Snarling, Purring and Buzzing: S.I. Hayakawa and Modern Rhetoric

After two world wars, midcentury America was sick of conflict and bloodshed.  Americans wanted Peace. They wanted Freedom. They wanted Democracy. But then, as now, they found themselves asking what those words mean.  In 1949 semanticist Samuel Inouye (S.I.) Hayakawa addressed the issues of what words mean — and what they can do — in Language in Thought and Action

Semantics explores how the auditory and verbal cues we produce (what those not in academia call “oral and written language”) shape our identity and society.   Words are the map by which we understand our world. They help us understand the multitudinous stimuli which greet us each second by placing them in categories which allow us to properly react.  They help us to share our experiences with others and to pass down our heritage to future generations.  But those words can convey falsehood as well as truth, and error as well as fact.  And, as Hayakawa noted, many words say only “I have strong feelings.”

We are a little too dignified, perhaps, to growl like dogs, but we do the next best thing and substitute series of words such as “You dirty sneak!” “The filthy scum!” Similarly, if we are pleasurably agitated, we may, instead of purring or wagging the tail, say things like “She’s the sweetest little girl in all the world!”

Hayakawa called these utterances snarl-words and purr-words. He also noted that much political discourse consisted largely of these raw spillages of emotion, giving as an example:

…the utterances of orators and editorialists in some of their more excited denunciations of “Reds,” “greedy monopolists,” “Wall Street,” “radicals” and in their more fulsome dithyrambs on “our way of life.” Constantly, because of the impressive sound of the words, the elaborate structure of the sentences, and the appearance of intellectual progression, we get the feeling that something is being said about something. On closer look, we discover that these utterances merely say “What I hate… I hate very, very much” and “What I like… I like very, very much.”

America’s two-party system, Hayakawa cautioned, lent itself to a “two-valued orientation” that divided the world into Good and Evil and warned “[T]he two-valued orientation produces the combative spirit and nothing else. When guided by it for any purposes other than fighting we practically always achieve results opposite from those intended.”  And seventy years later his observations, and his concerns, are more relevant than ever.

hayakawa with nixon
S.I. Hayakawa with Nixon, 1969

Midcentury Americans certainly had a fair degree of skepticism towards the media.  But journalists also commanded a degree of respect and influence that is difficult to imagine today.  When Walter Cronkite suggested in a February 27, 1968 editorial that America should withdraw from Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson turned from his television and said “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” A month later Johnson announced he would not seek a second term. Hayakawa praised a number of “responsible papers” like the New York Times and publications like the Atlantic Monthly for their multi-valued orientation, saying:

They may condemn communism, but they try to see what makes communists act as they do. They may denounce the actions of a foreign power, but they do not forget the extent to which American actions may have provoked the foreign power into behaving as it did. They may attack a political administration, but they do not forget its positive achievements… There are people who object to this “shilly-shallying” and insist upon an “outright yes or no.” They are the Gordian knot cutters; they may undo the knot, but they ruin the rope.

Today the knot-cutters have gained ascendance and impartiality is seen as collusion.  Gay undocumented immigrant rights activist and Pulitzer-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas explains “I’ve always felt like objectivity is a province of people who don’t have to fight to be seen fully.  I was never privileged enough to be objective.” Many leading media personalities have declared themselves part of a “#resistance” against our 45th President.  As Michael Massing noted in a June 2018 Nation article:

No precinct of American journalism rings more loudly and monotonously with denunciations of Trump than the nation’s opinion pages. At the Times, one can choose from among Paul Krugman (A Quisling and His Enablers), Gail Collins (Stupid Trump Tricks), Maureen Dowd (Trapped in Trump’s Brain), Timothy Egan (Trump’s Sellout of American Heritage), David Leonhardt (Trump Tries to Destroy the West), Frank Bruni (President Trump’s Perversion of Leadership), Michelle Goldberg (The Plot Against America), and, in a class by himself, Charles Blow. Since the start of the year, Blow has devoted 36 of 42 columns to Trump, many making the same points over and over again. (Trump, Treasonous Traitor was the headline on one of his most recent.)

And amidst all these snarl words and purr words modern journalism is faced with a new threat — buzz words.  Midcentury Americans got their news from their local paper, their television, and a handful of national political magazines.  Today the information exchange is considerably more decentralized.  Mainstream journalists compete with bloggers and Youtube celebrities for attention and advertisers.  But though they have access to more opinions than ever, viewers are choosing an ever-narrowing selection of sources.  We look not for information that helps us make wise choices, but for affirmation that we have chosen wisely.

The Internet opened new ground in the media industry, and uncharted terrain inevitably attracts speculators.  Mic has received $59.5 million in venture capital funding; Vox over $300 million; Buzzfeed nearly $500 milion;  Vice $1.7 billion.  This kind of money does not come without strings attached.  Investors want to know what they are getting for their money, and when you are investing in online media success is generally measured in clicks, shares and views.  Explaining how Mic used Facebook to propel its rise, Adrienne Jeffries said:

Every time Mic had a hit, it would distill that success into a formula and then replicate it until it was dead. Successful “frameworks,” or headlines, that went through this process included “Science Proves TK,” “In One Perfect Tweet TK,” “TK Reveals the One Brutal Truth About TK,” and “TK Celebrity Just Said TK Thing About TK Issue. Here’s why that’s important.” At one point, according to an early staffer who has since left, news writers had to follow a formula with bolded sections, which ensured their stories didn’t leave readers with any questions: The intro. The problem. The context. The takeaway.

Across new media complex issues are regularly boiled down to SEO-friendly provocations. Woke hobbyists challenge problematic knitting stores; a Catholic school teenager’s nervous smile becomes the face of White racism;  a moderate Republican nominee to the Supreme Court is tarred as a serial rapist who wants to put women in breeder camps.  Those who use the media to build their maps of reality (that is to say, most of us) are kept in an eternal state of outrage against their enemies.  Leftists await in joyful hope the coming of Trump’s impeachment: Right-wingers are sure Hillary and her Democratic co-conspirators will be arrested any day now.  

But, as semantics founder Alfred Korzybski noted, “the map is not the territory.”  What you hope for and what you think should be must not be confused with what is.  As a growing number of Americans recognize the disjunct between their world and the world presented in the media, we are likely to see increased distrust in and hostility toward journalists and journalism.  Some disgruntled viewers will sink into cynical nihilism: others will seek new and more interesting targets for their hate.

Meanwhile, those who own media outlets new and old are also discovering the dangers of inaccurate mapping.  The rubrics they relied on to judge success — clicks and shares — appear to say little about a site’s actual value.  In April 2017 Mic cofounder Chris Altchek told the Wall Street Journal that the site’s net worth was “in the mid hundreds of millions.” In November of 2018, after laying off most of its employees, Mic was sold to Bustle Media for $5 million. 

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