The Black Helicopter

Random ramblings

The use of discourse analysis, part 1

with 2 comments

I could have called this post “voluntary chemical castration”, but alas… it is about other words.

A few days ago, my partner Tale reminded me of the importance of discourse analysis; after reading an interview with a convicted sex offender undergoing voluntary chemical castration (!), the following phrases stuck:  “I was convicted of having sex with my daughter, and I was convicted of having sex with my stepdaughter. One time I was drunk, one time I was not” (quoted from memory; the interview is in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten’s weekend supplement A-magasinet from a week ago). Several questions immediately spring to mind: “having sex”?  “was convicted”? – isn’t it rather a question of being guilty of incestuous rape?

Now, I have no problem with the convict as such; this is not a blog entry screaming for justice. He is in prison, undergoing chemical castration – the system seems to work. Our discussion rather reminded me of many good classroom discussions on the rhetorics of politicians, lawyers, celebrities and scientists, occluding realities with a simple choice of words. I have analysed texts with students in high school, college and university for ten years now, touting the virtues of discourse analysis with its pragmatic mesh of theory and practice. In this approach, the close attention to choice of words, phrases and combinations are combined with a contextual awareness, making ideological choices and positions visible in semantics and language use. Hence language (even minute choices) has a large role in constituting social reality – we can change perceptions of and interactions with this reality by changing our nomenclature (this is a moderate relativism; regarding reality “as such”, I am a critical realist).

My usual example has been “milk” and “ecological milk” – in Danish discourse on dairy products, the second is usually valorized as “good”, it is considered  healthier or at least better for the cow than the first one (which is then “bad”). It is also more expensive (making it bad for people more attentive to price). Both are involved in battles over what is best for us, if we are cheated by clever farmers selling “bad” milk as ecological etc. The same value dynamics are seen with eggs and free-range chickens, for example. But the funny things is: the neutral, non-adjectival position is invariably inhabited by the cheaper, non-ecological product. This of course has historical roots: farming has been industrialized and ecological alternatives are new and counter-cultural to the regular industry. Thus value systems of “naturalness” and “artificiality” and a host of ideological positions determine one’s decisions on these matters.

If we really wanted to impose ecology in Danish farming, we should invert the choices available to the customer (and the producer, by the way): Call the cheaper milk “poison milk”, the eggs “industrial eggs” and the chickens “abrasion chicken” or something, reserving the neutral position of milk, egg and chicken for the ecological variant. Even though “bad” alternatives are still cheaper, they are now associated with bad adjectives, making the price not a neutral facet of choice, but an active part of choosing the “bad” product. (As an aside: I actually suggested the same inversion tactics at the high school I worked at; instead of speaking of “allowed leave of absence” of 15 percent, “punishing” the ones exceeding this number with “larger examination requirements”, we should talk about “required presence” of 85 percent, “rewarding” good students with “reduced curriculum”. No actual changes have to be made but linguistic ones, but perhaps the students would stop striving for 14,9 percent absence).

While I won’t be updating my favorite classroom and lecture examples with discussions of “sex” and “rape” anytime soon, the interview supplies a very clear example of these very language dynamics. As far as I can see, the choice of words reveal some basic uncertainties regarding acknowledgement of the crimes themselves. “Having sex”?! Was these sexual encounters really voluntary? “Was convicted”?! The passive voice indicates a miscarriage of justice, or at least a distance between the convict and the sentence. Drunk? That doesn’t do any good either way, does it? I understand the psychological difficulties in “owning” a crime, and I understand the inherent problems in an interview situation, but until he voluntarily speaks of being guilty of raping young girls, I would keep using chemical castration.

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Written by Jesper

March 12, 2010 at 22:19

2 Responses

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  1. Actually I think that child molestation is an excellent entryway for discussion on discourse analysis. I’ve myself looked at different perspectives on child molestation the last 60 or so years, and it’s remarkable how things have changed over time and we can assume will continue to change. All in step with how society as a whole has changed. But it’s a large and touchy subject. Which is why I’ve left it alone for some years now.

    Mad Mullah Hastur

    March 15, 2010 at 09:11

  2. Agreed on both accounts! Joel Best, among others, have done brilliant work tracing the development of stranger danger and child molestation. I remember being warned about candy-carrying strangers with long coats when I was a kid, and it seemed so terrifying. After Satanic Ritual Abuse, serial BTK-kidnappers and paedophile child pornography rings these candy bag strangers definitely seem nice. A new history should be written.

    Jesper

    March 15, 2010 at 11:55


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