Tuesday, October 9, 2018

What If Christine Blasey Ford Said This?

So, here we are, post the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings, and the Republicans have ramped up the rhetoric, taken control of the story line once again, this time casting democrats, and particularly women democrats as angry mobs of extremists –vigilantes running wild in the streets.  (and they’re not referring to Charlottesville).

And here we are with the media (the” liberal” media) hysterically calling Trump out as a blatant liar.  Just this morning I heard a frustrated CNN anchor proclaimed, “But the truth is the truth?” 

Classical theories of rhetoric aside ( Plato, Socrates and that gang) you don’t have to look much further than Lakoff, (just about anything he’s written, but particularly Don’t Think of an Elephant– discussing the difference in how republicans and democrats frame political narratives), or Kevin DeLuca ( Image Politics) to be reminded that the truth often takes a back seat to the message and how it’s delivered ( performed).

In my last post I looked at the difference between what Christine Blasey Ford did with her language and what Kavanaugh did with his.  His choice of words - attacked, accused, directed the Senators to take action and warned what would happen if they didn't.  
Ford labeled herself terrified, reluctant and apologizing for not being more reliable.

But I’ll say again.  I respect her immensely.  I am in awe of what she did.  I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have done it myself.  We should hold her forever as a hero to women and girls and as a haunting reminder to men, all men.

I’ve taken Blasey Ford’s opening statements again and I’ve add a gloss that reframes how she shows up and what she does with her speech.  

What if Christine Blasey Ford had said it this way?

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Kavanaugh: a master of speech acts

Yes, I sat riveted listening to the testimony Bret Kavanagh and Christine Blasey Ford gave to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept 27th.   The post-play analysis ranged from calling both emotional, Blasey Ford “credible” “compelling”, and Kavanagh  “unrestrained” and “combative".

OK.  I confess. I’m a linguist. And I study speech acts – what people actually “do” when they speak.  Simple speech acts are things like. “I do” when I take wedding vows;  “ I promise to do it.” So when you say “promise” you’re actually making the promise.  “I accept your apology.” Saying is doing.

There are many, many ways we “do” something by speaking.  If I am sitting in a cold room and someone is sitting by an open window, I can say to that person, “Gee, it’s cold in here.”  My utterance is really an indirect request for the person to close the window. ( See Austin, How to Do Things With Words (1955) ; Searle Speech Acts (1969))

Without getting us all tripping over every daily conversation we have,  in critical situations, like this Senate hearing, what we say and what that does can make the difference between winning and losing.

Let’s get one thing straight.  I will always be thankful and awed by Blasey Ford's  bravery and riveted by her truth. 

I will always be appalled by the Republicans, their egregious use of power and their ugly ideologies. 

But, I’ve been replaying what Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh said in the Senate hearing with an ear to what their remarks really did.  What they did when they spoke.

Here are the two speakers:
Bret Kavanagh, the accused - known to the committee as a prestigious jurist. We could expect the accused to be defensive and ready to refute charges.  Blasey Ford’s remarks lasted about 18 minutes.

Christine Blasey Ford, the unknown person accusing the powerful jurist, speaking in the era of the MeToo movement. What could we expect from her?
Kavanaugh’s remarks went on for 47 minutes.  

Length of talk is something we always look at.  And more can be analyzed about that metric. But I wanted to unpack what each said.  A line by line analysis would likely bore you all.  So, what I’ve done (below)is a speech act analysis of the early opening remarks of both Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford.

I tried to move through each of their opening remarks using the topic sentence or utterance from each new paragraph.  Sometimes the topic sentence, the sentence that makes the point of the paragraph chunk, comes in the third or the fourth sentence.  In those cases I used this later sentence.

I’ve taken the key topic sentences uttered by each person and looked at the structure and function of their speech.  I wanted to uncover what they said, and what saying that then actually did.

For those who are following along closely in the published transcripts you’ll see that I’ve condensed some sections by summarizing what certain paragraphs were about. I do this because writing about every utterance would yield a very long essay, more suited for a linguistics journal than this blog. 

In my next blog entry I’ll finish analyzing the remainder of the opening remarks and then I'd like to re-image Blasey Ford’s opening statement.  Knowing full well that she told her story as she needed to tell it. But a linguist is always working and reworking language – that most powerful of human tools.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Weathermen, You Clownin’

Originally posted 12/9/17
Reposted 9/13/18
Hurricane Florence in about to make ground fall and as I watch Jim Cantore of the Weather Channel and just about every other recognizable network reporter beginning to get blown around, I'm reposting a discussion my students at Hunter initiated in 2017.  -----------------------------------------------------------------
This Blog Written By
John Drabos 

Professor Zarcadoolas posed a question asking why television weather reporters go out into the thick of dangerous storms. She had a very reasonable point suggesting there shouldn’t be a problem having mounted cameras to show the activity of the storm. With such technology available to us, why are weather reporters going out into these storms and why are the television networks compelled to put those reporters in hazardous situations when it appears it may be unnecessary?

I did a bit of light research on the origins of the television weather reporter and came across some interesting information, defiantly not telling the definitive story, but still bringing me to a speculative inference I think is worth putting out there (also linking to language).

According to Tom Moore, TV weatherman for thirty years on The Weather Channel, most early television meteorologists of the 1950s had professional backgrounds from the military or as college professors. This military connection makes sense to me, consider that was post World War II, we do recall a moment of the war as “storming” the beaches at Normandy. Moore says the station directors felt these meteorologists made weather segments too dull. 

Consider the communication style, in general, of the military. I would characterize most military communication to disseminate information in a style designed to be direct, effective, and efficient. Now consider this military style of communication added with the communication style of a scientist. I am suggesting, even though scientific method is extremely useful, the scientific method is boring. 

We have now built a character to tell us about the weather who approaches such a task with the precision and efficiency of a military operation combined with the rote mechanicalness of the scientific method. I would imagine a 1950s college professor would manage the classroom in a similar fashion. How many minutes of that would you like to sit through? Nothing about our generic 1950s ex-military meteorologist screams entertainment. There would be no use of dramatic adjectives or outlandish physical displays to accent the language describing the weather because it just doesn’t fit the style of people in the community of meteorologists of the 1950s.

Toward the end of the 1950s, stations began to add to the weather forecast to make it more entertaining. Those additions included cartoon characters, very famous characters were Wooly Lamb and Gusty. Cartoons are generally silly things meant for humorous entertainment, which makes very interesting the evolution of the weatherman as seen through these first cartoon characters.

Enter Willard Scott. Willard Scott is a famous television personality from the 1950s, he is known for being on the Today Show, being Bozo the Clown, and was the original clown mascot for the fast food chain McDonalds as Ronald McDonald. Willard Scott was very successful as a television weatherman by bringing his clown act to the weather broadcast. Willard Scott and his weather broadcasts were a novelty but quickly became parodied by other stations all over the country. People tuned in to a more entertaining personality delivering them the weather.

The television stations, through Willard Scott’s example, built somewhat of an archetype for the weatherman. This archetype mimicked the clown, a comical joker using exaggerated antics to entertain others. In the name of television ratings the purpose of the weather broadcast was no longer simply to deliver a report about the weather but to perform the weather report. 

To tie this to linguistics, best I can, why didn’t the original format of weather reporting work? Certainly the original meteorologists of the 1950s were qualified to analyze and report the weather, and certainly their ability to communicate was sufficient to the point they could educate in colleges and perform the duties required of our military. However their style of communication wasn’t sufficient to the television audience they were tasked with reaching. Style of communication would have a wide range of implications from particular word choice, to how that choice resonated with the target audience, and the effect those decisions on communication had on the actions taken by those who received it.

If there is a serious weather storm approaching what bigger stage is there to send our clown to? The consideration is not, “this place is dangerous and people should be informed to evacuate”, the consideration is, “send the clown!” I am partially suggesting this is about humor, but there is also the observation our professor posed in her own post:

“Has our emersion in reality TV raised the bar so high that we’re no longer engaged enough nor satisfied enough until the weatherman is torn limb from limb as we gaze snacking at our viewing devices -  our own private Roman Colosseums?”

Within danger there is the primal element required for entertainment. Our clown does so with a humorous foolishness that keeps us on the edge of elation while not quite crossing that line into a morbid reality. College professors or military personnel would not typically be considered to perform in this way, and this may be due to the type of communication style required of his/her discipline. However, the clown, can be equally qualified to disseminate this information, but have a style of communication that is bettered tailored for the realm of television. I think this raises an important note on the role language plays in our expectations on the actions and behaviors of others.

Moore, T., Haby, J. A Brief History of Broadcast Meteorology: From the Past to the Future. iWeathernet. March 26, 2017


Laskin, David. Television A Change in the Weather. NY Times, Arts Section. February 18, 2017.