Category Archives: Rhetorical Mastery

The “Tragedy” Euphemism

A rhetorical “covering” that allows us to miss important truths helps none of us, especially those who will lose their lives in the next mass shooting.

It’s an axiom of communication analysis that meaning resides in the receiver.  Words can be what communities want them to mean. Even so, when a term creates more fog than clarity, it overuse needs to be noticed.

The reporting in our national media has been calling the shooting deaths in Las Vegas “tragic,” as if the fates had some role to play in the bloody event. We are far too comfortable hearing man-made catastrophes like this massacre described with a term suggesting loss and grief, but deflecting the subject of agency.  The label is apparently meant to give an event the emotional gravity it it due. But its widespread usage lets Americans off the hook too easily.

Here’s what I mean. Americans love euphemisms. “Taking one’s own life” sounds slightly softer than “suicide.”  We ask directions to a “bathroom” when we need a toilet. These are perhaps harmless ways to moderate our language  to preserve the sensitivities of others. Yet we really must get over the kind of Victorian ‘covering’ of awful events that happens when a term effectively maintains a cultural blind spot. Regarding the event in Las Vegas, arguing direct culpability by a single innocent citizen may be too much. But no high-functioning society tolerates the kind of gun accessibility that exists in the United States. If one result is a “new normal” of deadly and routine mass shootings, then we all collectively bear some responsibility. The neutralizing euphemism of “tragedy” dims a light that needs to shine brightly into the dark corner of rampant gun violence.  Las Vegas is a less a tragedy than a  mass murder. It was domestic terrorism as a bloodbath.

To call an event “tragic” strips it of a focus on agents and means.  That’s a change from the oldest meaning of a tragedy, which was a theatrical form designed to let us witness flawed figures whose actions brought about their own demise. Think of Macbeth, Hamlet or even modern narratives of Richard Nixon. All have been rightly portrayed as participants in their own undoing. But we undo this emphasis on direct culpability by ignoring destructive and enabling social norms, giving ourselves unearned comfort in a term of compassion.

Of course the victims and families directly involved are justified in talking about their altered lives as a tragedy. But journalists have a duty to be more clear-eyed. A rhetorical “covering” that allows us to miss evidence of a culture that won’t change helps none of us, especially those who will lose their lives in the next mass shooting.

Broadcasters and Receivers


 For any broadcaster, “dead air” is an embarrassing professional lapse. And so the goal is always to monopolize the channel. 

Modern electronic media began nearly 100 years ago with two clear reference points.  If you were issued a license, you could be a broadcaster. Your transmitter sent content along a channel in the region’s electromagnetic spectrum reserved exclusively for the station’s use. This is still true for local entities such as WABC-TV in New York or Philadelphia’s WXPN radio.  Commercial broadcasting began in the 1920s when Americans were eager to consume content sent into the “ether.” That pattern put us on a long path toward becoming involuntary spectators to the performances of others.

I keep coming back to this basic idea when I think of humans and their preferred communication styles.  Some—let’s say too many—prefer to be broadcasters. They are comfortable devising content they believe others need to hear.  They are “on” continuously and mostly without pause.  The disinhibitions of alcohol can make the pattern even worst. Others of us are receivers, often by choice, and sometimes because broadcasters rarely offer breaks that would allow sufficient time for the functions to reverse. You know the feeling if you are at a party and a 50,000-watt broadcaster crosses your path. They may see themselves as having a clear channel that must never go silent. For any broadcaster, “dead air” is an embarrassing professional lapse.

I confess to sometimes being a broadcaster.  In education it’s called lecturing. I am probably too certain that I have important things to say. But I understand that a good teacher must also hone their skill as a receiver. Unless you are accompanied by a 10-piece band and a juggler, one-way communication offers diminishing returns. Broadcasters frequently misread the patience of others as signs of their brilliance. They flourish from the goodwill of conscientious listeners.  Such listening is all the more remarkable since those doing it get few rewards for the courtesy of their interest.

Maybe you have escaped the experience so far, but the news that you will be spending time with a group of compulsive talkers may mean that the broadcasters among them will have already programmed the entire evening. Your efforts to jam their channel can easily fail, forcing a decision about how Soviet you want to be in disrupting their dominance.

There just aren’t many ways to silence these full-time transmitters, let alone turn them into effective receivers. The natural informality of conversation especially makes it hard to preserve an adjacent channel for weaker but worthwhile signals coming from others. Even so, there are at least a few desperate gambits that may momentarily knock a broadcaster off the air:

-Express amazement that they managed to arrive on two flat tires.

-Mention the contagious disease you can’t seem to kick.

-If it is their affair, ask them if the dining room chandelier always emits sparks and smoke when it is on.

-Tell the broadcaster his hair is on fire.