Trust, Standing, and Communication
The week’s “Almost All-Rush-Limbaugh” posts got me to thinking about language and the use thereof, and this of course always makes me think of Mr. Carlin (requiescat in pace). Needless to say, this post will refer to some colorful language, reader beware.
George Carlin did a number of bits on language. Everything from “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” to the “Incomplete List of Impolite Words” to “Soft Language”. The Incomplete List still cracks me up when I hear it, now. George was pretty relentless on offensiveness and political correctness and communication. Some of his very common themes are:
- Americans are terrified of simple language
- Americans are hugely puritanical about language
- Americans aren’t keen on using blunt language in their discourse
- People get fucking offended way too easily
- Violence is deeply embedded in our discourse
All of this is true. We are, as a social organism, very prone to reading offense into language, and in the last decade(s), we’ve gone quite a long ways towards changing the common patois to reflect a distaste of language’s common connotations. We modulate our language; as each successive generation finds offense in what was the vernacular before, it is discarded and replaced by the new, and then again. Sometimes this is because the language is more expressive, but more often it is because the language is less expressive. It removes explicit connotations for implicit ones.
There is something weird about this. Granted. George is right about these things. Americans are freaking weird.
Fundamentally, language reflects group thought; calling people of African ancestry the “n-word” was reflective of the times 100 years ago… polite people called black people “colored”, and impolite people called them other things. Then colored people decided that “black” was beautiful, and then “African-American”. When it comes to generating your group label, I think this is something that the group has standing to do on their own. If black people want to be called “colored” or “African-American” or “The Beloved” or “Ham Sandwich” they absolutely have the right, as a group, to grant standing to those who use their self-applied label, and refuse standing to those that don’t. If Latinos want to be called Hispanic, or not Hispanic but Chicano, or neither but Mexican- (or Nicaraguan- or Central-American-) Americans, good on them. Generating group identity is what keeps the world from falling apart.
Because George is wrong about this – it means something to be a fucking asshole (not that this should be censored, mind you).
Language, how you use it and what elements of it you choose to use when you are speaking to other people, or about other people, reflects one of two things: your thoughts about your topic, or your inability (or unwillingness) to suss out what language works with your audiences…. and to your audience, this is reflective of how much trust they will grant unto you.
Without trust, your ability to communicate with people is generally in the fucking toilet.
There are two types of trust establishment, in language. The first is constructive. You! You are like me! You like this thing I like! This thing I like is awesome, and you like it too! We should talk about these awesome things, and find other things that are awesome and share them with each other! When your communication is primarily positive, the bonds that develop out of that trust are positive, and inclusive. You seek to tell others about awesomeness. When someone who has already established trust with you by building lots of positive threads, they can say something that you might otherwise consider offensive, coming from someone who doesn’t have that context. Because, hey, that guy likes the shows I like, and is into playing the sorts of games I like to play, and his wife and my wife share recipes, and okay maybe he has odd ideas about economic policy, but he can’t be all that bad.
The second type of trust establishment is negative. Those guys! Those guys suck! The things that they like are shitty! We should talk about how stupid they are to like shitty things! Let’s find more things about them that are horrible, and talk about those things! Your bonds are no longer positive, they are negative. You are bound not by being like someone else, you are bound by being unlike terrible people. Well, terrible people… they might be getting legitimately screwed by something, but we don’t have to care about that, right? They’re terrible people.
Generally speaking, I think that the second leads to a very sick dynamic. But hey, that’s just me.
Now, here’s some things that I want to be totally clear on, before going any farther.
Bill Maher is an asshole (edited to add, thank you, Dr. Russell). Ed Schultz is a blowhard. Keith Olbermann is not an additive to American political discourse. Rush Limbaugh is a seriously offensive human being. Hannity is a self-righteous prick. If anyone wants to start a Kickstarter program to pay these people to never speak in front of a microphone, again, I’ll contribute my share.
It’s sad that these are the public faces of our political punditry, representative or not.
I disavow Maher’s ridiculous beliefs about vaccinations. I think referring to a candidate for public office using particular words offensive to an entire gender is beyond beyond the pale. What Ed said about Laura Ingraham reveals that Ed has a really hard time staying on the righteous side of “ranting crazy”. Olbermann actually detracted from his legitimate criticisms of the Bush Administration with his rhetoric.
Here’s the thing about Rush, that conservatives don’t seem to be getting. For me, at least, his latest (extended, multiple-day diatribe) is not really all that different from anything he’s done before. To borrow a phrase from Blaise, he’s a shrieking monkey, flinging poo to express his anger. I don’t normally go to the monkey cage he’s in, so this bothers me not an awful lot.
However, this last week is indicative of something, to me.
Here’s the demographic breakdown for voters in 2008. 225 million people of voting age. 131 million people voted. Of that 131 million somewhere around a third are reliably swing voters, independents, or not strictly affiliated with either party. The other two thirds are split basically in half between the GOP and the Democrats.
So somewhere in the ballpark of 44 million people are reliable GOP voters, and 44 million are Dems. This obviously lacks nuance, but it’s close enough for the point. Rush’s weekly show has somewhere between 15 and 30 million listeners. Bill Maher has a weekly audience of 1 million.
There are plenty of people on the conservative side who have said that what Rush said was unacceptable. There are plenty of people on the Left who have said that what Bill Maher said (or what Ed Schultz said) was unacceptable. Neither side has lily white hands here.
Again (granted) we don’t know the exact makeup of Rush’s listeners, as a group. We don’t know the exact makeup of Maher’s, either. But there’s somewhere between 15 and 30 times as many people listening to Rush as watching Maher. Remember, conservatives, how you joked about Air America failing? I can state with reasonable certainty that it didn’t fail because 15 to 30 million people were listening to it.
Sure, maybe the Left does have a double standard for how outraged they get. Maybe the Right has a double standard for how outraged they get. Pulling from higher up in the post, established trust will do that, so that’s not exactly surprising on either side.
Let’s stick with the middle estimate and say that 22 million people listen to Rush. I’m not going to put a scientific assessment on how many of them are registered Democrats vs. Republicans, but I’m okay with guessing that it’s on the upside of more than half of them are Republicans who generally agree with what the guy says, who find what he says to be compelling. Somewhat significantly less than half are the people who listen to him to get angry. That doesn’t say anything necessarily about the ideas behind the voice. This says nothing about public policy. But it does say something to me about the group dynamic.
As Jaybird says, I suspect the GOP is going to need to spend more time in the wilderness.