Some of you may have wondered why I seem to have been compelled to dig myself into a hole in class discussions all week. In part, I will explain here, it is because of how the issue of rhetorical listening was framed for me by my professionalization projects. It will take a little time to set up, so please bear with me.

I presented two of my projects just last Friday (the teaching activity and the annotated bibliography), but it’s the third one, a conference submission, that is relevant here. I finally got around to writing an abstract for a study I did several years ago during a discourse analysis class.  I looked at the way CNN and al-Jazeera covered a single story, the 2003 kidnapping of a Lockheed-Martin engineer in Saudi Arabia by a group calling themselves al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula. This group demanded that the Saudi government release al Qaeda prisoners, or they would execute their hostage. I examined the referring expressions used to describe the two main actors in the story – the engineer (an American named Paul Johnson) and the group that had abducted him.

Similar to Danielle’s class project, I focused on lexical items, and found that although CNN and al-Jazeera did not disagree on any of the facts of the case, the lexical items they used told widely different narratives that likely reflected their political stance. In CNN’s version, Johnson was a victim of a criminal kidnapping by known terrorists. But in the al-Jazeera coverage, Johnson was portrayed as a military target who had been captured by Saudi dissidents. Where CNN’s lexical choices suggested a paradigm of criminal hostage-taking, al-Jazeera’s suggested a paradigm of legitimate political dissent, and the seizure of a military adversary. These widely differing editorial stances were revealed by the connotations of their lexical choices; or alternatively, if you will, by rhetorically listening to the texts and deciphering the connotations of their chosen vocabulary.

But listening carefully can be tricky, and if we strain to listen too hard, sometimes we hear only what we expected to hear. In the process we “confirm” truths that we already believed before we even began to listen. My methodology in the study – examining specific lexical choices as a way of determining editorial stance/ political ideology – had many years earlier gained widespread acceptance among practitioners of Critical Discourse Analysis, which aims in part to uncover exploitative attitudes toward race and gender,  by analyzing written and spoken language. While I can identify with these aims, in practice I often find the claims of critical discourse analysts to be very unconvincing, as the implications they allege to be present in a text are based solely on their own intuitive sense of what particular words or phrases mean.

In an egregious example that I cited in my paper, one researcher analyzed coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that included this sentence: “The violence surged as Palestinians marked the 13th anniversary of the first uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” From this, he claimed that “the verb surged, borrowed from the domain of electricity, is used to give the impression that the Palestinians are so full of hatred that they create acts of violence as fast as an electric current”. This is, in my opinion, absurd. And I would argue that impressions such as this come only from the researcher’s own pre-conceptions, not from the text itself. So in my own study, I based my claims about the implications of the two news outlets’ lexical items on how those items had actually been used in a large corpus of spoken and written news discourse. The corpus showed, for example, that capture was used exclusively in the context of detention by uniformed authorities.

But enough of the setup. With this fresh in my mind, I have been skeptical all week about claims that a particular rhetorical choice – whether in a text or a photograph – implies a particular meaning that I myself do not immediately grasp. In doubting Ratcliffe’s deliberate use of tactic over approach, I was quite simply wrong, although I am still skeptical about some of the explanations for this choice that I heard voiced in class discussion, and wonder what connotations we might have claimed for these lexical items had we been trying to prove a different point. But as for yesterday’s discussion, I remain unconvinced as to the significance of the white model’s word-sandals. I simply don’t see/hear those connotations when I look at/listen to the image, so I wonder if those connotations come in part from what we were trying to look/listen for, not from the text itself.

The danger with listening for subtext is that we might hear only what we want to hear, and the claims we might make when analyzing discourse are based more on our own minds than on the discourse itself. Taken to the extreme, this kind of analysis can resemble a modern form of phrenology, the late 19th/early 20th century pseudoscience still widely remembered for its “scientific” justification for racism. Phrenologists held that the shape of the skull was a reliable way of measuring a person’s behavior, morals, and intellect – a claim that was later found to have absolutely no basis in fact. They further claimed that the skull shapes of non-white races offered conclusive evidence of their moral and intellectual inferiority (see the attached images from phrenology textbooks). The discipline of phrenology, which was overwhelmingly if not exclusively white, listened for what human physiology would tell us, and lo and behold! It told them exactly what they already believed – that white people were innately superior.

Anyway, with the issue of subjective interpretation framed for me by my third professionalization project, I’ve been skeptical all week about how we interpret the implications of rhetorical choices. I do not think that it is a waste of time to listen for these implications, but I do think it is often worth asking ourselves how reliable our own inferences are.

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