Contemplation: When It Is All Rhetoric

Man, I haven’t written a contemplation for some long while now, so I figure that I am way overdue.  Fortunately the New York Times has provided me with some good content recently and I am ready to get going on a new stream of thoughts.  I have specifically been thinking about two recent opinion pieces in that have appeared in the New York Times, the first, by former NBA player John Amaechi is a response to Kobe Bryant’s recent incident of calling a referee a “faggot” during a game.  The second, by former talk show host Dick Cavett discusses when over zealous political correctness can become quite a bane to any number of people.

At first glance one might be inclined to think that these two pieces illustrate two opposite ends of the matter of human language and conversation.  That they illustrate extremes in regards to the function of how we speak and what our rhetorical means are in any moment.  However, I am inclined to think that both of them are relevant to each other and to the bigger issue of how we both deliver and receive communication.

At work I have been doing a lot in regards to communication lately.  Our annual staff day this year had a theme of “Communication” and recently my department developed a training about working on practicing and maintaining good co-worker communications.  One of the points that really struck me from a number of resources that I used while working on these projects was the emphasis of how we never stop communicating, even if we do not consciously think of ourselves as communicating.  I think that this is really the core of what happens between when a person, in a moment of passion and anger utters a word like “faggot” versus when an author or actor use a word like “nigger” in a specific context.

Certainly, words like “faggot” and “nigger” have some heavy negative connotations to them, and rightfully so.  These words have been used throughout history to denote hate and inequality.  They have been used to deem other humans as less than people.  For these reasons they should not be used lightly.  However, is that reason alone why we cannot use them in a contemplative context (like I have here) or in a sense of examining a culture that does make use of them (See “Huckleberry Finn”)?

A major problem with language, as best as I can tell, is that there really is no such thing as simple agreed upon meaning.  Sure you can pick a word, go to the Oxford English Dictionary (or any other dictionary for that matter), look it up, and for the most part you are going to have a pretty good idea what it means and how it is best used.  But the problem is that words are constantly being strung together to create longer entities; sentences, paragraphs, articles, books, etc.  all these things work to change and specify the meaning of our words.  In human communications words are rarely ever independent entities promoting their own dictionary definition of a meaning.  Furthermore, add to that the vast array of social and political positioning and suddenly words have all sorts of different and important means.  These cannot be ignored.  And they shouldn’t be.

The word “nigger” on its own is nothing more than a number of symbols ( an “N” an “I” two “Gs” an “E” and an “R”) strung together.  However, a connotation and consensus of use, has provided the word, a symbol in its own right, with a meaning and it is a meaning that has a notorious reputation, enough so that the very presence of the word is more than enough to get entire works (books, plays, articles, etc.) banned or derided simple for its inclusion.  Thus the word “nigger” becomes a weighted entity and its use is approached with extreme caution if not outright avoidance (see the prevalent use of the phrase “the n-word”).

But I want to ask, does this really solve the issue at hand with language and communication?  Does avoidance remedy the situation that we are constantly communicating something about ourselves, our beliefs, our views of the world and such?  Words have meanings, yes, and at times they are used like blunt instruments so that when a famous athlete calls a referee a “faggot” we all cringe because we can understand just how rage inspired and hurtful it was intended to be. But that being said, I see no solution in the avoidance, the deniability that words and language are used.  Our communication is innately rhetorical.  We communicate to share and convince, we use our words to make others come closer to our own world views.  This is why we can be both reviled and fascinated by Kobe Bryant saying “faggot” because it tells us something, we think, about his inner world view.

But what about when it doesn’t tell us anything?  What if a word is just a word used to illustrate a point.  Is Mark Twain a racist for his inclusion of “nigger” in “Huckleberry Finn?”  or was the word merely a tool again to illustrate a greater point and demonstrate an existing vernacular?  Where comes the line when one can use “nigger” and have it be okay versus the use being nothing but bigoted racism?

I think, as Dick Cavett pointed out in his piece, that there are always going to be people who take offense one way or another.  Even though I have not intended any hatred by nor condoned the use of words like “faggot” or “nigger” here, there is still apt to be somebody who reads what I have written and they will find themselves offended.  Are they right about it?  That isn’t my place to judge.  This is another part of the problem.  I cannot stop somebody from taking offense by what I am saying or doing.  I can make efforts to explain my points, I can apologize  for saying things in such a way that its meaning might be misunderstood or confused, but ultimately I cannot take away the potentially offensive nature of my words.  As such, each of us, as speakers are left in a difficult position so that at times we say things in a way that wrongly portrays our own beliefs or intentions (and I suspect that this is much the case with a number of celebrities, like Mr. Bryant, who get caught uttering an undignified slur) or we want to illustrate a point, but hesitate because we are uncertain about how to say it without offending everybody.

Earlier today I called out for saying that “sometimes I hate SC” (SC as in South Carolina).  What I really meant was that sometimes I hate parts of a certain population in South Carolina’s mindset and politics, not that I hate the State in its entirety, however, because of how I worded my statement I got called out and informed how it really presents a less than admirable aspect of my personal rhetoric; a sentiment that can be perceived as unfair and biassed against all aspects of South Carolina.  I know what I meant, and know I don’t feel this unfair bias, but that isn’t the point, the point is that my communications illustrate it, and people have the right to react to that as they perceive it.  And being made aware of it I have the right and ability to choose my future words with more care so as not to cause the same sense and association, because regardless of what “we” know we meant when we say anything, people will react in some way or another.

I think back to the tragic shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and several others in Tuscon, AZ last year and the discussion of inflammatory and hateful rhetoric that followed.  The main issue was if this angry rhetoric could serve as a catalyst for such a tragedy.  In response to the contemplation there was a lot more rhetoric thrown about, with public figures like Sarah Palin deriding all those who would suggest that such rhetoric (much of it her own) had any impact on people.  Personally I had to laugh at Mrs. Palin’s response because I think the irony of her response was entirely lost on her.  We do communicate to convince.  It is all rhetoric.  And while I doubt there is any sane person who would say things with the intention of people being shot and killed, that does not mean that our words can’t have influence and make people choose to take action.  Now surely any tragedy like the Tuscon shooting is more complex than what a bunch of talking heads may or may not have meant by what they said, but the fact that it put the idea of the influence of our rhetoric on a national spotlight just further highlights how important our language and communication is.

I have heard people describe language as “not perfect” or “broken” and I have to wonder just what they mean by that.  What is “perfect” language?  Is it that there is never any miscommunication?  Is it that the intended message is received and acted upon just as it was meant to be?  Because if these are the cases then I think that the issue at hand has a lot more to do with people themselves than with language.  Perhaps the real challenge for communication between people is that we all just slow down a bit.  We think a little bit more before we talk and in turn, we think a little bit more about what we hear or read before we respond.  Communication happens, constantly, in some way or another, but that  doesn’t mean it needs ever be delivered or responded to carelessly.


~ by Nathaniel on April 18, 2011.

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