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September 6, 2018 Previous day Next day

Yet another tale of professorial indiscretion on social media making the rounds prompts me to reiterate what I regard as one of the cardinal benefits of the semiotic approach: viz., that it can lead one beyond the obvious surfaces of cultural phenomena to their more nuanced (and often subtly concealed) significations. And this matters in these days of take-no-prisoners political controversy, as America divides further and further into two hostile camps that can no longer even communicate with each other without invective.


The indiscretion I am referring to involves a Rutgers University history professor's Facebook screed about gentrification in Harlem, which has been widely reported in the mass media, as well as on the  news source Inside Higher Education. As IHE reports, Professor James Livingston is in hot water over a post he put up a few months ago. Here's IHE's quotation of the controversial post (warning: salty language ahead):


OK, officially, I now hate white people. I am a white people, for God’s sake, but can we keep them -- us -- us out of my neighborhood? I just went to Harlem Shake on 124 and Lenox for a Classic burger to go, that would be my dinner, and the place is overrun by little Caucasian assholes who know their parents will approve of anything they do. Slide around the floor, you little shithead, sing loudly, you unlikely moron. Do what you want, nobody here is gonna restrict your right to be white. I hereby resign from my race. Fuck these people. Yeah, I know, it’s about my access to dinner. Fuck you, too.


After Facebook deleted the post, Livingston returned with the following (again from IHE):


I just don't want little Caucasians overrunning my life, as they did last night. Please God, remand them to the suburbs, where they and their parents can colonize every restaurant, all while pretending that the idiotic indulgence of their privilege signifies cosmopolitan -- you know, as in sophisticated "European" -- commitments.


OK, to start with, I do not intend to get involved in any way with the obvious (right there on the surface) political elements in this saga of a white professor's denunciation of the white patrons (and their children) at a Harlem eatery. I also do not want to argue the free speech implications of the matter. Everyone else is doing that already. Rather (and I hope my readers at Bedford Bits will appreciate my focus), I want to look at an important rhetorical element in the story that not only is being disregarded but is being misconstrued as well. Call what follows an exercise in "rhetorical semiotics," if you will.


To begin with, the reactions to Livingston's posts have parsed exactly how you would expect them to: conservative media (and individuals) have (to put it quite mildly) denounced Professor Livingston, accusing him of racism, while more liberal voices tend to emphasize that what he wrote is protected free speech. Well and good: we can expect such disagreements. But what really caught my attention is the claim, both from the reporter of the story and from a number of the comments that follow, that Livingston was clearly being satirical. First, the IHE reporter: "Right-wing media and Rutgers University didn't find Livingston's satire very funny." A number of the comments to the story took it for granted that the posts were satirical too. For example: "Weird reaction to Livingston’s FB posts by almost everyone, including Livingston himself. . . .The charge of racism requires taking literally what is clearly satire."


But is it really "clearly satire?" Consider another comment: "The problem is that so many people in academia are so disconnected from reality that it's not actually clearly satire. Poe's law definitely applies here." Now, Poe's Law is the dictum that things on the Internet are so weird that you can never know for certain whether someone is being ironic or not. And indeed, as another comment observes: "If it's satire then it's really badly done. I don't believe it's actually satire."


Frankly, I think that everyone is chasing the wrong trope. Livingston's second Facebook post, cited above, makes it pretty clear that he means it about his aggravation over urban gentrification. So what I think is involved in the initial post is really hyperbole—that is, the deliberate overstatement of one's case in order to more effectively make a point. Except that in this case that hyperbolic wink was lost on a lot of people, thus further widening the gap between an already miserably polarized society.


Thus my point is that words matter, that they have semiotic as well as semantic significance. If, in the currently highly inflamed environment (the system in which we can situate Professor Livingston's remarks), one wishes to make a political point, one isn't going to make it effectively by using easily misconstrued—not to mention hyperbolic and inflammatory—language (heck, it isn't even immediately clear from the posts that Livingston is mostly complaining about the behavior of little children). If you want your point of view to be politically effective—and, perhaps even more importantly, not backfire—trollish language isn't going to cut it, especially when the keys to the kingdom (i.e., electoral power in America), are ultimately in the hands of that roughly one third of the electorate that identifies as politically "independent," and which is neither clearly on the right nor on the left. If you want them on your side, you can't assume that the language that works inside your socially mediated echo chamber is going to work outside it. So while I fear that it is no longer possible for either "side" today in the great divide to reach the other, it behooves anyone who wants to win over any part of that uncommitted "center" (if we can call it that) to keep in mind that, thanks to the Internet, the whole world is always watching, and weighing, what you say.



Photo Credit: “Gentrification Zone” by Matt Brown on Flickr 8/25/17 via Creative Commons 2.0 license.


This summer I’ve had a chance to give presentations at the Rhetoric Society of America (in early June), at the Young Rhetoricians’ Conference (in late June), and at the Bread Loaf School of English’s Vermont campus (in early July). On each occasion, I spoke about a concept that’s been on my mind a lot during the last 18 to 24 months at least, and maybe a lot longer than that. In short, I’ve been concentrating on the power of narrative, of story. Why? In the simplest terms, because story is the universal genre, because stories lie at the basis of all cultures, because our lives are attempts to tell particular stories that guide us. Because, as in Anne Haas Dyson and Celia Genishi’s telling book title, we have A Need for Story. Walter Fisher, defining humans as “homo narrans,” argues that “In the beginning was the word or, more accurately, the logos. And in the beginning logos meant story.” In “Life as Narrative,” Jerome Bruner argues that “the culturally-shaped cognitive and linguistic processes that guide the self-telling of life narratives achieve the power to structure perceptual experience, to organize memory, to segment and purpose-build the very events of a life.”


In the talks I’ve given recently, I’ve focused first on how teachers of writing and rhetoric, and our students, can understand, challenge, explore, and remake the stories we tell about rhetoric and its origins, principles, uses, and practices, aiming to create a history of rhetoric that is much more expansive and inclusionary than the traditional Greek and Roman origin story. But I’ve also focused on how we might also take on the responsibility for story, for narrative, and for the way stories shape our experience of the world. We know in our bones, I believe, what Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “The danger of a single story,” which happens when whole groups of richly complex people are reduced to a single narrative. In her remarkable TED talk of that title, Adichie tells about her life as a child in Nigeria, growing up reading stories and writing stories about characters that all had “fair hair and blue eyes.” That was a single story that shaped her way of reading and writing. In her talk, she says it’s fairly easy to create a single story: just “show people as one thing and one thing only, over and over again, and that’s what they will become.”


Increasingly, I believe that it’s crucial for us to reject such single stories, along with master narratives of all kinds, and rather to pursue what I am calling narrative justice. Doing so is particularly important since I don’t see how we can achieve social justice if the narratives in which people are trapped and silenced simply will not allow for it. So we need just narratives, which can then lay the groundwork for and make possible social justice.


“Narrative justice” is not a term I have coined. We can find the concept used and developed in global health initiatives that aim to allow indigenous people to claim and tell their own stories. I believe we can learn from these efforts, from filmmaker Lisa Russell’s 2017 TED Talk titled “Promoting Responsible Storytelling in Global Health,” from Australia’s Dulwich Centre, which has pioneered a form of conversational storytelling they call “narrative therapy” and articulated a “Charter of Storytelling Rights,” and from activist Judithe Registre, who calls for “story equity” as she works on global poverty reduction.


Teachers of writing are uniquely positioned, I believe, to invite students to examine the narratives/stories that have shaped their lives, for both good and ill, to begin to interrogate those stories as well as the dangerous “single narratives” they can see at work all around them. Most important, we can enable students to counter narratives that diminish or demean them by using their own agency to revise or rewrite these narratives.


I used to begin every class I taught by drawing a thick stark line across the chalk board. At one end of the line I put “WRITING” and at the other end “BEING WRITTEN.” I still think it’s a pretty good way to begin a discussion that shows students just how much is at stake in their writing classes.


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 9017 by Hans, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License