Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Who is your “we”?
Whenever you say or write the word “we,” who do you mean? Your family? Your colleagues? Your friends? Fellow fans of a team, sport, hobby, avocation, activity? Right-thinking allies?
“We” have a family reunion every year.
“We” raised $4,000 for the public library last quarter.
“We” are working to recruit new students to our program.
“We” root for the Royals (or the Jayhawks, or the Texas Tech Raiders).
“We” (by which I mean human beings) define ourselves in part through our communities, our groups—and our pronouns. We show who we think we belong with through who we include in “we” “us” “our”
Who are your “we”s?
“We” (by which I mean human beings again) also define ourselves in part through who we do NOT include in our “we.”
“We” may live in a red state, but at least “we” defeated Kris Kobach for governor.
“We [right-thinking people (joke intended), aka Democrats, progressives, and moderates] defeated Kobach”
“we haven’t fully assimilated African-American citizens.”
The last “we” comes from Patrick Buchanan by way of a column from the observant Leonard Pitts, Jr. “Who is we?” Pitts asks.
“When Buchanan says “we,” he does mean America. But when he says “America,” he means white people.”
Even as Buchanan states that African-Americans helped build this country, he simultaneously excludes them: “we” have not yet assimilated “them.” “We” must mean white people.
The definition of who is included as “Americans” matters in whether “we” Americans will continue as a united nation or fail in the ideals on which the country is founded.
“If America fails,” Pitts writes, “…it will be because he [Buchanan] and people like him still arrogantly arrogate unto themselves, as if handed down from the very hand of God, the right to determine who “we” is.
“We” includes and excludes simultaneously.
It is possible—maybe even likely—that Buchanan is not aware of how his use of “we” excludes African-Americans. He simply arrogantly assumes the whiteness of America. It’s that very lack of awareness about the effects of our words that I fight against.
I’ve written before about how pronouns send subtle messages, as the use of “we” and “you” did in the Inaugural address. While Pitts’ column (or mine) is unlikely to change Pat Buchanan’s perspective, “we” who care about inclusion and fairness and becoming aware of our own biases can do better. We can start noticing who our “we” is and who “we” is not. And we can deliberately include more people as “us”
Try for one day noticing who you refer to with those pronouns that include you. It’s hard to notice! And it may take someone else to help us spot the assumptions behind what we say.
In my own “we”s I noticed some that were obvious and literal—“we [my friends and I] should try out that new microbrewery.” But I also spotted some that were more subtle and unspoken--
“We aren’t doing enough for the homeless.”
When I say, “We need to do more for the homeless,” I’m excluding the homeless from “us” and presuming that “we” with homes are the ones who are capable of making change, without those who are insecure in their housing included in that process except as passive recipients of our good works and largesse.
Sometimes we even use “we” to include ourselves in an idea while excluding ourselves from responsibility for acting.
“We [by which I mean you, local government officials] aren’t doing enough for the homeless.”
Compare that to “We, meaning the community that includes those without homes and including me, need to do more to figure out what to do.”
Pronouns reveal the unconscious nature of our language, words we human beings use automatically without struggling to choose just the right word. But sometimes we who care about being aware should choose those pronouns more deliberately. It may take someone else pointing out when we are using pronouns to exclude without awareness. And we definitely need those like Pitts to call out others using pronouns to exclude through prejudice.
Those like Connie Schultz in her column on calling Puerto Ricans “they” in contrast to Americans. But that’s a pronoun for another day, one you can start watching in your own language.
Part Two to come: Who is your “they”?
I found a treat in my mailbox yesterday—a copy of KU Giving magazine from KU Endowment that includes a brief article on me! It’s a short regular feature called “What’s in your Briefcase,” and, even though I don’t carry a briefcase (I call it a work bag or tote), writer Emily Cox and her team were kind enough to feature me and this blog.
Since a few new readers might check it out, I thought I’d give an orientation to what has become a full archive of posts and highlight a few that other readers have let me know they especially liked. If you’re a long-time reader, thank you! And feel free to add suggestions of what you think others might enjoy reading.
I write about language and genre—the kinds of everyday reading and writing we all do and how they shape us and our worlds. A few posts explain the idea of genre, for those of you who want some overview of the idea. Check out the Psychology of Genre, one of my first posts, or Genre in two pictures, or Genre Matters (aka Using Genres to Make Hatred Normal)
I’ve been writing this blog seriously since May 2016, and I wrote weekly for two years (more sporadically after that), so there’s a lot to sort through. Here are a few ways:
I’ve written more than one article on some topics, and some have told me they’ve liked those. Here are a couple of ideas.
I’ve written 4 posts on good and bad apologies, starting with Harriet Lerner’s great work on what makes a good apology. It’s much easier to find examples of bad apologies, as I learned at my dentist’s office and watching public figures and businesses mess up saying “I’m sorry.” (Remember the United Airlines CEO after dragging a man off their plane? Now that was a bad apology.)
I wrote on what makes a good “thank you,” too, but that turns out to be much easier for people to do. Less humiliating, I imagine, to thank someone than to admit you screwed up.
I’ve written about lots of holidays over the years, from New Year’s to Christmas and all in between, including Veterans Day, Labor Day, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving, and even April Fools’ Day (where the genre requires us to lie!). I tried an audio blog for Halloween one year, if you want to hear my voice. My most recent holiday post, I think, and one I'm proud of is my post on Armistice Day
And Other Matters
As a teacher, I’ve written about the syllabus in a few ways, and you who are teachers or scholars might find other topics of interest (on the word "essay," "commencement"--or is it "graduation"?).
Since I also write about language and why genres matter, the blog has hit on lots of ways we live in our worlds through language and communication, especially how words matter. Some serious political and social topics following current events, but also laughing with Amy Schumer's sitcom parody or playing with Super Bowl ads.
But Wait, There’s More!
Since it is KU's story that prompted this post and it is March Madness time, I have to highlight my post on how I watch KU men’s basketball games through both my fanaticism and my genre-colored glasses. I ran through over 20 genres that make up my own watch party crowd’s way of watching KU play in 2018.
So that’s enough for now. If you'd like me to email you whenever I post something new, please feel free to sign up for my newsletter (see it in the sidebar).
I hope you can find something to spark your interest or show you old habits in new ways. Thank you for reading today
I haven't posted here on my blog for a while, because . . . Too much to go into here. And I'm afraid I still can't come back for a full post. But in the meantime, I thought I'd share a few links to topics and comments I found interesting that you might like too.
Hallmark Christmas Movies
I don't know if I've told you that I'm a sucker for Christmas movies. (No judging) I had planned to write about the genre. But for now, here's someone on simplemost.com who wrote about how comforting and predictable the Hallmark Christmas movie genre can be. It even includes a drinking game.
Meaning is More than Words
Leonard Pitts wrote a recent column on obscenity, prompted by Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib's use of the word "motherf*****". As he says, obscenity is more than just particular words, and actions can be obscenities, too.
Images Mean More Than Words
Does a picture communicate better than words? MasterCard thinks so, and they're dropping the words from their logo. Just the image.
Well, just a few links and ideas for now. Could a single image convey the whole genre of Hallmark Christmas movies? I think it might. Picture the image of a beautiful couple (always white and one male and one female), one dressed in green the other in red, with the action of kissing in front of a Christmas tree with snow falling around them. That might say it all
I'll be back.
Armistice Day and Veterans Day
On this 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, I want to pay tribute in my small way to the incredible significance of that first armistice day, as well as to all the veterans.
Last year, I dug into the origins of Veterans Day and learned more about Armistice and the history of that shift of term. Today, many more of us are aware because of this major anniversary, including well-respected international leaders of France and Germany who are sharing the commemoration and renewed commitment to the armistice. Still, it's worth repeating, just as it's worth our remembering today.
So here are some selections from my post last year focusing on the meaning and significance of Armistice Day, with some revisions and additions.
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. For some, it has changed the meaning of "never forget" to one of revenge.
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.
This year, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, at the moment of the ceasefire, I remembered how it began, and I understood better. I vow to 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 on this Armistice Day. And never forget.