Pink and Pepsi

Here are two more examples that continue the conversations about identification, belonging, performance, etc.

Apparently real “men” can take anything except Diet drinks … so Pepsi had to come up with a diet soda–for men. Now this message alone might not be significant. But when we think of the “body of identifications” or wide range of messages that present a “dull daily reinforcement” we get a better sense of the scripts or fronts that we create for men (and women) to reenact and recreate. “Belonging … is rhetoricial” and we learn that in many cases if we want to “belong” we’d better play our “roles” to meet other people’s expectations.

When we have a “rhetorical view” of communication and we start to pay attention to the messages that create identifications and divisions and the messages that move us to behave, believe, and perform in certain ways, we also develop the ability to intervene and invent new ways to communicate.  I believe that’s what Pink attempts to do in “Stupid Girls” … she wants to create a different body of identifications that encourage women to identify with different roles and select different fronts and put on different performances.

How do you see Burke and Goffman’s ideas relating to these clips? Or to any other examples you’ve found? [I’ve used gender as an example because it’s often something that most of us can relate to and recognize easily … but we can apply and think about the same theories and ideas when we think any of our identities and performances: race, sexuality, class, religion, profession, organization (think especially about Greek organizations) …]


From performace to identification: Beauty

We are moving on to consider the role of rhetoric in identification and division. But we are not done talking about performance. We’ll keep relating back to performance all semester. There are many connections to make between Goffman and Burke, and as we explore rhetoric and identification this week, I encourage you to explore and discuss those connections in examples on your team blogs.

Here is one example of the relationship between identification (Burke’s topic) and performance (Goffman) with significance for all of us. Watch the following short video from the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty.

The film focuses on women and certainly we can find a long history of research and evidence that women are affected by body image concerns. But let’s be clear: men experience the same concerns about body image–maybe to a lesser degree, but men still have anxieties over their bodies, weight, and appearance. Think of all the exercise products, hair-growth products, etc. targeted toward men. Not convinced? Here are a few articles that migh help: Media Assault on Male Body Image and Enhancing Male Body Image. In my opinion, men don’t talk about these things because it isn’t “manly” to feel insecure and it isn’t “tough” to have those anxieties … which is another conversation about identification and performance altogether.

But to the point … how is it that we come to identify ourselves with being “ugly” or “fat” or “unattractive” or “too big,” “too skinny,” “too pale,” “too dark,” “too whatever…“? Burke’s ideas help us think about that question. We receive a regular influx of messages from television, magazines, friends, family, etc. that create a collective meaning for ideas like “beauty” or “sexy” or “attractive.” If those messages don’t often include us or people who look like us, then we don’t “see” ourselves in that definition or in Burke’s terms, we might not “identify” with those things. In other words, we are “divided” from these characteristics. If we don’t identify with those images, terms, ideas, then we often feel we are NOT those things.

Once we realize our identities, we perform these identities. When the young woman in the video feels “fat” she constantly feels she needs to pull her shorts and skirt down lower to cover her “fat” legs. Another young woman described doing sit ups every night. Our performances in large part are driven by the ideas and characteristics we identify with. If I feel “fat,” I might put on a front of trying to work out regularly. If I have learned to identify myself with “unattractive,” then I might perform in ways that confirm or create a reality of feeling unconfident and insecure. The ways in which we always perform are directly related to the identities and characteristics we are rhetorically encouraged to identify with.

“Things won’t change until we change them”

Here’s a preview of things to come in this course and another reason why the “rhetorical view” is so important. The more we fall into the “standard view” of communication, the more likely we will simply accept our created definitions of “beauty” or “sexy” or “attractive” as natural or pre-existing (as if those meanings are just “real” and exist independent of the way we communicate about them.) We are more likely to feel like we can’t do anything about it.

But Peters reminds us we have the ability to find new ways to communicate and we can create new worlds and Isocrates praises the power of communication to build societies. The significance of these ideas is that we can change our messages and change the ways we identify and change our performances, etc. We can learn to pay careful attention to the complex and broad range of communication that shapes how we think, what we value, and how we behave, and we can realize our ability to intervene and change things and make new meanings.

Here’s one more short commercial from Dove that points to the profound impact that a simple performance or communication might have. From the standpoint of the unseen young woman who can only see what’s “wrong” with her, we see how negative identifications adversely affect our performances. From the standpoint of the young man we see how a simple “performance” might dramatically change the “reality” for this young woman.

From Peters to performance (Goffman)

Check out this short article about the necessity of “lying” … It is related to Peter’s point that we cannot avoid imperfect communication and in fact it is a very good thing we can’t communicate perfectly.

The author writes:

Here is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: My name is Lisa, and I am a liar, though a good marketing consultant could probably finesse the word into something a bit more palatable: “Reality Stylist” might be good, or “Pinocchiotologist” could work. My mother insists that, at the end of the day, what I am is a storyteller — and she might have a point.

So I sugarcoat and I gloss over, and I rationalize and, yes, I sometimes fictionalize my little story.

So far, we’ve spent some time setting up a “battle” of ideas over communication and rhetoric. From Plato forward we’ve had many discourses (cultural “conversations” if you will) that emphasize the attitude that “rhetoric” is generally bad or dangerous because it can mislead or misrepresent. And from this position, we might be more likely to criticize this author for “fictionalizing” her stories.

But now we want to explore the other side of the “battle” over rhetoric–the side we probably aren’t as familiar with (even though it goes on around us every day). We will begin to fill in what a “rhetorical view” of communication means. And we will start creating more answers to the question “What else does communication do beyond transmit ideas?”

One question we could ask about this article is: “Is this really lying?” If we’re always seeing things and talking about things from a certain perspective and if there is no such thing as “truth or fact as they actually exist” (Lanham) then is “rhetoric” necessarily bad? … or like Peters says, is our imperfect communication–including rhetoric–a “handsome condition” and “blessing?” This week we’ll read about “performance” and consider the question “When aren’t we performing? When aren’t we wearing a mask?” And how do our performances also create identities and realities?

This article quotes Joan Didion who says, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” That message is similar to a point Lanham makes in “The Rhetorical Ideal of Life.” Lanham explains that with a “rhetorical view” we will realize that our “capacity to make up comforting illusions is as infinite as the university [we are] flung into. Naked into the world [we] may come, but not without resource.” ( 8 ) In other words, rhetoric, performance, “storytelling” are all necessary features and valuable resources for our lives shared with others. Like Isocrates and Peters believe, these aspects of communication allow us to connect with one another and create new beliefs, worlds, and culture.

The “Wonderful” Wizard from Wicked

elphabaThe musical Wicked tells the story of the Wicked Witch of the West (the character from The Wizard of Oz) … from her perspective. In the show, we learn that Elphaba (that’s the Wicked Witch’s name) isn’t so “wicked” after all. She was born green and so everyone in Oz treated her poorly and picked on her. She was born with the gift of magic, but her talents scared the citizens of Oz so they treated her like a villain and she became an outcast. The “fact” or “truth” is not that Elphaba simply is wicked; instead the way people talked about her and treated her made her seem wicked. The story is an excellent example of a “rhetorical view” of communication.

In the musical, the “wonderful wizard of oz” sings a song to Elphaba about how he came to be “wonderful.” His attitude in the song demonstrates nicely the “rhetorical view of communication.”


“Wonderful” from the musical Wicked


I never asked for this or planned it in advance
I was merely blown here by the winds of chance
I never saw myself as a Solomon or Socrates
I knew who I was:
One of your dime a dozen mediocrities

Then suddenly I’m here
Respected – worshipped, even
Just because the folks in Oz
Needed someone to believe in

They called me “Wonderful”
So I said “Wonderful” – if you insist
I will be “Wonderful”
And they said “Wonderful”
Believe me, it’s hard to resist
‘Cause it feels wonderful
They think I’m wonderful
Hey, look who’s wonderful –
This corn-fed hick

Who said: “It might be keen
To build a town of green
And a wonderful road of yellow brick!”

(spoken) See – I never had a family of my own. So, I
guess I just – wanted to give the citizens of Oz everything.

Notice how the wizard realizes that communication made him wonderful. (They called  him wonderful so he is wonderful.) Before he got to Oz, his role, his primary performance was being a “mediocre,” “corn-fed hick.” But the people of Oz needed a leader and they believed it was him, so suddenly he became wonderful through the magic of communication. Lanham said that from a rhetorical perspective reality is what we make, what we accept as reality. It’s not something that just exists for us to discover. The wizard gets that. That doesn’t necessarily make him a fraud or a liar, but because he has a “rhetorical view” on life and communication and identity he understands that the “reality” of his wonderfulness is constructed, not natural.

ELPHABA: (spoken) So you lied to them.

WIZARD: (spoken) Elphaba, where I’m from, we believe all sorts of
things that aren’t true. We call it – “history

Elphaba sounds a little like Plato. As if the wizard is deceiving, manipulating, and lying–or using rhetoric to muddy up the truth. But just like Lanham’s “rhetorical view” of communication, the wizard understands that most of what we believe is an “illusion” of sorts. Everything is equally rhetorical. That dosn’t mean it’s not “real” or that everything is an evil “lie.” But it is a different way to think about reality.

(sung) A man’s called a traitor – or liberator
A rich man’s a thief – or philanthropist
Is one a crusader – or ruthless invader?
It’s all in which label is able to persist
There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities
So we act as though they don’t exist

This part captures the “rhetorical view” perfectly. The wizard shows us why words invent ideas and knowledge instead of simply transmit them. Depending on perspective or culture or history, etc. we can easily come up with multiple “truths” about the world. Communication allows us to alter and shape reality, knowledge and truth.

They call me “Wonderful” so I am wonderful
In fact – it’s so much who I am it’s part of my name
And with my help, you can be the same

His final message to Elphaba is simple. Communication helped invent the reality that he was “wonderful” … and she can have the same thing. Unfortunately for her, the way people talked about her and the ways she performed created a different reality–she became “wicked” instead of “wonderful.”

Here’s the music if you’d like to listen along…

Search for Truth

The way we think about communication impacts the way we think about “truth.” We tend to think about truth as something that is objective and verifiable, something that has always existed, something that we just need to discover and describe. And when we use the “tool” of communication to describe or “convey” or “transmit” truth we usually judge the communication by whether it was “true” or “false;” “correct” or “incorrect;” “right” or “wrong.” We want people to be truthful and honest. We value finding and discovering objective Truth. Most of you talked about “truth” in these ways on your first assignment.

The slogan from the television series X-files makes sense because we tend to want to cut through all the illusions and discover Truth:

Likewise, we don’t like it when it seems like people twist the objective “facts” of a situation. We certainly don’t want to be deceived by lies and illusions. We make people swear to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” in court with the understanding that they will not spin the facts or manipulate anything. We usually think about lies or distortion or spin or rhetoric as things that get in the way of clear, truthful, transparent, successful communication–it’s all “noise” when we think of communication as “transmission” or “sending info.”

These ideas about truth trace, in part, all the way back to Plato (and Aristotle and Socrates). As you read Plato’s Gorgias you should be able to identify some of these ideas in Socrates’ attitude about communication and rhetoric.

Think about these other examples that represent standard and typical ways we think and talk about truth:

  • Last fall, the presidential candidates had teams dedicated to telling the facts and “truth” about each candidate and combating the myths and lies … John McCain started the “McCain Truth Squad” (and the “Palin Truth Squad”) / Barack Obama tried to “Fight the Smears”
  • Karl Rove criticized some of the McCain campaign ads for going “one step too far,” and “attributing to Obama things that are … beyond the ‘100 percent truth’ test.”
  • When we learn history in K – 12. We memorize “objective” facts and data about the past that we typically treat as absolute truth. We see that attitude in a show like “Digging for Truth” on the History Channel, that goes on a quest to discover the truth of the past.
  • We want the news to tell us the truth. A CNN commercial tells viewers to “Get the facts. Demand the truth. We do!” We usually expect that ideal news will communicate neutral truth about the world.
  • We also value the objective truth in science, where numbers and data prove facts about the world.

Plato (via Socrates) isn’t exactly talking about physics and the history channel. He’s more interested in discovering True Beauty, the True “Good Life,” True Love. But the point is that the way Plato thought about speech, rhetoric, communication, and truth trickled down through the years and influences us today.

Suggestions: Think of other everyday examples where we value the Truth as something that has always existed outside of communication? As something that we just have to find, discover, and describe? How does that relate to the way we sometimes think and talk about our identities, our True self?

It might be equally helpful to think about messages that criticize what Socrates calls “rhetoric.” Other than politics, where do we devalue and criticize communication that we believe distracts us from the truth or misleads us from the truth?

Once again, relationship advice is another good source for seeing some of the common ways our standard way of thinking about communication shapes the way we talk and understand “truth”: