February 3rd, 2008

ozarque figure

Linguistics; political rhetoric; choosing strategic examples; part two...

On January 30th I posted on a topic requested by the_drifter, at http://ozarque.livejournal.com/492545.html . the_drifter had written me, saying: "... there's one discussion I'd be very interested to see: how to strategically pick your examples when you're trying to inspire people to take political action. I posted an entry in my own journal about this recently, when someone speaking to a mostly Jewish audience drew a parallel between aspects of the current situation in the U.S. and Nazi Germany in 1932. I believe the speaker's intention was to inspire outrage, but my primary reaction was anxiety and fear, and from the looks on other people's faces, I think they felt the same way. ... We live in a time when many people lack the knowledge, drive, or political will to act up against some seriously troubling violations of human rights and civil liberties, both at home or abroad. I think it would be extremely valuable to know how to talk about these situations in a way that inspires people to rise up in protection of others, rather than retreat for their own safety."

We didn't get very far with that discussion. Maybe because the additional example I added -- MSNBC's Chris Matthews trying to draw a parallel between the current Democratic presidential primary campaign and the start of the Sixties -- was a distraction rather than a help. Maybe because I didn't write that post well enough. Maybe because it takes a huge research project and focus groups and surveys and all the rest of that apparatus to identify stories and metaphors and memes that will inspire people "to rise up in protection of others, rather than retreat for their own safety." I don't know. But in a response to a comment about that post -- a comment that was also from the_drifter -- I said something that I'd like to write about in a bit more detail here; I said: "Maybe what's needed most is the kind of catalyst that Uncle Tom's Cabin was...?"

It didn't make a bit of difference whether Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was a "good" book, or well written, or whether it could be called "literature." What mattered was that people loved that book, that everybody was talking about it and excited about it, and that for very large numbers of people Uncle Tom's Cabin changed -- forever -- the way that they perceived slavery.

When I wrote Peacetalk 101, that's what I was trying to do; I was trying to write an Uncle Tom's Cabin for verbal abuse. Living your life in a language environment contaminated by constant hostile language is like living your life in a cesspool. It's dangerous and destructive and a source of terrible suffering. It's a horrible burden to carry. It's where almost all physical violence gets its start. It's a sinkhole that sucks in time and energy and every other resource we have; if we had back the money our society spends on the consequences of violence, we could afford to do all the good things we so much want to do -- we could fix our healthcare and education and infrastructure. And it happens that it's one example of a foul blight that people really can do something about, using just two things: their competence as speakers of their native language, and their common sense.

I'm aware that many people have read at least one of my Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense books, where I try to explain how to clean up the language environment so that it's fit for human habitation. But I'm also aware that there are millions of people who just flat out won't read a "self-help book." I wanted to reach some of those people. And I thought that if I put the core -- the most simple basics -- of verbal self-defense into a narrative format, into a short novel that would be a quick and easy read, maybe I could accomplish that. Don't ask me why I had no better sense than to give it a title that made it sound like a self-help book, or like a smart-alec textbook; the title I'd started with was This Bus Is Bound For Glory, and that's the title I should have used. Some editors that looked at the manuscript thought that my title made it sound like a religious book, and objected to it for that reason, and I let them persuade me. That was stupid of me. I guess it's actually okay for you to ask me why I did it, because I do know the answer to that question after all: The answer is that I did it out of stupidity.

And of course I failed. It is most emphatically not the case that people everywhere love Peacetalk 101 and are talking about it and excited about it, so that it has changed -- even temporarily, much less forever -- their perceptions of verbal violence. I tried hard; I did my best; and I failed. It is of course arrogant for a writer to think that she could produce something that would be that sort of catalyst; as I've said before in this journal, writers without that armor of arrogance shielding their work can't survive as writers.

But I think that perhaps the real error I made -- and the real reason our discussion of the_drifter's suggested topic didn't go anywhere -- is that it may just not be possible to choose strategic examples and metaphors and stories that will inspire people to "rise up in protection of others" or to "take political action." Maybe it always happens only by accident or by miracle, and it can't be done deliberately and systematically. Maybe the fact that we seem to know how to inspire people to buy things can't be extrapolated to political rhetoric.

I'd be grateful to have comments from you that prove that last paragraph wrong.

Nonfiction online: "How Verbal Self-Defense Works" at http://people.howstuffworks.com/vsd.htm ; "Why Are Old Women Older Than Old Men And How Can We Fix That?" at http://www.seniorwomen.com/articles/articlesElginOld.html ; Religious Language Newsletter archive at http://www.forlovingkindness.org . Fiction online: "We Have Always Spoken Panglish" at http://www.sfwa.org/members/elgin/Story-Panglish.html ; "What The EPA Don't Know Won't Hurt Them" at http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/stories/epa.htm ; "Weather Bulletin" at http://www.sfwa.org/members/elgin/Weather.html ; "A Quorum Of Grandmothers" at http://www.sfwa.org/members/elgin/QuorumOfGrandmothers.html ; The Communipaths at http://www.jackiepowers.com/SuzetteHadenElgin/TheCommunipaths.html . More stuff at http://www.sfwa.org/members/elgin/SiteMap.html ; LiveJournal blog index at http://www.livejournal.com/tools/memories.bml?user=ozarque .