Blackfish and environmental rhetoric… and some bleakness

Blackfish movie posterI finally watched Blackfish last night. I’d been wanting to for a while, but also avoiding it a bit because I tend to have what some would call extreme emotional responses to animals at risk, in pain, or otherwise affected by environmental degradation. My husband, Chris, recently suggested I find a therapist who specializes in environmental-related angst. (Of course, to me, these responses seem perfectly reasonable; I genuinely do not understand how/why others don’t have the same reaction. But that’s another issue entirely.) Case in point: When I watched the beautiful, devastating trailer for Midway, a documentary about the island where albatrosses breed and suffer the consequences of plastic litter, I cried so hard that Chris thought one of my friends or family members had died. Again, this seems like a perfectly reasonable response; see for yourself:

MIDWAY a Message from the Gyre : a short film by Chris Jordan from Midway on Vimeo.

The Cover movie posterI have a particular weakness for marine mammals and particular issues about animals kept in captivity, so when Blackfish came out, I was pleased but wary. I couldn’t help but think of The Cove, a powerful documentary about dolphin slaughter in Japan–that I can’t watch. I just can’t. More on that later. Thankfully, my husband watched Blackfish without me first and reassured me (and himself, I’m sure) that I could handle it. Since I’m increasingly fascinated with environmental rhetoric, I decided to brave it. I’m glad I did, though my eyes are a bit puffy today.

orca mother and calf

Only two scenes resulted in sobbing; both involved baby orcas being taken from their families — once in a brutal hunt/capture in the Puget Sound in 1970, and once within the SeaWorld organization. In each case, the grief of the orcas was palpable, as was the pain and regret expressed by the people who’d been somehow involved in the experience. Though the pathos of these scenes was intense, the majority of the film focused on more dispassionate first-hand accounts by scientists, experts, and, most often, former SeaWorld trainers. The prioritization of their voices was a smart strategy.

Although the film contains apparent messages about the cruelty of keeping orcas in captivity, it was carefully matter-of-fact in its treatment of the consequences for the whales and the people who worked with them. By prioritizing the perspectives of the trainers, the filmmakers kept the focus on specific, eyewitness accounts of the central plot: the history of orca attacks on trainers and the cover-ups engineered by SeaWorld.

One would think that such an emphasis could contribute to a negative view of “killer whales,” but the affection and sympathy displayed by the trainers worked against that. They clearly understood what marine biologists echoed, which was that the unnatural and inhumane treatment suffered by these creatures over decades can only lead to trauma for everyone involved. And that by hiding and denying the stories of the deaths and injuries of numerous trainers, SeaWorld was knowingly putting its workers in danger.

For me, of course, that’s a secondary concern. But for many audiences, I imagine it worked to spark a different kind of outrage about unethical business practices. Whether or not audiences were persuaded that capture and captivity is, in itself, insupportable, they surely recognized that SeaWorld is shady. But will that lead to the kinds of boycotts that would persuade SeaWorld to change its practices? There was a good amount of controversy when the film was released, so at least it was successful in drawing attention to the issue. At least it sparked conversation, which I imagine was the filmmakers’ realistic agenda.

They were careful. As Chris said, they did a good job avoiding polemic. Although their stance was clearly critical, they dialed back the pathos in favor of factual data, expert testimony, and the voices of those traumatized witnesses. And they were all scarred by the many betrayals: how they were deceived, how their colleagues were blamed for “accidents,” and how they contributed to the pain of the orcas they clearly loved. With the best of intentions, they’d signed up to participate in SeaWorld’s exploitation of incredibly sensitive, intelligent mammals for the purposes of entertainment and profit.

crowds at SeaWorld

Little attention was paid to the usual arguments in favor of organizations like SeaWorld — that without these showcases, people would not feel a connection to animals, that they wouldn’t work for their protection. This is the excuse of most parents who don’t want to deprive their children of such opportunities. I wondered about that omission, but I think the focus on the trainers worked toward that message: Their good intentions and their ignorance led to collusion in cruelty — just like the crowds that line up for SeaWorld every day.

orcas in the wild

In that light, the conclusion of the film makes more sense than I originally thought. The final scenes show several of the trainers going on a whale-watching trip, experiencing orcas in their natural habitat. The joy and wonder on their faces spoke to the healing power of that trip, a marked contrast to the sadness and regret they displayed throughout most of the film. The filmmakers’ hope, I suspect, is that audiences might be persuaded that this approach is the “right” one, that appreciation cannot be separated from respect — and that those who buy in to the SeaWorld product would (or should), like these trainers, suffer with the knowledge of their complicity.

That’s my reading, anyway. Of course, whether that message gets out at all depends on whether people actually see the movie. More to the point, it depends on whether audiences who don’t already agree with its messages see the movie. I didn’t need this to learn that SeaWorld is problematic (or downright evil) — but would those who’d really like to watch that orca show actually watch this movie? Perhaps, if that controversy made them curious enough. I’d like to think so, but I’m not sure.

dolphin hunters

Which brings me back to The Cove. After we finished Blackfish, Chris and I were talking about its potential effectiveness. I brought up The Cove as a cautionary tale: If those trailers turned others off as much as it did me, and I feel passionate about dolphin protection, how could it reach and therefore influence enough audiences to make a difference? Chris suggested that it had already achieved its aims; we both thought the outcry following its release had led to change in the Japanese government’s policy. It turns out not so much. So far, the pressure hasn’t resulted in actual change.

For a lot of reasons, SeaWorld is not Japan; it may well feel more compelled to respond in some way to widespread criticism. But is it really likely to do anything more than damage control? Release some statement (not animals), make minor improvements (not substantive changes), etc? Are enough people likely to decide against that vacation destination that they go out of business? Doubtful.

I really want to end this on a positive note. I’d like to hope that a careful, strategic, and “successful” film like Blackfish can make a difference. I know: Changing just one mind makes a difference. But does it really? Maybe in the long term. Maybe?

albatross corpse with plastic inside
albatross corpse with plastic inside

It might, in the case of Midway.

If everyone who sees that movie (or just the trailer) reconsiders their plastic consumption, picks up some plastic caps at the beach, even votes in favor of some kind of legal protection or prevention, that could maybe save a few birds. Maybe? You tell me:

MIDWAY a Message from the Gyre : a short film by Chris Jordan from Midway on Vimeo.

Birth of Two Suspicions

“Language—in any case, language in the Indo-European cultures—has always given birth to two kinds of suspicions:

  • First of all, the suspicion that language does not mean exactly what it says.  The meaning that one grasps, and that is immediately manifest, is perhaps in reality only a lesser meaning that protects, confines, and yet in spite of everything transmits another meaning, the latter one being at once the stronger meaning and the ‘underlying’ meaning.
  • On the other hand, language gives birth to this other suspicion: It exceeds its merely verbal form in some way, and there are indeed other things in the world which speak and which are not language.  After all, it could that nature, the sea, the rustling of trees, animals, faces, masks, crossed swords, all of these speak; perhaps there is a language that articulate itself in a manner that is not verbal.

These two suspicions, which one sees already appearing with the Greeks, have not disappeared, and they are still with us, since we have once again begun to believe, specifically since the nineteenth century, that mute gestures, that illnesses, that all the tumult around us can also speak; and more than ever we are listening in on all this possible language, trying to intercept, beneath the words, a discourse that would be essential.”

+ Michel Foucault, excerpted from the essay, “Nietzsche, Freud, Marx”

The Rhetoric of Eco-Terrorism

Here are some selections from Will Potter’s book, Green is the New Red, that chart the genealogy of eco-terrorist rhetoric.  Regardless of where you stand with regard to environmentalism or monkey-wrenching, it’s nevertheless important to understand how the  term terror is being specifically deployed in an age increasingly defined by such a label.

The mainstreaming of animal and environmental concerns, combined with tiers of lawful and unlawful groups, was undeniably a threat to the corporations [they] targeted.  [Corporations] needed to displace activists from their moral high ground.  A key development in orchestrating this fall from grace was the decision to wield the power of language.

“Whoever defines the issue controls the debate,” says Timothy Cummings, a clinical professor and poultry veterinarian at Mississippi State University.  Instead of saying “bled to death,” Cummings advises farmers to say “exsanguinated”; rather than “killer,” say “knife operator.” For those who break the law in the name of animal rights or the environment, industry groups would change the language from “monkey wrencher,” “saboteur,” or just plain “criminal” to the much more powerful “terrorist.”

Indeed, it’s a far more powerful phrase, but the difference is that now such a label has salient consequences for law enforcement, governmental policy, and judicial proceedings.  So when I read, say, Rick Santorum’s recent sweeping claims about environmentalism, I get anxious on a whole lot of levels.  At a campaign stop in Oklahoma City, Santorum argued that environmentalists are using fracking as “the new boogey man” to needlessly scare you about a perfectly safe practice.  But what’s really happening here, Santorum claims, is that “they will use this [fear] to raise money for the radical environmental groups so they can go out and continue to try to purvey their reign of environmental terror on the United States of America.”

(The irony of Santorum scaring potential voters and donors with phrases like “reign of environmental terror” and denouncing those seeking to implement a radical agenda is so rich I’m going to use it to ice this cake I just made.)

Here’s some history on the use of “eco-terrorism” from Potter:

Government official slowly incorporated the term into their lexicon and change how they spoke of sabotage [toward the end of the ’80s].  After a 1987 arson at the University of California at Davis, the FBI labeled an animal rights crime “domestic terrorism” for the first time.  The next year, Senator James McClure introduced the term eco-terrorist into the Congressional record (oddly enough, by comparing the tactics of drug lords to those of environmentalists).

Despite these linguistic victories, eco-terrorism was not a top governmental priority.  Ron Arnold’s organization [the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise] and the anti-environmental “Wise Use” movement operated on the fringes; the eco-terror meme remained loosely confined to this niche of free-market true believers, and sympathetic media portrayals continued through the late eighties […] This began to change when politicians got involved in the issue.

Use of the “eco-terrorist” label picks up substantially throughout the nineties, especially following the well-reported arson of a Vail ski resort in 1998.  It was 9/11, however, as the phrase goes, that changed everything.  Greg Walden, a Republican Representative from Oregon said on September 12 that the Earth Liberation Front was a threat “no less heinous than what we saw occur yesterday here in Washington and New York.”  Before the steel of the towers had even stopped smoldering, “Industry groups hired PR firms to insert eco-terrorism into the national security dialogue,” writes Potter.  Since 9/11, “the eco-terror language went viral, replicating by spreading from host to host.”

But this is not a conspiracy, Potter is right to point out.  It’s framing.  It’s the introduction of and normalizing of key terms that shape attitudes and perspectives.  “The shift was gradual,” he writes, “slowly merging the rhetoric of industry groups with that of politicians and law enforcement.  Eventually, what was once a fringe argument became official government policy.”

If that isn’t enough to boggle the rational mind and quicken the passionate heart, there’s this:

Examining top-tier newspaper articles from 1984 through 2006, [Travis Wagner, professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Southern Maine] found that terrorism rhetoric appeared throughout the timeline, but its frequency increased dramatically after September 11th and has continued climbing since then.  Wagner notes that this increase in ecotage-related stories accompanied a decline in actual crimes.  According to the North American [Animal Liberation Front] Press Office–not one to downplay ALF and ELF attacks–crimes decreased by 47 percent after 9/11.  As warning of eco-terrorism made headlines, the threat itself waned.


“The ‘War on Cars’: A brief history of a rhetorical device

I just found an interesting piece over at grist that charts a genealogy of sorts for the phrase, “War on Cars.”  It a curious expression that’s been used to frame just about any type of regulation of cars, from congestion pricing (in London, for example) to investment in alternative transportation.

Click on image to access article

It doesn’t take much intellectual effort to look around and realize that our urban infrastructures are hardly waging a war on cars.  But the factual absurdity of the phrase doesn’t mean it isn’t rhetorically powerful; maneuvering into a position of victimhood and defensiveness is often an effective move.

Simplifying. Reducing. Healthifying.

More evidence from the food front that macro-shifts in consumer choices/awareness are persuading companies to reconsider their products–and the future of food:

This summary comes from a recent Chicago Tribune article outlining the manifold effects the food movement has had on behemoth corporations.  Major players like Wal-Mart (largest food purchaser in the country), Kraft, and PepsiCo are scrambling to figure out how to twist fundamentally unhealthy products into “healthier options.”

To be more accurate, though, I should say that this is an effort to further twist fundamentally unhealthy products into something they can’t be.  We’ve been seeing great changes over the past several years: “Made with Whole Grain” now adorns cereal boxes from the top shelves (“adult” cereals) to the bottom (where the kiddies look); RbGH-milk is in significant decline; and “low-sodium” banners are proliferating across labels.  While the food is being tweaked, the accompanying advertisements are being amplified to a much greater extent.  “Change it a little and promote the hell out of it” has long been an approach of the food industry.  But of course, “just because a processed food is a little bit less bad than it used to be,” as the always-enjoyable Marion Nestle words it,  [it] doesn’t necessarily make it a good choice.”

Hobbyist rhetoricians might take pleasure in tracking a few threads in the food arena:

1) The obvious: changes in a food labeling.  Make it a game with your family and friends!  Award points based on a ratio between how brazenly stupid a phrase/picture is and its potential persuasiveness.  So for instance, “Picked Fresh!” would receive 20pts, while “Naturally Cut” could get up to 40pts, depending on the product.  When you find produce being declared “Cholesterol Free” then you’ve hit the jackpot!  Give yourself 100pts!  If you spot “Locally Known” then you’ve won the game: 1,000pts. (Points may be redeemed for candy-bars and/or plastic trinkets.)

500 points!

2) The less obvious: changes in food placement.  The layout of a supermarket is rhetorically designed, with staples such as dairy, bread, and meat often occupying the back corners.  Walk the periphery of a store and you’ll most likely find all the good stuff you need.  Walk through any of the numerous aisles in between and you’ll be confronted with staggering variations of corn and soy.  Chips and soda are located in the same aisle: while supermarkets very rarely make a profit off of soda, the percentage markup on chips easily makes up for it.  They know the salty goes with the sweet.

Though supermarket(er)s have known the appeal of placement for some time, the technics of it are going through a period of increased research scrutiny, with psychologists getting in on the game.  Thankfully, proponents and marketers of healthy foods are discovering that savvy rhetorical strategies are just as applicable to their product as those that push junk.  NPR recently reported that grocery stores are shining a new light on healthy foods–quite literally:

NPR: "Nudging Grocery Shoppers Toward Healthy Food"

Take product placement and soft, focused lighting, for example. Items that are highlighted in this way — even if they aren’t on sale — sell about 30 percent more, Wansink [author of Mindless Eating] says. They just look more appealing than products under harsh, overhead fluorescent lights.

One area where the rhetoric of food placement is getting a lot of attention is in the cafeteria.  I highly recommend you check out this interactive piece published by the New York Times that outlines how the lunch line is being redesigned to highlight healthier foods.  In one research report, the simple act of putting fruit in an attractive fruit bowl rather than the usual stainless steel bowl more than doubled the amount of fruit sales.  Putting the chocolate milk behind the regular milk (instead of beside) greatly reduced its selection.

Keep your eye out for how stores are shifting food placement to affect choice, regardless of whether it’s for the good or bad.

3) Time traveling through analogy: Big Food as Big Tabacco.  I’m beginning to see a lot more parallels being made between where Big Food is at right now with where Big Tabacco was at in the late ’80s and early ’90s, in the ramp up to the Master Settlement Agreement.  Tabacco companies got sued in an effort to recoup health care costs dumped on states.  We could see the exact same discussion about food taking place over the next few years, as more evidence arises that links our cheap food with high health care costs.  And just as Tabacco sought frantically for many years to discredit information that linked it to cancer, the Producers of Processed will work to undermine similar science that does little else than simply confirm common sense.  In the meantime, we can enjoy a variety of mind-spinning industrial concoctions that purport to have our best interests in mind; “lite-sugar” products are the equivalent of ultra-lite cigarettes.

I’ll be interested to hear from any rhetoricians out there where they’re seeing these elements and how they’re being leveraged.  Send word to Harlot in a savvy article and we’ll work to get it published, yo.


When he buys an item of food, consumes it, or serves it, modern man does not manipulate a simple object in a purely transitive fashion; this item of food sums up and transmits a situation; it constitutes an information; it signifies.

~ Roland Barthes


Hope, Change and… Salmon?!

A neo-Aristotelian analysis of Obama’s State of the Union speech might focus on how he builds credibility after a mid-term election gave significant traction to a Republican agenda.  A Lakoffian critique would look at which dominant metaphors work to shape the framing of other issues, like how “the race to educate our kids,” “this is our sputnik moment,” and the theme of “winning the future” all contribute to a framework of competition.  A Burkean cluster approach would organize key terms around frequency and intensity and extract an analysis from there.

Here’s what that would look like with regards to frequency:

But what about intensity?  NPR did some reader-response analysis, asking over 4,000 people to describe the speech in 3 words.  Here are the surprising results:

Um, I for one did not see that coming.  Granted, there are very few jokes made in State of the Union speeches, so one could argue that those that do make it in are bound to stand out.  But nevertheless, I find this surprising.

What can we glean from this data about the impact of Obama’s speech?  What can we suggest about the role of sarcasm in this situation?  What rhetorical methods do we have which can account for this anomaly?

To make matters perhaps even more interesting, here is the same data broken down into party-affiliations:



I’ll be curious to hear some of your responses to this data.


** I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Obama missed an opportunity to point out the plight of salmon.  All five species of Pacific salmon are endangered: Chinook, Chum, Coho, Pink, and Sockeye.  It was not long ago at all that this now-endangered species thrived.  From Derrick Jensen, a staunch defender of salmon and all wild life:

Painting by Rob Shetterly

At one time the Columbia River Basin was home to the greatest runs of salmon on earth. In 1839 Elkanah Walker wrote in his diary, “It is astonishing the number of salmon which ascend the Columbia yearly and the quantity taken by the Indians. . . .” He continued, “It is an interesting sight to see them pass a rapid. The number was so great that there were hundreds constantly out of the water.” In 1930, Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Press wrote, “Millions of chinook salmon today lashed into whiteness the waters of northwest streams as they battled thru the rapids. . . .” The article went on to say that “the scene is the same in every northwest river.” Spokane, Washington’s Spokesman-Review noted that at Kettle Falls, “the silver horde was attacking the falls at a rate of from 400 to 600 an hour.”

Now the salmon are gone. To serve commerce our culture dammed the rivers of the Columbia River Basin. People at the time–beginning in the 1930s–knew dams would destroy salmon. Local groups and individuals–including those who knew salmon most intimately, the Indians–fought against the federal government and the river industries, but dams were built and now the fight is becoming even more desperate, as nine out of ten major salmon species in the Northwest and California are extinct or on the verge.

The Production of Language

Five weeks ago I came across a quote by Henry Ford.  It has remained close to the fore of my thoughts since then.

Speech is one of man’s most marvelous tools and there is a direct relation between the kind of speech which he uses and the kind of work he does.

A good engineer can tell what language a machine ‘been built in just by looking at it.  There are some languages in which a machine cannot be built at all.  There are some languages in which it would be impossible to efficiently manage a factory.

Ford’s speech has a distinctive directness to it.  It’s quietly militant.

This might not surprise those who know Ford’s capitalist success story of the assembly line.  There’s a steadiness to his prose that resembles the production line–just look at the repetitive evenness of the last three sentences.

Ford’s quote shows a remarkable grasp of the relationship between language and reality, between our knowledge and our actions.  More specifically, it reveals in no uncertain terms how capitalism is successful in large measure because of our language choices.

Ford no doubt would find dreadful a society without “efficient” factories and engines–though we must understand that “efficient” in this context is heavily colored by a capitalist frame of reference.  “Efficient,” for Ford* and many other capitalists, for example, means maximizing the externalization of costs, and minimizing accountability in order to maximize profit.  “Efficient” will mean something quite different to a Marxist or an environmentalist.

But what Ford dreads is precisely what many are fighting for: a language that makes a capitalist economic model an impossibility.**  The goal is a language which cannot support the flagrant exploitation of labor and environment.

Among those broadcasting this message are Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, authors of Empire, Multitude, and most recently, Commonwealth.  One of their principle claims is that a language of resistance is an integral part of any successful resistance movement.  Of course, they’re not the only ones saying this, but they are perhaps the only ones saying it that have such a large constituency of readers.

I recently had the privilege of hearing Michael Hardt speak at the Nonstop Institute in Yellow Springs, Ohio.  He was very gracious with his time and answers, always working hard to understand the questions as clearly as possible, while remaining sensitive to the questioner’s desires.  In short, I was impressed and appreciative, along with many others.

When the microphone came around to me, there were two questions I had in mind, one that relates directly to Ford’s quote.  Hardt and Negri use the phrase “production of subjectivity” to discuss how capitalism influences thought- and action-patterns that benefit its continuation.  What I’m curious to know–and what I was lucky enough to ask Michael Hardt–is what happens when the key terms we use to critique capitalism are they same that have served its advancement so well?  Production is a term very near-and-dear to the capitalist way of life (see, for instance, how Derrick Jensen defines it–premise #5).  Do we reinforce certain lines of capitalist thought, even though we’re trying to critique it?  When we say “production of subjectivity” do we invoke a frame a reference that is best (if not only) understood through capitalist means?

Check out the video to hear his answer–roughly around the thirty minute mark.  (And please excuse my stumbling questioning.)

I’ll leave you with the same questions, as I don’t have any answers right now.  There are pros, cons, and in-betweens to all these choices.  What does a language of resistance sound like, read like, feel like?  On whose shoulders does it fall to create and sustain this language?  Should we be spending our energies elsewhere?



* Perhaps the most notorious admirer of Ford’s commitment to “efficiency” was Hitler, who told a Detroit News reporter in 1933, “I regard Henry Ford as my inspiration.”  Indeed he did: a framed picture of Ford hung in Hitler’s office and he’s the only American mentioned in Mein Kampf. This should indicate clearly enough the devastating consequences of a subjectivity that fetishizes a certain type of “efficiency.”

** On this end of the spectrum we find yet another spectrum: there are those who argue the factory should be owned by the workers and there are those who argue the factory shouldn’t exist at all, no large-scale production facilities period, as they almost invariably support unsustainable economic models. We literally cannot continue an economic system of ravenous extraction and perpetual growth and sustain the ecosystems that make life possible.  The fact of this isn’t up for debate–but what we do in response to it most definitely is.

not Beyond Persuasion

I remember when British Petroleum changed their name to “Beyond Petroleum” in 2000.  When pressed about it, I bet most could, which means that their $200 million advertising campaign worked.  (Ogilvy & Mather won the 2001 PRWeek award for “campaign of the year,” if you need additional support for its effectiveness.)

One of the most successful greenwashes of all time, the rebranding of BP has led them to be viewed as one of the most “environmentally aware” oil companies.  The oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is putting pressure on this perspective, of course, but there’s good reason to believe that BP’s image will recover.  They’re veterans, don’t forget: of oil clean-ups, congressional “interrogations” of weak safety measures and poor environmental records, and–most importantly–PR disaster management.

(Eric Dezenhall recently wrote about when a “late public-relations honcho for a big petrochemical company” once told him “that he knew it was time to retire when, after a spill, the CEO’s first call was to him: ‘Get up here, Harry, we’ve got a PR problem.”)

PR disaster management is where rhetorician mercenaries spring to action; these are the Navy SEALS of  rhetorical situations where making the weaker argument appear stronger seems nearly impossible.  The documentary Our Brand is Crisis reveals some of this rhetorical mercenary work:

So after having spent enough time vacillating between rage and despair while reading accounts of the (continuing) oil leak in the Gulf, I thought it best to go to Derrick Jensen for some words of wisdom.  In Endgame (Volume 1) Jensen discusses BP’s name change, which they framed as a “statement of priorities.”

This particular type of smokescreen has been most fully developed by a public relations consultant with the appropriately named Peter Sandman.  He has been nicknamed the High Priest of Outrage because corporations hire him to dissipate public anger, to put people back to sleep.  Sandman has explicitly stated his self-perceived role: “I get hired to help a company to ‘explain to these confused people that the refinery isn’t going to blow up, so they will leave us alone.'”

He developed a five point program for corporations to disable public rage.

First, convince the public that they are participating in the destructive processes themselves, that the risks are not externally imposed.  You asked for it by wearing those clothes, says the rapist.  You drive a car, too, says the PR guru.

Second, convince them that the benefits of the processes outweigh the harm.  You could never support yourself without me, says the abuser.  How would you survive without fossil fuels?” repeats the PR guru.

Third, undercut fear by making the risk feel familiar.  Explain your response and people will relax (whether or not your response is meaningful or effective).  Don’t you worry about it, I’ll take care of everything.  Things will change, you’ll see, says the abuser.  We are moving beyond petroleum and toward sustainability, says the PR guru.

Fourth, emphasize again that the public has control over the risk (whether or not they do).  You could leave anytime you want, but I know you won’t, says the abuser.  If we all just pull together, we’ll find our way through, says the PR guru.

Fifth, acknowledge your mistakes, and say (even if untrue) that you are trying to do better.  I promise I will never hit you again, the abuser repeats.  It is time to stop living in the past, and move together into the future, drones the PR guru.

Speaking to a group of mining executives, Sandman, who also consults for BP, stated, “There is a growing sense that you screw up a lot, and as a net result it becomes harder to get permission to mine.”  His solution is not actually change how the industry works, of course, but instead to find an appropriate “persona” for the industry.  “Reformed sinner,” he says, “works quite well if you can sell it…’Reformed sinner,’ by the way, is what John Brown of BP has successfully done for his organization.  It is arguably what Shell has done with respect to Brent Spar.  Those are two huge oil companies that have done a very good job of saying to themselves, ‘Everyone thinks we are bad guys…We can’t just start out announcing we are good guys, so what we have to announce is we have finally realized we were bad guys and we are going to do better.’ … It makes it much easier for critics and the public to buy into the image of the industry as good guys after you have spent awhile in purgatory.”

Here’s some “reformed sinner” performance, punctuated with blame-framing and blame-shifting.  It’s rather remarkable that right after Senator Wyden says, “And the company always says the same thing after one of these accidents: ‘We’re gonna toughen up our standards; we’re going to improve management; we’re going to deal with risks,’ and then another such accident takes place,” BP executive Lamar McKay responds with the exact same formula just outlined: “We are changing this company.  We’ve put in management systems that are covering the world in a consistent and rigorous way.”

But why depart from the template that has worked so well and so consistently for so long?

If you find such behavior and responses (both by oil executives and the “legal personhood” of a corporation) to be best described as pathological behavior, then you might find useful the documentary The Corporation, which uses some of the key symptoms of psychopathy as outlined by the DSM-IV as an analytical lens for understanding corporate behavior:

  • callous disregard for the feelings of other people
  • the incapacity to maintain human relationships
  • reckless disregard for the safety of others
  • deceitfulness (continual lying to deceive for profit)
  • the incapacity to experience guilt
  • failure to conform to social norms and respect for the law

Oil has brought us some nice things and (to borrow another phrase from Derrick Jensen) all other things being equal, I’d like to have some of the things that are the result of oil.

“But all other things aren’t equal, and I’d rather have a living planet.”

Language of War

Our choice of words helps facilitate certain thoughts and empowers particular logics, while disciplining others.  This is a foundational principle of rhetorical studies and probably nothing new to many of this blog’s readers.

Every once and awhile, though, I realize just how high the stakes really are.

The video below was found at WikiLeaks, “a website that publishes anonymous submissions and leaks of sensitive governmental, corporate, organizational, or religious documents, while attempting to preserve the anonymity and untraceability of its contributors. Within one year of its December 2006 launch, its database had grown to more than 1.2 million documents” (wikipedia entry).  It is a classified US military video that shows the shooting of a dozen people in a suburb of Baghdad.  Among the victims were two Reuters news staff.  Two children are also involved.

Please take caution: this is raw footage, complete with the Army’s audio, of people being shot.

I deliberated on alternatives for “being shot” for quite some time.  Perhaps–“this is raw footage of people being murdered.” Or “slayed.”  Or “wrongly identified and accidentally fired upon.”

Slaughtered?  Invalidated?  Massacred?  Killed?  Rendered collateral damage?

Or, perhaps: engaged.

In the video you hear the military personnel saying, “We just engaged all eight individuals.”

It’s important to note that the video’s opening frame is a quote by Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language”:

[Political language is] designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Elsewhere in that essay Orwell writes, “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.”  I think the assumed interpretation of this is meant to indicate the government’s defense to the public.  This language is then, of course, picked up by the body politic, replicated by supporters to other members of the public.  This language becomes the banal standard, the terms we use–whether we’re for, against, or indifferent–to communicate.

But I wonder if we might think about how we use smokescreen language like this on ourselves, to psychologically shield ourselves from what we know is “indefensible,” which could be translated here as “unconscionable.”

So when the soldier in this video says, “I’m just trying to find targets again,” we could say it’s because it’s what allows him “to do his job” (another phrase of justification, used to pass accountability to another realm).  Can you imagine it rephrased?

I’m just trying to find a breathing body that has hopes and dreams like you and I to send a piece of metal through so that his blood will mix with the sand.”

This isn’t a piece about placing praise or blame on soldiers.  This isn’t the forum for such a critique; and having known several veterans of Iraq, I would never hastily condemn the individual without knowing more.  (For instance, what if the person doing the shooting ultimately found such an act reprehensible and leaked the video himself in a courageous attempt to right a wrong?)

This is a forum about language and its consequences.

Military speak is an extreme example of language that shields its users from discussing the indefensible.  It’s easy for us to assume that we are separate from those who must use linguistic mirrors to either do what they’re told or justify daily action.  But if you find this use of language chilling in its brutal efficacy, perhaps you’re willing to try something…

Let’s search for all those terms that displace our own accountability.  Let’s identify them, interrogate them, and reframe them for the better.  And let’s do it in a public forum.

Habitat loss and endangered species perform the same function that collateral damage and enhanced interrogation techniques do.  They are terms that permit–indeed facilitate–thinking that directs us away from a frame of accountability.

For those that think it’s a stretch to align environmental atrocity with the atrocity in the video below, you might first question how the two aggressions, rationale and even people behind those acts are similar.  The connections are staggering.

And so I’m calling on all rhetoricians, language-lovers, and wordsmiths to raise the stakes a bit, and using the emotion generated by the video below, to take ownership of language in such a way that it becomes infused with accountability and agency.

A Culture of Loss

Someone that I trust very much once wrote to me the following:

This has given me the greatest trouble and still does: to realize that what things are called is incomparably more important than what they are.  The reputation, name, and appearance, the usual measure and weight of a thing, what it counts for–originally almost always wrong and arbitrary, thrown over things like a dress and altogether foreign to their nature and even to their skin–all this grows from generation unto generation, merely because people believe in it, until it gradually grows to be a part of the thing and turns into its very body.  What at first was appearance becomes in the end, almost invariably, the essence–and is effective as such.  How foolish it would be to suppose that one only needs to point out this origin and this misty shroud of delusion in order to destroy the world that “counts” for real, so-called “reality.”

We can destroy only as creators.  But let us not forget this either: it is enough to create new names and estimations and probabilities in order to create in the long run new “things.”

My friend, Fred, knows quite a bit about the relationship between epistemology and rhetoric.  He’s studied both in a thorough, indeed, obsessive manner.  I’ve learned a great deal from him about what contemporary rhetoricians call epistemic rhetoric–the concept that knowledge is not just shaped by persuasive forces, but constituted through it.

Most days I’m energized by this.  Probably because I identify myself as a rhetorician.  But today I’m feeling overwhelmed by the power of words that have reified, creating realities for so many.  To be more specific, two words are sticking with me today and generating equal parts despondency and rage:  habitat loss.  All-too ubiquitous of a phrase.  Revoltingly repetitive in our mediascape.

I don’t know what triggered today’s mental spiraling, but it might have been this article from the BBC, posted last week:

Loss of forest?  It’s lost?  You mean, as in, misplaced?

(The United States has less than 4% of its original forests.)

If you can get past the sickening anthropocentrism that frames the article (the ongoing loss is affecting human well-being?!), the article had plenty of memorable phrases, such as: “species extinctions [are] running at about 1,000 times the ‘natural’ or ‘background’ rate, [and] some biologists contend that we are in the middle of the Earth’s sixth great extinction.”

But it’s tough to tell if it was this article that triggered my tears and fists, or one of the many others that say the exact same thing.

How we discuss this collective murder (and by extension, suicide) structures the way we perceive it.  So let’s consider just for a moment this language, starting with Derrick Jensen’s take on it:

The very day we wrote the final words of this book, scientists declared that yet another subspecies of tiger had gone extinct in the wild (with only captives remaining, so discouraged they’re dosed with Viagra to try and make them breed).

Gone extinct. Such a passive way to put it, as though we know no cause, can assign no responsibility. It’s almost as though we were to say that victims of murder passed away, or that victims of arson decided to move.

It is a language of unaccountability.  It is a language that diverts attention away from those who are stealing land, toxifying the soil and our bodies, and murdering all forms of species.  Consider another instance of this rhetoric of unaccountability, in a different article from the BBC:

Are they just “moving toward” extinction, or being driven there involuntarily and ruthlessly?

Are they “swimming into trouble,” or are they being caught and slaughtered en masse?

Who’s responsible for the over-fishing that has taken 90% of the ocean’s large fish? Who’s responsible for the murder-to-point-of-extinction of sharks? The fishing companies? The corporations that own them? The corporations that buy from them? The large-scale stores that support the sale of anything that can have a price tag put on it “legally”? The consumer? The culture industry for portraying sharks as ruthless human hunters? (Think Jaws, then consider that the rate of shark attacks on humans to human attacks on sharks is about 1 to 20,000.)

None of these questions arise, because the language is neutral and passive.  Nothing in this rhetoric invites any inquiry toward responsibility.

A rhetoric that diffuses.  Diverts.  Attenuates.  Deflects.  Veils.  Distracts.

Take another look at that population index chart.  Then repeat to yourself the fact that the planet’s species are undergoing extinction at a rate 1,000 times greater than before industrial civilization.  Then–please–ask yourself if the seriousness of the situation necessitates an equally serious resistance movement.

Seriously, now’s the time to ask.

Unlike Fred, I do not think that “it is enough to create new names” for this particular situation.  Much more must be done.  Much, much more.  Anything and everything that will stop the murder of the planet must be considered.

But “new names” is indeed a part of this equation.  So today I recommend a reframing of the term “extinction.”  Instead of thinking of it as the death of a species, think of as the end of birth.