As a side note, today's blog post is more theoretical in nature; do not expect to come away with three points of application to your life of communication. I mean, there are things to apply, but I'm not doing that work for you today.
Communication theorist Kenneth Burke claims that symbols are a fundamental aspect of our persuasion. How we use symbols (of which words are a crucial part) influence a large amount of the way that we view the world.
Because of this Burke is obsessed with his idea of dramatism, or a look at how humans use symbols. Burke would object to the maxim that "Actions speak louder than words," on the basis that there is no distinction between the two - our language is a process of acting. To discuss this object of dramatism, we are going to look at first, humans' use of symbols, the process of accruing guilt, and then the process of redeeming guilt from a situation.
Symbol UseSo what does Burke mean when he says that humans are symbol-using animals? We all know from a very core age that communication and our language is all built around symbols. But what Burke refers to goes beyond that.
He believes that our language is a clear indicator of our attitude, so that we cannot help but reveal what we think by what we say. Our attitudes are forerunners of our actions. Anything we do is going to be the result of how we perceive the world. Thus, our language is a predictor of our actions.
It also seems possible that the language we use or are consistently around could influence our behavior. If we become desensitized to a certain way of viewing the world, it becomes easier to marginalize different people or do things that we would normally consider terrible. Our rhetoric will become our behavior.
Creation of GuiltBut Burke also wants to stress that language has additional power and that power has the ability to create guilt. Guilt is a "psychological feeling of discomfort that arises when order is violated." This feeling comes about as a result of a violation of order.
The most important thing to understand about this definition is where that order comes from. Burke lists three specific areas of language that contribute to the area of order, and thus the area of guilt.
First of all, the negative. By its very nature, when we label something with a word, we exclude it from being something else. When I call this device that I am typing on a computer, it can no longer be a phone or tablet.
Burke argues that this negative space is a human-created existence. By his rationale, there is nothing about this computer that prevents it from being a tablet, except that I say that it isn't. He's actually wrong here. Although we as humans could have labeled this device as a tablet instead of a computer at one point, we haven't and our labeling of it doesn't change what it is.
More to Burke's point, simply saying that something is good or bad doesn't change the fact that it was already good or bad in the first place. That issue of morals is actually what is relevant to Burke's idea of guilt in the first place. Burke argues that we experience guilt because our language gives us a sense of right and wrong, and a sense of order when it comes to morality. When we then break that order, we experience discomfort.
The second way language creates order is a system of hierarchy. Here Burke argues that ultimately when we use language to differentiate between people, we create structures where some people are inferior to others.
We create a structure of different statuses within a culture. Borchers provides the example of our class system here at a university, where the labels, freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior all seem to indicate a different status. The goal then of any freshman is to become a sophomore, and the sophomore is to become a junior, and a junior wants to become a senior.
This illustrates that not only does this labeling create a hierarchy, but it also shows that in our pursuit for order, we will try to move ourselves up the hierarchy to a higher social status, meaning that when we fail to do so, we experience significant discomfort and guilt.
Finally, Burke highlights the idea of perfection, which he takes to mean our desire to take ideas to the extreme. It is the idea that good is the enemy of great. We will not be content with that which is good if there is a chance that we can get the best.
Our desire in all things is to ensure that we get the best possible option of all that is available to us. This means that when we are forced to give less than 100%, or just get less than 100%, we feel anxious, and experience what Burke would call guilt.
Redeeming GuiltSo how do we rid ourselves of this guilt? There are two models for the stages in which order, guilt, and redemption come into play.
The first is called tragic purification, or the terms of order. In this view, you work through four stages. Stage 1 is order. You are not in distress or specifically feeling any guilt. Then in stage 2, guilt enters in, and you find yourself a little out of order.
Stage 3 is purification, meaning the stage in which you work to rid yourself of the guilt. This can be done either by accepting the responsibility for yourself (mortification) or blaming the incident on somebody else (victimage). Once order is restored, you have reached stage 4: redemption.
The second method is called the comic purification. This starts similarly to the tragic purification in that stage 1 is order. But it names the stage where order is disrupted as incongruity.
In a theory that is dedicated to the importance to how different symbols are used, it cannot go unnoticed that these two different models vary in their labeling of this stage.
Guilt provides a very strong negative connotation, which makes it seem that very drastic measures need to be taken to reestablish order. In contrast, incongruity is weaker in force and doesn't seem to need as strong of a response, which explains why this model doesn't provide one.
Instead of the guilty being punished or removed (as in tragic purification), the comic purification only requires a little laughter or encouragement to change their ways. Stage 3 of this process is belittling, which will take the form of humor, maybe even sarcasm.
Stage 4 then ends with enlightenment (a far nicer word than redemption as well), where the "guilty" party learns about what he did wrong and just reaches a higher understanding of the world.