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Semantic reactions to irony.

General Semantics, from its very beginnings, has concerned itself with semantic reactions. One scholar, in fact, has gone so far as to define General Semantics as "the study of semantic reactions, or more clearly, ... the study of reactions to language" (Hauck, 2008, p. 346). In traditional rhetorical theory, the use of irony in language has been cited as having been used in argument "with great effectiveness," with even further "potential as a persuasive instrument" (Karstetter, 1964, p. 162). In this essay, I will examine an example of ironic argumentation during the rise of the "Tea Party" movement in late 2009. This use of irony and the verbally and physically violent semantic reactions it provoked also make a case for General Semantics as an explanation for a lack of sanity in much current political discourse in the United States.

"Robert Erickson" Punks the Tea Party

On November 14, 2009, a "Tea Party against Amnesty" was held by a consortium of groups opposed to policies that would give illegal immigrants a path to either U.S. citizenship or legal resident status (Neiwert, 2009, p. 1). A young man identifying himself as "Robert Erickson" obtained a place on the speakers' agenda and delivered a speech decrying the evils the "immigrant population" had brought upon Minnesota. He lamented the unfair competition for jobs and resources and advocated that "we send these people back where they came from ... to protect the sovereignty of the real Americans." He went further to accuse "immigrants" of creating "waves of crime" and spreading "diseases like smallpox," noting that this had been going on for "hundreds of years." He gained much sympathy from the crowd until he continued by calling to " ... send these European immigrants back where they came from!" It soon became obvious that Erickson was actually engaging in an ironic indictment of white European invaders who had robbed Native Americans of the continent over the centuries. By the time several pro-immigration activists had joined Erickson in chants of "Columbus Go Home!" it was obvious that the crowd had been duped. One witness reported that most members of the Tea Party group stood in stunned silence once they realized what had occurred. Unfortunately, some members of the group reacted violently. One of the pro-immigration protestors was knocked off his bicycle and struck with fists. Other violent acts of pushing and shoving were also noted (Neiwert). The event was captured on two videos posted to the YouTube Web site; by July of 2010, the videos had a combined 135,000 hits (Hoppin, 2010a).

Subsequent activism on immigrant rights issues revealed that "Robert Erickson" was a pseudonym for a young man named Nick Espinosa, who has staged several acts of performance protest on the issue of illegal immigration. Espinosa's father was deported as an illegal immigrant from Ecuador; Espinosa, then 15 years old, stayed in the United States with his stepmother (Tevlin, 2010, p. IB). Espinosa explained his use of the pseudonym as an attempt to mask his real identity in order to get himself placed on the Minnesota Tea Party rally speakers list without rousing suspicion (Hoppin, 2010a). Later, he revealed that he had attempted to maintain the alter-ego because of death threats resulting from the prank (Hoppin, 2010b).

Espinosa's use of irony to counter the Tea Party groups' anti-immigrant rally elicited immediate violent responses evidenced earlier as well as the death threats. Other instances of negative semantic reactions (mostly the use of profanity from older Tea Party group members directed toward younger individuals in the Espinosa group) are apparent on the YouTube video ( and documented by the Twin Cities Independent Media Blog (Parry and Feidt, 2009). If these incidents were limited to this one Tea Party function, we might consider it a singular example of a bad semantic reaction. However, in a larger context of angry rhetoric that seems to pervade Tea Party and general political discourse in the United States, this example of ironic argument may reveal a basis for more general understandings of semantic reactions in the current political arena and suggest a heuristic value to further investigation of the ironic form. This larger context of political rhetoric is documented. Sharpe (2010) cites several examples of angry--even violent--rhetoric from Tea Party rallies and their political sympathizers: guns carried to rallies where President Obama spoke, vile name-calling, soon-to-be House Speaker John Boehner invoking images of "Armageddon" should the health care bill pass, Congressional representatives spat upon and subjected to racial and homo-phobic epithets, and the now infamous Sarah Palin "target" Web site with twenty Democratic candidates covered with rifle crosshair sights. What can we learn from the semantic reactions to Erickson/Espinosa that might create a better understanding and possible solution(s) to the current climate of political speech?

Importance of the Semantic Reaction

Korzybski (1958) describes semantic reaction as:

... the psycho-logical reaction of a given individual to words and language and other symbols and events in connection with their meanings, and the psycho-logical reactions, which become meanings and relational configurations the moment the given individual begins to analyze them or somebody else does that for him. (p. 24)

Hauck (2008) explains that this definition involves a total "mind-body" experience and constitutes behavior; thus, the response one gives upon hearing language and having the semantic reaction constitutes a behavior that is actually a component of the semantic reaction itself. Two important implications arise from this analysis. First, communication can be analyzed in behavioral terms. Since the semantic reaction involves a physiological behavioral response in addition to the psychological reaction, we can observe the consequences of the semantic reaction with a scientific theoretical approach to understanding the phenomenon. Second, we can intervene in our own semantic reactions by delaying them in order to examine abstractions of meaning and choose our response behavior(s) wisely. Hauck (2008) asserts that by becoming conscious of abstraction, we can delay semantic reactions and make more judicious decisions about our behavior in the reaction, and this can more effectively serve to manage both interpersonal conflicts and larger agreements important to humankind itself.

Failure to delay semantic reactions and think about their implications risks unconsciousness of levels of abstraction and leads to "signal reactions" that threaten to subvert reason and the democratic ideal of public argument itself. "Identifications" and "ignoring of contexts'" will result in "nonsense arguments, quarrels, and bitterness," rendering solutions to personal and public problems impossible (Hayakawa, 2004, p. 681).

Irony as a Persuasive Speech Act

Erickson/Espinosa's use of irony directed to a Tea Party gathering seems to have provoked "signal" semantic reactions ranging from "stunned silence" to verbal and physical violence among his immediate audience. However, the popularity of the YouTube video accounts (and one would assume most of the "hits" were from viewers sympathetic to his ironic message), combined with positive accounts on blogs and news reports previously cited in this essay, suggest a broader range of semantic reactions. Thus, an examination of the ironic form applied to this particular situation could provide significant insight into causes and solutions to larger problems of counterproductive semantic reactions in contemporary political discourse.

The persuasive potential of irony noted in the introduction to this essay is amplified by its cross-disciplinary applications. Theorists claim value for both the philosophical area of formal logic and the discipline of speech communication in the use of irony in argumentation. Critical thinkers wall be interested in "exposed structure of arguments, the misuse of language in the presentation of the argument," and issues of evidence and fallacies of logic (Tindale and Gough, 1987, p. 1). Tindale and Gough (1987) analyze irony as a form of reductio ad absudum and also suggest further applications in argument depending upon audience and situation.

The audience and context factors may be keys to understanding why irony provoked such violent semantic reactions from the Tea Party. Karstetter's (1964) analysis emphasizes the paucity of research toward their role in ironic rhetoric:

Particularly noteworthy oversights are the absence of information concerning the kind of audience with which the technique may be effective, concerning the psychological characteristics of those with whom ironic appeals work well, and concerning the situations and contexts in which the use of irony is the most successful, (p. 162)

These concepts of audience and context are not inconsistent with Korzybskrs idea that a semantic reaction " ... only gains meaning when it is conscious; or, in other words, when an actual or assumed set of relations is present'1 (1958, p. 27). The Erickson/Espinosa ironic argument never became a part of the Tea Party gathering's conscious intellectual effort. It was only when the irony had dawned upon them that they reacted, and this reaction was angry--or, as Korzybski puts it, "unsane." Pula (1993, p. 193) refers to these as "signal reactions," of an immediate animal instinct that does not consider "existing circumstances" (context). Further, he argues that we "project our reactions onto our extra-personal environments ... we generate semantic reactions to our semantic reactions." Irony's effect upon the Tea Party meeting was more than just a single instance of direct semantic reaction to an unwanted message. It reveals a signal effect that spirals into a culture of verbal and physical violence.

Espinosa, to at least some extent, had a goal of progressing discussion based on reactions to his prank. Tevlin (2010, p. IB) quotes him saying: "I hope to bring a serious message ... the pranks are fun, but if no serious analysis comes from it, then it's just a vapid act." Espinosa continued his ironic performance argumentation, leading a group of activists a week after his Tea Party speech to the Minneapolis Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office. There, the activists "turned themselves in" as illegal immigrants and demanded to be deported back to Europe. Sigal (2009) cites the group's chants of "What if we were brown?" and other statements as exposing the underlying racism of anti-immigrant rhetoric. Thus, the ironic argument not only provokes signal reactions in the "hostile" audience but also creates projected semantic reactions to those semantic reactions.

Implications for General Semantics

I wish to suggest two areas in which the analysis of irony in Erickson/Espinosa's speech to the Tea Party can be of value to General Semanticists. First, General Semantics can help explain the successes and failures of irony in creating semantic reactions in the situation, thus providing a heuristic value to scholars in rhetoric, argumentation, and informal logic. Second, there is an opportunity for General Semantics to build upon its own theory base by adopting irony as a mechanism to illustrate the limitations of language and the need to develop consciousness of abstraction to think carefully about our semantic reactions.

Tindale and Gough (1987, p, 6) explain that users of irony walk a fine line. If they reveal too much of the actual argument, the ironic effect is eliminated. But if they do not provide enough of the true intent, their target audience may never understand the message. Further, irony requires an audience who has the ability to eventually share understanding of the intent of the message. Karstetter (1964) elaborates on the role of audience receptivity to irony:

Success in using irony, therefore, is a more complex matter than most rhetoricians have indicated. Whereas one kind of irony is effective only with audiences who bear good will toward the speaker and share some of his [sic] understandings, other kinds are persuasive with audiences which are suspicious of the speaker ... The would-be ironist is well advised to become expert in audience analysis, (p. 175)

It seems clear that Erickson/Espinosa's direct audience did not share his understanding and was not willing to attend the ironic message. Their verbally and physically violent semantic reactions demonstrate lack of consciousness of the abstraction that irony presents.

Web hits on videos of the event may indicate that the other intended audience (those who bore good will toward the pro-immigrant cause) understood and supported the ironic message.

Whether Espinosa's hope that his theatrical irony will advance serious discussion remains to be seen; immigration policy in the United States remains a subject of continued (and often rancorous) debate.

General Semantics provide both an explanation of and solution to the failure of irony on the immediate audience. Hayakawa's discussion of time-binding (2004, pp. 667-678) may provide some answers. The ability that separates humans from animals is the capacity to share information from one generation to another to generate understandings. The Tea Party audience either lacked that ability or was unwilling to use it. Viewing the YouTube videos of the aftermath of the ironic speech, several members of the Tea Party are simply unwilling to acknowledge that the speech accurately indicates that European Americans are not the original inhabitants of the land any more than the "immigrants" they oppose. "Citizenship," in conscious abstraction, is a matter of laws passed by those who forcibly conquered the native peoples and/or violated treaties. Without this historical sense of time-binding, the semantic reactions are unthinking and immediate; irony is lost upon this audience. While this Tea Party audience is but an example illustrating how irony is mooted by the semantic reaction, Hayakawa states that time-binding is "generally acknowledged as the characteristic mechanism of human survival" (2004, p. 678). This may help scholars understand and analyze the larger issues of violent rhetoric discussed earlier in this essay. Allusions to "Armageddon," comparisons to Hitler (who in no way compares historically to the current United States President), and the immediate nature of Tea Party semantic reactions suggest that ironic persuasion will be lost upon that audience until they are willing to listen more closely to the argument. Erickson/Espinosa attempted to use irony for a time-binding effect. Why it failed to persuade the Tea Party group, and whether it has a chance to lead to productive discussion in the broader arena of immigration policy, is an area worthy of study. General Semantics theorists have ground to work in this area. Hauck (2008) describes the scholarly role:

We observe and document a range of different reactions to different kinds of speech and language. We compare the reactions people have to one kind of speech with the reactions people have to another kind of speech. We contrast the reactions. From our observations and documentation, we may offer a theory. We might theorize that if we want to generate particular semantic reactions from people or within ourselves, we should use one particular kind of speech over another ... We might even uncover new aspects of semantic reactions to study based on our observations and documentations of semantic reactions, (p. 351)

Hauck continues to caution that we must look at all aspects of the semantic reactions people make non-elementalistically, understanding that all aspects of the reaction are a part of the whole. The heurism for scholarship becomes how, and even whether, irony can be adjusted to have persuasive effect upon polarized audiences in the political arena.

I do not think General Semantics needs to limit itself to trying to explain ironic effects on semantic reactions and suggest ways in which irony might be used better. I believe irony can also become a useful tool for General Semantics theorists to teach sane communication. Tools such as indexing and the ETC have proved useful in illustrating and teaching concepts of nonidentity and non-allness. Irony might become useful as a way of emphasizing the necessity of time-binding, encouraging delay in semantic reactions. Journalist Sasha Abramsky (Raz, 2010) observes that political cycles are becoming increasingly "uncivil" and "brutal" due to economic fears and anger that result in "cultural rage." The types of labeling used by Tea Party groups are an example of the larger issue. Hayakawa (2004, p. 681) speaks to the danger that labels produce the "signal reactions" that may threaten democracy itself. Irony can become a useful way of checking these labels. Levinson (2008, p. 134) ironically (and apparently unintentionally) demonstrates the dangers of labeling in discussing "over/underdefined" terms. The first of five he chooses is the term ""undocumented immigrant." While noting that there are multiple sides to the issue of immigration policy, he suggests that the term "illegal immigrant" would be more appropriate, since "... while we are certainly "a nation of immigrants," we are not a nation of illegal immigrants." Perhaps an ironic portrayal of Sitting Bull or Geronimo could serve a time-binding purpose in response to the "illegal immigrant" label; it would seem to depend upon one's point of view. That is not to say that "undocumented" immigrant is any better a label, but it does suggest that irony might help us to reconsider the adjectives altogether. A faculty colleague of mine has a photograph on his wall with the Apache chief Geronimo posing with several other members of his group proudly displaying their firearms. The caption beneath reads: "Homeland Security." Irony might serve a purpose for General Semanticists in reframing debates in much the same way that ETC reminds us that there is more to the immigration issue than current law.

I have proposed areas for further discussion and theory in consideration of ironic argument the need for consciousness of abstraction and may find irony a useful way of doing so. I do not claim to have ultimate answers for either of these implications of irony that I have drawn from Espinosa's ironic speech to the Minnesota Tea Party gathering. But as I was composing this essay, our nation got the news of the tragic shooting in Arizona, where a federal judge and several others were killed and a United States Congressional Representative and others were wounded. At this time, there is no evidence that the violent rhetoric in contemporary politics, let alone Tea Party rhetoric, was a direct cause of the shooting. Nor is it clear that there were other motives; the investigation is ongoing. What seems most clear is that this is a time to pause and reflect upon the nature of discourse in American politics and that a General Semantics perspective on irony can play an important role.


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Hayakawa, S. I. (2004) The ethics of time-binding. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 61(4), 676-682.

Hoppin, J. (2010a, July 15). Campaign prankster's real beef with Tom Emmer? Immigration. St. Paul Pioneer Press. Retrieved from (Accessed April 14, 2011).

Hoppin, J. (2010b, July 15). There is no Robert Erickson? The Political Animal. Retrieved from edu/hottopics/lnacademic/? (Accessed December 21, 2010).

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Korzybski, A. (1958). Science and sanity: An introduction to non-Aristotelian systems and general semantics (4th edition). Clinton, MA: The Colonial Press Inc.

Levinson, M. H. (2008). Examining five "over/under-defined" terms used in American political discourse. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 65(2), 134-140.

Neiwert, D. (2009, November 17). Teabaggers punk'd by anti-racists who get them to cheer rant against European-American immigrants. Orcinus. Retrieved from (Accessed December 21, 2010).

Parry, N. (Producer) & Feidt, D. (Editor). (2009, November 17) Robert Erickson punks tea party the full story. Bluestem Prarie, I Don't Hate America. Podcast retrieved from (Accessed January 2, 2011).

Pula, R. P. (1993). A general semantics glossary. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 50(2), 192-194.

Raz, G. (Interviewer) & Abramsky, S. (Interviewee). (2010). The politics of anger. [Interview transcript]. Retrieved from National Public Radio via (Accessed January 2, 2011).

Sharpe, S. (2010). Tea party politics. Challenge, 53(3), 128-131.

Sigal, B. (2009, November 24). Protest at immigration office exposes racism and hypocrisy deporting Latino immigrants. Fight Back! NEWS. Retrieved from (Accessed March 7, 2010).

Tevlin, J. (2010, July 25). Penny prankster says he carries "serious message" on immigration. Minneapolis Star Tribune, p. 1B.

Tindale, C. W. and Gough, J. (1987). The use of irony in argumentation. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 20(1), 1-17.

Twin Cities IndyMedia Collective. (2009, November 15). Anti-racists steal the show at white supremacist "tea party against amnesty." Retrieved from (Accessed March 7, 2010).

Terry L. West, PhD, (Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, 1994) is an assistant professor of communication at California State University East Bay.
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Author:West, Terry L.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2011
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