In my composition classes, I teach my students about the rhetorical triangle and the significance of knowing one's audience. By the end of the lesson, I hope they understand that as with a triangle, there is an interconnectedness between the writer, the audience, the purpose and ultimately, the text. You cannot ignore the relationship between either of these entities if you desire to be effective. For instance, the writer must understand why he/she is writing and what his/her goal is in doing so. Also, the writer must consider what the audience expects to receive when they read/hear the text. This latter part is part of knowing your audience. Knowing whom you are communicating with, what their relationship is to you, what they want and what they value.
I think Miss California USA could have benefited from being in my class.
On Sunday night, Carrie Prejean was asked by gossip blogger and pageant judge Perez Hilton, "Vermont recently became the 4th state to legalize same-sex marriage. Do you think every state should follow suit. Why or why not?”
Now, her answer could have manifested itself in myriad ways. She could have given a non-answer ("I believe states should consider what they should do in this matter and ultimately work toward world peace") or a carefully worded pageant answer ("Isn't it all, in the end, about world peace?") or she could give the polarizing, I-decided-I-don't-want-to-win answer that she gave.
Hey, I am all for people standing up for their beliefs and their principles, but unless her purpose (to win the competition) changed mid-stream, she should have given an answer that showed she knew her audience.
I have heard that the pageant audience was filled with openly gay individuals; whether this was true or not, we know that the judge asking the question is openly gay. Why would she just flat out say she believes marriage should be between a man and a woman only? Aren't pageant contestants the queens of evasive answers? She could have said, "As a Christian--" some have said this is polarizing, too, but that's not this post--"As a Christian, I believe God gives humanity the choice to make their own decisions about whom to marry. Who am I to say what that choice should be?" (This is true. Doesn't God give us free will? Whatever we do with that free will is between the individual and God, for right or wrong.) Or she could have said, "I understand people have their varying opinions about it. This is a highly controversial topic and one that I can assure you will not be resolved tonight. " (Okay, I concede that is a non-answer answer and she might not have gotten away with it.) I just don't think the answer she gave was a good one considering her audience and their expectations of her as the speaker (she's the queen from California, no less).
And even if she changed her purpose by the question-and-answer period and decided that speaking up for what she believed in was more important, wouldn't winning the competition have given her a better platform for her ideas and achieving that purpose to a greater degree?
Prejean is a real life manifestation of what I try to communicate to my students: English is not just about split infinitives, thesis statements, and analyzing Huck Finn as a metaphor for America's lost youth; English is about thinking and interacting and living one's best life. And if you apply the principles, you will be a winner (not just a runner-up).