene, you most likely recognized that she was at a funeral. Dark clothes. Church (pew). Tears. And then of course the casket was a dead giveaway (no disrespect intended, though I confess that pun was intended)
And because we also interpret scenes first as probably relevant to our own times, you may have guessed that the woman was probably Meghan McCain.
(Notice that there is some choice. The scene doesn’t completely dictate the action. The speaker being the daughter makes it more likely to be a eulogy, but even then it could still be a reading. And even then she could choose to go off script and burst out in song or tears or a tirade)
This scene was the scene for Meghan McCain’s eulogy at her father John McCain’s funeral this past week, but I could have been describing the scene at my own father’s funeral (minus the casket) or at any number of other funerals in societies that follow this cultural tradition. Members of this culture recognize the ceremony, know what to expect, and know how to behave in response.
Yet every funeral is also unique, every situation particular, every eulogy different, even every reading of the same Biblical verse or singing of Amazing Grace performed by a specific voice to a specific group of people, the same and different.
That’s part of what’s fascinating about genre to me—always shared, always unique.
This past week gave us lots of examples, with funerals for both John McCain and the great Aretha Franklin. From those somewhat public events, we could have watched or read about similar yet different versions of the same ceremony and of the same genres. Both filled with tributes, memories, songs, readings, processions, and eulogies.
Both also included eulogies that were filled with political messages, a seemingly uncommon move in a eulogy, but not for such public, very politically active and powerful people as these two were. Like many others, I was struck in Meghan McCain’s eulogy by the degree of anger and reference to someone not in the room. That gained notice precisely because it isn’t common in a eulogy to make such strong statements about the political present or future. But lots of other commentators have written about the eulogies by Bush and Obama and especially Meghan McCain’s unusual and powerful speech
(Here’s one thing that stands out to me: One of the markers that this was something different is the audience’s behavior. We know how to behave at a funeral, especially one in a church, but the “mourners” at one point responded to McCain’s “eulogy” with applause, as an “audience” would to a “speech” at a political rally. We know genres by the actions of both sides—speakers and listeners, writers and readers, composers and audiences.)
Even without the markedly different tone of Meghan McCain’s eulogy, John McCain’s funeral would have been as unique and the same as every other funeral. The family in a procession of the hearse to the church, but this one with the widow, Cindy McCain, stopping to lay a wreath at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The eulogies that praised McCain, recited his life story, his strong character, and his love of family, and sought to comfort the mourners, just as eulogies do. Some but not all eulogies also serve as a call to action—to protest, or demand justice, or serve others or be kind to one’s fellow human beings. And only a rare few eulogies are delivered by former presidents of the United States.
One of those rare ones was delivered at Aretha Franklin's funeral. Aretha Franklin’s funeral, too, was at once unique and shared with other funerals. Her procession followed a remarkable hearse that previously carried Rosa Parks. Her casket was gold-plated bronze, and she wore Christian Louboutin red high heels; in other words, she was dressed in her finest, as usual. She had eulogies, too, like most, even if hers were delivered by former presidents, congresswomen, attorneys general, along with actors and comedians and sociology professors! She had musical performances, too, like most funerals, but what exceptional performances. Very few funerals include singing by Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight. Her mourners, too, were boisterous, not just applauding but offering a standing ovation for Rep. Maxine Waters and hearing a "Wakanda Forever!" salute from the movie "Black Panther." But even with all that marvelousness and all that respect for the individual that was Aretha Franklin, people were recognizably participating in a funeral.
These famous funerals of famous people are unique, but they are also shared, recognizable in their genres as funerals with eulogies, processions, music. Every funeral we attend is unique, not just those of the famous. We share this tradition of mourning in our culture through the traditional genres—especially the eulogy—each adapted to the particular situation of this particular death and its mourners. One comforts with Christian prayers, another with Buddhist, another with reminders of a life well lived. One praises the person’s generosity, another their perseverance. One speaks to the family, another to the family of friends. Some participants sit in silence, some call out their agreement or grief. All are funerals. All mourn the loss and celebrate the life of the deceased and comfort the living.
Most have eulogies (certainly there is variation here, too, as some specific Jewish and other traditions avoid eulogies). Rare is the eulogy that trashes the person’s character, though it can and does happen. Hagiography, though, is a genre much more in evidence these day. In death, only the good is to be shared publicly. I can’t think of any genres that have developed to let people vent about the rotten person after they’ve died. Group therapy, maybe? (mostly kidding)
But there are many, many more genres surrounding the ceremonlializing of a death. This list doesn’t pretend to be complete but just to suggest the range and prompt your own additions:
Through learning these genres, we learn the traditions of our cultures, and we recognize the markers of their scenes.
We learn what actions to expect in that scene, and we learn what behaviors are expected in response. (Any of which we could resist or reject, including choosing not to attend, with expected consequences.)
In any particular situation, any particular funeral or card or eulogy, we notice most what is unique each time, because what is shared can ground us without our needing to be aware of it. We send a sympathy card easily, but struggle to write the sympathy note that captures this particular person we knew. If we're reading the sympathy card, we take special note of who's writing and what their particular relationship was with our loved one. We attend the funeral and notice the music that reminds us of the person or maybe the music that surprises us. We listen to the eulogies and nod in agreement, laugh at shared memories, and shed tears in shared loss.
But if we’re writing the eulogy, we struggle to find the specific stories that depict what we most love about this particular person, that will do justice to the life they lived. Whether that’s through sharing their righteous anger or singing their righteous song.
Because we all share our traditions, our genres, our humanity. And we all have our specific situations, our particular ways of acting, our unique being.
And in times like these, we can see the importance of honoring both.
It’s my anniversary!
No, I don’t mean my wedding anniversary (though that was just a week ago. Happy anniversary, sweetie!)
It’s my blog’s anniversary, which is either three years old or just over two years old.
I published its first post on August 19, 2015, making this blog three years old. On August 19, 2015, I published “What I Notice—and Write About,” laying out the reason for the weird title Genre-Colored Glasses and the topics I expected to write about—things like how genres affect us, how language makes a difference, how to teach writing in ways that show people the choices they can make, and fairness and equity. Truth, justice, and the American grammar joke. I love grammar jokes, especially the groaners.
The difference a comma can make:
I warned you—groaners. But punctuation saves lives!
So that was my first post, describing my blog and its focus, with one bad grammar joke attached.
And then . . . I didn’t publish another post for over nine months. Apparently, this baby needed time to develop.
I lost my nerve, in part. What if no one was interested? What if nobody read it? This was a new genre itself for me. I was good at writing academic stuff, I thought, but I might be really bad at writing for a broader audience. What if I’m a bad parent? What if my blog is terrible? What if I expect everyone to admire an ugly baby? (I love Seinfeld references, too)
I drafted several new posts, but I didn’t hit Publish on any of them until nine months later—May 30, 2016. Then I read an article in The New York Times on “The Psychology of Genre: Why we don’t like what we struggle to categorize,” by Tom Vanderbilt. That piece was full of great research on why brains like to categorize, so I could tell others about someone else’s research and add my comments. A lot like what I already knew how to write, but more fun.
I decided it was a perfect way to finally birth my blog. The Psychology of Genre. And so I hit Publish
Following advice I’d read from other bloggers, I also committed to publishing a post every week for the next six months. Give this baby six months to grow. I didn’t tell anyone else, though, just myself. Much too scary before the end of the second trimester. Instead I just started making myself write and publish. Every Monday, I had to publish a blog post. And I did. For the required six months.
And then for the next twenty months.
Writing the blog had become such a part of my life I didn’t even notice when the six months had passed. By then it had become so much fun that I didn’t even consider stopping.
Of course, some weeks were harder than others. Some weeks I struggled—to find a relevant topic, to put words together other than academese “blah, blah, blah,” and to find the time. Other weeks were easier. Something had happened in the world—we heard about “alternative truth,” or a passenger was dragged from a plane to “re-accommodate” him, or a boy killed himself after his girlfriend told him to, or a gunman killed others who fit a category. Words matter. Maybe this blog mattered
More fun topics showed up other weeks. Holidays! Thanks-giving is the only federal holiday that’s a verb! What makes Labor Day about labor? How do Mother’s Day cards limit how we view mothers? What are the lyrics to “The Twelve Genres of Christmas”? (That last one was not my finest hour.)
And TV genres, music genres, POTUS tweets, syllabuses, apologies, inaugural addresses, insults, and condolences. Dumpster fires, pronouns, locker room talk, good sentences, and “they.” Even one on “An Academic Learns to Blog,” if you want to read some lessons I’d learned after my first three months.
Now, twenty-six months later, I’m still here and my blog still lives. The topics may have expanded a bit, but I still love writing about the ways language and genres shape what we do, what we think to do, but not necessarily what we can do. I still notice the everyday ways language affects us in ways others may not notice. I don’t know that this blog matters, beyond my enjoyment of it, but I know that words matter, and I can keep pointing them out.
So I guess I’m a blogger now. Maybe even one who gets to offer advice. If you’re blogging or want to blog or, like I was, have been scared to blog but still want to, here are 5 tips I learned from birthing my own blog:
In blog years, my 2- or 3-year-old blog must be a teenager, so maybe it’s time to loosen the reins a little bit. I may let it stay out a little later some weeks—coming out on Tuesday instead of Monday, and maybe even not showing up every single week. I’m sure our relationship will continue to change as we both grow older.
What I hope doesn’t change is you, dear readers, and your support for this baby as it’s grown. Before I stretch the metaphor way too far, I’ll just stop to thank those of you who have been reading my blog for one week or a hundred weeks.
To longer-term readers, happy family reunion! To new readers, welcome to the family. I hope we keep growing together.
Just letting you regular readers know that I'm having to take a brief break from the weekly blog. Lots of stuff going on right now. Juggling too many boxes, trying to keep them all from falling. But I'll be back!
Did you mean to try the connections game from last week? It's still there, if you want a little intellectual exercise.