LINGUIST List 3.512

Sat 20 Jun 1992

Disc: Free Indirect Discourse by Sr. Souljah?

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    Message 1: Sister Souljah's discourse

    Date: Fri, 19 Jun 92 19:33:28 EDSister Souljah's discourse
    From: <elc9jprime.acc.Virginia.EDU>
    Subject: Sister Souljah's discourse


    [Moderators' note: The following is being posted because of its content as discourse analysis. We would _greatly_ appreciate it if responses would try to address the linguistic aspects of Sister Souljah's remarks, not the political. Yes, we know, it's hard --some say "impossible"--to make such distinctions. But LINGUIST's charter confines us to "the academic discussion of linguistics." And we appreciate your co-operation in our attempt to maintain this focus. --Helen & Anthony]

    Bill Clinton created a stir recently by rebuking Jesse Jackson for including rap singer Sister Souljah in a Rainbow Coalition panel, on the grounds that Sister Souljah had made inflammatory remarks that encourage racial strife. Leaving aside Clinton's underlying motives for picking a fight with Jackson at this point in the presidential campaign, the focus of Clinton's reproach was a quote from a May 13 interview with Sister Souljah that had appeared in the Washington Post, where she was asked to comment on the Los Angeles uprising. Sister Souljah was quoted as saying, "If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?", a statement that Clinton condemned as incitement to violence. Sister Souljah has denied that charge, claiming that the Post quoted her out of context.

    In case anyone is curious, here is a fuller text than that appearing in the original Post article. This longer text, described as "a partial transcript" (of a tape? written notes? not specified) of the original interview, appeared in the June 16th edition of the Washington Post [original punctuation preserved, except that "Q" and "A" replace original boldface/normal type respectively]: ---------------------------------------------------------------

    Q: A lot of people look at the violence that was unleashed and say... let's talk now about white America and middle-class black America-- will see the videos of the looting, the burning, people with their kids walking away with merchandise, people shooting at firemen, and think, you know, "Thank God for the police, because the police is what separates us and our property and our safety and our lives from them, because look what they're capable of."

    A: They [middle-class blacks] do not represent the majority of black people, number one. Black people from the underclass and the so-called lower class do not respect the institutions of white America, which is why you can cart as many black people out on the television as you want to tell people in the lower and underclass that that was stupid, but they don't care what you say. You don't care about THEIR lives, haven't added anything to the quality of their lives, haven't affectuated anything for the quality of their lives, and then expect them to respond to your opinions which mean absolutely nothing? Why would they?

    Q: But even the people themselves who were perpetrating that violence, did they think it was wise? Was that wise, reasoned action?

    A: Yeah, it was wise. I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? You understand what I'm saying? In other words, white people, this government, and that mayor were well aware of the fact that black people were dying every day in Los Angeles under gang violence. So if you're a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person? Do you think that somebody thinks that white people are better, or above and beyond dying, when they would kill their own kind?

    Q: I'm just asking what's the wisdom in it? What's the sense in it?

    A: It's rebellion, it's revenge. You ever heard of Hammurabi's Code? Eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth? It's revenge. I mean, that seems so simple. I don't even understand why anybody [would] ask me that question. You take something from me, I take something from you. You cut me, I cut you. You shoot me, I shoot you. You kill my mother, I kill your mother.

    Q: And the individuals don't matter?

    A: What individuals? If you killed my mother, that mattered to me. That's why I killed yours. How could the individuals not matter? You mean the WHITE individuals, do they matter? Not if the black ones don't. Absolutely not. Why would they? If my child dies, your child dies. If my house burns down, your house burns down. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. That's what they believe. And I see why. [Washington Post, 6/16/92, p.A7] ----------------------------------------------------------------- Many people might justifiably take issue with Sister Souljah's remarks as quoted here, but it seems to me that, considering the remarks in their wider context, she has a case when she denies that she was INCITING violence. Incitement refers to encouragement of future action, whereas the fuller transcript of her remarks looks like "free indirect discourse", i.e. SS's paraphrase of the thinking of the people who were participating in the insurgency. In particular, the (in)famous utterance "why not have a week and kill white people?" was a response to a question about what the people who had engaged in violence were thinking at the time they committed the violent acts. SS's rhetorical questions in her response are separated by a statement in the past tense ("this government, and that mayor were well aware of the fact that black people were dying every day..."), which can be interpreted as locating the questions themselves in the past, i.e. in the state of mind of the participants at that time. Further evidence that these opinions were intended as free indirect discourse rather than SS's own views is her explicit statement, at the end of the excerpt, "That's what they believe." She does, of course, say "And I see why", but understanding is not necessarily the same thing as endorsement. If this reasoning is sound, then the charge of incitement to violence should be laid at the door of the Post, for misleadingly suggesting that these are the opinions of an influential public figure. What do y'all think?

    Ellen Contini-Morava