Saturday 19 January 2013

Language watch 1 - Lance Armstrong: I? he?

I thought that I would start putting up occasional looks at language use as and when they occur to me.

One of the events of the last week has been the Oprah interview with Lance Armstrong. Through most of the interview he used 'I' (the so-called 'first person') when talking about himself, but, as many people have noticed, every now and then he referred to himself as 'he' or even in one part as 'a guy' ('third person').

The question we can ask is whether this is just an interesting way for us all to talk about ourselves when we're talking about ourselves in public, or whether there's deeper stuff going on.  Followers of English football will remember player, manager and commentator, Kevin Keegan, used to be keen on referring to himself in heated moments near matches as 'Kevin Keegan'. He would explain that Kevin Keegan doesn't do x, or does do y. This usually involved some sense of honour or sporting sincerity.

Here's what Armstrong said when talking about himself:

"That is a guy who felt invincible... Truly believed he was invincible. That's who that guy was. That guy's still there. I'm not going to lie to you."

My first reaction on hearing (and seeing) this was to assume, along with many others that this was evasive, a way of not accepting responsibility for what earlier and later in the interview he admits he did. We can use all sorts of constructions for doing this and I'll look out for more as part of this 'Language watch'.

The 'evasiveness' argument is that to say 'I' is like naming yourself as the 'agent', the doer, the person who acted, the subject of the verb, who caused something to happen: eg 'I did that thing.' So, the argument runs, to say, 'he' is like saying it's someone else, it's that other guy.

But is that what Armstrong is doing here? Here's another alternative: in this particular case, he is doing something akin to putting himself in a glass case and looking at himself. Or more: he's putting himself into that 'display' position and asking Oprah (and the viewers) to join him in looking at the exhibit.

Aha, says the counter-argument, look how he distances himself by saying, 'That's who that guy was.' That guy isn't even here! But then, almost as if Armstrong is aware of what that sounds like, he modifies what he's just said, 'That guy is still there.' In other words, as I interpret it, that guy is still in the glass case. And then in his next utterance, he says, 'I'm not going to lie to you.' He switches from 'that guy' and 'he' to 'I'. Again, with my model of what I think is going on, it's as if he is standing next to exhibit A (himself), first inviting us to look at the exhibit, and then drawing our attention back to him, the exhibitor, to say, 'I'm not lying to you.'

Of course, he may be, he may be not. He may have been evasive in all sorts of ways elsewhere in the interview, particularly over the matter of whether to implicate others. However, in this short passage, I don't think that I'm running with the pack and saying that this particular construction is evasive. If anything, I think that linguistically, it invites us to view the speaker as an item on show - which of course he is, what with being on a TV show with millions watching.  So, perhaps it's 'collusive', he is trying to join us as viewers of himself. He is admitting he was/is a liar. He is acknowledging that we are watching him saying this in a mass spectacle. He is coming out of the TV set, sitting alongside us, standing next to us in a bar and saying, 'See that Armstrong? He did doping and lied about it.'

Now, the next argument to have with that, though, is whether this is just a false honesty strategy, as if he is saying to himself, 'I will make myself look so much as if I'm coming clean, I will put myself on the slab, step away from myself, and take you on a guided tour round myself, to show just how bad I was, and just how honest I am being now.'

If this scenario is anything like the bit of pyscholinguistics going on, then the falseness and self-deception going on is to believe (or get us to believe) that it is possible to step outside oneself in order to  view oneself. We can behave as if we can do that but in reality it's impossible. When we take up the position of viewing ourselves, we do it with the being that is the self! There's no escape. However, we can, as Armstrong is doing here, putting on a good show of viewing himself as if he is not the self doing the viewing. Indeed, if the self-viewing persona is anyone in this linguistic construction, it's either Oprah or it's every single viewer.

And in this particular circumstance, Armstrong is not Mr Ordinary. He's the world famous guy who has lied, lied about lying, sued those who said he was lying and is at the very least concealing a whole load more about his associates. He clearly wants people to think that he is coming clean. I suspect that he thinks that the guy saying, look at that bad guy, thinks he is better than bad guy. Bad guy lied. Good guy is, in his words, 'not lying to you.'

ps - we have the construction, 'I am someone who...' which moves the agent from 'I' to a 'third person' ('I' to 'someone') and which has the possibility of generalising ourselves, or perhaps objectifying ourselves. We turn the 'I' into a more general being, a type, a member of a group of people who are similar. This too, you could argue, contains the possibility of moving away from 'me' as being the agent to a wider group who do or think the same sort of stuff. In that sense, long before the invention of 'sociology', we have had constructions in language which enable us to think and talk sociologically. Some have said that the Rastafarian, 'I-an-I' (I and I, meaning an inclusive 'you and me' equal in the eyes of Jah) has a similar sociological sense and effect.