Monday, April 20, 2009

Susan Boyle as General Semantics Lesson

April 20, 2009, 6:00 p.m.

What Are General Lessons From Susan Boyle Phenomenon?
(brought to you by*)

With an estimated 100 million views of Susan Boyle's performance by this morning [April 20], up from 50 million total for 200 different videos as of Friday, as blogger Adam Ostrow put it, "Between Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites -- not to mention mainstream media -- the performance has been impossible to miss this week." "Susan Boyle Video 'May Be Top YouTube Hit,'" Sky News, April 20, 2009.

There are profound lessons from this story with implications for everything from our personal relationships to the "war on terrorism," "toxic assets," and our government's current weighing of the benefits and costs of starting yet a third war, this time in -- are you ready for this? -- Somalia. Greg Jaffe and Karen DeYoung, "Obama Team Mulls Aims Of Somali Extremists; Seeing Potential Terror Threat, Officials Debate Their Options," Washington Post, April 11, 2009, p. A1.

We'll get to those lessons in a minute. Meanwhile, if you were not among the 100 million, here's The Guardian's take on what all the fuss is about.
Is Susan Boyle ugly? Or are we? On Saturday night she stood on the stage in Britain's Got Talent; small and rather chubby, with a squashed face, unruly teeth and unkempt hair. She wore a gold lace dress . . .. Interviewed by Ant and Dec beforehand, she told them that she is unemployed, single, lives with a cat called Pebbles and has never been kissed. Susan then walked out to chatter, giggling, and a long and unpleasant wolf whistle.

Why are we so shocked when "ugly" women can do things, rather than sitting at home weeping and wishing they were somebody else? Men are allowed to be ugly and talented. . . . But a woman has to have the bright, empty beauty of a toy -- or get off the screen. We don't want to look at you. . . .

Simon Cowell, now buffed to the sheen of an ornamental pebble, asked this strange creature, this alien, how old she was. "I'm nearly 47," she said. Simon rolled his eyes until they threatened to roll out of his head, down the aisle and out into street. . . . The camera cut to the other male judge, Piers Morgan, who winced. . . . The audience's reaction was equally disgusting. They giggled with embarrassment, and when Susan said she wanted to be a professional singer, the camera spun to a young girl who . . . gave an "As if!" squeak and smirked. Amanda Holden, the female judge, . . . chose neutrality. And then Susan sang. She stood with her feet apart, like a Scottish Edith Piaf, and very slowly began to sing Les Miserables' I Dreamed A Dream. It was wonderful.

The judges were astonished. They gasped, they gaped, they clapped. They looked almost ashamed. I was briefly worried that Simon might stab himself with a pencil, and mutter, "Et tu, Piers, for we have wronged Susan in thinking that because she is a munter, she is entirely useless." How could they have misjudged her, they gesticulated. But how could they not? No makeup? Bad teeth? Funny hair? Is she insane, this sad little Scottish spinster, beloved only of Pebbles the Cat?

When Susan had finished singing, and Piers had finished gasping, he said . . . "When you stood there with that cheeky grin and said, 'I want to be like Elaine Paige', everyone was laughing at you. No one is laughing now." And it was over to Amanda Holden . . .. "I am so thrilled," said Amanda, "because I know that everybody was against you." "Everybody was against you," she said, as if Susan might have been hanged for her presumption. . . .

We see this all the time in popular culture. . . . This lust for homogeneity in female beauty means that when someone who doesn't resemble a diagram in a plastic surgeon's office steps up to the microphone, people fall about and treat us to despicable . . . gestures of amazement. . . .

But Susan Boyle will be the freakish exception that makes the rule. By raising this Susan up, we will forgive ourselves for grinding every other Susan into the dust. . . .
Tanya Gold, "It wasn't singer Susan Boyle who was ugly on Britain's Got Talent so much as our reaction to her," The Guardian, April 16, 2009.

See also, Jill Lawless, "Susan Boyle Video: Britain's Singing YouTube Sensation," Associated Press/Huffington Post, April 16, 2009 (with a link to the original video).

Of course, one of the lessons from this episode is obvious. It's just one more example of the way in which television perceives, and presents, women. There's a substantial literature on this subject: the impact of these male prejudices -- for they are almost always the judgments of men, and they certainly reflect prejudices -- upon the ways in which women are treated in the broader society. Look at some of those early TV shows from the 1950s sometime. If those portrayals of women were accurate what employer would ever offer them the same pay as a man? And, accurate or not, they certainly had their influence on employers' judgment. There simply were no (or at least very few) serious roles for women of any age, and virtually none for any beyond their late 30s in Hollywood's episodic television series and feature films -- until they became old enough to play amusing character actor roles.

Such progress as there has been in the years since is so noteworthy simply because it represents such a contrast with those early years. And as Tanya Gold writes, and as Susan Boyle's experience displayed, we still have a long way to go.

In addition to the impact on women, think of the stereotypes applied to those who wish to enter our universities, or our companies -- the law firm that will only hire from among Harvard and Yale graduates in the top 10% of their class -- or our personal company, as dates or spouses.

However significant these issues may be, for purposes of this blog entry they are but a sub-set of much larger issues.

Following World War II, those who were reflective about it, and who sought a world at peace, focused among other things on the absolute imperative that atomic weapons not be used again lest all life on earth be destroyed, and on the role of propaganda as used by Hitler. As I quoted Noam Chomsky last week as saying, "Take a look at Germany. In the 1920s, Germany was the absolute peak of Western civilization, in the arts and the sciences. It was regarded as a model of democracy and so on. I mean, ten years later, it was the depths of barbarism. . . ." Nicholas Johnson, "Can Economy Produce Americanized Hitler?" April 15, 2009.

How could this have happened? Why would a nation's population come to hate an entire sub-group of individuals? Because they'd been "carefully taught" -- as Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein spelled out in their 1949 musical, "South Pacific"
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!

Why is it that the human species has been so seemingly successful in developing its material tools, through science, engineering and manufacturing, and yet seems to have such serious inter-personal problems -- up to and including war?

Among the directions taken by these post-War seekers of peace was the development of dozens of skills involving sophistication about language, skills and analyses that came to be called "general semantics" -- at least a part of which was an effort to apply "the language of science," or the "scientific method," to everyday life. We humans are unique amongst the other animals primarily as a result of our ability to create and manipulate symbols of many kinds. And yet, as one general semanticist put it, one of the results is that the human species seems to be the only animal species able to talk itself into difficulties that would not otherwise exist.

Why does propaganda work? What understandings and skills would we need to develop in order to combat its power? How could we use our language in ways that would create fewer problems for ourselves? To what extent is depression a consequence of the way we talk to ourselves about ourselves? (See "Verbal Cocoons" and the "IFD disease" in the book People in Quandaries, linked below.)

These are questions that have occurred, to some extent, to everyone from Rogers and Hammerstein, to Shakespeare, to Edward R. Murrow, to the creator of "Pogo," Walt Kelly.

Broadcasting's legendary Edward R. Murrow concluded his Peabody Award-winning "See It Now" episode regarding Senator Joseph McCarthy, "The actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay . . . and whose fault is that? Not really his; he didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it, and rather successfully. Cassius was right, 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.'" "Edward R. Morrow," En*Cyclopedia, State Library of North Carolina; the quote is from Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene ii.

Walt Kelly, creator of the "Pogo" comic strip, is perhaps best remembered for his comparable line on a 1971 Earth Day poster: "we have met the enemy and he is us." "Pogo (comics)," Wikipedia.

This is not the time or place to be trying to "summarize" a semester-long course, or the body of literature that is thought of as "general semantics."

But Susan Boyle did inspire me to think about general semantics once again, and what it has to teach us about, among other things, the phenomenon she created and why. If she also inspires you to find out more about general semantics then my efforts with this blog entry will have been worthwhile.

If you're interested, here are a couple of Web sites with which to begin:

Wendell Johnson, People in Quandaries, Ch. 1, "Verbal Cocoons," (1946) ("Quandaries, then, are rather like verbal cocoons in which individuals elaborately encase themselves, and from which, under circumstances common in our time, they do not tend to hatch. The peculiar structure of these cocoons appears to be determined in great measure by the structure of . . . the language which we so unconsciously acquire and so unreflectively employ.").

Steve Stockdale, "General Semantics on the Internet," ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, March 22, 2000, and here on Steve Stockdale's "This Is Not That" Web site.

S.I. Hayakawa and Alan R. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action (5th ed. 1991).

Samples of some of Nicholas Johnson's writing about general semantics:

Nicholas Johnson, "Searching for the Right Word: The Semantics of Heterosexual Relationships," ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 6-15, Spring (March) 1979.

Nicholas Johnson, "General Semantics: The Next Generation,"
Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture, Institute of General Semantics, November 3, 1995, Institute of General Semantics, General Semantics Bulletin, No. 63, pp. 22-44, 1996.

Nicholas Johnson, "Governing America: 'What do you mean?' and 'How do you know?'"
Address to a National Issues Forum Co-sponsored by the Grant Wood Area Education Agency, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, and the Kettering Foundation, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Auditorium, West Branch, Iowa, April 3, 1997.

Nicholas Johnson, "Professor Yin Says 'No' to Bug Burgers,", September 16, 2006.

Nicholas Johnson, "General Semantics, Terrorism and War," Keynote Address, "The World in Quandaries: Celebrating Two 60th Anniversaries (People in Quandaries and the New York Society for General Semantics, and the 8th anniversary of the Media Ecology Association), Fordham University, New York City, September 8, 2006 (including: General Semantics: The Ultimate Interdisciplinary Tools; General Semantics as Verbal Peace Movement; War: From WWII, to Viet Nam, to Iraq; War: Military Control of Civilians and the Powell Doctrine; "War" on "Terrorism"; What We Can Do), ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Vol. 64, No. 1, pp. 45-64, January 2007.

And, without links . . .

Nicholas Johnson, "Freedom, Fun and Fundamentals: Defining Digital Progress in a Democratic Society," ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, International Society for General Semantics, Vol. 51, No. 2, Summer (June 22), 1994, pp. 189-208.

Nicholas Johnson, "The Semantics of Computer Communications," ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Vol. 45, No. 3, pp. 250-54, Fall 1988.

Nicholas Johnson Commentary on Iraq War and Terrorism Involves Application of General Semantics Principles Without Expressly Discussing Them

"Perspective on Military Murder and the Mission at Hand," (Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 2, 2006

"The Politics of Domestic Spying," (Guest Opinion, Daily Iowan, January 19, 2006)

"Lessons from Abu Ghraib" (Guest Opinion, Daily Iowan, May 11, 2004)

"War in Iraq: The Military Objections" (advanced text for presentation at the University of Iowa College of Law's "International Law Talks: War with Iraq," February 27, 2003)

"Ten Questions for Bush Before War" (Guest Opinion, Daily Iowan, February 4, 2003)

"Capitalists Can Help U.S. Avert War with Iraq" (op ed, Iowa City Press-Citizen, Sunday Insight, October 6, 2002

"Tell the Rest of the Story" (op ed, Iowa City Gazette, October 2, 2002)

"Between Iraq and a Hard Place" (op ed, Omaha World-Herald, August 13, 2002)

"Search for Better Response Than War: Don't Reward the Terrorists, But Understand Their Interests" (op ed, Des Moines Sunday Register, June 30, 2002)

"Rethinking Terrorism" (text of presentation at National Lawyers Guild Conference, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa March 2, 2002)

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson
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