Friday, October 3, 2008

Strategic Misuse of Language?

One of the things I have been teaching my students this semester is to pay very close attention to the details of the text, how the details of a text can question, invert, and toy with broader themes. I especially force them to pay attention to repetitions and what is added and taken out, for example when Achilleus tells his mother Thetis about his interactions with Agamemnon? It appears highly repetitive, but when you look closely, he alters certain words to give different nuances, and he adds a little and omits a lot. We did the same with Persephone's personal account of her abduction by Hades and the narrative point of view of the same event. Both cases are children recounting events to their mothers, and manipulating their speech for different ends. In some ways, they may be playing a part, a role, in order to tell the other person what they want to hear or in order to get what one wants. Both Achilleus and Persephone did this.

What's this have to do with politics? (I have already pointed out to some students to pay close attention to representation, omissions, etc., in the debates, both by the candidates themselves and also by the commentators). How not only the candidates will engage in forms of rhetoric, but how the talking heads will omit, add, or shift to differently nuanced words when paraphrasing or even "quoting" the candidates.

Many people are speaking about Sarah Palin's use of "folksy" language. Let's just call it casual colloquial language for the moment. Some express bafflement. Others anger. Many talking heads think she is deliberately trying to connect with the "Joe Sixpack" voter (one of Palin's phrases last night) by being self-consciously improper in her speech patterns, the assumption being that speaking in a professional manner would be condescending, something that Democrats feared Biden would be, but, alas, was not.

What does this mean, though? What assumptions would be involved in such a strategic misuse of language? Is not such misuse of language itself condescending? Does it not send the message that the Republican Party ASSUMES that the average voter is uninformed or misinformed about the issues and therefore will connect with a candidate who is just as uninformed? Are we the only country in the world that wants non-professional leaders? Indeed, one of the biggest criticisms of Obama is that he is TOO professional, TOO much the professor. Oh, for shame! To have a professional sounding President who has facility with the English language...I mean, we haven't had one in a while.

This gets me to a previous post last night on "nuclear" versus "nucular." The mispronouncment of this word drives me crazy. We all know that George W. Bush mispronounces this word. And I commented last night that Palin consistently mispronounced it. BUT THEN I remembered something. Does everyone remember her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention? I was watching that with someone, and I can distinctly recall that I said out loud, "At least she doesn't say 'nucular.'" I recall it because it was the only positive thing I could think to say. WHAT HAPPENED between then and now? While her use of colloquialisms has been rather consistent, there is something strange about this. This is rhetoric. In the words of Ecclesiastes, this too is vanity. This, too, is a form of condescension.

But is it a condescending rhetoric that works? It does have a certain track record, does it not? Think of the famously misinformed Dan Quayle. Or perhaps think of our current President. This seems like a general Republican strategy in the past 20 years. As far as polls indicate, which I don't necessarily trust, many people find that they connect with her, that they like her, BUT that she does not seem ready. They may not connect as well with Biden, but they feel like he is more skilled at dealing with the current crises of the economy, foreign policy, and the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. And that he understands the complexities of these issues more thoroughly.

We must be careful, therefore, with our language. We must realize how we create worlds with it. How we can build up and destroy with language. And how we can create a net with it and entrap people. We must be on guard against language, what language is revealing, and, much more importantly, what it is hiding. Once you get past the rhetorical positioning created by the strategic use of colloquialism and misuse of language, then we can assess what that language is designed to do (positively) and what it is meant to distract us from (negatively).

1 comment:

Angie Van De Merwe said...

We just talked about "preaching" today in class in a naturalist perspective and came up with the debating of political candidates.

Journalism is a useful tool that needs more input from different viewpoints...