Sunday, November 13, 2005

EL4254

Power in an Author’s Identity and the Rhetorical Persuasiveness of Opinions in a Newspaper Op-ed Article[1]

In “Opinions and Ideologies in the Press,”
[2] Van Dijk suggests that opinions expressed in op-ed articles[3] “may vary considerably in their ideological presuppositions,” and they “seem to imply that the ideologies of journalists somehow influence their opinions, which in turn influence the discourse structures of the opinion articles.” Such influences can have ideological effects on the readers of such articles, especially if they are written by a senior journalist, who, given her/his experience in journalism and professional position, can be seen as being more credible and objective, and hence impartial in news articles written be her/him. Drawing on Van Dijk’s framework for discourse structures, specifically the concepts of propositions, implications, presuppositions, local and global coherences, I will first provide an analysis of a Straits Times article authored by its deputy political editor Paul Jacob on how the Singaporean online community should react in light of the charges brought against three Singaporean racist web log authors (bloggers for short)[4]. In doing so, I will subsequently illustrate the rhetoric persuasiveness of such an ideological, opinionated commentary in the context of the author’s identity and the power that s/he possesses in constructing opinions for readers.

Propositions

When propositions in the article are analysed, it is found that there are three main groups of people being addressed. Firstly, the racist bloggers
[5] are constructed through negative predicates. For example, “spewing intolerance”, “incitement” and “invective” are acts that attribute the role of Agents to the racist bloggers. Also, they are further put in a negative light when they are being described as having “ranted about Islam and Muslims.” Due to the nature of their acts, it is unlikely that such a portrayal of the bloggers will raise objections from readers. Secondly, and more importantly, there is a group of propositions that refer to the intended audience – those who identify themselves as part of the online community. They are being addressed directly by the opening noun phrase “online activism”, which refers to an action or movement that only they can be involved in, by virtue of being online. The author further addresses this group of intended audience, as “active civic-minded” citizens on one hand, yet reproaching them on the other hand of not taking the necessary action to “pummel and bombard” the racist bloggers and instead, generate “speculation” and “debating” about the wisdom of the authorities in a perceived attempt to “curtail debate.” Other negative properties attributed to the online community include the need for “soul-searching” (where the addressee is ellipsed) and having “grown immune” to the behaviour of the bloggers. Towards the end, however, the author suggests that there is room for the online community to salvage their situation, that “it’s best” to regulate the Internet through their active “clamping down” of such undesirable behaviour.
A third set of propositions show the authorities as the victim of the whole incident. Their “merits and wisdom” and use of the Sedition Act had been questioned (“receiving attention” and “debate”) within the online community and beyond, even though the author implies that readers should sympathise with them because of the “difficulty [in] patrolling or imposing control” over the “many people out there at it [that is, inciting racial and religious abuse].”

Therefore, through Emphasising information that is negative about the online community and racist bloggers, as well as Emphasising positive information about the authorities
[6], what is the ideological through these propositions is not strictly constructing an image of the good Us versus the bad Them, but rather a construction of a misguided online community victimising the authorities as the evil Other. On top of that, both the online community represented as being the bad them, but only the online community is allowed an avenue for reprieve. Next, I shall look at how implications and presuppositions are coherently organised at the local level, and how these, in turn are structured into topics at the macro level of global coherence.

Implications, Presuppositions and Local Coherence

The bolded headline frames the article within the context of taking a proactive stance in removing undesirable racial and religious comments in the Internet, subsequently termed “online activism.” The imperative that follows the term spells out the specific action to be taken, and is ideological because the author is over-emphasising the negative other-presentation of the racist bloggers; the intolerance being analogously referred to as being excessive and uncontrollably spilling into the Internet domain, and the need to eradicate the presence of such undesirable elements, much like how trees are being uprooted out from the ground, leaving no trace behind. Such an important ideological stand is reiterated in Paragraph (23), and the Paragraph itself is reproduced in a font size larger than the actual text itself, as a form of sub-headline.
[7]

Paragraphs (1) to (5) form the Introduction; the author constructs a model of the importance of being protected from racial and religious abuse for the reader. Paul Jacob exerts the presupposition in (1)
[8] as a value judgement against the absoluteness of freedom of speech, while (2) serves as a Specification of one particular value that is of higher importance than freedom of speech. This is enhanced by appealing to the necessity of such a value, that of being protected against racial and religious abuse, “especially with the mix of races and religions here [in Singapore]”, and further strengthened in (3) by a truth statement demonstrating such protection as being legitimised universally. (4) and (5) implicitly suggests that one will be eventually subjected to moral judgement and societal condemnation even if there is legal provision for the possibility of making such abuse.

(6) to (20) contextualise the faults of the online community; the questions in (6) to (8)
[9] can be seen as implications, in a sense that they lead to answers indicating that Singaporeans are at fault for neither exhibiting any emotional response nor taking any concrete actions to censure the bloggers. These can be shown to be false; the “consciousness and outrage” of the online community are demonstrated by the two hundred-odd comments left in the blog of one of the bloggers[10]. On the other hand, (9) to (12) depict the online community as being at fault for undermining the authorities’ “merits and wisdom” in charging the bloggers and more importantly, actions that are seen as interfering with and curbing the freedom of expression enjoyed within the Internet domain.

From (13) to (20), Paul Jacob moves on to criticise the mentality of the online community; the evaluative statement in (13) implies that the online community is lacking criteria examination of its own beliefs and attitudes towards the incident. Following that, the series of rhetorical questions implies that the online community will be at fault regardless of whether they answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’; they are not questions per se, but rather implications that further attribute blame to the online community. The community is being implied as having declined in morality (in 14); wrongly assuming that such abuse and their authors are of little significance both in quantity and impact (in 15); and paying lip service to racial harmony through nothing more than symbolic performances (from 18 to 20). Ironically, performances listed in (18) to (20) are legitimised by social institutions; religious institutions in (18), schools in (19) and the media itself in (20) (notice that the media is anonymous and hence it is not directly implicated.)! As for the “question” in (16), it seems that the intended reader is in a position to answer “yes” and identify the authorities as most capable of “put[ting] an end” to such abuse. However, Paul seemed to have anticipated such a cognitive response on the reader’s part; (17) serves to debunk the reader’s over-reliance on the authorities because it is proposed that there are many more racist people who still “prowl the Internet, undeterred and unchallenged”, and that it will take more than persecution on the authorities’ part to remove these racist elements. Here, Paul is alluding to the conscience of the community, and therefore implying reference to the purpose of the article – online activism. Overall, the implications and presuppositions forming a globally coherent sub-topic here ultimately construct a model of the community’s indifference and complacency towards the issue, both in their (in)actions as well as mentality towards the incident, while hinting at the need for the community to keep racial and religious abuse in check.

(21) to (24) represent a shift in Paul’s rhetoric. Firstly, he applies the phrase “something [that] has failed to hit home” twice in (21) on the two guilty parties, and the “something” is different for both groups. The first instance presupposes that the racist bloggers have not understood the importance of preserving racial/religious harmony; the second instance implies that the online community had not understood the repercussions of the incident on racial/religious harmony, thus implying that the online community must shoulder part of the blame. The disclaimer in (22) can be seen as a move by Paul in acknowledging the possibility of exceptions where action was taken by some members of the online community. However, he elaborates in (23) what specifically needs to be done, and in (24) he implicitly spells out what is meant by “active” in “online activism”, thereby also implying that even those who “blow the whistle and complain” had not done enough.

(25) to (29) represent another shift; on the surface, these paragraphs offer a summary of the earlier issues in the article. (25) explicates the presupposition that the Internet is a shared social domain, and the online community needs to exercise shared communal responsibility in warding off and thwarting racist/anti-religious elements, while (26) reiterates the faults of both the bloggers and the community. (27) presupposes that majority of those online are able to help in this cause to eradicate such intolerance, and (28) urges this majority to shift their attention from inaction and criticising the authorities to self-reflection and activism. The concluding in (29) is interesting because it implies on a drastic result of being deprived of the ability to exercise such activism should the advice offered in the article not be heeded.

Discussion

Paul Jacob has constructed several models attempting to persuade and influence the online community to take a more proactive stance towards the self-regulation of the Internet. It is this persuasiveness that makes the article ideological, and the ideology is perpetuated primarily through the power that Paul Jacob, in the capacity as the author of the article, wields in writing the article. Paul’s identity as a deputy political editor is explicated at the end. It suggests that his words carry more weight as opposed to an ordinary political journalist; his professional identity empowers and allows him institutional access to construct models and identities, as well as gives his words such credibility that his opinions should be taken as truths. He is able to reproach both the racist bloggers, and more importantly, the online community for its failure to keep these disruptive elements in check. On the other hand, the authorities are portrayed by him as the good guys being victimised. Hence, Paul can be seen to be wielding a considerably amount of power in terms of identity construction.

Paul’s power, as a result of his writer identity, is also manifested in terms of the adoption of different kinds of strategies and genres to coerce the intended audience (i.e. the online community) to take up his advice. For instance, he bases his opinions on other grounds; by linking his value judgement in (1) and (2) with a universal phenomenon in (3), the reader has little choice but to accept Paul’s opinion as factual and incorporate this information into her/his mental model, in the absence of counter-evidence. Similarly in (25), Paul alludes to the fallacy of the Internet as “a personal space” by expressing it as a statement of fact, and presenting others as being non-conforming to the rules of cyberspace. Another strategy will be the use of rhetorical questions
[11] that made up close to one-third of the article. Those questions put the reader into perspective; blame is repeatedly attributed to the online community and through such repetition, the blame will be internalised into the mental models of readers as being legitimate and true. In terms of genre, the narrative style from (1) to (24) further strengthens this internalisation; analogously, Paul can be seen as speaking to the online community on behalf of the authorities. The narrative can even be likened to scripted, public speeches by ministers; again, Paul’s identity allows him to adopt the voice of the authorities and and speak as if he was representing the authorities. By reverting back to the genre of a newspaper article from (25) onwards, the earlier narrative part of the article is not only objectified, but also ironically legitimised at the same time. Therefore, though constrained within the limits of the subject matter and context of the article, Paul’s identity can determine and alter the discourse type of the article.

Paul also drew the appeal of Them vs. Us distinction. On the surface, there is a blurring of Them and Us, as if there is little distinction in terms of which group is to blame for the current state of affairs. Underlying this implicit claim is the rhetoric that We are able to distinguish Ourselves from Them and be absolved of some of the blame if We can follow the advice stated. As it can be seen through the proposition made, We still have the chance to make it good, while They are not given this alternative. An interesting feature of the article is the use of the inclusive “we”. I believe that Paul did not use it to identify himself with the online community; instead it is yet another persuasive device on his part. Since ideologies are social in nature and are based on shared beliefs (Van Dijk 1998), the use of “we” can be seen as another attempt to identify the misguided readers with Us rather than Them. Hence, it is possible to redeem oneself from being grouped together with Them. Lastly, this use of “we” can be seen to negate and soften the narrating and almost reproaching manner adopted by Paul earlier in the article so that readers will be more receptive towards the advice given.
Finally, besides “soft” persuasion approaches, Paul resorts to using the element of fear of losing the right to exercise self-censorship and perhaps more importantly, fear of losing whatever amount of freedom of expression that is left within the Internet domain. Paul draws the analogy of the Party and the totalitarian society in George Orwell’s 1984, and implicitly warns of the Internet being highly controlled and regulated by the authorities should the online community not take the initiative to self-censure contents on the web. The fact that the statement is Paul’s “parting shot” forewarns the readers against the dire consequences of not heeding it; if the online community does not choose hegemonic control, then it has to prepare to be controlled by force.

[1] I thank my classmate, Nagarajan, for his help in providing invaluable feedback on my first draft.
[2] In Bell, A. & Garrett, P. (1998) “Approaches to media discourse”, Chapter 2
[3] Van Dijk defines op-ed articles as “opinion pieces published on the page opposite the editorials.” (ibid: 21) Here, I expand his definition to include articles such as Paul Jacob’s.
[4] The opinion article is featured in the Insight section of the Straits Times dated 17 September, just four days after the first two bloggers were charged under the Sedition Act, and on the same day that the third blogger was brought to court with similar offences.
[5] I am assuming here that the author has written this article without prior knowledge that a third blogger has been charged with similar offences.
[6] part of the Van Dijk’s strategy of the ‘ideological square’ (Ideology:267)
[7] See Appendix (A)
[8] Henceforth, the numbers will refer to the corresponding numbered paragraph in the article, which is reproduced in Appendix (A) and (B).
[9] I interpreted (8) as a single question even though it is marked with a full-stop at the end in the article itself.
[10] In the Straits Times article ‘Why should I keep quiet about it?’ (9th October), it was reported that the person who had reported the bloggers to the police did not post a reply to the racist blog entry, “which was what some 200 others who had seen his comments did.” Hence it could be seen that there had been already a certain amount of reaction from the online community.
[11] Van Dijk (1998) lists the primary function of rhetorical structures: “…to manage the comprehension processes of the receipt, and hence indirectly the structures of mental models.”

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