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American power elites have lost exclusive rights to frame 'the story," says UC Berkeley linguist
12 Jun 2000

By Patricia McBroom, Media Relations

Berkeley - 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?

Many would say the press panders to the masses or gives in to sensational journalism.

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.

"These 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.

The stories 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.

"We 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."

Lakoff 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 Test.

Departing 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.

She argues 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.

But now "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."

The answer seems to be no, said the linguist.

There is no longer just one story. But several equally plausible stories may be told by different groups of people, said Lakoff.

During 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.

The same 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.

There was 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 more narratives.

In the stories spun around the First Couple and their personalities lie some of the most complicated, convoluted meanings of all, said Lakoff.

Hillary 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.

"Scarcely 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 resist interpretation.

"She 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."

Nevertheless, they try, said Lakoff.

"We 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?"

Lakoff 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.

"A 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.

"Hillary is not allowed to be a human being, and whatever she does is more closely scrutinized."

Lakoff does not offer the nation's audience any reassurance that our public narratives will become less confused.

"After 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.

"Maybe we will learn to appreciate our different voices and work together to create a new understanding," said Lakoff, "and maybe we won't."




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