Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Semantic Reactions to Irony

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Semantic Reactions to Irony

Article excerpt

General Semantics, from its very beginnings, has concerned itself with semantic reactions. One scholar, in fact, has gone so far as to define General Semantics as "the study of semantic reactions, or more clearly, ... the study of reactions to language" (Hauck, 2008, p. 346). In traditional rhetorical theory, the use of irony in language has been cited as having been used in argument "with great effectiveness," with even further "potential as a persuasive instrument" (Karstetter, 1964, p. 162). In this essay, I will examine an example of ironic argumentation during the rise of the "Tea Party" movement in late 2009. This use of irony and the verbally and physically violent semantic reactions it provoked also make a case for General Semantics as an explanation for a lack of sanity in much current political discourse in the United States.

"Robert Erickson" Punks the Tea Party

On November 14, 2009, a "Tea Party against Amnesty" was held by a consortium of groups opposed to policies that would give illegal immigrants a path to either U.S. citizenship or legal resident status (Neiwert, 2009, p. 1). A young man identifying himself as "Robert Erickson" obtained a place on the speakers' agenda and delivered a speech decrying the evils the "immigrant population" had brought upon Minnesota. He lamented the unfair competition for jobs and resources and advocated that "we send these people back where they came from ... to protect the sovereignty of the real Americans." He went further to accuse "immigrants" of creating "waves of crime" and spreading "diseases like smallpox," noting that this had been going on for "hundreds of years." He gained much sympathy from the crowd until he continued by calling to " ... send these European immigrants back where they came from!" It soon became obvious that Erickson was actually engaging in an ironic indictment of white European invaders who had robbed Native Americans of the continent over the centuries. By the time several pro-immigration activists had joined Erickson in chants of "Columbus Go Home!" it was obvious that the crowd had been duped. One witness reported that most members of the Tea Party group stood in stunned silence once they realized what had occurred. Unfortunately, some members of the group reacted violently. One of the pro-immigration protestors was knocked off his bicycle and struck with fists. Other violent acts of pushing and shoving were also noted (Neiwert). The event was captured on two videos posted to the YouTube Web site; by July of 2010, the videos had a combined 135,000 hits (Hoppin, 2010a).

Subsequent activism on immigrant rights issues revealed that "Robert Erickson" was a pseudonym for a young man named Nick Espinosa, who has staged several acts of performance protest on the issue of illegal immigration. Espinosa's father was deported as an illegal immigrant from Ecuador; Espinosa, then 15 years old, stayed in the United States with his stepmother (Tevlin, 2010, p. IB). Espinosa explained his use of the pseudonym as an attempt to mask his real identity in order to get himself placed on the Minnesota Tea Party rally speakers list without rousing suspicion (Hoppin, 2010a). Later, he revealed that he had attempted to maintain the alter-ego because of death threats resulting from the prank (Hoppin, 2010b).

Espinosa's use of irony to counter the Tea Party groups' anti-immigrant rally elicited immediate violent responses evidenced earlier as well as the death threats. Other instances of negative semantic reactions (mostly the use of profanity from older Tea Party group members directed toward younger individuals in the Espinosa group) are apparent on the YouTube video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rry_SlPW7oU) and documented by the Twin Cities Independent Media Blog (Parry and Feidt, 2009). If these incidents were limited to this one Tea Party function, we might consider it a singular example of a bad semantic reaction. However, in a larger context of angry rhetoric that seems to pervade Tea Party and general political discourse in the United States, this example of ironic argument may reveal a basis for more general understandings of semantic reactions in the current political arena and suggest a heuristic value to further investigation of the ironic form. …

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