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Beware the Enthymeme!

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It's bad enough to debate complex issues in slogans, but even worse when the slogans so cheerfully lie.

In Florida, as in many states, there are a variety of license plate designs for car owners to choose from. I always think that these, like bumper stickers, are a strange way to express oneself, though I’ve been known to slap a bumper sticker on my car now and then. Last presidential election cycle, I had two Obama stickers stolen off my car, and I have a long-term one that says, “Please don’t breed or buy while shelter pets die. Opt to adopt.” Other than one time when a friend at first thought it protested the breeding of humans and was an insult to his parenthood, that one has been uncontroversial. At least as far as I know. And I guess that’s the joy of broadcasting one’s opinions this way. Unless you meet up with a crazy person who will bash into your vehicle, you are safe from argument.

One of the popular license plates around here is a yellow one with red crayon-like boy and girl figures that imply they were drawn by a child and that says “Choose Life.”

It might be an okay message if it really meant what it says. Of course, most of those who sport this license plate don’t actually mean that. What they mean is that they would rather force every pregnant woman to bring any pregnancy to term. What they mean is not “choose life,” but “choose to support laws and organizations that offer no choice to women.” And, as this Slate article reports, “the legislation in most states [that have these plates] expressly provides that any program offering referrals or even discussing the option of abortion is barred from funding.” In other words, these plates support lack of choice, not a choice.

There is an odd way in which the language gets twisted like this. Of course, progressives and liberals do it too, but what I notice lately is the way that Republicans and right-wingers do this all the freaking time. No doubt, we are gearing up for a maelstrom of misused language in this coming election season.

What I also notice is that progressives have a hard time correcting these misuses of language. I guess they don’t want to be accused of nit-picking about semantics or something like that. But the use of language is one of the most important things we can pay attention to. This is one of the things that rhetorical analysis is good for, and it pains me that so many can get through high school and freshman comp and even four or more years of college and still not be able to understand the manipulations of language to which they are subject on a daily basis.

I will never forget one of my early teaching experiences, when I was laboring as a freshman-composition TA at Penn State during the fall of 1991. At the same time, playing out in the media, were the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Anita Hill, who had worked as his assistant some years earlier, arrived on the scene with her testimony about Thomas sexually harassing her.

Hill’s testimony lasted only a few hours, but the discussion of it went on for weeks and months, even years. The issue even resurfaced in 2010, when Clarence Thomas’s wife called Anita Hill and suggested she should apologize.

In spite of the fact that Hill subjected herself to a polygraph test that indicated her testimony was honest, whereas Thomas refused a polygraph, and in spite of another woman’s affidavit that she had received similar treatment, Hill’s testimony was vehemently called into question. And one of the prime reasons people gave for their disbelief was that Hill had continued to work for Thomas rather than quitting her job, had in fact even worked for him at a second position after the time during which she said he harassed her. This line of discussion had been begun during her Senate testimony when Republican senators Arlen Specter and Orrin Hatch strove quite clearly to discredit her. (The entire hearings are available via C-Span. About half-way through Day 1, Part 3, Specter grills her about why she continued to work for Thomas).

This discussion nagged at me and nagged at me. Finally one day when I was set to teach the enthymeme, I realized why. Dully, I had been writing a traditional enthymeme lesson (that had been provided to us new TAs) on the chalkboard:

Johnathan lives in Japan.
Johnathan speaks Japanese.

And then out to the side the missing link: People who live in Japan speak Japanese.

In a fit of inspiration, I erased it and wrote instead:

Anita Hill claims she was sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas.
She’s probably lying.

“How many of you agree with this?” I asked. More than half the class raised their hands, most of the men and a few of the women.

For the next half hour, we explored the possible unstated assumptions behind the conclusion. The students eventually had to admit that the basic assumption they were making was that women should always put their “purity” above their careers. Certainly, that was the assumption that the all-male panel of senators who had grilled Hill clearly made. If this were not true, there might be a host of other priorities that Hill would put before quitting her job to escape Thomas’s advances and inappropriate comments.

Once we teased these assumptions out into the open, there were very few students (maybe only one) in the class who agreed with the statement that women should always put their “purity” over their career advancement. Most of them found themselves confronted with an assumption they didn’t agree with but that they had allowed to underpin their opinions on a matter of national importance.

A few of the young women in class began to make the connection to their own experience. “Oh, yeah,” one said, “I have a manager who is so offensive—he always stares at us waitresses too much and puts his hands on us whenever he can—but I haven’t quit my job! We all just ignore him. And it’s a nothing job.” Every female in the class could cite at least one instance of sexual harassment that she had let slide. We agreed that none of us would quit a job over it unless there was actual threat of rape or a high level of severity and directness in the harassment, but that this did not erase the fact of the harassment. It was a daily part of our collective lives.

By the end of class, because they could understand why Anita Hill might have stayed in her job in spite of harassment, they no longer deemed her a liar. I will never forget their mouths hanging open in disbelief at what they had been duped into repeating from the media to friends and family members. They rushed off after class to correct themselves. Thomas, of course, had already been approved as a Supreme Court justice.

I wonder about this kind of thing in the media. It seems to me that both the “neutral” media and the progressive factions do too little to correct this kind of blatantly stupid and unsupported claim. They do too little to monitor the use of language in blatantly deceptive ways. Some, including, of course, FOX News, are notorious for participating in this kind of ridiculous bias themselves (several examples here and one here that’s particularly about twisting of language). Lately, even our senators and representatives have felt free to make utterly false and ridiculous claims, and later to say they didn’t mean them as factual or to insist on defending their mischaracterizations. Only in these most blatant of examples are they called out on it.

For instance, in response to an email I sent to Florida Governor Rick Scott’s ridiculous decision to sign off on establishment of a new (unneeded) state university in Florida, I received a reply containing this statement: “Governor Scott’s top priority this legislative session was adding $1.06 billion in new funding for K-12 education.” First, nothing in Scott’s email responded to the subject I had addressed. And second, this is bull. Scott has been ballyhooing his great increase in state funding for K-12 education this year, after he cut $1.3 billion last year. A few reporters note toward the end of their articles that Scott’s budget doesn’t even replace what he has previously cut, but the headlines mostly remain that he is raising the budget. (Notice that this blogger put a more accurate headline on the same article published with an innocuous-sounding headline in the Palm Coast Observer. But, hey, at least the reporter mentions the facts.)

I believe that these twisted uses of language are one of the reasons why our society has become so divided and discussions so disharmonious. I think that we need to do all we can every time we hear these false uses of language to stop them in their tracks, even if it means making conversation halting. The fact is that it’s one thing to disagree about the substance of things and another for someone to lie in order to exaggerate our disagreements.

There are many examples, but I have gone on long enough. Today’s exhortation, again in support of so many friends who are ending long semesters of teaching freshman comp (and other courses that attempt to teach critical thinking), is: REMEMBER THE ENTHYMEME! Talk about the enthymeme. Pick apart the enthymeme.

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