- Why do some stories, like the O.J. Simpson trial, the Thomas/Hill
hearings or the Clinton/Lewinsky sex scandal, run on for months
and even years, while other, ostensibly more important stories
hardly get noticed by the news media?
say the press panders to the masses or gives in to sensational
But a linguist
from the University of California, Berkeley, has a more discerning
answer, one that places these and several other big stories
of recent years at the crux of a major national struggle over
who gets to say what things mean in American culture.
stories are battles in the war to control meaning between
groups that already have the power to interpret reality -white,
middle class men - and those struggling to get the power -
women and blacks," said Robin Tolmach Lakoff, UC Berkeley
professor of linguistics, in a recent interview.
last because "in addition to being gossipy and salacious,
they are deep and convoluted," writes Lakoff in a new
book, "The Language War," (University of California
Press) published this month.
know that something we need to understand is playing out before
our eyes. We use these stories to explore the hardest questions
we have to face, often about race and gender."
added in the interview that such stories often end in a puzzling
way or they don't end at all, evidence that a struggle over
interpretation is going on. The narrative has so many installments
that it passes what the linguist calls the UAT or Undue Attention
in her book from the traditional linguistic focus on words
and syntax, Lakoff considers the narrative in her analysis,
suggesting that a language war is a large part of a culture
war, and to the victor falls the right to tell the story.
that the long-established power elite dominated by white men
has given events their meaning for so long that its version,
its ways of creating a narrative and interpreting its meaning,
has become "normal" reality.
"we are currently engaged in a great and not very civil
war," she writes, "testing whether the people who
always got to make meaning for all of us still have that unilateral
right and that capacity."
seems to be no, said the linguist.
no longer just one story. But several equally plausible stories
may be told by different groups of people, said Lakoff.
the Thomas/Hill hearings, for example, women succeeded in
establishing the reality and importance of sexual harassment,
while Clarence Thomas had his own story about the sexual exploitation
of a black man. Where was the real story? Had Thomas harassed
Anita Hill or had she been put up to her accusations by those
seeking a "high-tech lynching?" No one could legitimately
frame the narrative for all.
was true a decade later during President Clinton's impeachment
when conservatives, feminists, and men and women of all persuasions
had different stories to tell. Heroes and villains crossed
over and merged. Ambiguity was the order of the day.
the "Clinton as philanderer" story of a president
who either should or should not be brought down. In a very
different vein, the "Starr witch-hunt" story turned
on misogyny and anti-sexuality. All the while, media storytellers
imbued the antagonists with bizarre and unsympathetic traits:
Clinton as sex-crazed and a liar; Kenneth Starr as puritanical
and monomaniacal. On television, these two men appeared to
be cooperative and rational, allowing the public to make even
stories spun around the First Couple and their personalities
lie some of the most complicated, convoluted meanings of all,
Rodham Clinton, in particular, occupies a "huge swath"
of public attention and gets a "strikingly different"
kind of media attention than have previous first ladies.
a day goes by without some report of her activities or some
analysis of her psyche. Images of her are remarkably diverse,
ranging from strongly adulatory to ferociously critical; they
represent her as a person of wildly different personalities,
doing and saying what it is hard to imagine a single individual
doing or saying," writes Lakoff.
In a chapter
titled "Hillary Rodham Clinton: What the Sphinx thinks,"
Lakoff contends that the First Lady has so far been able to
has always found ways, either direct or subversive, of retaining
control over her own narrative, her own meaning," said
Lakoff. " I believe this is, to some degree, deliberate.
She's a new woman, and she doesn't want the guys in power
to tell her what she's about."
they try, said Lakoff.
are continually constructing her. 'What does she mean when
she says....?' Is she a pushy, aggressive bitch or someone
who wants to do good things? Does Hillary make her own story,
or does (New York Times columnist) Maureen Dowd do it?"
said that women have been subjected to polarized interpretations
in the media because, until recently, they have had little
ability to create public meaning. As a result, they continue
to be seen through a male prism.
man in public life doesn't have to stand for all men,"
she said. "We don't polarize his traits, don't demonize
him. He is allowed to be more human.
is not allowed to be a human being, and whatever she does
is more closely scrutinized."
does not offer the nation's audience any reassurance that
our public narratives will become less confused.
thirty years of skirmishes, no clear winner in the language
war has emerged," said Lakoff. The dominant male power
structure has lost exclusive rights to frame the story, leaving
the nation with antagonisms and unresolved jealousies that
carry over from one event to another, she said.
we will learn to appreciate our different voices and work
together to create a new understanding," said Lakoff,
"and maybe we won't."