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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

How Effective Is Mayor Ed Lee's Anti-Fireworks Message? We Ask a Rhetoric Professor.

Posted By on Tue, Jul 3, 2012 at 2:00 PM

  • Disheartening

Stanford Rhetorician Dissects Mayor's Flaccid Anti-Fireworks "Statement"

One of the sad features of modern political life is the proliferation of "statements" written in language that no human would ever use -- and no human would ever wish to read.

For some strange reason, these steaming piles of verbiage are presented within quotation marks, as if the luminary in question actually sat down, immersed herself in serious thought, and spoke the words attributed to her. Of course, these statements are as sincere as the script for a hostage video. Less, actually: While a hostage may not be receiving humane treatment and three meals a day, he is at least reading the text out loud.

A timely example of such a statement comes from Mayor Ed Lee and Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White. It's hardly revelatory to warn of the the mayhem that could be the result of putting fireworks in the wrong hands. But it's difficult to imagine the following passage dissuading anyone from the irresponsible, cavalier July Fourth behavior our forefathers went to war to protect:

"When fireworks aren't left to the professionals, a celebration can quickly turn into a tragedy. There is nothing more disheartening than seeing someone suffer a serious injury from a preventable accident. Fireworks may seem harmless, but they can cause more damage and destruction than one might think. Please leave the fireworks to the professionals this year and have a safe and happy July 4th in San Francisco."

It doesn't take a professional to dissect this sort of writing. But, because we found one who would pick up his phone on a quasi-holiday and had a good sense of humor, we got one. Marvin Diogenes is a rhetoric professor at Leland Stanford Junior University, where he is also the co-director of introductory studies for the school's writing program and oversees the "Writing in the Major" program. He's written books about the English language, short stories, and is the singer and lyricist for a blues band. In short, he can diagram a sentence.

Diogenes read over the mayoral statement without being informed of its "author." And while he shares his surname with the founder of cynicism, he started off on an up note. "I like the first sentence pretty well," he says. But then things go downhill.

"The second sentence's passive construction isn't helping you out that much. Think about making that sentence more direct: 'People suffer serious injuries every year from accidents that could be prevented' is a stronger way of saying that."

In fact, the whole notion of how "disheartening" it is when people blow their fingers off or burn down the neighborhood is jarring. Imagine Ed Lee coolly observing Dad, shrieking, as he plunges what's left of his hand into his blood-soaked T-shirt and his children helplessly wail. Ed speaks: "How disheartening. I am disheartened."

Do away with that altogether, says Diogenes. "The main adjective is 'serious.' So get rid of the 'disheartening' part," he suggests. "People do suffer serious injuries. You don't have to venture how someone would feel about it."

The professor likes the alliteration of "damage and destruction," but winces at "one might think." This formulation "is not as effective as you can do. I don't like that very much. In writing, I try to have as concrete subjects and objects as you can."

If Lee and Hayes-White want readers to think twice before tooling around with fireworks, it might do to grab their attention. Diogenes suggests setting up a contrast; something like "When you see them in the sky, fireworks can be beautiful. But, handled improperly, they cause more damage and destruction than you might think." This also moves the alliteration up higher, incidentally.

Asked if the dry, joyless text he read would prevent people from behaving foolishly with fireworks -- certainly the only reason such text was created -- Diogenes was skeptical. "This is the kind of language people see every day and don't pay attention to," he says. "The people who would pay attention are parents of young children -- and not young people. Whatever you say to young people, they won't pay attention to it. Unless you show them a picture of Emma Stone with her ear blown off."

Do you see what can happen?
  • Do you see what can happen?
Sometimes, however, too graphic a message can backfire. The anti-fireworks statement goes on to note that even a sparkler can burn at 1,800 degrees -- "a temperature hot enough to melt gold." Barring an army of children ascending the dome of City Hall and using sparklers to melt its gold leaf into puddles on Polk Street and along the Van Ness corridor, this is not a realistic problem. In fact, informing kids a sparkler burns hot enough to melt gold might germinate some unwelcome ideas.

"The 1,800 degrees -- that's what I'm going to remember. The part about melting gold, I might not go with that," Diogenes says. "I might go with something about what's more likely to happen: Someone who's not careful could burn themselves or the person next to them. Parents will see that and think of their kids. They'll think about letting their kids run around with sparklers."

(Diogenes, like all of you, ran around with sparklers as a kid on the Fourth of July.)

Finally, asked why anyone sees the need to churn out reams of canned, formulaic pablum and encapsulate the text within quote marks, Diogenes laughed. He referenced the following passage from Lewis Thomas' essay Notes on Punctuation:

Quotation marks should be used honestly and sparingly, when there is a genuine quotation at hand, and it is necessary to be very rigorous about the words enclosed by the marks.... Above all, quotation marks should not be used for ideas that you'd like to disown, things in the air so to speak. Nor should they be put in place around clichés; if you want to use a cliché you must take full responsibility for it yourself and not try to fob it off on anon., or on society. The most objectionable misuse of quotation marks, but one which illustrates the danger of misuse in ordinary prose, is seen in advertising, especially in advertisements for small restaurants, for example "just around the corner," or "a good place to eat." No single, identifiable, citable person ever really said, for the record, "just around the corner," much less "a good place to eat," least likely of all for restaurants of the type that use this type of prose.
It warrants mentioning that we used ellipses to edit out the portion about use of ellipses.

Remember, "statements" may seem harmless, but they can cause more angst and agitation than one might think.

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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