Rhetorical manslaughter?

Last week in my narrative theory class we had a wonderful discussion about intention and/vs. meaning. Does a text’s meaning depend upon the author’s intention, or can the text communication meanings that the author didn’t intend to include?  Dr. Phelan brought up the interesting real-world example of this debate: the controversy in the sports community over recent racial comments around Tiger Woods.

Quick summary: Commentator for the Golf Channel Kelly Tighlman made a ‘joke’ on air about young PGA players wanting/needing to lynch Woods to challenge his dominance.  YouTube clip

Uproar ensues, which Woods tries to calm by arguing that he and Tighlman are friends, that she is sorry, and most importantly that there was no “ill intent” behind the comment; she is suspended for 2 weeks.

Meanwhile Dave Seanor, the editor of Golfweek magazine, runs an issue (1/19/08) intended to continue an important discussion about race in the sport — and puts an image of a noose on the cover. Golfweek cover

More uproar, followed by apologies and Seanor’s immediate dismissal.  Apology from Golfweek

So — here we have a case in which 2 messages were sent without “ill intent.” In fact, Golfweek’s editor seems to have intended an honest and complex discussion of this issue in an historically racist sport community, though admittedly with an insensitive prompt. My question is: why was Seanor punished so much more severely than Tighlman? And what does that suggest about intentionality and meaning? Do we need different degrees of judgment? In the legal system, when someone commits a crime intention is taken into consideration (for example, murder vs. manslaughter) — but usually the crime is still punished. How do we determine or judge rhetorical acts? Does intention or effect determine meaning in the real world? What about when the effects (some are harmed, some pleased) vary according to audience?

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1 thought on “Rhetorical manslaughter?

  1. problems with intent. with what we say we intended, what the text seems to suggest we intended, what is said through us that we failed to guard against, with possible future attributions of intent, likely future readings. intent as both act of commission and act of omission, both what we mean and what we fail to not mean. if language itself renders certain things thinkable, sayable, if language recommends certain images, phrases, cliches and places them on our tongue at the point of utterance, the ideological inertia of language use, and we give voice to them, do we intend them? or do we simply fail to prevent ourselves saying what we could have foreseen that we ought not to have said. ethical difference between harming someone and failing to stop someone from being harmed.

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