Friday, October 3, 2008

Speech Acts, Rhetorical Theory and Verncular Literacy (or a Lack Therof)

A reader of my previous post emailed me a question directed at my assumed criticism of Sarah Palin's use of folksy language/vernacular:
For someone to be such a proponent of African American Verncular [sic] English, how can you criticize Gov. Palin for drawing on a different dialect? Isn't that hypocritical? Isn't it about what you say and not how you say it?
Yes, it is about what you say and how you say it. And while I may seem judgmental or hypocritical in my criticism of her dialect, let me provide readers with my understandings of Palin's speech acts as rhetorical theory.

Here's what Palin did (or attempted to do depending on the audience perception) quite well:
She understood that her use a folksy vernacular could possess pathetic (in the rhetorical sense) appeal (ethical appeals may also be possessed, but IMO the jury is still out on this). Palin wanted audience members to consider the ways that she is no different from them,and therefore, attempted to manipulate speech acts in way that create an "Average Joe" persona. The jury's still out on whether or not voters want an Average Joe Six-Pack assuming the most/second most important office/job in the country though.

But here's why Palin's nonstandard variety of English only gets her so far. If her folksy dialect had been used to directly, critically, and intellectually answer the questions given to her by the moderator, then she probably would have won the debate. But since her folksy vernacular was often used in ways that did not answer many of the questions, for responses that were semi incoherent, and/or for responses for which she relied on cliched terminology (e.g. "energy", "maverick", "corruption")--none of which was defined coherently if at all--her one-liners are not as effective.

Here's the difference between Palin's vernacular use and what I call for in terms of the legitimacy of AAVE: AAVE speakers are often assumed to be unintelligent, not because of what they say, but how they say it. IMO, Palin's responses are less intelligent, not because of how she said them, but because of how she weakly drew on her speech vernacular as rhetorical act. In other words, she used the folksy dialect, but her responses had no substance. Had she used the folksy dialect with substance, she might have won the debate over Biden.

For those less familiar with my work, my research invests an interest in the ways in which AAVE/Ebonics/Black English, etc. is used rhetorically to make an effective intellectual argument. Geneva Smitherman has made this argument decades ago, but linguistic prejudice is still a prevailing attitude in many schools and university classrooms. To illustrate what Smitherman and I mean when we say that Ebonics speakers can speak Ebonics and make exceptional and rhetorcally sound arguments, I leave you with a poem of JB Simple gettin' down intellectually from Smitherman's book, Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America (p. 34):

In the North
The Jim Crow Line
Ain't clear --
But it's here!
From New York to Chicago
Points past and
In between
Jim Crow is mean!
Even though integrated,
With Democracy!
Jim crow is not mated.
Up North Jim Crow
Wears an angels grin --
But still he sin.
I swear he do!
Don't You?

Now, do you understand my position?

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