Author Archives: Emily Sauter

Spot the Africa: Trevor Noah and Representational Power

And…we’re back! Sorry for the long hiatus, but we’re excited to return with all new commentary on rhetoric and current events, starting with this post by Emily Sauter.


Replacing the incredibly popular John Stewart, new host of the Daily Show Trevor Noah has some big shoes to fill. Adjusting to the new host audiences must not only get used to a new face, but a host with a new accent and a wildly different background. Former host John Stewart is Jewish by birth and a native New Yorker, an identity that he used to great effect, whether for comedy or solidarity. Readers might remember Stewart’s emotional opening monologue after 9/11, where he said, “The view from my apartment was the World Trade Center. Now it’s gone. They attacked it. This symbol of, of American ingenuity and strength, and labor and imagination and commerce and it’s gone. But you know what the view is now? The Statue of Liberty. The view from the south of Manhattan is the Statue of Liberty. You can’t beat that.”

In that moment Stewart’s identity as an American was paramount and provided audiences with an anchor point of empathy. Trevor Noah has no such point of connection. Instead, he must use his background as a South African as a chance to build new comedic opportunities, to stand outside the American institution and comment on it. As a correspondent Noah made his debut in December of 2015 with a short segment titled “Spot the Africa.” In the segment Noah talks about life in Africa versus life in America, and in what might be a surprise to some viewers, the comparison does not work out in America’s favor. In one joke he says, “Africa’s worried about you guys. You know what African mothers tell their children? ‘Be grateful for what you have, because there are fat children starving in Mississippi.’” He then presents Stewart with a jar full of pennies and a song, “Feed America.”

During the segment Noah switches back and forth between referring to South Africa specifically, and Africa at large. Considering American audiences have little to no knowledge about Africa or the differences between nations, the conflation is concerning. This trend continues in one of his newest segments as host of the show, where he compares Donald Trump to an “African President,” using clips of Jacob Zuma (president of South Africa), Yahya Jammeh (president of Gambia), Rob Mugabe (president of Zimbabwe), Idi Amin (former president of Uganda), and Muammar Gaddafi (former leader of Libya). Throughout the segment an image of Trump is decked out in increasingly ludicrous faux-military medals and sashes. The ensemble is then topped with a pair of black shades—the perfect African President.

The segment is funny, no doubt about it. And there are indeed some eerie rhetorical similarities between Trump and Africa’s most notorious dictators. For example, both Trump and President Zuma of South Africa claim “most” immigrants are criminals, though not all—a rhetorical choice that Noah labels “light xenophobia with just a dash of diplomacy.” The President of Gambia claims he can cure AIDS using bananas, and Trump claims vaccinations cause autism. In perhaps the most amusing comparison of the segment, Noah links Trump’s bragging about his money and his brain to Uganda’s Idi Amin, who is shown in a series of clips to be making the same claims to wealth, popularity, and intellect.

However, Noah’s attempt to use his African heritage as a prop to mock the American presidential candidate does more harm to America’s understanding of Africa than it does to Donald Trump. At best Trump looks absurd, maybe delusional; at worst he looks crazy.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

Muammar Gaddafi

Muammar Gaddafi


Let’s look more deeply at the comparisons Noah used shall we? Muammar Gaddafi was condemned internationally for his egregious violations of human rights against his own people, suspected of ordering the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 where almost 300 people died, and considered AIDs as a “peaceful virus.” Idi Amin’s rule was characterized by human rights abuses, political repression, ethnic persecution, extrajudicial killings, nepotism, corruption, and gross economic mismanagement. International observers and human rights groups estimate that 10,000-50,000 people were killed under his regime. Robert Mugabe has been president of Zimbabwe since 1980, and between 1982 and 1985 at least 20,000 people died in ethnic cleansing and were buried in mass graves. Yahya Jammeh has been “elected” several times under suspicious conditions, has introduced legislation that would result in beheading for any LGBTQ citizens, has had students and journalists killed, has reportedly “disappeared” or indefinitely detained those who oppose him, and has instigated a literal witch hunt that has killed hundreds. Jacob Zuma, Noah’s own president, is certainly not considered the cleanest of presidents. He has been charged with corruption, rape, and has been  involved in a number of scandals.

Noah has unprecedented access to the American public and a true chance to help educate us on the many differences between African nations in general and the reality of a place like South Africa specifically. What audiences encountered during this segment was not a funny insightful joke about Trump’s more dictatorial theatrics, but the enforcement of harmful western narratives—that “Africa” is violent, dictatorial, and unable to maintain any sort of true democratic government. I admit, as someone who studies South Africa I was incredibly excited to see Noah step into the role as host of the Daily Show, hoping to see a representative of South Africa who could bring more understanding to an audience woefully lacking information on the country. If this is the caliber of comedy that I can expect from Noah though, I think I’ll take a pass on future episodes.

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The Trial of Oscar Pistorius

After a summer hiatus, Rhetorically Speaking has returned! Check back weekly for more great posts like this one. 


In the early hours of the morning on Thursday, February 14, 2013, South African olympian Oscar Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp. Pistorius did admit to killing Steenkamp, but claimed that it was the result of a tragic accident, that he believed their home in Pretoria South Africa had been broken in to and he was instead shooting at an intruder. The bail hearing began on February 19, 2013, and Pistorius was formally indicted on two charges of murder and the illegal possession of ammunition. The indictment noted that even if Pistorius mistook the identity of the person he shot, his intention was to kill. The official trial began on March 3, 2014, in the High Court in Pretoria. On September 11, 2014, Pistorius was found not guilty of murdering Steenkamp, though he was found guilty of culpable homicide, defined as “the unlawful negligent killing of a human being,” and could face up to 15 years in prison.

What is particularly interesting about this case is the unprecedented media attention the trial has received, in South Africa, and abroad. Time magazine published a cover story entitled “Pistorius and South Africa’s Culture of Violence” in their March 11, 2013 issue. The magazine’s cover featured a bare-chested Pistorius with his running blades on and the words “Man, Superman, Gunman” superimposed over him. In an article for The Guardian, journalism professor Roy Greenslade described the cover image as “one of those striking cover images that bears all the hallmarks of being one that will live on for years to come.” Other media sources from Vanity Fair to Business Day have all published pieces about the trial. An e-book by Laurianne Claase was also released and subsequently made into print, and 48 Hours, BBC Three, and ESPN have all aired documentaries on the case. Social media was an integral factor in the case as well, with a live stream analysis of Pistorius’ bail hearing, thousands of Tweets concerning the trial, a Twitter account created by Pistorius’ PR team called @OscarHardTruth, numerous blog postings, and multiple Buzzfeed articles.


There can be no doubt this was a story that caught the attention of much of the western world. But why? What was it about this particular act of violence that was so intriguing to people when it occurred so far away? It could be that Oscar Pistorius himself was an international figure. Known for his exceptional athletic skill, he was a figure people knew enough about that they could become easily invested. Known as the “Blade Runner,” Pistorius was the first amputee to compete in the Olympics in 2012. His quest to run in the Olympics as an amputee portrayed him as a fighter overcoming the odds—an underdog story if there ever was one, and a mainstay of American media. So perhaps people were drawn to this drama by the rise and fall of what could be considered a hero—Pistorius went from a crippling childhood amputation to become “the fastest man on Earth with no legs.”

The drama of fallen athletes is also a common staple in western media. Lately the airwaves and the Internet have been consumed by the video of Ray Rice assaulting his wife and dragging her unconscious body from the elevator and the consequent indefinite suspension of Rice from the NHL. Adrian Peterson has also made headlines with charges of child-abuse and his dismissal from the Minnesota Vikings. In the past there have been drug issues, the Minnesota Vikings Love Boat scandal, dog fighting, etc. Yes, the story of the fallen athlete is a common one that still seems to surprise us and grab our attention every time.

More savvy consumers of this trial have ventured to guess that Pistorius was just the headline that grabbed attention, but what kept the story going was perhaps issues of race or gender. On September 12, 2014 The New York Times compared the South African public’s interest in the trial to that of Americans in the O. J. Simpson murder trial, reflecting that it this moment showcased “South Africa’s complicated obsession with race, crime and celebrity,” though it could be argued that really the trial showcased a western obsession with race, crime, and celebrity. Others argued that the trial was so captivating because it encouraged public debates about the legal technicalities of the trial and verdict, perhaps best argued by a cartoon published by The Times on September 16, 2014, entitled “Legal Reasoning Behind Oscar Pistorius Verdict.”

While these are reasonable arguments for a national audience, they don’t quite cover the fascination of international viewers. I would argue instead that the trial was a test of democracy for South Africa, one in which the west is very much invested. The story of democratic post-apartheid South Africa is seen by many to be an example to emerging democracies throughout the world, and its Constitution is considered to be the epitome of western liberal ideals, perhaps even more so than the Constitution of the United States of America. South Africa stands as a unique success story in the west’s quest to bring democracy to the world, and a cornerstone of any democracy is the ability of its courts to function in such a way that the people see it as wise and just. The Pistorius case was just such a test, to see if the courts would be ruled by the hate and racism that is one legacy of apartheid, or would the judge be able to make an objective and fair verdict that the people would abide by.

While I am sure many South Africans are as concerned about the outcome of this trial, should South Africa fail this test, there are unique implications for western nations, who have invested so much into the narrative of South Africa as the shining triumph in our vision for world democracy. Under Woodrow Wilson the United States adopted a policy of liberal internationalism, which, among other things, is dedicated to encouraging the global emergence of democracy. This call for global democracy was taken up once again at the end of World War II, when President Truman stated, “It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures.” Since then the United States and other western nations have embarked on a campaign to bring democracy to the world, a project that has been largely unsuccessful, particularly in Africa (though I could easily cite our most recent failed efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq). In light of these democratic failures, South Africa is a desperately needed victory, one that allows us to continue our push for democracy. It is this critical need for South Africa to succeed and support our narrative that has created a level of investment that I believe draws our collective attention at critical junctures in South Africa’s democracy.

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An alternate view on “The Top 5 Mistakes Women Make in Academic Settings”

Last week, RSA blogger syntaxfactory reposted a list from academic advice blog The Professor Is In, entitled ”The Top 5 Mistakes Women Make in Academic Settings.” The five gaffes listed are typical communication “problems” that are frequently trotted out in an effort to assist women in getting ahead in masculine workplace environments.   For example, in 2011 CNN posted a list on ways women can get ahead, and rounding out the list was “number 8. The way you look and talk matters.” While I appreciate the attention to talking about ways women can succeed I object to the idea that the only way that can happen is to “masculinize” themselves, which only serves to support and preserve a system in which difference is punished, undermines new ways of thinking and communicating, and ignores how systems of power and dominance are perpetuated through “advice.” In addition, in begins with the assumption that a “feminine” style of speaking can only undermine female academics. What Karen Kelsky, the professor behind The Professor Is In, ignores however, is the productive ways this communication style contributes to the production and dissemination of knowledge both in the academy and in our classrooms. So I would like to take this opportunity to present my own list:


The Top 5 Ways Women’s Communication Patterns Are Better Than Men’s

1) According to Kelsky women have the habit have of ending sentences on a “a verbal upswing or ‘lilt’” that “communicates self-doubt and deference.” To be sure, ending every sentence on a question mark can be annoying, but it also can have the effect of inviting responses and opening a space for further discussion. In an academic setting this is particularly useful as we use presentational moments as a time to elicit feedback from our fellow professors in hopes of improving our argument. Delivering your research in a declarative tone, as the article tells us to do, closes that space of exploration by presenting yourself as the final word on a topic, and can turn a conversation into a confrontation.


2) Kelsky writes that women tend to “wait their turn to interject their contributions” rather than “diving in assertively.” In essence, we undermine our authority by raising our hands. Not only is this advice ridiculous for disciplining women for being polite and undermine the rules we’ve been teaching our students since kindergarten, it cedes discussion to the loudest voice in the room and discourages respectful dialogue. We’ve all had that encounter with a student or a colleague (or relatives and friends!) who think their opinion is so important they need to interrupt in order to “interject their contributions” and I think I can say with some confidence this rarely leads to productive discussion, and in fact shuts it down. And all it takes is one know-it-all student “diving in assertively” to silence a classroom.


3) When women do finally get called on, we apparently undermine our points by beginning with what we don’t know, for example, “I’m not sure if this is always the case,” or “I’m not an expert, but I think…” etc. While Kelsky doesn’t go into any detail on why this undermines our authority, I argue that it leaves open a space for others to participate and contribute their own expertise. Rather than using definitive statements that ignore the width and breadth of knowledge on any given subject, this communicative habit acknowledges the complicated nature of a topic and that they don’t have all the answers, and instead calls for a dialogue among scholars that encourages multiple views and voices within a conversation.


4) Perhaps the most baffling of the ways women undermine their authority is through their body language—“smiling too much, laughing too often” and “taking up too little space.” I’m unclear how expressing your enjoyment in your work and your colleagues undermine authority, but more importantly, I find great irony in the charge that women take up too little space—as though taking up more in a fat-shaming society will gain women more respect and authority. I’m also curious as to how I might take up more room—spread my legs when sitting? Square my shoulders? Swing my arms as I take long strides? I suggest checking out this excellent tumblr for advice.


5) I come now to the last item on my list in which Kelsky advises women to stop expressing themselves in “a disorganized and emotional manner that muddies their main point and obscures their actual achievements.” While there is merit it asking people to be clear and organized in a comment, I both object to the idea that emotion must be absent from our comments and from our work and the idea that crediting others work obscures our own achievements. Her example is as follows “I think it’s just really, really important to consider the impact of xxx, which, you know, a lot of folks haven’t really done, even though of course Nelson has done some important work on xxx, but still in my own work I try and extend that…” But let’s do an alternative reading, shall we? First the speaker introduces the topic, i.e. “I think it’s just really, really important to consider the impact of xxx.” While Kelsky apparently thinks female academics are as eloquent as our 18-year-old students, this is a decent topic sentence for an off-the-cuff comment. Next, the example comment touches on the importance of the topic (not much work has been done on it) while still acknowledging her colleague who has presumably done some tangential work on the subject and could serve as another voice in the conversation (Nelson has done some important work on xxx). Lastly, the speaker moves on to her own research (still in my own work I try and extend that), giving a verbal nod to the fact that her work was not done in a vacuum but in fact is part of an on-going conversation. Think about your work—if someone else was using your work as a jumping off point wouldn’t you want some credit for all the blood, toil, tears, and sweat that have gone into your scholarship? In the end, this is an example of a fairly clear cut comment that situates itself in on-going conversations, and is not, I would like to point out, “emotional,” though Kelsky listed this as a particular problem women have in her topic sentence—it seems merely being a women speaking is just too “emotional” for academics.


Kelsky ends her post arguing that the result of these patterns are that women students and faculty suffer both academically and professionally, accruing “less status and fewer rewards at each stage in their career within the academic institution.” Ignoring the specious cause-and-effect argument being made here, I would argue that the disciplining of women who communicate like this has led to an atmosphere of competitiveness, selfishness, and a lack of dialogue between colleagues and departments, which does nothing but stifle creativity and collaboration. Instead of scolding and punishing women who talk this way how about we turn the spotlight around and write articles telling men how their communication habits hurt the academy.

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