Tuesday, December 29, 2020

More on Text Conventions

Recognizing My Mistake

In 2013, I wrote about chain emails and social media posts from conservatives that used unconventional capitalization, punctuation, and fonts. 

Earlier this year, I was trying to write something self-congratulatory about how that seven-year-old observation now seems like an impressive prediction. Aside from a nod to certain Twitter feeds, I was also planning to use a collection of advertising images to show how those conventions have seeped into other venues. 

As I was composing this exercise in self-back-patting, however, I realized that my old post had missed the mark. 

You see, back in 2013, I wasn't very familiar with the way some feminist scholars intentionally use unconventional spellings, symbols, or grammar to highlight/undermine widely accepted symbols of the patriarchy in language. 

I recognize that all might sound overly academic, but it's really not. The impact of this kind of feminist rhetoric can be seen all over the place - for example, in young people's growing acceptance of terms like Latinx or in the use of they/them as singular pronouns

How My Teaching Reflects the Recognition 

I now fully embrace writers challenging ideas about "correctness" as they seek a place for authentic language in academic and professional writing. 

I teach code-meshing as an intentional way for students to push back against the racism embedded in the concept of Standard Written English

In an exercise intended to demonstrate how the written word belongs to every member of our society, I ask students to compare A) the way social movements have all but ended the use of "he/him/his" as generic pronouns to B) the way technology has eliminated the convention of two spaces after a period

So my old post about how some conservatives will manipulate text to make it feel more authentically their own was not nearly as revelatory as I once thought. 

After all, the unusual formatting choices in those old chain emails successfully signaled a rejection of stuffy academic writing conventions. It's a pretty slick move, one clearly borrowed from feminist rhetoric.

The Messy Problems that Remain

But now I'm faced with a new dilemma because these advertising images still haunt my social media feeds, and they are awful. It's mostly cozy blankets that have been emblazoned with saccharine clich├ęs dedicated to a loved one. And while we could spend time analyzing the meaning(lessness) of the words, that's not what caught my attention.  

I believe these blankets are the textual descendants of the chain emails I used to get from conservative relatives back in the early 2010s. Take a look at an old chain email together with one of these blankets:

The switches into and out of all caps. The font changes. The bolding and italicizing of words. 
The complete rejection of visual design, readability, and formatting norms. These two texts clearly share a set of conventions.  

So, how does a rhetorician address the way conventions are broken on these cozy blankets alongside the brilliant ways Geneva Smitherman broke conventions in her seminal article God Don't Never Change? 

I'm not really comfortable with where that question is taking me, but I can't ignore it.

A few years ago, I would have ignored it. I would have dismissed the emails from people who don't write the way I do, but since then textual tools used to push back against the status quo have become more important to me. Who uses those tools and how is not something I can control - or would seek to control. 

But I want to find a way to critique those choices, to assess their effectiveness. If my students and my peers are going to use these kinds of techniques more in the future, I need a way to demonstrate the difference between skillful execution and hamfisted slapdashery. 

With that in mind, comparing Smitherman's work to the blankets might serve as a starting point. I also believe my time studying fiction writing will be informative. Fiction writing was a place where breaking conventions was encouraged but also critiqued, often harshly. 
I may finally have some time to write something more serious about this, and I am happy to have found that it is connected to a larger conversation in feminist rhetoric. I also think it has pedagogical implications. I look forward to seeing where it takes me. 

Unfortunately, my decision to stop and screengrab images of these blankets means that I will also be seeing more of them in the future - at least until the algorithms find something better to try and sell me. 

And yes, the pun in the title is intentional. It isn't very nice, but I hate these blankets with a fury that burns deep inside me.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

The Rhetoric of a Scam

Online game advertisements on social media often show clips of people failing to complete an easy puzzle. It's a common trick from Three Card Monte scams, and a ploy worth understanding.

Three Card Monte is that game where someone shows you a card and then asks you to follow that card while they move three cards around the table. 

It looks really easy. But more importantly, almost every time a person first encounters the game, they will see someone beating the dealer - often for an outrageous sum of money. That "winner," however, is working with the dealer. They make the game look easy and/or the dealer look inept.

The person who believes the game they saw was legitimate is the mark.

They see how easy the game is and think, "I can do that." 

And it feels good to think "I can do that." So good, in fact, that many people step up to play when the "winner" walks away counting their money.

And that's the scam.

Seeing the dealer fail at a task that looks easy makes you want to attempt the game yourself. 

And that's all the scammer wants. They want you to make the attempt.

  • At a Three Card Monte table, they want you to think the dealer doesn't have the sleight of hand skills that they actually have. 
  • On social media, the gaming company wants you to click through to their game that's loaded with advertisements. 
In both cases, once a mark joins, they are invested because the hook appealed to their sense of competence and/or superiority. 

So, yeah, if you're about to engage in something that makes you feel smart because you just watched someone fail, there's a good chance that you are the mark. 

Saturday, June 06, 2020

"LookUpHere! LookUpHere!"

I do not block or unfriend people I disagree with on social media, and today I was rewarded for my tolerance.

An old friend, someone who sees things a little differently than I do, shared another Facebook user's post today:

I love this post for so many reasons.
This is a perfect post.
This is the most perfect perfection social media could hope to produce.

Across the nation there are protests. A number of the protests have included violence - sometimes protesters lashing out at police and businesses, sometimes police lashing out at protesters and the media.

The protests are a reaction to a number of high profile incidents of racial violence and a collective understanding that these incidents demonstrate the deep inequities woven into our nation's culture.

All of that is happening in the shadow of a pandemic that has killed over 100k Americans, halted the global economy, and left many without a job for months.

And this social media warrior took to the internet to tell their friends in no uncertain terms: That's all a distraction from a court ruling about emails from before 2016.

Without this post, I could never hope to better understand the problems we are having in our national discourse.

This person wants others to believe everything is a distraction from what happened in 2016 and the media is complicit in the creation of those distractions.

This is the voice of all the people who cannot see past their one pet interest. So for them, when people are paying attention to anything else, that serves as confirmation that the rest of the world has been duped. They are the only ones with sharp enough focus to see what's actually happening in this country.

And that is what's wrong with how we argue right now. Most everyone is looking at the world through the lens of their tiny little concern. How do these riots impact the Russia Investigation? How does Black Lives Matter affect the president's approval ratings? How does police brutality change the way I read Twitter?

These are the absurd questions people pose in our corrupted discourse.

I enjoyed reading that post today because it reminded me to ignore these questions because they are the distraction.

Monday, April 06, 2020

We Voted For Inaction

Many have claimed the US response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been inept due to a collapse of leadership. Critics write about this collapse as though it were a failure.

The problem with that view, however, is that it ignores how, for years, Americans have been supporting leaders who've promised to hobble the Federal government.

A lack of Federal leadership is what many Americans have been demanding, and during this crisis, Trump's decision to leave all the difficult decisions to the states is a victory for those voters.

There is a large block of Americans who believe the following:

  • Most government services are inefficient
  • Most government spending is wasteful
  • Most government workers are incompetent
  • Most elected officials are corrupt
  • The government stands in the way of freedom
  • The smaller our government gets the better our nation will become

Voters who hold those beliefs fueled the rise of Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, the Tea Party, debt ceiling shutdowns, the House Freedom Caucus, and President Trump - among others.

These voters have a core belief that informs their choices: The only acceptable role for our government is to support the growth of private industry - the real power in America.

Because these voters do not believe the government is able to effectively respond to anything, they will seek to strip it of the power to respond to everything. Trump has been happy to contribute to that effort, branding any of his policy critics from within the government as "deep state operatives." 

So, to cite one example, no one should be surprised that in 2018 this administration disbanded a National Security Unit focused on pandemic response despite repeated warnings of the risk a pandemic posed. After all, the administration was acting on its promise to streamline the government. When this move resulted in the departure of Thomas P. Bossert and Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, leading experts in pandemic response, this was more evidence that the administration was shrinking the government. The departure of pandemic experts was a victory.

To provide another example, people should not be baffled that the Administration has still not enacted the Defense Production Act despite A) the clear need for increased production of ventilators and B) the need for a powerful purchaser capable of ending bidding wars that result in an unnecessary spike in prices for care during a crisis.

This Administration does not believe in wielding the power of our government for anything other than supporting the growth of private industry. This belief gives them the right to deny responsibility for the American people. 
Voters sought out leaders who do not believe the government is responsible for the safety and security of its people. We found those people and put them in charge. 

So, we need to stop acting surprised at the non-response we're getting from the White House, and we have got to start discussing what the role of government should be as we prepare for new leadership.  

The group behind Trump's rise does not value public education, publicly-funded scientific research, environmental protections, consumer protection programs, privacy protections, publicly-funded efforts to empower marginalized groups, safety regulations, advancements in infrastructure, or publicly-funded arts.

Attempts to appeal to them on any of these issues will go nowhere.
Those policies either directly impede efforts to support the growth of private industry or they compete for the resources required for such support.

The good news is most Americans don't share the beliefs that inform this Administration. As we struggle through this crisis without a leader, let's use this time to reexamine what we expect from our government when the opportunity to select real leader arises.

What do you expect from our government?

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

I No Longer Support the Troops

I am not anti-military.

The training and discipline service requires have always impressed me.
I recognize the military as an excellent way to gain the skills and experience needed to succeed.
I grew up with people who served in the armed forces and, as individuals, I know them to be good people.
Many of the best students I've taught are veterans.
I have friends who served.
I have family serving.
One of my most powerful childhood memories is watching my father find the name of an uncle I never met on the Vietnam War Memorial.

I want to support the men and women of our military, but I can no longer do so.

I feel horrible saying that, but this is bigger than my feelings. My withdrawal of support is about ethics and morality.
An informed citizen can no longer join today's military and honestly believe it is a virtuous institution designed to protect America. This has been true for some time now, but in recent months it has become too clear to ignore.

There are friends on one side who will tell me I should have stopped supporting the military long ago. They'll tell me what I've written here today has been obvious to them for years.

There are friends on the other side who will condemn me for withholding my support. They'll tell me that I have no right to deny support to men and women who risk their lives protecting my freedoms.

From here in the middle, I say it is time we acknowledge a hard truth:
Our military's primary mission is no longer to end conflicts, protect America, or fight for democracy.
We are engaged in a number of conflicts with no clear definition of victory.
Many of those have spurred additional conflicts, each requiring more military action.
The evidence is clear, America's use of our military creates conflict and works to expand the use of deadly force.

Since the end of the Cold War, our military has become exactly what Eisenhower warned against when he said,
We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
Neither that speech nor this post is anti-military. Eisenhower stated, and I agree that a "vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction."
But as American citizens, we have failed to compel the proper meshing of the military-industrial complex with peaceful methods that prioritize liberty. 

Mike Pompeo, our nation's Secretary of State (not Defense), is publicly arguing that the best course of action in our effort to reduce tensions with an international adversary was an extra-judicial execution carried out by our military. As a result of this action, we are deploying more troops to the region where it occurred.

The Secretary of State was asked today for evidence of the imminent attack that made military action necessary. He did not provide any such evidence. And he won't have to. He can tell us it's a secret, and we will accept that as sufficient.

But I can't do that anymore. I cannot trust that our military keeps secrets to serve an honorable mission. Not after our President insisted that our military honor a man convicted of "posing with the dead body of a teenage Islamic State captive he had just killed with a hunting knife." Not after the military fired an active leader who - with good cause - refused to honor such a man.

With that, I am being asked to support an institution that publicly honors people who disregard the value of human life.

Will people serving in such an institution recognize the imperative to disobey illegal and immoral orders? I thought I knew the answer to that question. But now our military publicly carries out executions, honors the dishonorable, and works to create a perpetual state of war.

I cannot support the people who volunteer to join such an institution.
Again, I am not anti-military, but I am no longer able to support this military.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Time to price moving vans

If your home state enacts laws that do not respect your personhood, you have to seriously consider leaving the state.

That may sound extreme, but let's consider the word "extreme."

The religious right started working to overturn Roe versus Wade in the 1970s. They engaged in a hostile takeover of the GOP in the 80s. Since then, they have subverted all of the party's other priorities in favor of this one issue.
  • The GOP is no longer the party of small government 
  • The GOP is no longer the party of personal freedom
    • They work to legislate marriage, family planning, and medical procedures
  • The GOP's current leader has backed away from international military alliances
  • The GOP's leader does not value free trade
  • The GOP isn't even the party of family values anymore
    • The religious right helped the GOP elect a divorcee who has extramarital affairs with porn stars
In a single-minded effort that has taken over 40 years, the religious right dismantled the platform of a major political party and replaced it with a pro-life agenda... and nothing else.

This is their only issue, and that's why they are making progress. 

They aren't making progress because their position is more popular. Even the most generous polls have the nation split. Most polls show more Americans are pro-choice.

No, it isn't the merit of their view. The religious right is making progress because they are single-minded. They are willing to bend the entire US government to their will in this effort. 

The GOP is being held hostage by people seeking to enact laws based on their religious beliefs, and after a few decades, a kind of Stockholm syndrome has set in. Conservatives believe the religious right has been taking care of them, helping them win elections. Nevermind that the party's values no longer mean anything, the GOP can win state houses and the White House. Not even democracy can stand in their way!

I would love to provide some kind of reasonable strategy for overcoming their efforts, but if people are willing to betray all their values save one, they are pathological. There is not a reasonable way to stop them. 

So, leave them. 

Walk away.

If the religious right has a hold on your state house, they will take your right to choose and then they'll go after birth control. They think it is a woman's job to have babies for men, and they want to enact laws to enforce that. 

If those are not your values, move to a state that respects your values. Take your skills, your income, your family, your friends, your vote, and your values; go find a community that will embrace them all.

By leaving, you will enrich the community you join and deprive extremists of all you have to offer.

Let's see how they do without us. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

OxyContin, the Special Olympics, Charity, and Taxes

"But the wealthy are so generous in their support of charities and non-profits."

It's a point I often hear from people when discussing taxes.

It's in the news right now.

Here's how:
The White House Budget proposal would cut funding to the Special Olympics. This part of the proposal is an easy target for critics of the White House, but I am much more interested in the way the Administration has defended the cut.

In response to questions about it, Besty DeVos said, “I think that Special Olympics is an awesome organization, one that is well supported by the philanthropic sector as well.”

And there it is. The assumption behind DeVos's statement is this:
The rich are generous with their money and that is why we should cut government spending and stop taxing the wealthy so heavily. The wealthy provide jobs and give to charities. If they were able to keep more of their money, they would give more, and the government wouldn't need to support causes like the Special Olympics or universities or the arts. The wealthy will step up and make sure those causes are supported. 
That argument sounds nice. It plays into our perception that people who succeed must be good people. Look at this list of generous billionaire families; it practically proves success is a sign of a person's inherent goodness. "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

Unfortunately, even bad hombres are able to succeed from time to time.

For example, take one of those very generous billionaire families.
The Sackler family give a lot of money to charities and non-profits, and that's nice.
But it is worth noting that the family owns Purdue Pharma, the company that brought  OxyContin to market in 1996. Much of their wealth has been accumulated through the sale of a narcotic painkiller - a narcotic painkiller that, according to a recently settled lawsuit, has been deceptively marketed in ways that fueled the opioid crisis.

They are drug dealers.

They make and market an addictive drug. They actively worked to get that drug into the hands of as many people as possible. When people started dying, the family did not stop trying to find new customers. When the drug they sold was named as one of the sources of a national crisis, they continued to defend their efforts to sell the drug.

I'm sure the Sackler family does not think they are bad people. After all, they are only working to support themselves. They are enjoying economic success. They shouldn't be punished for that.
And, here's the important part, they give generously to museums, charities,  and universities around the world.

But they are bad people.

They started the opioid crisis.

They sell the drug that kills tens of thousands.

They sought customers in places where their drugs do harm, and they aggressively sold the drug there.

They still sell it.

Our government has not stopped them from selling their drugs in irresponsible ways.

The Sackler family's generosity cannot make up for the harm they have done.

So, don't ask me to consider the generosity of the wealthy when forming my views on tax policy.

I support policy intended to prevent the pooling of wealth.
I believe economic inequality is a serious issue, and that the past thirty-five years of tax policy have contributed to that issue.
I support a return to the top marginal tax bracket that was in place from 1965-1981 when top earners paid seventy percent income tax on anything over a certain level of income.

People don't have to agree with my policy preferences, but I am going to argue with people who tell me my views are wrong-headed. When I discuss such policies, I will try to respect the arguments people use support lower taxes on the wealthy.

But I will no longer listen to arguments that invoke all the good done by wealthy Americans who give to charity.

Nor will I listen to arguments that suggest the philanthropic sector can take on the work of a strong government.

Those arguments ask me to hand over authority to people simply because they have wealth, and I do not believe such people will consider my interests when making decisions.