November 27, 2006

Quacking political ducks

Language is never innocent.

From my Media/Political Bias page:

Simply communicating by written or spoken words introduces bias to the message. If, as asserted earlier, there is no such thing as an objective point of view, then there cannot be objective or transparent language, i.e. a one-to-one correspondence between reality and words such that I may accurately represent reality so that you experience it as I do. Language mediates our lived experiences. And our evaluation of those experiences are reflected in our language use. Rhetoric scholar James A. Berlin once said that language is “never innocent.” By this he meant that language cannot be neutral; it reflects and structures our ideologies and world views. To speak at all is to speak politically. The practice of journalism, however, accepts a very different view of language that creates serious consequences for the news consumer. Most journalists do their jobs with little or no thought given to language theory, i.e. how language works and how humans use language. Most journalists, consciously or not, accept a theory (metaphor) of language as a transparent conduit along which word-ideas are easily sent to a reader or viewer who then experiences reality as portrayed by the words.

But common sense says: If it quacks like a duck it must be a duck. Common sense, however, is also never innocent because such thoughts are cultural soundbites.

So, do we have a civil war in Iraq?

NBC now seems to think so. Other news organizations are continuing to use such terms as “sectarian conflict,” “sectarian strife,” and “sectarian violence.” Others qualify “civil war” with adjectives that suggest Iraq is close to civil war but not quite there yet. How do they measure that?

The definition of civil war is a political battle ground, although the dictionary definition seems simple enough. I suppose we may argue about what constitutes a war.

It is no innocent act to begin, as a matter of policy, calling the conflict in Iraq a civil war. But it is equally not innocent to use the other terms listed above. No neutral term that describes reality as it is exists to describe what’s happening in Iraq. (I would argue that such terms do not exist at all–for the most part anyway.)

Journalists, however, largely believe that it’s possible to call a thing what it is–as if “what it is” exists in some Platonic form.

One proper role of journalism is to stimulate public debate. Is Iraq in the middle of a civil war? Does that matter?

November 21, 2006

Rhetorica Update

The Springfield Bloggers meet tonight at the Patton Alley Pub. I won’t be able to make it tonight. See you next time (on 5 December).

It’s crunch time around here. End of the semester. Add to that: I have two very important deadlines coming up. This means I’ll be slowing down my blogging quite a bit from now until early February.

I’m working on an examination of what it means to win and lose (especially re: Iraq and political debates). I expect to post that within the next two weeks.

November 13, 2006

Blogging and the blurring of lines

Tony Messenger, editorial page editor of the Springfield News-Leader, wraps up election night blogging in his column. He says:

On Tuesday, I used the medium to cover an election. In past years, I’d do much of what I did Tuesday: talk to folks, gather ideas, look at results, all with an eye on the prize: the next day’s newspaper. This year, I didn’t think about the next day. By Wednesday, everybody knows who won and lost. People have already decided why. They’ve already formed their opinions and their conspiracy theories. By Wednesday, Donald Rumsfeld is on his way out the door and a new election is beginning.

So all day long I posted information as I gathered it, not from my office but from the community. I talked to folks at polling places and coffee shops. And Tuesday night, I hung out with other bloggers–just average, everyday Joes who have something to say–and we all did the same thing.

From our own perspectives, several unique points of view, we offered up the “news” in tiny digital nuggets.

Here’s the hard part for my fellow professional journalists to swallow: We were equals that night.

In the digital age, we’re equals every day.

November 11, 2006

For those who have served

Thank you.

I hope the USA shows thanks by making sure the families of those who serve are properly served while their soldiers are on the field of battle. And that all who serve are themselves properly served when they return home.

November 10, 2006

Don’t sniff your finger in public

Can one word sink a political party?

I know that one phrase can play a role in sinking a presidency. George H. W. Bush’s “read my lips” line, that ill-considered bit of rhetorical flourish from the pen of Peggy Noonan, helped Bush The Elder lose to Bill Clinton four years (and a few tax increases) later. I know this in the academic sense because the case has been well-studied by rhetoric scholars, including by me.

Geoffrey K. Pullum, one of the linguists who writes for Language Log, makes a case for “Macaca” losing the GOP the Senate. His argument is compelling: Racist language has become “unacceptably disgusting” for thinking people. He adds:

If you’re a political candidate, then for you to say something on camera that suggests racist attitudes or beliefs is comparable to, oh, something like putting your hand down the back of your pants to scratch your asshole and then sniffing your finger. Nothing illegal there. But your campaign will take a downswing from the moment that video clip hits YouTube.

And if you’re thinking this is really just about political correctness, Pullum has an answer for you:

This is not about the mythical political-correctness “word police” of which the right-wingers disingenuously complain. This is about thinking people simply seeing what you do and turning away in disgust. It if were just illegal to say “nigger” or “spic”, a politician could perhaps survive it (politicians do survive drunk driving arrests, and surely drunk driving is enormously more serious and dangerous than having negative opinions about some racial group). But it’s worse than illegal. It picks you out as someone to stay away from. It identifies you as disgusting and fit only to be shunned. A person who would never be invited to dinner. And you won’t survive that in modern American politics.

One wrong word or one ill-considered phrase can have a detrimental effect on a political career–or any career in which public exposure and public favor must combine. This is not to say that such utterances are the only reason, or the biggest reason, for failure in the two cases I’ve cited here (I’m not equating the content or intention of Bush’s line with the content or intention of a racist comment). These unfortunate flaps of the gum play a role, however, in public perception.

To a very great extent, you are what you say. So, in that sense, Ari Fleischer was correct that all Americans “need to watch what they say.” You have the First Amendment right to make racist remarks. No one will arrest you for it. But thinking people will look away in disgust as you sniff your finger.

November 9, 2006

It’s all about kairos

Kairos is the ancient Greek term for the dual concept of timing and proportion in a message. How should we judge the swift resignation of Donald Rumsfeld in regard to kairos?

From The New York Times:

Senior White House officials said the Rumsfeld resignation had been discussed for weeks, coming as the violence intensified in Iraq and a growing number of critics–including Republicans–called for the secretary’s firing.

Several weeks ago, with the White House’s own internal polls showing Democrats making gains on antiwar sentiment, Mr. Bush and a few top aides began a series of secret meetings to discuss what he knew would be an explosive announcement.

The timing of the announcement left no doubt that Mr. Bush wanted to make a dramatic demonstration of flexibility in dealing with a war that has come to define his presidency.

Could such an announcement just before the election have had an impact on voting? I don’t know. But I wonder. Such a move would likely have drawn the charge of “October Surprise,” an odd, wag-the-dog concept that is more myth than reality.

To wait until immediately after the election seems to me a wise choice if the goal is to make the best of tough situations, i.e. the failing Iraq policy and the loss of the House and, likely, the Senate.

November 8, 2006

Your Springfield Blogging team at work

Photo by Darin Codon

We’re already making plans for 2008. The presidential election, BTW, begins today.

November 8, 2006

But can you swear at the news?

So the FFC says that it’s OK to swear on the news:

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission agreed it may be OK to swear on a news show, but profanities on other programs are still verboten.

On Tuesday, the agency reversed a March ruling it made that use of the word “bullshitter”on the CBS program “The Early Show” was indecent. That decision was particularly controversial because news shows traditionally have wide leeway on language.

The incident involved a live 2004 interview with a contestant on CBS’ “Survivor Vanuatu” who used the word to describe a fellow contestant on the reality show. But this week the FCC said it was deferring to a “plausible characterization” by the network that incident was a news interview, which merits a higher standard for indecency violations.

Now it seems to me that “bullshitter” is a technical term. In fact, I’d say it is a rhetorical stance and properly a term of art from my academic discipline. A bullshitter is one who slings bullshit for rhetorical purposes. To disallow the use of this term on TV would be to cramp legitimate rhetorical analysis.

Don’t believe me? Read this.

November 7, 2006

Rhetorica Podcast: More from the blogfest

It’s just past 10:00–a few hours to go. A good time is being had by all.

Rhetorica Podcast

November 7, 2006

Rhetorica Podcast: Springfield Bloggers

Each of the bloggers working at the Patton Alley Pub tonight introduce themselves.

Rhetorica Podcast

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