Once a blind activist, always a blind activist

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Alan Greenblatt of NPR wonders why news outlets insist on continuing to draw attention to the blindness of Chen Guangchen, the Chinese activist who recently escaped house arrest and who has been at the center of international attention this past week.

Greenblatt writes (NPR online; 5/4/2012):

Chen has been repeatedly referred to as "the blind activist" or "the blind activist lawyer" by news outlets such as The New York Times, The Associated Press and The Washington Post. The Economist's current cover story is headlined "Blind Justice."

On Wednesday, NPR decided not to label Chen a "blind activist"….

Descriptions of Chen as blind may have stuck in part because of the way he burst into broad Western consciousness last week—not through his longstanding campaign against China's one-child policy, but by escaping house arrest and trekking 300 miles to Beijing. The fact that he is blind made the story that much more dramatic.

"We're sticking with 'blind' because Chen's name might not be familiar to readers, but they may be aware that there's a 'blind activist' in trouble," says Blake Hounshell, the managing editor of Foreign Policy.

But it doesn't seem like a useful shorthand to Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, and regular contributor to NPR's Fresh Air.

"It was relevant, obviously, in reference to his escape," Nunberg says, "but the continued use implies a relevance that just isn't there. I don't think it's a 'PC' thing – the point would be the same if he were, for example, 6′7″."

I disagree with Geoff Nunberg's claim that referring to Chen as "the blind activist" necessarily "implies a relevance that just isn't there". I think that Blake Hounshell is spot on in thinking of the phrase as a useful and efficient way of identifying Chen to readers. Hounshell is on to a phenomenon that is known to psychologists as a "conceptual pact" in which conversational partners tend to persist in using referring expressions that were originally introduced, even after they've long outlived their initial contextual relevance.

The process was first studied experimentally by Susan Brennan and Herb Clark. They noted that in a given context, speakers do usually craft their referring expressions to contain as much information as is needed or relevant—for instance, in a context where the speaker is trying to get the hearer to be able to pick out one particular fish from among several others, he might refer to "the striped fish", but in a context with a single fish, he would simply say "the fish".

What if a speaker has previously specified "the striped fish" as a way of disambiguating reference, but then later refers to that same fish, now in a context that only has the one fish? He tends to re-use the more explicit "the striped fish", even though this information is no longer relevant or necessary in the immediate context. The existence of a conceptual pact trumps contextual relevance.

Hearers, it seems, have expectations that are line with this. When a referring expression is recycled, the usual inferences of relevance become suspended. For example, normally hearers assume that an adjective is more than a mere grace note accompanying a noun, that it's earning its keep by serving some useful purpose. I've measured this myself by looking at people's eye movements as they follow instructions to move various objects around. Suppose they see in front of them a tall pitcher, a tall glass, and a second shorter glass, and they hear the beginning of an instruction that begins with "Hand me the tall…" At this point in time, they tend to look at the glass, not the pitcher. They assume that the speaker has gone to the trouble of specifying "tall" because it's needed to distinguish between the glasses—otherwise, the speaker could have just said "Hand me the pitcher." This shows that hearers normally do imbue words with maximal relevance. But all bets are off if the speaker has previously referred to the pitcher as "the tall pitcher". Now, the mere fact of having used the same expression some time ago seems to be reason enough to include the word "tall".

I can appreciate that continuing to refer to Chen's disability might rankle, much as one might bristle at a continued description of someone as "the black candidate". For that reason alone, writers might be justified in jettisoning a previous "conceptual pact". But there is perfectly reasonable psychological motivation behind the lingering impulse to use the offending phrase, which is why writers face a quandary in the first place, and why NPR had to make a decision about this as a matter of policy.

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16 Comments »

  1. The Ridger said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 6:54 pm

    I figured it was his Homeric epithet.

  2. Andy Averill said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 7:20 pm

    I Googled "blind activist -chen -chinese -[a whole bunch of other stuff]" to find people other than Chen, and got quite a few blind people who were best known as activists for the blind. The only activist I found whose blindness seems to be incidental was Juan Carlos Gonzalez Leiva, the president of the Cuban Foundation for Human Rights. But surely Helen Keller belongs in there somewhere, as she was pretty militant in her support of a whole lot of left-wing causes.

  3. hanmeng said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 7:50 pm

    At least he is blind. I hope the media have stopped referring to Gu Kailai as "the Jackie Kennedy of China".

  4. Willy said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 7:53 pm

    For some time today, Yahoo! news' main page has had the headline: Rights Activists Wary of China's Offer to Blind Dissident. I would be wary too.

  5. D.O. said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 9:38 pm

    "Conceptual pact" explanation works if the news organizations (or individual contributors) think of their audience as repeated customers. Someone read a story in NYT yesterday, then she reads continuation today. Or maybe she heard about "blind activist" yesterday from another source and now might be confused if new source refers to the same person slightly differently. In any case the effect should be more pronounced in relatively short reports, without much background. Long stories which recount all the facts anew do not need to rely on "conceptual pact".

  6. David Donnell said,

    May 5, 2012 @ 1:44 am

    Google "one-eyed cleric" to be reminded of the media's similar treatment of Mullah Omar, a handi-capable bad guy! (42,900 hits.)

  7. alex said,

    May 5, 2012 @ 2:05 am

    Discourse Representation Theory proposes that participants in a conversation (speaker AND hearers) jointly and incrementally construct the semantics of utterances as they speak. If so, then "the striped fish" will refer to a particular semantic entity that each participant has mentally distinguished from any other entity, eg another fish or a horse, say. Thus distinguished, its syntactic denotation is "the striped fish" and not "the fish". Given this, it is not surprising that speakers will still call it "the striped fish" even when there is no chance of confusion with other fish. In other words, after its semantics are constructed the syntactic label of the semantic entity known as "the striped fish" is "the striped fish", not some other syntactic label such as "the fish".

  8. Laura said,

    May 5, 2012 @ 3:48 am

    Another possibly relevant factor is that he is generally referred to as 'the blind man' or similar on Chinese twitter-a-likes to avoid censorship.

  9. GeorgeW said,

    May 5, 2012 @ 7:37 am

    @JS: Not that it is worth anything, but I agree with you.

    Foreign names are difficult to remember and distinguish. In very short order, unless specifically identified as the "blind activist," Chen will just blend into the undifferentiated mass of Chinese activists for the general public who do not speak Chinese or follow the events there closely.

  10. Ellen K. said,

    May 5, 2012 @ 8:28 am

    One problem with "the blind activist" is that it makes it sound like he's an activist on issues related to blindness. Thus it can be quite misleading for any not already familiar with him.

  11. Henry Clay said,

    May 5, 2012 @ 11:51 am

    This strikes me as being a different phenomenon. In the case of the fish, the speaker continues to use the more specific phrase "striped fish" rather than return to the more abstract identifier "fish" even when the additional identifying information is no longer necessary to pick out the individual fish.

    However, in this case, journalists continue to use the identifying phrase "blind activist" even after the availability of a more more specific identifier is available, specifically Chen's name. The equivalent fish story would be if the speakers continued to use the phrase "striped fish" even after they were repeatedly told that the striped fish was actually a trout (or more to the point perhaps, continuing to call your pet fish "the striped fish, Charlie" after learning its name).

    Journalists constantly face the question of appropriate identifying information *in addition* to ones name; that's very different than the situation of identifying information in the absence of a name.

  12. Janes'_kid said,

    May 5, 2012 @ 5:25 pm

    Has the news referred to Omar Abdel-Rahman "The Blind Sheikh for decades now? Could it be just a 'handle' that resonates with news consumers?

  13. Gene Callahan said,

    May 6, 2012 @ 6:16 pm

    "The swift-footed Achilles"
    "The wily Odysseus"

  14. Eneri Rose said,

    May 7, 2012 @ 9:07 am

    I think we are all familiar with the family that persists in calling the 6-foot tall, grown man "little Joey". And despite the fact that most people alive today have no idea who Lou Gehrig was, writers continue to refer to ALS (Motor Neurone Disease in British English) as Lou Gehrig's disease.

  15. John Baker said,

    May 7, 2012 @ 9:39 am

    I disagree that "blind activist" has outlived its initial contextual relevance (although I'm otherwise much in agreement with this post). We're still in the middle of the story in which Chen Guangchen, a Chinese activist particularly noted for his opposition to forced abortions, effected a dramatic escape from de facto house arrest, notwithstanding his blindness, and then somehow was able to travel hundreds of miles to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Both "blind" and "activist" are very relevant to this story. To say that we've moved past this initial context – merely because Chen since has left the embassy, been under de facto house arrest while receiving treatment at a hospital, and apparently has worked out a deal whereby he would receive permission to study in the U.S. – assumes that people have been following the story closely, so that only the most recent developments need be presented. In reality, few people follow the news that closely.

    It may be that, after he comes to the U.S. (assuming that happens), Chen will again be in the news at some point in the future. In that case, Chen's blindness (though probably not his activism) most likely will have lost its initial relevance, but it may nevertheless make sense for news organizations to describe him as the "blind activist" to fulfill their conceptual pact discussed in the post.

  16. blahedo said,

    May 8, 2012 @ 11:23 am

    I'm reminded of a party game that proceeds in three rounds: the first round is essentially Taboo: pull a name from a bowl and you can act out or say anything as long as you don't say the name, with the goal of getting your partner to guess the name. The second round is more restricted: using the same batch of names, but now you can only say one word. The third round has morphed into Charades: same batch of names again, but this time you can't say anything.

    But that third round proceeds in a way very different from Charades, because in the course of the first two rounds, the actions and non-word sounds that you've made to help your partner guess (and that *other* partnerships have used, if they got that name in the other round) have become linked to the name. In some cases the actions are actually incorrect, based on a misconception of who the name referred to—but they're still linked to the name now, and still useful for making your partner guess the correct name.

    At this point, "blind activist" is a nearly-unique referring phrase in the news, and even excluding recent news context, there aren't nearly as many blind activists as there are people named Chen. So I'm kind of prepared to give them a pass.

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