I remember before the 2003 Iraq war started, George W. Bush appeared on the news telling Saddam Hussein to “disarm”. He also spoke directly to the Iraqi public in formal speeches like this one.
I’m not sure how true the part about Iraqis being able to listen to him is, but it is certainly telling how everything he chooses to say to the Iraqis is something the Americans public would have wanted to hear, and that his comments to Iraqis were bookended by parts specifically toward Americans. As for the “disarm” comment which I don’t have video for, I don’t know if an Iraqi news agency reporter was present or whether or not Saddam had CNN. I guess he would have, but of course if the message was really intended for him W. didn’t need to give it in front of the American public. Presumably heads of state have means to reach each other without simultaneously reaching hundreds of millions of normal folks.
In guiding his ostensible message to Saddam toward the ears of the American public, W. was putting himself in company of both terrorists and children’s English teachers. That sounds provocative but also confusing. I have good, parsimonious and mostly apolitical reasons for saying this which I’ll explain below.
The recruitment of a tertiarily involved third party into a communicative act between an originator and recipient is a not-all-that-uncommon rhetorical strategy. Appearing to address that third party while actually indirectly communicating to the recipient (often the only one with the means to even hear the message) is in many cases important for the message to have its intended effect. I call the phenomenon of speaking to these sometimes nonexistent third parties feigned interactions, because I haven’t heard it formally described before and that’s good enough for me to give me coining rights. Someone else probably has of course, and if you know a place where someone has set this down a description of this phenomenon please comment and let me know. In the meantime, here’s how it works.
Note that part of what is being communicated to the second party is that some interaction was made with the third party. Feigned interactions therefore don’t include speech acts like the end of In the Line of Fire where Clint Eastwood’s character speaks in person to the villain, knowing that his backup is listening over his still-active earpiece, because the fact that he was also talking to the villain wasn’t part of his message. It also doesn’t include interactions which happen to be witnessed accidentally; the real target of the communication is the witness (the second party) despite the fact that the first party appears to be addressing the third party. As we shall see, the third party barely even needs to exist at all.
English teaching as feigned interaction
In the private market (usually called eikaiwa in Japan), we English school owners and teachers sell a product to parents that is delivered to children, children naturally not having their own money or the inclination to pay for more school if they did. Of course, all purchases parents make for their children are ultimately transactions between the vendors and the adults, but English education is a product that for several reasons limits the ability of parents to gauge the success of their investment. Imagine you, the seller, were delivering something a bit more concrete like a toy – parents might not be able to experience the same joy their child got from it, but they could assess its physical features like size and durability and roughly gauge by their child’s excitement how successful as a toy it is. None of these work for English lessons, since they lack physical features and their success isn’t necessarily reflected in quick emotional feedback. The inability of parents to assess the value of English lessons is of course magnified when they don’t know English, as is usually the case.
We have no choice but to tailor our lessons in ways that make the features visible and tangible to parents more obvious, and to an extent prioritize how they appear to parents over how they function with children. In practice, a lesson that is compromised in this way will feature a lot of showy singing and dancing, art projects, colorful materials, and will give precedence to skills that parents can perform and judge – translation and spelling, for example (I’m not taking a stance on the pedagogical value of these activities here, just pointing out that parents can perceive them much more easily than they can judge the success of conversation or task completion). Logically however, all children’s lessons are really products delivered to parents rather than to children, and some schools just incorporate this logical into their curricula a bit more obviously. It may be that in some cases what is responsible pedagogically aligns with what makes parents feel willing to pay tuition, but this is a happy coincidence. In the end, the only sensible way to see the product children’s language schools sell is a show for parents, with kids as the collateral beneficiaries.
Terrorism works on the same principle. When I was an undergrad studying criminology (my major was interdisciplinary but I took mostly crim classes), we learned a formal definition of terrorism, which requires three parties. There are the terrorists, naturally. There are victims, often shockingly innocent of any of the sins they are ostensibly killed for. There is also an audience, people who are meant to be affected by the act of terror and, well, terrorized. The existence of this third party is what separates terrorism from mere acts of war or mass murder, and is why the Bataan Death March wasn’t terrorism (the killing wasn’t intended to send a message to a viewing public) but the bombing of Hiroshima was (the recipients being the Japanese government and populace). Deaths are the means for the message to be sent, not the ends.
Like selling children’s classes to parents, if you could send the same message or an even more effective one by doing less work or killing fewer people, all the better. On the other hand, if you succeed masterfully in building the casual conversational repertoire of an 11-year-old but his parents pull him from the class because he can’t diagram the past perfect; or you succeed in bringing down a suspension bridge and kill hundreds but everyone thinks it was just a freak accident, you’ve failed as completely as if you’d never done anything. The point is to affect the behavior of the actual recipients of the message, not the intermediaries who only matter as far as they help deliver your message. The content of the message is often “I’ve just done this to these people, so pay me tuition/ransom”, but what you actually do to those people is a black box.
Political feigned interaction
To bring this back to W. again, his actual message was fundamentally to Americans watching the news. Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi people were recruited into the form message because W. wanted to communicate to Americans that he was being serious with Saddam and benevolent to the Iraqis, and the way he expressed this to Americans was by appearing to communicate it to them. In the end, it didn’t matter whether anyone in Iraq received the form message; the actual message clearly did its work on Americans, just like many successful English schools convince parents they really are teaching their kids for as little work as possible and the best terrorists affect the attitudes and behavior of millions by killing statistically negligible numbers of people.
Feigned interaction is rife in political speech; just think of the last open letter “To Trump Supporters” or “To white people” you saw passed around facebook to be commented on by almost nobody in their feigned target audience. The point of such speech seems to be highlighting one’scommitment the construction of in-groups and out-groups, including the supposed characteristics of that out-group from within one’s in-group. You can see evidence for this in the fact that political communication of this type rarely uses the nomenclature or classifications for the out-groups that the out-groups recognize and use themselves. Open letters start “Dear Lefty Liberals”, not “Dear Progressives”, because the point is to communicate with people who see Democrats as illegitimate and comical.
And of course politicians themselves frequently make each other illusory third parties at rallies, pretending to address each other but actually communicating with their respective supporters. When they actually do speak to each other, as far as I’ve seen, they tend to treat each other as colleagues and not as belligerents.
Keep your eyes open for feigned interaction and it starts to appear everywhere. I believe it most often has the following characteristics:
- It takes place in public, where both actual and form recipients could feasibly see or hear it. A mom who scolds her kids for the sake of portraying herself as responsible to strangers probably has no reason to do so in private.
- It usually has as its form recipient some prominent figure or demographic. It would defeat the point if the actual recipient didn’t know or didn’t care about the form recipient and didn’t think communication with them was important.
- It often appears in contexts where the actual recipients are much more likely to see or hear it than the form recipients. You can usually count on the actual recipients not to check whether any form recipients actually got the message.
A mundane example of feigned interaction is the pretense of internationalism that underlies at least some of the Engrish in Japan. I’ve gone through why I think most Engrish is really pidgin-like communication between Japanese people, but left as unanswered why people who speak the same first language would go to the trouble of using this fake show language in product names and advertising. To me, the pretense that these could be read by foreigners (and here I mean them as they are imagined to be in Japan) turns Engrish into a kind of feigned interaction with the international community. Name your beer “Izu no kuni biiru” and you’re marketing it specifically to Japanese speakers, but name it “Dual Smooth” and your (still Japanese) consumers can buy it believing their beer is brewed to international standards. The form recipient need never even see the form message in order for it to have its desired effect on the actual recipients, in this case convincing them to buy a product.
The lessons of criminology class have stayed with me a long time, and nowadays whenever I see a message like this, I remember W. “talking to Saddam” on CNN and remind myself that the people a message is apparently addressed to aren’t always its actual audience.