Law in Contemporary Society

The Pride Placebo

One year ago today, I sat barefoot in the north end zone of Virginia Tech's football field, holding my head in my hands, while President Bush reminded us of what we already knew - that yesterday was the worst day of our young lives. After Bush came our school's president, then our state's governor, then a few faith leaders. One after another, they groped vainly for words of comfort, and then apologized for finding none. I wondered out loud whether there was anything at all worth saying.

But then came Nikki Giovanni, the professor of poetry, whose rousing panegyric

  • "Panegyric" is a speech in praise of someone or something, occasionally (and less in the last couple of centuries) a eulogy. I don't think it's completely misapplied here, but it feels wrong to me, and if it's right, it's at the heart of your essay to explain why it is right. I listened to her speech at the time, and I've read it again, and it seems, pardon me, hokey. I don't dispute that it was precisely what people needed to hear: you're the expert on that question. What seems to me so interesting and important is the articulation of the reasons why it was right.
* I understood the word "panegyric" to be a synonym for the demonstrative (epideictic) rhetorical form. Aristotle says that it aims to praise or blame, and that it is concerned primarily with the present. Cicero says it is a speech that deals with virtues that appeal widely to all mankind, and which praises deeds that seem to have been done without profit or reward. Kenneth Burke says it is a form of rhetoric with ulterior motive - the "human interest" story that depicts the sacrificial life of war heroes in war times, or Soviet propaganda that celebrates the accomplishments of individuals who triumph over adversity in carrying out the government's plans for exploitation of the nation's resource. [See A Rhetoric of Motives by Kenneth Burke, pp. 69-78] Given this understanding of the term, I believe it is an appropriate descriptor for Giovanni's speech. As (I hope) I showed below, Giovanni's speech fit with the classical descriptions of the term, and arguably with Burke's definition as well. May I ask - why does it feel wrong to you? You mention - and I agree - that the speech seems hokey, but that does not, to my understanding, make it less of a panegyric. You are right, of course, that what is interesting and important are the reasons why it was right - and I endeavor to show those below. But I'm not sure what that has to do with the application of the term "panegyric".

delivered precisely - almost presciently - what we needed to hear. We are Virginia Tech. Her words were a life line, a buoy amid the grief. We are strong, we are brave, we are innocent and we are unafraid. She defined our identity, she implored us to be proud. We will prevail. She repeated. We will prevail. Stressing each word - We will prevail - as if the very act of emphasis might lend them meaning. We are Virginia Tech. The crowd erupted. A cheer typically reserved for touchdown celebrations was suddenly transformed into a prayer. The stadium sighed in catharsis.

In the year since that heartbreaking afternoon, Giovanni's fiat has become our University's unofficial motto - the badge of our suffering, and the refrain of our recovery. But why those words - We are Virginia Tech? The phrase itself is entirely hollow. It's a simple truism, an identity; 1=1. It seems almost irrational to endow great significance to such a meaningless creed. But of course, as Arnold taught us, we adhere to the creed precisely because it is hollow. Because it means nothing, it can mean anything; strength for those who need strength, solace to those who crave calm, artificial unity, exaggerated pride. In a way, Giovanni trumped every politician and clergyman who spoke before her, at the game which they play professionally. It doesn't matter that the words mean nothing - United We Stand; Yes We Can - any words will do. What mattered was that we found a banner we could cling to, a new constitution for the Hokie Nation. That hollow creed became the vehicle that delivered our self-reflexive - and ultimately empty - sense of pride, and that pride became the vehicle that delivered us from despair.

In his book about the failures of the human rights movement, James Dawes writes of the devastating effects of so-called "moral injuries" suffered by Vietnam soldiers, as a result of the notion that the war was unjust. "If we cannot tell ourselves a story about our experience and the larger endeavor that feels honorable," Dawes explains, "we are rendered psychologically vulnerable. Pride - it turns out - can actually help us to recover from traumatic stressors." There are certain events so atrocious - like pointless war and senseless murder - that they are hard to reconcile with any coherent wordview. If the things we've come to rely on - namely, a calculable, regular and necessary world - no longer hold true, then what are we left with? This is the 'psychological vulnerability' of which Dawes speaks,

  • Are you sure? The first idea, that there's a matter of being trapped without a moral persona when you cannot given an honorable account of your behavior, seems to me different from the second idea, that it is difficult to orientate oneself in the aftermath of trauma that obliterates familiar certainties. Maybe Dawes also has the second idea, but the first--that it harms men to send them off to do horrendous and morally unacceptable things and then deny them "honor" or "glory" in the narrative after the event--doesn't seem to me to be relevant to the mix of harmful emotions experienced by the survivors of other peoples' violence.
* I think you're right that there is something of a disconnect between the passage I quoted from Dawes and the point I go on to make in this paragraph. While I actually do think the two are related, I didn't fully explain why for reasons of space and relevance. I could probably have simply made my own point without citing Dawes and avoided having to draw the tenuous connection, but I really wanted to include Dawes because his work contributed a lot to the way I framed this topic. As for the substance - I think Dawes' point about the moral injuries relates, as you say, primarily to the matter of identifying and knowing a moral persona in the narrative of one's life. I believe that Giovanni's speech implicitly identified that very same issue as an important one for the Virginia Tech community. Of course, it plays differently for the soldiers than it does for the survivors of other people's violence - the agency factor is an important one, not to be overlooked. But the heart of the matter, as far as this paper is concerned, has to do with reforming a coherent and reliable understanding of the world, and the role that pride plays in that process. I certainly do not mean to equate the two experiences - they are disparate in almost every way. But the one thing I do believe they have in common is the thing that is highlighted by the Dawes' passage - that pride can help vulnerable psyches recover from trauma.

a deep and powerful doubt that threatens to erode our most fundamental convictions. Indeed, "nothing is so destructive of social habits," Arnold warned, "as the questioning of the existence of some power or reason or mystic word." But pride acts as a glue, holding together the pieces of a crumbling worldview. When nothing else makes any sense, we can rely on the endurance of our own self-worth. Pride persists where little else can; because it is self-reflexive, we can create it, so to speak, consciously within our psyches.

We generally think of emotions as reactions. Something good happens, and it causes you to become joyous. There is no cognitive step in between; that is, you do not (typically) pause, reflect and then decide to feel joy. But pride is somehow different. While it may be true that occasionally we do feel immediate, unexamined pride, there is also a sense in which pride is self-referential. That is to say, pride is often the result of internal evaluation, the deliberate operation of a complex self-conscious. I am proud of myself because I have considered my achievements and decided that they merit commendation.

  • A risky generalization. At best, as you say, partially true: all sorts of things (starting with parental praise and extending through public recognition) create feelings typically called "pride" without conscious contemplation. Moreover, the process that feels like contemplation ("They've given me the Nobel prize. Is my chemistry really that good? Yes, on the whole I think my chemistry really is that good. Now I am proud.") may have a larger unconscious component than you are admitting.
* I concede that this is not the only way to convince of the pride; indeed, not even the most probable. But I think that it is a plausible and interesting idea. For the sake of argument, I would suggest that perhaps that all those things which create feelings of pride without conscious contemplation are actually just instances of the phenomenon I cite below - where the contemplation took place so long ago that the prideful feeling does indeed feel immediate. For instance, you cite parental praise. It is true that I am proud of myself when my mother tells me I've done a good job, but that is because I decided a long time ago that I wanted to please my mother. Of course, that doesn't account for the same such feelings in very small children, but perhaps those feelings are more appropriately called happiness, rather than pride. That said, I appreciate your criticism of this argument, and I think you are probably right. I don't know enough about social psychology (if that is even the correct field?) to really defend it thoroughly. I do think that it is sort of interesting, though, and I think it sort of makes sense on some intuitive emotional level.

That consideration may have taken place long ago, in which case the pride I feel upon achievement may seem automatic. Yet even this ostensibly immediate pride still stems from a deliberate cognition. Consider our linguistic construction of the phrase "to pride oneself."

Its a reflexive speech-act, the subject of conscious acting on the object of self. Understanding pride in this way is key to understanding its utility. Because of its reflexive, cognitive nature, pride can be deliberately and internally caused. Thus, pride can be harnessed as a tool.

* But so can anger, which is not usually the result of contemplative processes, or love, or the fear of being seen a coward among one's platoon. Maybe "harnessed," which implies being used by others, is a mistaken verb here. Maybe we should concentrate on those emotions which one can use oneself from "inside." But even so, as I say, it doesn't seem to me that the illusion of springing from conscious excogitation is a precondition of such "tool-fulness." * Can "harnessed" not also mean being used by oneself? In the preceding sentence, I say that pride can be internally caused. Taken together with the next sentence, I thought that my meaning would be clear - that we can use our pride deliberately, to bring about certain ends. Moreover, you may be right that the process of conscious excogitation is not a precondition to tool-fulness, but I think it is clear how the two might relate. Again, without suggesting that mine is the authoritative theory on this particular emotional cause and effect, I believe it is defensible.

When Nikki Giovanni affirmed our identity as a community, she triggered our cognitive pride mechanism, and the prophecy fulfilled itself. We sat up a little taller, we wept a little less, and we prided ourselves on our virtues. It didn't matter that we, all forty thousand of us collectively, have little in common except our football team; and it didn't matter that most of us, who watched passively from a distance as the events unfolded on television, had done nothing to be proud of. It didn't matter because the real force of Giovanni's words had nothing to do with their content. She reminded us that we still had something to believe in, and gave us the traction we needed to begin our long climb back to life. We wear it on our t-shirts, and we repeat it like a psalm - We are Virginia Tech - not as a declaration to the rest of the world, but as a reminder to ourselves. Though it's apostasy for me to say so, deep down we all know, that the phrase and the pride are empty. But we wear it anyway, and in doing so, we make it come true.

  • This suggests a simplification, along the Arnoldian lines you began with, which I think is the common ground Adam saw with the material of his earlier essay. The public officials do "mourning" and "sorrow" and everything but "apology" at Virginia Tech because they want to project to the outside world that they are able to handle the situation, and tell you that they "sympathize." Nikki Giovanni, on the other hand, knows that the community needs to be bound together again, because what the violence does is to fragment the community, cause people to retreat into their private spaces of fear and uncertainty. The group needs to reassert its group-ness, which--Arnold says--is what creeds are about. So Giovanni manufactures the simplest of all creeds "We are [group name here]." She uses simple materials because the moment won't allow anything more complicated, and--as a person who knows how to use the music of language to make the ideas of language trigger emotions more directly and relevantly than the denotations of the words can do themselves--she sings the creed in a locally-irresistible key. As you "admit," and I craved pardon for noticing, this creed like all creeds is banal at its base, literally almost without meaning, a tautology. But as creeds will, it does the job. The emotion of "taking pride in ourselves" is like the lump in the throat we get when we watch the parade passing by. She does it, and you use your own prose to reflect the moment, and people who read you get the lump in the throat too, as the commentators attest. That isn't the pity and dread for someone else that creates catharsis, to return to the Aristotelian idea of your first paragraph. In fact, the point is that there has been too much tragedy already. But it does create social solidarity, which is precisely what the commencement of the healing process requires.

  • I am really struck by the connection between this paper and my first paper on creeds. While this is - undoubtably - more powerful, I see them as almost complimentary, with you looking at the individual as I look at the mass. I wonder if there isn't a third paper that looks at how Nikki Giovanni or Barak Obama actually go about creating their words. It seems like an increadibly important skill for us - as budding lawyers - to develop. Thank you for highlighting it in this setting. -- AdamCarlis 22 April 2008

Julia, I made a few changes in the body of the paper. I found this piece quite meaningful and look forward to continuing our discussion of it. -- AdamCarlis 22 April 2008

Julia, this moved me. You made it come true. Thanks. -- AndrewGradman - 23 Apr 2008

I think there is a third paper, Adam, a whole subject area, in fact, about how to move people with words. I think we dance around it a lot here in law school, but for some reason it's not considered an important pillar of our curriculum. It's always struck me as odd that legal writing is so dry and impassive. I suppose it makes sense given what our legal system has become, but it seems like a strange inversion of the idea that a lawyer's job is to move people with words.

Anyway, I appreciate your comments and I welcome more.

-- JuliaS - 24 Apr 2008



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r20 - 22 Jan 2009 - 01:48:53 - IanSullivan
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