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Yellow Rain and The Sound of the Matter: Kalia Yang’s Sonorous Objection to Radiolab

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The critically acclaimed WNYC program Radiolab found itself embroiled in a controversy for its recent broadcast segment “Yellow Rain.”  Released on September 24, 2012 as part of the episode entitled “The Fact of the Matter,” the 20 minute segment “Yellow Rain” recounted the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of the Hmong by the Viet Cong and the Pathet Lao after the United States left Vietnam and the subsequent debates surrounding the chemical weapon called “yellow rain.  The episode pitted the witnessing of Eng Yang, a survivor and documenter of the genocide—whom producer Pat Walters describes as the “Hmong guy” at one point—and his niece, award-winning writer Kao Kalia Yang—referred to only as “Kalia” by hosts Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad—against the research of university scientists and the relentless questioning of Krulwich.

Following the episode’s broadcast, many listeners and critics argued that Radiolab’s treatment of their the Yangs was Orientalist and unethical. Jea, writing on Radiolab’s “Yellow Rain” comment page suggested “Ms. Yang and her uncle were dismissed and even reduced to pawns in the larger scheme of RadioLab’s agenda.” Others, such as Bob Collins, writing for Minnesota Public Radio worried that “the story appeared […]to invalidate the Hmong loss and suffering in Laos.” Aaron, a commentor on Current Magazine’s coverage of the controversy called Radiolab’s coverage “inexcusable science, nothing close to journalism, and if only ‘a story,’ one that cements erroneous ideas in the minds of its listeners.” Kirti Kamboj, writing for Hyphen, a magazine dedicated to Asian American arts, culture, and politics, described the episode as “heartbreaking,” “utterly infuriating,” and an exemplar of “Orientalist, ethnocentric framing” designed to privilege Western knowledge.

From my perspective as a scholar of rhetoric, communication, and debate, to call Radiolab’s game rigged would be an understatement. The interview was not conducted on an even playing field and it smacks of a white Western privilege that the writers and producers failed to fully acknowledge even in their on-air discussion following the interview. Radiolab determined the questions, edited the exchange, and retained the capacity to both frame and amend the discussion (there is a debate concerning whether or not the Yangs knew the questions prior to the interview—this discussion can be found here, Radiolab’s response here , and answer to Radiolab’s claims here.).

In addition to the whether or not Radiolab misrepresented the Yangs and downplayed the mass murder of the Hmong in their pursuit of “truth,” I find that this episode is important for the insights it contains into argumentative invention, journalism, and new media ethics, all sparked by the grain of Kalia Yang’s voice in response to Krulwich’s questions. I argue that Kalia’s sounded distress functioned as what I call a “sonorous objection,” instigating the critique of Radiolab’s tactics. Borrowing from argumentation theory, an objection describes an argument that draws the context of an argumentative exchange into view. Research on objections has most often examined the use of visual images, such as the controversy sparked by the photographs coming from of Abu Ghraib. In this short piece, I will wed prior research on objections with theories about sound to argue that Kalia used the grain of her voice to call out—and call into question—the opaque assumptions that governed the interview and its reception.

Kao Kalia Yang, Image courtesy of the Fox Cities Book Festival

“Yellow Rain” recalls the Hmong genocide following the Vietnam War. The Hmong were recruited by the CIA to help disrupt supply lines to Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon). After American troops withdrew, the Viet Cong and the Pathet Lao persecuted the Hmong for aiding the US. The communists attacked the Hmong, eradicating villages and blanketing populations with a sticky, yellow substance. Attempting to escape systemic annihilation, the Hmong receded into the jungle, where many still reside today. Some of the Hmong that were able to escape brought with them leaves covered in the yellow stuff, which they gave to local aid workers. These workers then shipped the samples back to the United States where labs diagnosed it as a chemical agent known as “yellow rain.” A concerned Reagan administration reasoned that only the Soviet Union had the technical capacity to produce such a weapon. As a result, Reagan restarted the Unites States’ then-dormant Chemical and Biological Weapons (CBW) program. Radiolab’s hosts, Abumrad and Krulwich take issue with this narrative; troubling the assertion that yellow rain was in fact a chemical weapon and insinuating that Reagan used the Hmong incident as an excuse to start producing CBWs.

“Yellow Rain,” on Radiolab.

“Yellow Rain” progressed like many other segments of Radiolab. Abumrad and Krulwich began by recounting the story of the Hmong from the perspective of retired CIA agent Merle Prebbenow and the Yangs. Next, they interview Harvard professor Matthew Meselson and Cornell professor Thomas Seeley, using their testimony to suggest that “yellow rain” was actually bees releasing their bowels en masse after hibernation. Then Abumrad and Krulwich brought this provocative hypothesis to the Yangs. Here, the show intensifies, the music fades, and Krulwich begins to question the Yangs, “as if he were a cross-examining attorney” according to Bob Collins, blogger for Minnesota Public Radio. As the interview goes on, Krulwich’s tone increasingly stiffens as he repeats a similar line of questioning: “But, as far as I can tell,” Krulwich asserts, “your uncle didn’t see the bee pollen fall, your uncle didn’t see a plane, all of this is hearsay.”

Kalia’s voice beings to fray:

My uncle says for the last twenty years he didn’t know that anyone was interested in the deaths of the Hmong people. He agreed to do this interview because you were interested. What happened to the Hmong happened, and the world has been uninterested for the last twenty years. He agreed because you were interested. That the story would be heard and the Hmong deaths would be documented and recognized. That’s why he agreed to the interview, that the Hmong heart is broken and our leaders have been silenced, and what we know has been questioned again and again is not a surprise to him, or to me. I agreed to the interview for the same reason, that Radiolab was interested in the Hmong story, that they were interested in documenting the deaths that happened. There was so much that was not told. Everybody knows that chemical warfare was being used. How do you create bombs if not with chemicals? We can play the semantics game, we can, but I’m not interested, my uncle is not interested. We have lost too much heart, and too many people in the process. I, I think the interview is done [This is Kalia’s transcription of her statements, from Hyphen].

Kalia reflects on her experience with Radiolab in a post for Hyphen, characterizing the interview as more of an interrogation. I add an additional layer: that of the deliberative exchange.  While it is certainly true that there was a great discrepancy between the interlocutors, both parties adduced reasons for their respective positions producing an argumentative encounter that challenged the norms that govern discourse and language.

In the above quotation, Kalia claims that Radiolab ambushed her and their meeting occurred under a pretense of telling the Hmong story. She then rhetorically situates her interlocutor within a broader history of silencing the Hmong. While it may be tempting to look at the Radiolab interview as an isolated event, Kalia’s arguments cast it as another iteration of the Hmong being discounted. We cannot, in other words, cleave “Yellow Rain” from a history of oppression.

August 2004, Image by Flickr User Awning

Additionally, Kalia chides Radiolab’s concerns, calling them a “semantics game.” Here, both the use of semantics and game is instructive. Semantics speaks to the trivial nature of Krulwich’s questions. His focus on yellow rain and its dubious status as a chemical weapon obfuscates the fact that weapons were used against the Hmong. Or, to reformulate Kalia’s argument, Radiolab is trading purely in language and ignoring the material reality of her people. The invocation of game is also important because it suggests that Krulwich does not understand the historical gravity of his actions. And, perhaps more importantly, that Radiolab is not taking the incident seriously. These arguments coalesce to trouble the assumption that the interview –and the inclusion of the Yang’s voices–was fair, equal, and inclusive. This culminates in Kalia wresting her agency from this context by ending the interview.

However, an exclusive focus on language ignores the intersecting effects of histories–personal, interpersonal and social–sounds, cultures, moods, and affects. Indeed, the grain of Kalia’s voice operates as an affective vector. Teresa Brenna, in The Transmission of Affect, explains, vocal rhythm “is a tool in the expression of agency, just as words are. It can literally convey the tone of an utterance, and in this sense, it does unite word and affect”(70). Different vocal inflictions invoke both biographic and cultural histories, as the body attempts to discern meaning. Political theorist William Connolly, in Neuropolitics, calls this space between sound and meaning the virtual register of memory. Virtual memory describes a background below conscious recollection that discerns sensory data, like sound, and renders it intelligible (24). We often see this register at work when we watch a movie, as different scenes are stored below the level of reflection and are called up to interpret a scene. Virtual memory is recursive, folding in present experiences to help guide future encounters and using previous encounters to make sense of the present. Thus the rhythm of Kalia’s voice guides the entrainment of affect by drawing on listeners’ previous encounters with similar sounds. This process infuses listeners’ perceptions and resulted in what commentators called “painful” and “emotional.”

While Kalia’s words claim Radiolab ambushed her and her uncle, the grain of her voice draws the unequal distribution of power into sharp relief. Her vocal cracks resonated with listeners, imparting an intense, visceral experience and provoking an outcry. One listener, Mathew Salesses sums up the response: “Every time I listen to this, I start to cry. Every time. About ten times now.” It demonstrates that Kalia was through reasoning with Krulwich; his use of Western science to discredit indigenous knowledge made sincere argumentation impossible. Her cry was not only an act of resistance, but also an objection that troubled Radiolab’s claims of journalistic excellence, highlighting vexing issues with editing and story construction.

Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, Image by Flickr User Carlos Gomez

In argumentation parlance, Kalia’s voice operated as an “objection.” In “Entanglements of Consumption,” argumentation scholars Kathryn M. Olson and G. Thomas Goodnight (1994) explain how an objection functions within an argumentative encounter: “absent a common agreement as to the means of reaching consensus, debate over the ‘truth’ of an asserted claim is set aside, in whole or in part, and challenges are raised as to the acceptability of the communicative context within which the argument is offered as secured”(251). That is, when deliberation occurs within a shared context—agreed upon values, goals, rules, and facts—the argument progresses smoothly. However, when there is a disjunction between interlocutors, such as in “Yellow Rain” where both parties disagree on basic facts, hegemonic beliefs take precedence. Objections function to evidence this differential, making both parties (and often an audience) aware of this gap. As such, objections are not concerned with refuting previous claims—the way that Kalia states neither she nor her uncle are interested in having a semantic debate—but questions the very context—and the conditions–of the debate itself.

Despite Radiolab’s attempts to fetishize her voice to evidence the “fact of the matter” and the “complicated nature of truth,” Kalia’s voice retained her agency. Through the invocation of the sonorous objection, she eluded capture and demonstrated the unequal terrain of the interview. Her pain enveloped the listener, leaving a resonance that Radiolab listener Cecilia Yang called “painful to listen to” in her personal blog. As Olson and Goodnight remind us, objections arise in a repressive context, when people are denied a voice. For Kalia, histories of racism and colonialism infused the argumentative encounter, making it impossible for her to “reason,” a framework she exposes as a stacked game. As such, her sonorous objection functioned to evidence this disparity, while directing the listener’s attention to her cause. Just as the pictures of prisoners coming out of Abu Ghraib incited outrage about U.S. imperialism and violence, Kalia’s sonorous objection provoked a conversation about the Hmong, Radiolab, and the ethics of journalism in the new media age.

Justin Eckstein is a doctoral candidate and former director of debate at the University of Denver. His work explores the intersection of listening, affect, and argumentation. Justin’s writing has appeared in Argumentation & Advocacy,Relevant Rhetoricand Argumentation in ContextCurrently, he is writing his dissertation on the micropolitics of podcasting in the post-deliberative moment.

Easy Listening: Spreading and the Role of the Ear in Debating

Photo courtesy of Sounding Out! intern, Sky Stage. All rights reserved.

As I write, my institution, the University of Denver, is gearing up to host the first of the 2012 Presidential Debates. The debate promises a polite and eloquent exchanging of reasons on matters of public concerns.  This image of  “the good man [sic] speaking well,” roughly represented by Obama and Romney, pervades popular culture representations of debate. While there are certainly some forms of debate that stress public reason, like Worlds style debate, most other competitive styles of debate, look and sound very different.

American “Policy Debate,” the type of debate I will explore today, is a high school and collegiate competitive activity where two-person teams argue the merits of governmental legislation. In every round there is an affirmative that advocates an action and a negative defending the status quo, or some alternative. The debate prompts, or resolutions, change yearly and produce research collections comparable to a master’s thesis. But, it is not the research that captures newcomers’ attention. No, it is the velocity that information travels. Indeed, highly successful debaters transform their voice into a high-speed information weapon, sometimes speaking up to 400 words per minute (wpm).

Nobody really knows who decided that speaking quicker than her/his opponents would be a viable strategy. Some allege that David Seikel and Mike Miller, a dominant team from the University of Houston in the late 1960s invented the strategy. However, Miller denies this fact, insisting that the practice of speaking quickly, or “spreading,” predated their success by a couple years. While it is difficult to pin down exactly when talking becomes spreading, studies indicate passive comprehension has a threshold of around 210 wpm. Simply put, spreading is a vocal practice that propagates more arguments than an opponent can rebut, forcing the opposing team into a strategic choice of conceding and/or inadequately responding to some positions.

The NDT National Debate Champions and Runners-Up

Almost immediately after its introduction, spreading became a polarizing issue. While some alleged that speed undermined communicative argumentation, others applauded its ability to foster critical thinking. Rate of delivery became a site for what Douglas Ehninger called in 1958 the debate about debate: should debate be concerned with public reason or technical proficiency? Spreading figured prominently in these discussions because it circumscribed debate to the technical sphere, the quick pace precluding lay comprehension. As a site for cultivating what argumentation theorists Ron Greene and Darrin Hicks call “the ethical attributes required for democratic citizenship” (101), debate operates as an ideal problem space to inquire about the relationship between listening and judgment that underwrite argumentative exchanges.

Extracting meaning from a spread requires a trained ear that can delineate the nuance of tone, rhythm, code, and breathing, while translating these sounds into symbols that are then recorded onto a “flow” (a document where participants keep notes of the debate). This technical sphere of argumentation, then, requires what cultural historian Jonathan Sterne calls in The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction an “audile technique,” or a set of culturally defined listening practices. Here, spreading denotes not just rate of delivery, but encompasses a range of other practices that attend to the debate. Yoking velocity with technical proficiency, spreading requires an audile technique that attunes the ear to speed, while calibrating the viscera to quickly appraise each position espoused. Extending Sterne’s observations into an embodied theory of listening, I argue that spreading entrains visceral judgment that organizes expertise under the banner of “exchange-value,” instead of its veracity. Reflecting what Jodi Dean calls in Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive capitalism’s communicative style, I contend, audition in this case privileges flow over content.

Today, debaters are much faster than their 1960s counterparts. Take for example the championship round of this year’s (2012) National Debate Tournament (NDT). The 2012 topic debated the merits of the United States’ democracy assistance in the Middle East.

Finals – NDT 2012 Northwestern BK v Georgetown AM – 1AC + CX

In the speech linked to above, dubbed the first affirmative constructive (1AC), the speaker’s first words are easily audible, but as the seconds expire, the affirmative’s words increase in velocity; syllables collide and contort. The speaker pushes through, taking a split second to take a short, fast breath (called a clutch) before he begins his next word. To the seasoned ear, the voice is instructive; a slower, deeper tone signifying an assertion. also known as a “tag,” and a faster tempo indicating evidence. Out of this buzz, debaters’ are able to discern distinct phrases, like “Arab Spring,” “economic down turn,” and “nuclear war.” In 9 minutes the speaker outlined his advocacy, consisting of multiple scenarios for planetary extinction.

During the 1AC, the negative team is carefully listening, gathering the affirmative’s evidence, and translating the speech into symbolic shorthand, termed flowing. In addition to its purely functional use—to keep track of positions—the flow also provides third party adjudicator(s) a document to evaluate the debate.

Image of flow notes taken during a debate

After a period of questioning, the first negative speaker, linked to below, elaborates his positions: a procedural concern that the affirmative is outside the confines of the resolution; two philosophical objections (or critiques); two alternative courses of action that resolve the affirmatives exigencies, while conserving the president’s political capital, so Obama can push for Jackson-Vanik legislation; and finally direct responses to the affirmative position.

Finals – NDT 2012 Northwestern BK v Georgetown AM – 1NC + CX

Coupled with the “burden of rejoinder,” which dictates a conceded argument is a true argument, speed becomes a strategic weapon. The more positions, the more likely one will be missed, granting the other team an advantage. For example, failure to address the negative’s concerns about the Jackson-Vanik legislation means that the affirmative position would result in a US-Russian nuclear war culminating in extinction and probably losing the affirmative the debate. Even less dire claims exert force in the round. For instance, missing the relatively innocuous claim that Obama does not have political capital abrogates the negative’s whole Jackson-Vanik position. After all, what would be the point of Obama conserving capital, if he has none to begin with?

Debating thus requires a refined ear capable of quickly determining a argument’s merit, while allotting the proper amount of attention. If a claim is deemed irrelevant, the debater can focus on a more relevant position, keeping her/his ear piqued for beginning of the next position.

Debate team members listening to the flow at a 2009 Tournament at University of the Pacific; Image by Flickr User Inkyhack

This confluence of speed, evidence, time constraints, and a burden of rejoinder cultivates an instrumental relationship to expertise. Media theorist Jayson Harsin suggests in “The Rumour Bomb: Theorising the Convergence of New and Old Trends in Mediated US Politics” that these “conditions encourage a relationship of viewer to text (slogan, soundbite, fragment) which is essentially fiduciary, based on trust, not critical understanding”(101). Indeed, time constraints coupled with a proliferation of positions,  produces a sound to listener relationship, where the veracity is assumed and significance is dictated by strategies, not the least of which is vocal. This is because there is simply not enough time to evaluate the credibility of each piece of evidence read. Patrick Speice and Jim Lyle, two debate coaches, explain that “Debaters have to be focused on the arguments being offered, have to be able to understand them very quickly, and they have to be able to discern which arguments are of the greatest significance for the round.” Evidence, then, is reorganized along a strategic continuum—the more likely an argument may help or hinder a team’s chances of winning, the more important it becomes. This can precipitate a “race to the margins,” where one side tries to find an obscure argument to beat back more probable analysis. This is not to say that one kind of argument is better than the other. But, the rationality used to organize the evidence relegates veracity to the epiphenomenal. This fosters an epistemic leveling, indexing expertise according to its exchange-value.

The repetitive nature of debate inscribes these listening habits into the body, shaping future interaction. Writing on the pious ear, cultural anthropologist Charles Hirschkind explains in The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics, “patterns of sensory attunement configured through continuous practice of such a listening constitute an intensifying perceptual background for […]ethical agency and public reason”(28). Similarly, the practice of listening to debate rounds, along with the movement of the hands, quickness of thought, and so on are burned into an affective substrate, defining the horizons of future action. That is, through the repetition of debates, audile technique is entrained into motor memory, residing just below the conscious register of thought, acting as a potentiality. Most often, this listening technique is activated in the next debate round, the spread’s distinctive sound generating an anamnestic effect, activating the policy debate ear.

In sum, spreading proffers an audile technique concerned with the exchange-value of evidence, where the “best claim” is the one that wins the round. It entrains a technical mode of audition, aiding the debater in making quick decisions. This listening style underwrites a knowledge economy, where expertise becomes just another commodity that is bought, sold, and traded to support pre-formulated opinions. “Under communicative capitalism,” Jodi Dean writes, “an excess of polls, surveys, and assessments circulates, undercutting not only the efficacy of any particular poll or survey but the conditions of possibility for knowledge and credibility as such. There is always another survey, done by another group or association with whatever bias and whatever methodology, displacing whatever information one thought one had” (103).

Justin Eckstein is a doctoral candidate and former director of debate at the University of Denver. His work explores the intersection of listening, affect, and argumentation. Justin’s writing has appeared in Argumentation & Advocacy, Relevant Rhetoricand Argumentation in ContextCurrently, he is writing his dissertation on the micropolitics of podcasting in the post-deliberative moment.

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