Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
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.