Tag Archives: synecdoches

The Worst

A daily sampling of the worst that humans can do is not good for us. 

If I told you there is a media outlet anxious to report the very worst examples of inhuman conduct, you’d probably be thankful to stay clear of that source.  Who needs a daily reminder of the most vile acts persons can perpetrate on each other?  There are surely better ways to sustain our sanity and hope.

But of course what I’m describing is a simple operating assumption for legitimate and mostly well-intended news organizations.  News is the unusual: events that are not only out of the ordinary, but sometimes sadly brutal or cruel. We readily know the kinds of emotional and physical violence that violate the most elemental norms of human decency.  It’s also obvious that only the weakest society would turn its back on entrenched problems that it must resolve.  But there are limits to what we can process on a daily basis.

I was reminded of all of this on the first day of June when National Public Radio and many other outlets reported on a hangman’s noose left by a visitor in an exhibition space at the Museum of African American History in Washington. It was an ugly act perpetrated by an anonymous thug and, as on any given day, it was the kind of dark non-sequitur that made our hearts sink a little lower.  Racist instances like these are frequent enough to remind us of America’s original sin of racial intolerance.  It rarely recedes from the nation’s collective consciousness.  There can be no doubt that we need reminders that we still have a long way to go.

But here’s the thing. Something odd happens with humans when given a single horrific example of almost anything.  Something inside wants us to search for its place in a larger and perhaps growing trend.  We have a natural compulsion to generalize upward, turning any event into what rhetoricians call a synecdoche, where a single case stands for all cases. By definition a synecdoche is a representative case.

The defense is simple enough; we sometimes need to take a vacation from the journalism of atrocities.

Few thoughtful Americans could believe that racism across the culture has mostly subsided.   On the other hand, we can give too much publicity to a sick act by an individual who must cover their deviance with anonymity.  With these kinds of daily reports of aberrant single-agent behaviors we have to decide how big of a marker we will allow them to be.

To be sure, synecdoches often help us make sense of the world.  Bull Connor’s dogs used against civil right marchers in Birmingham are a perfect condensation of what the movement was up against in 1963.  And another contemporary case of a police shooting of an unarmed African American man is another.  Each instance stands as reminder of a serious and embedded problem.  But different cases can also be false markers.  If a one-off hostile act is allowed to stand as a representative case it can have the effect of making us all the victims rather than beneficiaries of synecdoches, extinguishing our interest in valid and significant trends.

And so in the interest of our mental health we should heed a common reminder about accepting a daily dose of news featuring the latest and the worst.  One defense is simple enough; we sometimes need to take a vacation from the journalism of atrocities.

News Inversions: Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing

crime sceneThe more media coverage a crime story gets, the less likely that its crime category represents a serious threat to other citizens. 

A few years ago political communication scholar Doris Graber published a study of crime news in the city of Chicago. At the time her focus was on the reporting of the Chicago Tribune (Mass Media and American Politics, 1993).  But almost any major news outlet in any region would have probably yielded the same eye-opening results. She found what most of us sense but too easily forget:  The more media coverage a crime story gets, the less likely it is a crime category that represents a serious threat to other citizens. There is an inverse correlation between space and time given to a crime story and the frequency of that kind of crime in a city.  In her study the most reported category was murder, which in 1991 was 0.3 percent (925) of all the crimes documented in the city’s Uniform Crime Report.  But in the Tribune murders got 64% of the coverage. That added up to a lot of column inches. The same was true for assaults.  By comparison, more common crimes like theft got comparatively little coverage.

I doubt the passage of time and the presence of online media have changed this equation. By definition, news is the unusual. Think of CNN’s current preoccupation with global terrorism.  It is both a serious problem and seriously over-covered, at least in relation of other pressing world concerns. According to the Global Research Center we are about four times more likely to be struck by lightning than a terrorist attack.

There can be exceptions to this pattern, but it’s common because it is so easy to convert a single example into a rule. Our brains are hardwired to want to generalize to the whole from a few specific cases.  Rhetorically, this is the function of a synecdoche, a fancy word for the straightforward idea that we like to use a single case to stand for the whole. It’s one of the most efficient rhetorical tropes a news organization can employ. Using it one might conclude that the 1999 actions of mass murderers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine High School in Colorado point to what is ostensibly “wrong” with kids raised these days in the United States.  But perhaps there is no emerging pattern at all.

The truth is that seriously deviant actors engage in acts of unknowable causality, following tenuous strings of suppositions usually known only to them.

As with Columbine, there are always an abundance of experts ready to take the bait of television notoriety to speculate on what an event like this “means” to the nation. Most commentators cannot resist the synecdoche. It makes the world simpler. It makes for good television. And it saves the expert from the potentially embarrassing but intellectually honest assessment that a given case, even a mass murder, is perhaps significant of nothing. The truth is that seriously deviant individuals engage in acts of unknowable causality, following tenuous strings of suppositions known only to them. But to actually say that is to leave the third act of a traumatic episode unwritten.  And so we write social significance scripts based on mostly unrepresentative cases.

This explains the perpetual panic mode of the 24/7 “Breaking News” cycle. Everything covered is urgent. Everything represents an early warning of a bigger and ominous trend.

How do we counteract this compulsion to find meaning and and at the same time maintain our own sense of equilibrium?

Step back. Tune out. The world is not ending. The awful events documented and reported on a given day frequently make sense only as single aberrations.

More specifically, limit you time and your children spend in the presence of television news reporting. This is especially important for the nation’s population of seniors, who typically gorge themselves on video news.  We have solid evidence that, like most of us, older Americans generally over-estimate how dangerous their community and the world really is.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu