Part 4: Chapter 21
Earlier you read about already having analytical skills simply by having opinions and being a participant in your community. These skills are evident in our daily interactions. Everywhere you turn, you can hear people engaging in analysis. Sitting in a coffee shop, you may overhear fellow caffeine addicts discussing diet fads, politics, and the latest blockbusters. Watching television, you listen to sports commentators discuss which team has the best chance to win the Super Bowl, comedians rip on the latest cultural trends, and talk show hosts lecture their guests on the moral repugnance of their actions. This chapter from A Guide to Perspective Analysis will help you to consider the components that make up your subject in a balanced way.
The best way to begin your analysis is with an attentive, open mind; a task that is more difficult than most of us care to admit. Our analytical muscles often grow flabby through lack of use as we rush from one task to the next, seldom pausing long enough to consider anything around us. From an early age, overwhelmed by school, scheduled activities, and chores, we discovered that it is much easier to accept someone else’s explanations than to think for ourselves. Besides, original thinking is rarely encouraged, especially in school where deviating from the teacher’s perspective seldom results in good grades. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the ability to slow down long enough to fully consider a subject is, for most of us, difficult, and not something that comes naturally.
It is, however, definitely worthwhile to do so. Remember how Jeff, the frustrated student introduced earlier, wasted hours staring at his computer screen because he did not think deeply about The Tempest when he first read it? Paying close attention when you first encounter a subject will save you time down the road.
Learning to prioritize the details on which to focus is just as important as learning how to pay close attention to a subject. Each detail does not warrant the same amount of consideration. Consider, for example, meeting someone at a party who relates every single detail of what happened to him throughout the day (I woke up at 6:58 a.m., brushed each of my teeth, had breakfast consisting of two thirds cereal and one third milk….). Who would not try to find an excuse to move to the other side of the room? Likewise, sometimes teachers will tell students to make sure that they use plenty of concrete details in their essays. Yes, concrete details are good to include and examine, but only if they matter and somehow connect to your analysis. You risk boring your reader if you simply include details for their own sake without exploring what makes them important. When you read this section, keep in mind that you do not have to pay equal attention to all the kinds of details presented. Instead, focus on those that are most essential to your subject and purpose.
Analyzing a Premise: Events, Plots, and Actions
Usually the first detail we relate when someone asks us “what’s new?” is an important event or recent action we’ve taken in our life: “I ran a marathon on Sunday, found out I was accepted into law school, and proposed to my girlfriend.” Events and actions also tend to be the first ideas we consider about our subjects. Sometimes actions are overt—we see a movie about a superhero who saves a city; sometimes they’re implied—we see a painting of a distraught face and assume that something bad must have recently happened. Events and actions tend to consume the majority of our attention, whether they happen on a small scale to us individually or on a large scale to an entire city, country, or culture.
The subject that focuses the most closely on this type of detail is, of course, history. Certain events are so central to a particular era that they are studied again and again, often with different perspectives and conclusions. Take, for example, the big event of 1492. Up until I started college, I was told that this was the year Columbus discovered America. Later I discovered that many historians disagree with this assessment of what happened. First of all, you can’t discover a place that has already been found, yet the fact that people were living in America already was always brushed aside in my high school history texts. Given that many Native Americans had more sophisticated forms of government and agriculture than their European counterparts makes this oversight seem particularly troubling. And even if we were to revise the assessment to state “Columbus was the first European to discover America,” that too would be wrong. New discoveries of Viking settlements in southern Canada and the northern United States suggest that they beat Columbus by several decades. Understanding the event in light of these facts may cause us to revise the assessment of the event to “Columbus introduced the Americas to the people of Europe,” or, less charitably, “Columbus opened up the Americas to modern European imperialism.”
This more fully informed perspective complicates the history of Columbus and posits a perception of him as a nefarious figure, at least from the Native American’s point of view. He could not have anticipated the centuries of conquest that would follow his arrival.
Often in history, people are caught up in forces they don’t completely understand.
The same holds true when you examine the actions of fictional characters. For instance, sometimes characters create the condition for their own downfall, which inspires us to learn from their mistakes. Other times, characters may act nobly yet come to bad ends anyway. Such plots may encourage us to try to change the system that rewards bad behavior and punishes good, or they might leave us feeling frustrated with the seemingly random nature of our existence.
Understanding the implications of recent events and actions can be much more difficult than evaluating those that occur in the distant past or in fiction. At what point, for example, do the seemingly inappropriate actions of one country justify another to declare war on it? At what point do the actions of an individual justify another to call the police? Like everything else, most of this is a matter of interpretation, but success in professional settings often requires the ability to justify your point of view through a close reading of what actually occurred. Take for instance the proverbial story of a woman stealing a loaf of bread to feed her starving children. You could look at this action as extremely noble, as the mother puts herself in danger to keep her children healthy. The baker, however, may not share this sentiment, particularly if he too is struggling to survive.
Analyzing Diction: Loaded Terms and Stock Phrases
Though actions may speak louder than words, words are what usually inspire the actions to occur in the first place. In addition, we often base what we know of the world on what people tell us rather than on our direct experiences. Thus, unless we are able to discern how language may be manipulated, we stand a good chance of being manipulated ourselves. For instance, consider how politicians often ignore their opponent’s actions and simply repeat loaded terms, words infused with negative associations like “bleeding heart liberal” or “heartless conservative,” to characterize an opponent as being against the public good.
A particularly blatant example of this type of manipulation is present in text regarding the Red Scare in America, which followed World War II. The Red Scare was a period when the fear of the spread of communism abroad inspired a great deal of domestic suspicion and conformity. In a series of pamphlets released by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (often referred to as HUAC), the members attempted to feed this fear by introducing a skewed view of the nature of communism to the American public. The pamphlets were set up in a question/answer format, similar to the FAQ sections of websites today. Several of the answers attempted to show communism as a warped view from its inception by going after the man whom we often credit with inventing it:
“What was Marx’s idea of a Communist World?”
HUAC’s answer: “That the world as we know it must be destroyed—religion, family, laws, rights, everything. Anybody opposing was to be destroyed too”
(U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Un-American Activities, 100 Things You Should Know About Communism in the USA. 80th Congress, 2d Session, 1).
The repetition of “destroyed” clearly inspires a feeling of dread, and presents an overly simplistic, and nearly cartoonish duality: melodramatic socialist villains twirling their mustaches while planning the destruction of their own families versus the warm-hearted capitalistic politicians in Washington who are only out to serve the public’s best interests.
When loaded terms combine into stock phrases, aphorisms or sayings that people often repeat without fully considering their implications, you should be especially careful to look beyond the obvious meaning that’s usually attached to them. Take the phrase, often attributed to legendary football coach Vince Lombardi: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” First of all, does this mean that we can never engage in sports for fun, exercise, or friendship? On the contrary, in sports and in all of life, we often learn best from our mistakes and our failings. If we only play it safe and try to win all the time, then we lose the opportunity to experiment and discover anything new. As Thomas Edison pointed out, he had to allow himself to fail over a thousand times when trying to invent the lightbulb in order to discover the right way to do it. Clearly, winning isn’t the only thing, and it should not even be the most important thing, at least for most of us.
Be especially attentive when analyzing creative works to make note of any stock phrases or loaded terms the characters repeat, as it often reveals insights about how they see themselves and the world. In J.D. Salinger’s novel Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield, the troubled teenage protagonist, has just been expelled from his high school and goes to see his old history teacher, Mr. Spencer in his home. After a polite exchange, Mr. Spencer asks Holden to repeat what Dr. Thurmer, the principal, said to him just before giving him the boot:
“What did Dr. Thurmer say to you, boy? I understand you had quite a little chat?…”
“Oh…well, about Life being a game and all. And how you should play it according to the rules. He was pretty nice about it. I mean he didn’t hit the ceiling or anything. He just kept talking about life being a game and all. You know.”
“Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.”
“Yes, sir. I know it is. I know it.”
(J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye. Boston, MA: LB Books, 1951, 8.)
Though Holden agrees with Mr. Spencer out of politeness, he goes on to narrate:
“Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game, all right—I’ll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot-shots, then what’s a game about it? Nothing. No game.”
What is even more disturbing about the phrase is that it leaves absolutely no room for creativity because nothing new can be brought into a world that has already been completed, making us all seem like those blue or pink pegs in the Milton/Bradley game Life, generic people with generic goals.
One reason that we often fall victim to erroneous conclusions is that every day we are bombarded with a form of media that pushes us to accept the most absurd phrases—advertising. Take for instance the slogan “things go better with Coke.” What “things”? If I drank a Coke while running a marathon, I might feel sick. And some things that actually do go better with Coke, I could do without, such as tooth decay and weight gain. To be fair, the slogans of Coke’s chief competitor do not stand up to scrutiny either: “Pepsi, The Choice of a new generation.” Which generation? And how did they determine that it’s their choice? Often advertisers use ambiguous language like this in their slogans to deceive without lying outright. For instance, saying that a detergent helps to eliminate stains does not tell us that it actually will.