Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

It’s the wrong mapping, essentially

The Megyn Kelly–Bill O’Reilly conversation about Friday’s unconscionable pepper spraying incident at UC Davis has now gone viral (see video here), and Kelly has, unsurprisingly, garnered the lion’s share of criticism for her meme-ready comment that pepper spray “is a food product, essentially.” (We all look forward to the inevitable segment in which Kelly gamely downs a slice of pizza doused with the stuff.)

Not to be outdone, O’Reilly counters later in the discussion with his own howler:

“I don’t think we have the right to Monday-morning quarterback the police.”

If O’Reilly’s comment lacks the patented Fox News mix of shock value and dismissiveness favored by Kelly, it more than makes up for it in the deftness of its metaphorical sleight-of-hand. Setting aside the troubling framing of public outrage at police brutality as a special right, explicitly enumerated only so that O’Reilly can, in the same breath, deny it to us—to say nothing of the vexed relationship between freedom and rights in right-wing political discourse—what makes O’Reilly’s football metaphor so pernicious is the fact that it applies the wrong metaphorical mapping to police and the citizens they are sworn to serve and protect.

O’Reilly would have us be spectators, imagining ourselves in the role of the police and unjustifiably complaining about perceived deficiencies in the execution of a task whose actual demands we cannot understand. A more apt, if still imperfect, metaphor would have us as referees, the agents with the ultimate authority to enforce the rules of fair play. Notice the very different roles played by the UC Davis students in these two metaphors: if we are Monday-morning quarterbacks, then we are invited to take on the perspective of the police and thus view the students as our opponents; if we are referees, then we are neutral arbitrators who must place the students and the police on an equal footing.

Metaphors run deep, and O’Reilly’s flawed football mapping will only further entrench the repugnant notion that student protestors are a public enemy. Perhaps, though, we can embrace the football talk for good ends: while we can’t play Monday-morning quarterback, we can examine the video replay, call penalties, and issue ejections.

No denying it

The UC Berkeley administration’s absurd overreaction to the Occupy movement on its campus (well documented on YouTube and elsewhere) has, perhaps unsurprisingly, produced a Nixonian, doth-protest-too-much linguistic blunder to go along with it. Here are the chancellor, provost, and vice chancellor for student affairs, as quoted in the Daily Cal last week:

It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience.

Setting aside the problematic (to put it mildly) nature of the second sentence’s semantic content, there is a basic pragmatic, rhetorical difficulty here: denial names its object, and calling something by name makes it discursively and cognitively salient. To deny that an action constitutes non-violent civil disobedience is to make your listener start thinking about non-violent civil disobedience. As an argumentation strategy, this is about as weak and self-defeating as it gets. As Nixon could attest, declaring that you’re not a crook simply makes people associate you with the word crook. Likewise, declaring that linking arms is not non-violent civil disobedience just makes people associate linking arms with non-violent civil disobedience (an association that doesn’t require much of a mental leap to begin with).

This is pretty elementary Don’t Think of an Elephant territory: if only Birgeneau et al. had bothered to stop by one of George Lakoff’s classes (on their own campus!), they might have learned this very basic linguistic lesson. Maybe after their refresher on the free speech movement…