You know that guy who could pick up any girl? I’m him. On crack. - Nick Naylor, Thank You For Smoking
If you haven’t seen the movie it’s a black comedy that opens with a number of guests on a daytime talk show. Someone from a mothers against smoking group, an anti-tobacco activist, a politician’s representative…
Cancer Boy. 15 years old, the picture of sympathy with his bleak prognosis.
And Nick Naylor. Who represents big tobacco. About himself, Nick says in the narrative, I don’t have an MD or law degree. I have a bachelors in kicking ass and taking names.
He starts off on the talk show by asking How would big tobacco profit off of the loss of this young man’s life? We’d be losing a customer. The (insert name of activist here) wants Cancer Boy to die because their budgets go up.
Okay, that’s not the whole spiel, but it’s the kind of thing you have to see. I mean, the crowd is booing and jeering when he’s introduced and by the end, Cancer Boy is shaking Nick Naylor’s hand. Throwing in a remark about big tobacco launching a $50 million campaign to prevent teens from smoking was a nice touch.
Now, you might be wondering, What the hell does this have to do with Ian Rankin and interpretation? What, exactly, have you been smoking Sandra?
I read on Sarah Weinman’s blog about a recent interview with Ian Rankin. I’ll excerpt the quote from the interview that’s the focus here:
“The people writing the most graphic violence today are women," he says when I ask what he thinks of them. "If you turn that off," he looks nervously at my tape recorder, but continues regardless, going public about one of the great unsaids among crime writers, "I will tell you that they are mostly lesbians as well, which I find interesting."
Now, I’m not going to draw anything else out from the article here. You have the link and through it can go back to the source. But I am going to explain why this made me think about the movie Thank You For Smoking.
The brilliance of the movie Thank You For Smoking is that it goes to the heart of one of my favourite subjects… and no, I don’t actually mean Ian Rankin. I mean communication theory. How you convey words is sometimes as important and sometimes even more important, than the words you choose to use. We all know that if someone says “I don’t want to talk to you” and they’re snarling, saliva dripping from their bottom lip, their mouth curled up into a sneer, cheeks red, fists clenched, word pushed out between clenched teeth… They’re probably really angry, and you should back off. And we can appreciate that if someone says, “I don’t want to talk to you” and they’re cowering in a corner, huddled on the floor with their arms over their head, barely daring to peek out at you, they’re really saying they’re afraid of you.
There are several things about that quote that’s being referenced that bother me, and I’m going to get to that. In order for you to see exactly where I’m coming from, I’ll do my best here (without writing a whole thesis on the subject) to reference my perspective, by pulling some quotes from Neil Postman’s brilliant book, Amusing Ourselves To Death – Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.
“Beginning in the 16th century, a great epistemological shift had taken place in which knowledge of every kind was transferred to, and made manifest through, the printed page. “More than any over device,” Lewis Mumford wrote of this shift, “the printed book released people from the domination of the immediate and the local…” (page 33)
That’s one facet to consider. A few weeks ago I interviewed Mark Billingham. Could I relay that to you with smoke signals? Well, certainly not much of it. It would lose a lot in translation. This goes to the heart of what Marshall McLuhan meant when he said The Medium Is The Message.
That’s a concept I got in stages, over time, despite my studies in journalism and communication theory. I could never quite wrap my head around radio as the tribal drum until I was doing an essay on this when I took the psychology of education, but that’s a bit of a side story I don’t have the luxury of time for today. All that matters is that different methods of communication convey different things by their very nature.
Spoken words and written words carry different weight. Postman recounts a story that reinforces this fact in the book on pages 20-21. It’s about a college candidate who uses a verbal statement in support of his thesis. As Postman tells us,
”You are not a journalist,” one professor remarked. “You are supposed to be a scholar.” Perhaps because the candidate knew of no published statement of what he was told at the Roosevelt Hotel, he defended himself vigorously on the grounds that there were witnesses to what he was told, that they were available to attest to the accuracy of the quotation, and that the form in which an idea is conveyed is irrelevant to it’s truth. Carried away on the wings of his eloquence, the candidate argued further that there were more than three hundred references to published works in his thesis and that it was extremely unlikely any of them would be checked for accuracy by the examiners, by which he meant to raise the question, ‘Why do you assume the accuracy of a print-referenced citation but not a speech-referenced one?’
The answer he received took the following line: You are mistaken in believing that the form in which an idea is conveyed is irrelevant to its truth. In the academic world, the published word is invested with greater prestige and authenticity than the spoken word. What people say is assumed to be more casually uttered than what they write. The written word is assumed to have been reflected upon and revised by its author, reviewed by authorities and editors. It is easier to verify or refute.
What people say is assumed to be more casually uttered than what they write.
One of the things I always consider when I interview is that I know the subject in some fashion. I have communicated with them in person or via email. More and more of the interviews I do are with people I’ve met beyond the online context. When I sat down and interviewed Simon Kernick I could see the expression on his face, there were things going on at Harrogate we both knew about and talked about that were interspersed throughout the interview. There were things I cut out, both at Simon’s request and because some of them would have been open to misinterpretation for anyone who hadn’t been present. I don’t editorialize in the interviews much – what you get is what people say.
Part of the reason for that goes back to those interpretations and misinterpretations. A person smiles. One person says they’re giving a wicked grin. Another says it’s a gentle smile. Who is right? Have you ever looked at one of those pictures where you can’t tell if the person is laughing or crying? I know I've had experiences where I haven’t been sure if someone was laughing or crying for a moment.
And I know I’ve had moments after responding to something where I wondered if they meant what I thought they did, or if I misinterpreted.
So, my rule is always to hand back my interviews and at least give people a chance to read them over and remove anything they don’t want included. What people say is assumed to be more casually uttered than what they write. And believe me, sometimes people who know me say things because they’re comfortable with me, but when they see it written down in black and white and think of other people reading it, they realize the comment could easily be misconstrued. I let them rephrase or remove. I have that luxury. My interviews are not about exposing the sins of others or trying to trip people up and make them look bad.
When I was studying journalism, one of the things that happened in our ethics class was that we were taught how to write smear stories. We were also taught about political slant. Specific articles were referenced from magazines like Maclean’s, where journalists had inserted words like, he frowned, snarled, rolled his eyes between the remarks a candidate had made. In the next article, featuring an opposing candidate, he smiled, laughed, chuckled, stroked his chin thoughtfully. It’s the kind of thing I wish I had on tape now, because we were actually taught how to manipulate readers to sway political favour. I mean, should it not concern everyone that newspapers here have declared political biases and are known to support certain political parties?
So, with all of these things in mind, we get back to Ian Rankin and a remark – one remark, I remind you – from an interview.
When I read it, I actually laughed. Now, maybe it isn’t fair. I know Ian. Okay, we’ve never exchanged Christmas cards and we don’t golf on Saturdays. But I’ve exchanged numerous emails with him, I’ve talked to him at length… I know a fair bit about him and I know him.
I know Ian isn’t anti-lesbian or anti-woman.
There will always be people trying to tell you what to do and what to think… You have to think for yourself. Nick Naylor - Thank You For Smoking
I am aware of how the media can manipulate people. I am also aware that, when removed from the physical context and transferred to the page things can come off differently. The medium is the message, and the medium can alter the message by its very nature. Best example I can think of is when you take Bible verses and put it to rap music – any of you ever heard that? A lot of pro-Bible people get bent out of shape when you put the good word alongside that devil music, and it does change the feel of it. I could do a real tangent here and quote the story of Daniel, as told in ‘Where Is God When I’m Scared’ – a Veggie Tales video. The wise men conspire against Daniel, singing, Oh no! What we gonna do?
The king likes Daniel
More than me and you
Oh, no! What we gonna do?
We gotta get him out of here… And the eventual conspiracies include:
We could give him jelly doughnuts, Take them all away
Or fill his ears with cheese balls And his nostrils with sorbet
We could use him as a footstool Or a table to play Scrabble on
Then tie him up and beat him up And throw him out of Babylon
I suspect most people know that they conspired to have Daniel thrown in the lion’s den, but that’s really not the point here. The point is, a Bible story is a Bible story, right? Not if it’s done Veggie Tales style.
So, when I read this remark, the first basis from which to evaluate it was what I know of Ian. Honestly, something about it sat wrong with me from the moment I read it… It isn’t the first time I’ve read something referencing a comment from Ian that hasn’t sat right. And by that, I don’t mean that I don’t like what Ian’s saying, but that the full truth of the comment isn’t being conveyed because it contradicts what I know of him. My other experiences with this were all before July, so those were based strictly off of what I’d read about him and his own words. But then, it goes to what I know of the possibility of media manipulation, so I am prepared to give someone – even someone I haven’t met – the benefit of the doubt, particularly if I know enough about them to question the context.
The very fact that Ian referenced he wasn’t going to say more without the tape recorder being turned off tells me that he didn’t fully explain his comments here and, since they lacked full context, they can be easily misconstrued. It may not have been the best choice of words, but that’s moot. It appears that the reporter used this baited statement as leverage to expound on a topic on her blog. I haven’t gone over and read the blog post, although Sarah links to it and quotes from it. I don’t think my Irish temper is safe over there.
Now, I do have a luxury some people don’t. I can think about sitting across from Ian, talking to him, and watching his facial expressions. Some people say more in a moment with the half-smile, the glint in their eye, the arch of an eyebrow than they do with words.
And people can smile sweetly and state words that could read on the page as uncontroversial, but the tone of their voice is enough to start a war.
It’s context and how that changes the meaning of the words.
One of the reasons I found Thank You For Smoking to be interesting was watching a person who took insults, found himself being baited and set up, had to sit across people he knew were lying to him and smile, and somehow managed to use spoken words to come out of every situation looking good.
Well, not every. But without that slip there couldn’t have been character growth in the movie.
If you decide to watch it, you’ll see what I mean. How can someone say all the wrong things and come off sounding so right? Actually, one thing the character says is, “These days when someone smokes in the movies they’re either a psychopath or European.” And a lot of my European friends (and even some non-European friends) do smoke, so my apologies to them when I say I don’t like it much. Now, I’m allergic to cigarette smoke and do get sick from a certain level of exposure (extreme migraines) but that’s only important to say, because that movie cracked me up. I was swayed to the point of cheering for a lobbyist who worked for big tobacco. It represents in my mind how words can be twisted to change your interpretation and make you sympathize with what you oppose.
It reminds me of how people can be trained to manipulate. Some might do it just for kicks, some might do it with an ulterior motive (the subject is part of an agenda… hey, just like the journalist in Thank You For Smoking) and some might do it just because they can. I’m not speaking to people who accidentally misconstrue things – that happens too.
But you know another thing that crossed my mind? The scene in Return of the Jedi, when Luke confronts Ben about why he never told him Vadar was his father. Obi-wan tells Luke that what he said was true, from a certain point of view and he reasons out what some would call an outright lie.
You know more than anything what bothers me in this excerpt from the article Ian was quoted in? he looks nervously at my tape recorder How did she know he was nervous? Did she ask him if he was nervous? Did he say he was nervous? There is no evidence of that presented. Now, if she’d said he frowned, his eyes narrowed, he started to tap his fingers on the arm of the chair as he shifted in his seat, his eye twitched… anything like that, and we would have interpreted what he was feeling.
Instead, we weren’t given the context that led to the conclusion. We were just give her assessment of what he was feeling, which lends itself to a specific interpretation of the words that may well have been misconstrued.
I’ve already pointed out I have the luxury of drawing on my knowledge of Rankin when I read him quoted. Without saying anything more that I don’t feel comfortable putting on the record, this is one of those situations where I’d put my confidence in the person first and take the inferences of the quote with a grain of salt.