Beyoncé, Satire, and the Problems of Emotion

In case you haven’t heard the news yet,
congressional Republicans are calling on President Obama to resign after speculations that Beyoncé may have lip synced the national anthem at the Inauguration. Or so reports Andy Borowitz’s excellently satirical piece in the New Yorker yesterday. Give it a read; the article is hilarious. Borowitz’s wit was first brought to my attention, however, by a friend of mine who thought that the article was a serious news article (or rather violently hoped that it wasn’t), and who posted a very angry status on Facebook about Rand Paul and other Republicans, containing no less than four question marks and one elipsis (punctuation is the usual marker of strong emotion among my rather tame Facebook friends). An internet search reveals similar reactions from other people. And so, after I reassured my friend that the article was, thankfully, fiction, I thought to myself “What a shame! Andy Borowitz wrote this lovely article to make people laugh, and instead it’s making people very very angry. What went wrong?”

The problem with Andy Borowitz’s piece is a problem that’s fundamental to the genre of satire. Political satire of Borowitz’s sort creates its humor by constructing what’s essentially a reductio ad absurdum argument. The goal is to take your target’s line of thought, and carry it so far that it cannot provoke anything but ridicule. You have to create a situation that is at the same time totally impossible, but also strangely plausible. The impossible part is very important because satire usually deals with people doing or saying things that it is very very bad for people to do or say. If we know that it didn’t actually happen, it’s hilarious. If we think that it did actually happen, it’s enraging. Consider, for example, how differently we might react to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal if there had been cases in recent history of people actually selling their children for food! The problem with Borowitz’s article is that it is too believable. He takes a far right line of thought and pushes it into ridiculous territory, but the far right itself has done that repeatedly, and they weren’t writing satire. Think about the birthers. Think about our friend Mr. Akin. One can all too easily imagine a few fringe conservatives making the sort of arguments Borowitz puts in the mouth of Rand Paul.

The lesson I take away from all of this is that it is important to remember that emotions, like anger or humor, occur not in the words of a text, but in the heart of the audience. The audience becomes angry, or sad, or happy, or contemptuous, or calm, or violent, not because of what someone said, but because of how what was said fits into the context of the audience’s own past experiences. In short, know your audience.

Obama’s Alliteration

President Obama gave his second inaugural address today. I watched the speech with a couple friends of mine. After the speech one of my companions turned to me and asked me what I thought about it rhetorically. I told him that I thought it was one of the best speeches Obama has ever given, and that the speech writer’s use of alliteration was particularly clever and effective. My friend was surprised and told me that he hadn’t noticed any alliteration. This, of course, just proves the writer’s true mastery. As Aristotle says, “Authors should compose without being noticed and should seem to speak not artificially but naturally. (the latter is persuasive, the former the opposite; for people become resentful, as at someone plotting against them, just as they are at those adulterating wines.)”1 And so, I thought it might be fun to take a look at two of my favorite sentences from the speech:

(1) “Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character.” (4:18)

On paper, the alliteration here doesn’t look like much. Watch the video, however, and you’ll see that this phrase is clearly meant to stand out. For one thing it’s been placed at the end of the period (“period” in rhetoric meaning the completion of a thought, not the punctuation point, although they often coincide). For another thing the alliteration itself is just so good. In addition to the initial ‘c’ sound, the consonant clusters ‘nst’ and ‘nts’ in “constants” resonate very nicely with the ‘ct’ in “character.” I could say “constants in our character” all day without getting tired of the sound!

What is Obama doing here? In case you missed it, “constants in our character,” is a rather clever allusion to Martin Luther King, particularly this line from the “Dream Speech”: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”2 This same line was more directly referenced in the first paragraph of Obama’s speech, as a description of “the promise of our democracy”: “We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names.” MLK is all over Obama’s public speeches. In fact, if you want a fun evening at home, read MLK’s I Have a Dream, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the “Preamble” of the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence, and then watch any major Obama speech, and try to count all the references to these texts.

(2) We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth. (13:45)

Aren’t the ‘S’s lovely? In the “Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall” phrase, we see an excellent example of the classic use of alliteration to emphasize and set apart a tricolon. That the speech write managed to come up with three place names that symbolize their respective civil rights movements and all start with ‘s’ is quite remarkable. I wonder how long it took him? Also notice the rhyming of “Stonewall” and “Mall.” Not terribly significant, but I do think it helps with the rhythm of delivery. This is just a fabulous sentence. Read it aloud to yourself and feel the swell of noble sentiment.

One last word and why I think this speech is one of Obama’s best: Cato is quoted as saying “Rem tene, verba sequunter” (Grasp the idea, the words will follow). This speech displays the unmistakable signs of careful craft, hardly Cato’s ideal, but when you hear it, you can easily grasp Obama’s idea, so much so that the craft disappears entirely behind the thought. That is very difficult to do.

Here’s the full address:

1. Aristotle, On Rhetoric, trans. George A. Kennedy (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007), 3.2.2.

“We appreciate your comments” and Other Politeness

When I went to check my mail today, I found this note on the right hand door of a set of double doors:


In case you can’t see the image, it reads: “This door is currently malfunctioning. Please use the adjacent door to enter the building. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused. Frist Campus Center Staff.”

Sure enough, the right hand door did not work. As the note suggested, however, the left hand door did work, and I was able to check my mailbox (not surprisingly, there was nothing in it). Later, as I was walking home from my empty mailbox, it suddenly struck me how strange the wording of this note is, or rather how strange it should be. If you think about it, the purpose of the note could have been fulfilled by three words, written in sharpie on the back of a senior thesis draft, “USE ADJACENT DOOR.” That would have sufficed. Instead we have a printed note with 27 words and two graphics just to tell us to use the left hand door. Why?

Let’s think about some of the elements of the note

“This door is currently malfunctioning.”

It’s nice of them to tell me this. I might not have been able to figure that out by pulling on the door and seeing that it didn’t open.

“Please use the adjacent door to enter the building.”

As noted above, this is the only truly necessary part of the note. One does wonder, however, what purposes one might use a door for other than entering a building. Cracking nuts?

“We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused”

I’m glad the Frist Campus Center is sufficiently remorseful for having made me reach over three feet to open the left hand door. Door convenience was a very important consideration for me in choosing a university.

Frist Campus Center Staff

I’m so relieved this is an official pronouncement that the door is malfunctioning. I just don’t know if I could have trusted the note if it had been posted by a random student.

So what’s the difference between this note and my hypothetical sharpie-on-the-back-of-your-thesis note?  They both do the same thing. The key differences, however, are that the note from the Frist Campus Center staff is more official and more polite.

Politeness and Saving Face

Jon Hall, in his introduction to Politeness and Politics in Cicero’s Letters summarizes sociolinguistic theories of politeness this way:

The most influential answer to these questions was formulated by Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson in their groundbreaking study of politeness first published in 1978. Linguistic politeness (they claim) is generated primarily by the individual’s concern with “face.” Their emphasis on face derives largely from the work of sociologist Erving Goffman, who in his analysis of the processes of social interaction defines face as “the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself [sic] Thus, in the course of our dealings with others, we expect this face to be acknowledged and respected. If it is not, we are said to “lose face,” something that often provokes in us fellings of anger and embarrassment. We also speak of “saving” face – that is, trying to maintain our desired image of poise and competence whenever social encounters expose it to some threat.1

This seems reasonable and straightforward enough, all we need to do now is figure out how the polite wording of the note helps either Frist Campus Center or I save face.

It could be embarassing for Frist Campus Center to have a malfunctioning door, especially on the front of the building. After all Princeton University’s endowment is $17 billion, a sum larger than the GDP, according to the United Nations, of 43% of the nations on Earth.2 To have a malfunctioning door might be similar to Bill Gates driving a car with a broken window. In this context, the note accomplishes one major goal: it lets you know that Princeton University knows the door is malfunction and that they’re working on solving the problem. The Frist Campus Center logo at the top of the note and the “Frist Campus Center Staff” signature at the bottom, establish the officialness of the communication. There’s no need to go tell the nice people at the front desk that there’s a broken door; they already know. The matter of fact statement “This door is currently malfunctioning,” reassures you that the situation is under control, that Frist Campus Center is competent and in command, and that there’s no need to freak out. Finally the line, “we apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused,” lets us know that Frist Campus Center recognizes that a broken door is a problem, and that it’s still broken because of some obstacle to getting it fixed, not because Frist Campus Center is lazy or incompetent. Essentially the note says, “Don’t worry! The door is just malfunctioning. We are aware of the problem, and we are, right now, working on fixing it. In the meantime, please use the adjacent door.” I doubt if they would have posted the same note if the malfunctioning door were a staff door, rather than the front door.

But how plausible is this explanation? After all, this is just a broken door. In all likelihood, Frist Campus Center probably just told a student worker to put up a note telling people to use the other door. The student worker probably just typed up the note in 5 seconds without considering the meaning of his words. This ain’t a presidential press release. It is far more likely that the student worker chose this wording not because of a conscious desire to save face, but because this is how he felt an official notice from Frist Campus Center should be worded.

Business Style

A key principle of classical rhetoric, is that rhetorical choices must be appropriate to the situation. Aristotle, speaking about style, says “even in poetry it would be rather inappropriate if a slave used fine language or if a man were too young for his words or if the subject were too trivial.”3 In any piece of writing we have a choice of styles, and the job of the good writer is to adopt the style that is appropriate to the situation. This is especially important in business. There is a certain style which we expect business communications to use. This modern business style is elevated. It uses latinate vocabulary (e.g. “terminate employment” instead of “fire”) to make the correspondence sound educated , and it makes liberal use of formal honorifics (the only time I ever hear “Mr.” in front of my name is in airports), apologies, and other excessive politeness to create distance between the correspondents, the so called “business relationship.” At the same time, although business style is elevated, it is not florid. Good business style states the matter at hand without amplification, but uses elevated terms. A final important aspect of business style is official authority. Business communications are expected to bear logos, seals, and other signs that show that the communication is legitimate.

Businesses that violate any part of this style face rather severe consequences. I was a student in the first year of operation of the Paideia Institute’s summer spoken Latin course in Rome. At the time, since the Institute was new, it was using a blogging platform to host its webpage. One of my fellow students told me that he had been hesitant to apply for the course because the website was not official-looking, and he wasn’t sure if it was a legitimate program (It is a legitimate program, and they have a beautiful new website. I encourage everyone interested in Latin or Greek to check it out). The Paideia Institute had violated business style.

A more extreme example is Virgin Mobile. Virgin Mobile wanted to make its business seem more young, fun, and less corporationy. To effect this change, they chose to adopt a friendly tone in communications. One of my family members once had a problem with her Virgin Mobile phone and sent the company an email. The company representative responded to inform my relative that nothing could be done, but she chose to word it this way: “Hey maybe you should invent a phone with adjustable vibrating mode. You could become millionaires.” The representative also chose to address the email using the salutation “hi there” and my relative’s first name. The tone of the communications with Virgin Mobile is one of the main reasons no one in my family does business with Virgin Mobile anymore. To put it frankly, they were insulting. But why were they insulting? If a high school friend of mine had written that same email, I would not have been insulted. Virgin Mobile, however, is not a friend; it is a corporation. Its attempts to become a friend by doing away with honorifics, excessive apologies, and elevated diction did not work. Virgin Mobile learned (or, more precisely, should have learned) that rhetoric cannot change the circumstances of any case, it can only tell you the available means of persuasion given those circumstances. That is, Virgin Mobile should have realized that it is a fact that it is a corporation, and that it is a fact that its relationship with its customers is a business relationship, and then adopted the style required by those circumstances.

In the case of the note on the malfunctioning door, I think we can say that whoever wrote the note perfectly matched his style to the circumstances. Frist Campus Center is a business, and the note adopts a business style. The logo and signature convey officialness. The diction is latinate, using, for example, “malfunctioning” instead of the germanic equivalent “broken.” It states the matter without amplification (“This door is currently malfunctioning” rather than “This door is broken like the heart of a young man in love unrequited”). And, of course, it employs excessive politeness. The sociolinguistic theories of politeness may explain why these forms of politeness came to be an expected component of business style, but in the case of our note I think we can safely say that the author used them not to actually be polite, but to adhere to the style demanded by the situation.

Hopefully next time I go to Frist Campus Center, the note will be gone, the door will be working, and there will actually be mail in my mailbox.

1. Jon Hall, Politeness and Politics in Cicero’s Letters (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009), 5.
2. Wikipedia: Princeton University; Wikipedia: List of Countries by GDP.
3. Aristotle, On Rhetoric, trans. George A. Kennedy (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007), 3.2.2.