Tag Archives: rhetorical coverings

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Qualifiers are sometimes just qualifiers, but they become ‘markers’ if their effect is to covertly invite others to share prejudicial attitudes.

In verbal analysis, “markers” are unnecessary terms added to a description, frequently pointing to a bias within the writer or speaker. They masquerade as innocent modifiers, but can also have the effect of passing off a taboo attitude that cannot be plainly announced.  A journalist that repeatedly refers to a criminal proceeding as involving “the black suspect” may giving away a predisposition that reveals embedded racism. The same might be said of rhetoric that describes “those Jewish bankers,” “the Sikh Attorney General,” “the lady surgeon,” or the “gay shop-owner.”  Why not just “shop owner” or “surgeon?”  To be sure, there are times when a qualifier may be useful.  But irrelevant adjectives and nouns covertly raise an eyebrow of doubt. I had a relative who added markers only when she wanted to remind us of her displeasure with some ‘out’ group in 50s white America:  perhaps “the Catholic family” down the street, or “the Jew who runs the butcher shop.”  The added descriptors were not completely innocent.  Signals had been sent and received, though not always in intended ways. Markers made her anti-semitism obvious.

President Donald Trump lays down markers like a gambler on a binge.

This is the same process when people complain of politicians using “dog whistles,” which are essentially terms that signal support for a discredited bias, but with a certain deniability. “I didn’t mean anything by the reference” is usually the disingenuous defense.

President Donald Trump lays down markers like a gambler on a binge, though not all are about race.  We hear about “the failing New York Times,” the “Amazon Washington Post,” “Crooked Hillary,” or “the Mexican judge” (Gonzalo P. Curiel, an American judge who ruled against Trump University in 2016).  Negative judgmental language is a signature of his public rhetoric, serving as bait for core followers lost in the weeds of resentment and fantasized slights.

Can it be any surprise that hate crimes are on the rise in the United States? The frequent observation that Trump has triggered a wave racial animosity in his rhetoric can be partly attributed to this habit.  Not only is it dishonest to use a marker as a backdoor for communicating prejudice, it’s also signals a certain linguistic cowardice.  Owning a stale attitude about any category of individuals is bad enough.  Hiding it under the thin rhetorical veneer of a supposedly innocent qualifier is the mischief of a practiced demagogue.

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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.