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.