Saturday, February 15, 2014

Communication and Mysticism

To what degree is an act of communication also an act of mysticism?

And what do I mean by asking that question?

At the very least, when we communicate we have to, to some degree, get outside of ourselves. When we listen, we think the thoughts of another person, and the degree to which we understand that other person depends on the degree to which we feel what they feel and see what they see. Communication is about cooperation and acting in common. It is about finding common ground. Otherwise the speaker will not transmit a message, nor will the hearer receive what the speaker is trying to give.

Communication is verbal and also non-verbal, so we can define communication as symbolic action. Rhetorician Kenneth Burke writes that a "symbolic act is the dancing of an attitude" (Philosophy of Literary Form 9, Burke's emphasis), and "The dance," he continues, "was originally religious" (qtd. in Hawhee Moving Bodies: Kenneth Burke at the Edges of Language 43). Dancing is conscious and deliberate. It is intending to do what is being done, and it is done in and with the body.

This helps us understand the following post, where Burke writes about his dog as a dancer . . .

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Dancing Dog

"My dog," Kenneth Burke writes, "is a dancer . . . in the surprising way he conjugates, let us say, the verb 'to eat.' For the present tense he uses, quite literally, the act of eating. But for the future tense, to say 'I will eat,' he sniffs at his plate, glances ill-naturedly at the cat, and salivates. And to express the perfect tense of this astoundingly irregular virb, to say 'I have eaten,' he picks himself a cool spot under the porch, curls up, and goes to sleep" ("The Dance: The 'Problems' of the Ballet." Nation 140 (March 1935): 343-44.)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Fire and Ice, by Robert Frost

This poem first published in 1920 seems relevant to contemporary problems. .

Bob Frost Via Wikipedia
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
(The Poetry of Robert Frost, ed. Edward Connery Lathem. Holt, Rinehart and Winston: New York. 1979. Print. 220.)

I feel like anything I say now will only dilute what Frost just wrote because the more I say the less his poem becomes the emphasis of this post.

But let me at least say that, whatever we believe, we have to admit that mortals do not live forever. We die. And I can't help but notice the crazy weather we've had recently. Lots of fires and lots of ice. In fact, for some breathtaking photography, check this page out. It shows firefighters putting out a warehouse fire a couple of weeks ago, and when they douse the building with water, the water freezes.

I wonder if we can take Frost's poem, flip it upside-down, and say that the environment is a reflection of our own nature. To what degree do environments reveal to us who we really are?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Making the Safer Choice?: The Rhetoric of the Marijuana Super Bowl Ads

I started this post a few days ago, and I'm just now posting it. It's a tiny bit late, since the Super Bowl is over, but I can't just not post it now that it's finished.

Of course, normally I don't pay a lot of attention to sports. And though I'm from Seattle, this post isn't even about football or the Super Bowl. This post is analyzes the rhetoric of the advertisements surrounding the legalization of the recreational use of marijuana. In other words, I will reveal how these advertisements try to persuade an audience to their point of view.

Let's take a look.

Here's one of the advertisements:

Via Marijuana Policy Project
This billboard is actually kind of funny, when we think about it. It tells the audience that the first image is "Beer" and the second image stands for "Football," but it doesn't tell us that the third image is a cannabis leaf--we're already supposed to know that. Instead of the text "Marijuana" or "Cannabis" above the third picture (which would make the billboard pointless, but perhaps even more funny), we have the word "Safer." So the billboard is obviously making the argument that marijuana is safer than beer or football--or is it beer and football? The word and would link Beer and Football together, but the word or would assume that marijuana is safer than both of them separately. I'm not sure which it is, but perhaps the sign is purposely vague because it's in the advertisers' best interest to make it vague. After all, vagueness is persuasive to mass audiences, and when we're driving down the road and see something like this, we don't have time to think about what's going on behind the scenes.

But something even stranger is going on here than just a subtle vagueness: the advertisers are using a football helmet to symbolize Football. But a helmet? Why didn't they just use a football? Wouldn't a football be a better symbol for Football since the ball is the same word for the sport? But the advertisers are strategically not choosing a football, and I assume it's perhaps because they can't put a hole in a football and have it mean very much to a mass audience: I mean, look at that football helmet--it looks like somebody has taken a drill to it or something.

Unless, of course, what I am calling a hole is really a team logo that merely looks like a hole. Maybe it's a little lightning bolt? I don't know. I don't know what else it is, but if it really is a logo, then the rest of this argument--until the next section heading--is invalid.

But why is that hole even there? I mean, We've all seen people lose their helmets once in a while during a hard hit, but a hole that size? As far as I know, football helmets almost never even crack, and if they do it's only around the edges of the ear-guards. They're designed to not dent, let alone even crack. If they did, then so much for the head inside.

So, no--there's more going on here than just a casual helmet sitting between a mug of beer and a cannabis leaf. That helmet is, I think, strategic. I think the advertisers put the hole in the football helmet to make football appear to be more dangerous than it really is. Then the advertisers place a perfectly symmetrical cannabis leaf right next to the holey football helmet. The advertisers' argument, then, goes like this:

Look at that helmet with a hole in it and then look at this leaf. We've made it easy for you: they're right next to each other. And notice that there's something wrong with that helmet, but nothing wrong with this leaf. So, compared with football, there's nothing wrong with marijuana. So marijuana is safer.

But it doesn't seem to me to be very persuasive. If marijuana is safer than football, then why the need for the hole in the helmet in the first place? Why the need to make football seem like it's worse than it actually is if marijuana really is safer?

The advertisers are trying to downplay the harmfulness of marijuana by comparing it to football, which football is symobolized by a helmet (not a ball) with a hole in it. Or, put another way, the advertisers are trying to increase the safety appeal of marijuana by comparing it to a football helmet that doesn't exist--a helmet with an impossibly large hole in it that was put there strategically, a hole that, in reality, could not look as it does in the picture.

Football doesn't put holes in players' helmets. The advertisers are lying to us. They have showed us a picture of something that is not true. So to what degree can we then trust them with other information?

Safer and Less Harmful
Let's move on to another set of advertisements, but some of what we say below will still apply to the advertisement above.

This whole time we've been talking about or at least referencing the word safer, but we need a definition. What does it mean for something to be safer? Well, we could start by using these advertisements' own definition that defines the word in terms of its antithesis. We say that thing A is safer than thing B when thing A is less harmful than thing B. To be safe is to be less harmful. That is the implication of the below advertisements.

Via Marijuana Policy Project
And this one:

Via Marijuana Policy Project
These two are similar. I don't know much about the issue, but apparently some of the players have been punished for smoking marijuana, and they're not happy about it. The punishment went public, as it usually does in an age where people are trying to get one another's attention, and somebody wants to make sure that everybody knows about it. My question here is, how does the use of the words safer and less harmful affect the audience who reads these advertisements? Let's see if we can figure it out.

The words safer and less harmful imply a hierarchy of what is good. What's good is up, and what's bad is down. To be safe or safer is better than to be harmful, so when we have to make a choice between two things and one is safe and one harmful, we will naturally make the safer choice because we understand that it is better for us (if we are in our right mind, of course--for in our right mind we have a natural desire to keep ourselves alive [I guess could open my window right now and jump out of the 5th floor window but I won't--I'll make the safer choice to stay alive {when it's put like that, it sounds pretty ludicrous.}]). At any rate, safe is good. Harmful is bad.

Thus, when we say that something is safer we automatically put the subject in a more positive light. It sounds good because the word safe is a good word, and it makes us feel good to be safe. Not only that, but underlining the word safer will make us feel even better about ourselves because underlining a thing emphasizes it.

Finally, if harmful is bad, then less harmful is good. So less harmful will make us feel good (though maybe not as good) as the word safer.

So, by stating that "Marijuana is less harmful to our bodies than alcohol," the advertisements already assume that alcohol is "harmful to our bodies," but the advertisements don't project alcohol as as harmful and marijuana as not harmful. Instead, marijuana is less harmful. (They don't say that marijuana is not harmful.) And saying that marijuana is less harmful than something else makes it sound a lot, well--less harmful. And if a thing is less harmful than something else, then it's a lot better than what it could have been. By saying that marijuana is less harmful than something else--as well as safer than something else--the advertisers persuade marijuana users to feel good about using marijuana.

Then there's the word the. By making the safer choice, the person that chooses implies that he or she is doing one thing instead of the others, and by doing this thing instead of those things which are not safer, a person will also make himself or herself feel good.

The advertisements claim that "we" (i.e. the players, but also, perhaps, anyone else who uses marijuana for pleasure and has been "punish[ed]") are "making the safer choice" because it makes us feel good to define the things that we do in positive terms. What we're doing makes us feel good, for a moment, at least, and it makes us feel doubly good to feel good about feeling good, so of course we're going to craft the issue in terms that make us feel good. That's a lot of good feelings.

There's something we can say about the word punish, too. The word punish is obviously a bad word. I mean, we don't like getting punished--punishment hurts! Usually that pain is more psychological than physical, and psychological pain can be more painful than physical pain. With this information about the word punish, we could translate the last sentence of the advertisement so that it reads like this: "Why does the league punish us (or do something bad to us) for making the safer (the better, the more good) choice?" And then, by implication, the audience is led to reply, "That's an injustice!"

In other words, "Making the safer choice" makes us sound good to ourselves. We're "making" this choice, which means we're doing it--we're the ones in charge, here, and our actions are deliberate. We're not doing things on accident. We recognize that those other things exist, but we choose to do this one. We're choosing this one instead of the other, and what we're doing now is not as bad as what we could be doing, so you should be happy with us. In fact, you should be proud of us. Proud of us for making the safer choice.

So apparently some of the players have been punished for smoking marijuana, and they're not happy about it. They're not happy and they want to make sure that we know about it. But at the same time, they want to feel good about their actions, but they also want us to feel good about them. It's perhaps no surprise that these advertisements come at a time when the two teams that played in the Super Bowl both come from states that have recently legalized the recreational use of marijuana.

Let's end this thing.

I am not here arguing that marijuana is not safer than alcohol or football. But I am questioning the motives of the people behind the claim that marijuana is safer than alcohol or football. And I am saying that by defining recreational marijuana use in terms of its being safer than more harmful things is a rhetorical strategy that tries to get audience members to feel good about the recreational use of marijuana.

What I want to know is why? Why do we try to make ourselves feel good? Not only that, but why do we try to feel good when we do harmful or less harmful things? Where does this drive to feel good come from, and is there a way to find it that is not manipulative, either of ourselves or of other people?

(The above advertisements, by the way, inspired this story that I posted earlier.)

Saturday, February 1, 2014

A Short Story Illustrating Something Ironic that Will Be Discussed More in a Later Post

Normally it takes more than 15 minutes to get there. You have only 10 minutes before it starts, though, and you're just now pulling out of the driveway. You hit the gas. It's early, so hopefully no one will be on the roads.

I didn't make this picture--and it's only vaguely
relevant--but it is pretty awesome.
You're making good time, and the speedometer proves it. Things are going well--until you see the red and blue flashing lights in the rear-view mirror. You cringed, and your eyes dart down at the speedometer. Then your heart sinks. You hit the breaks and exhale, then you pull over, turn your car off, and roll down your window. You lean your head on your thumb and forefinger and stare blankly at the wheel. The cop's feet crunch against the gravel as he approaches.

You give him your license and registration when he asks for it, then hear the gravel crunching again as he walks back to his car. You look at the clock. Six minutes. Maybe he'll just make it quick so you can get out of here. You hear the crunching.

"I noticed you were going 30 over," he says in a serious, matter-of-fact tone. You take a deep breath and say nothing.

"Well," he breaks the silence, "I'd like to congratulate you." A frown. Congratulate? Is he being sarcastic? "I'd like to congratulate you because you could have been going 50 over, but you were only going 30 over. Not only that, but when I turned my lights on, you slowed down, turned your blinker on, and pulled over, when you could have hit the gas and started a high-speed chase."

Wonder. Straighter posture, just a bit. What was he saying?

"You're wearing your seat belt, and--oh," he hands you back your license and registration, "your car is registered. You're also driving with a valid licence."

Now you turn your head and make eye contact, trying to put no expression on your face.

"And one more thing. I noticed that you were driving in your own lane the entire time." You blink. He smiles--genuinely--and says, "So congratulations, sir. Driving in your own lane, wearing your seat belt, driving a registered car, having a valid driver's licence, and only going 30 over instead of 50 over? Well, I'm going to let you go."

"Really?" He could still playing some sarcastic game.

"Of course. You made the safer choice." He walks away. You reach up with your right hand and turn the key.

Book Review: The Rhetoric of American Civil Religion

I've recently received word from Taylor & Frances Online that a book review I wrote was published in the Journal of Religious and Th...