Friday, June 01, 2007

Post on MySpace and get fired! (Crosspost from LL)

Bridget Copley writes in with the sad story of David Noordewier, who was fired by Wal-mart for posting the following in his MySpace:

Drop a bomb on all the Walmarts, trailer parks, ghettos, monster truck shows, and retarded fake "pro wrestling" events, and the average I.Q. score would probably double.

Why's this a sad story? Wal-mart can't have its employees publicly insulting its customers, probably; pretty harsh to fire him outright but you can see their point...

Thing is, Wal-mart didn't fire him for the implied insult. Rather, they fired him (and ensured that he was denied unemployment benefits) because they say he threatened them. He provides the following quote from their 'notice of determination':

"You were discharged from Walmart associates inc. on 2/27/07 for integrity issues. You had a posting on your personal website stating to "Bomb all the Walmarts" to increase the average IQ scores.

David needs to add a semanticist to his legal team, stat! Someone who can do the following:

(a) Explain, in words of one syllable, the concept of a 'conditional conjunction'. Actually for this David could just provide a link to an English as a Second Language website, e.g., here.1

(b) Explain, with argumentation, the exact conditions that must be met for an utterance to be a 'threat' speech act. Conditionals (conjoined or regular) can be threats -- "Take another step and I'll shoot!" -- but not, I suspect, unless the consequent has a negative effect on the supposed threatenee. That's not the case in David's sentence.

(c) Prove that the conditional conjunction of his MySpace sentence does not have an imperative antecedent, as the Wal-Mart legal department seems to think. An imperative conjoined conditional like "Bomb all the Wal-marts and double the average IQ!" wouldn't be a threat per se, but it would be incitement to violence and perhaps justify the treatment he's getting. But the antecedent here is not an imperative; rather, it's a declarative with a concealed impersonal 'you' subject. ('You bomb all the Wal-marts and...')

The author of this paper could probably do it. Or any of the people he cites.

1This is not an endorsement of the content here; it's just a high-up Google hit with examples of the right kind. I haven't really looked at it properly.


Blogger Paul said...

Hmmm... they changed his wording in quoting him? "Drop a bomb on all the Walmarts" can have idiomatic meanings, whereas "Bomb all the Walmarts" does not.

8:56 PM  
Blogger stefano said...

hi Heidi,
I propose two thought experiments to make the case that the issue that particular employer is facing may not be entirely reducible to a linguistic analysis of the post of its employer.

Thought experiment 1: change blindness.

Imagine a person in a situation similar to those experimentally set up at
Imagine that person failed at a task because she had failed to recognize a change in her environment.
Imagine the person's supervisor faulted the person by pointing out that a careful analysis of the environment clearly reveals that a change had occurred.
In this situation I would argue that most people would feel that the supervisor is missing the point: yes, the change could be detected via a careful analysis but the person was not in a situation where such careful analysis could be easily performed.
My point here is that that particular employer is not unreasonable in supposing that the vast majority of the readers of that post would be less sensitive to the conjunctive conditional analysis than a professional linguist would be.

Thought experiment 2: stability of conjunctive conditional analysis.

This is a point that is difficult to make without bringing into play language that can elicit strong emotions.

This is just to stress that everything I write below is written in peace, with a friendly and sincere desire to clarify an issue.

Consider a 55 year old slightly overweight Swedish architect.

An consider a progression of conjunctive conditionals of the following form:

1.0) Smile to an architect and he will smile back
1.1) Smile to a Swedish architect and he will smile back
1.2) Smile to a middle aged Swedish architect and he will smile back
2.2) bump into a middle aged Swedish architect and he will smile back
3.2) spit on a middle aged Swedish architect and he will smile back
4.2) shoot a middle aged Swedish architect and he will smile back
4.3) shoot a Swedish fatso an he will smile back
5.3) slit the throat of a Swedish fatso and he will smile back

OK, what is happening here? somewhere between 2.2) and 3.2) (where the first digit is an index of how threatening the action is and the second digit an index of how precisely the person is addressed) things start getting uncomfortable to the point where it becomes progressively difficult for a middle aged Swedish architect to say; ah, cmon! it's just a conjunctive conditional, nothing to worry about.

To see the point even better replace the description of the Swedish architect with the description of somebody you really care about.

My point here is that it is not unfair to suppose that the specific employer referred to in the post is playing the same role as the Swedish architect at around 3.2 and that it may have the same difficulty as the Swedish architect at the same point in the sacle in attending to conjunctive conditional analyses.

In peace,


10:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Honestly, would being fired from Walmart be that bad of a thing?

11:25 PM  
Blogger hh said...

Hi again!

I was thinking after I posted that someone would make your point, Stefano! I should have made it clear that even though the sentence in question isn't technically a threat or even an incitement to violence, I think it's still a pretty nasty thing to say, and correctly characterizing its speech act properties doesn't change that!

(I tried to make that clear in the first little bit of my post, but could have done a better job of that).

But I also think that Wal-mart's lawyers ought to be able to recognize a conditional conjunction. After all, they understand the meaning of "Buy two, get one free!"!

12:07 AM  
Blogger Stephen said...

The dismissal is entirely unjustified. The guy is not even singling out Walmart, but just treating it as one part of Springerlandia.

I would incidentally fully support bombing anybody that gave links to websites or other sources that pedal the junk classification of conditionals into types zero to three. The matter causes no end of problems in EFL teaching, and does not even touch on the most important distinction in conditional sentences, which is that between a real and hypothetical apodosis.

3:38 PM  
Blogger hh said...

yikes, that's the most hostility (real or ironic) I think I've ever been on the receiving end of, blogging, stephen! got a better site to suggest? I didn't have a lot of time to look around for examples of conjoined conditionals, and that site at least had a lot of those. since the point is just to provide an illustration to wal-mart that the phenomenon exists, that was enough. but i'm happy to change it if you have anything constructive to suggest...

3:51 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

yikes, that's the most hostility (real or ironic) I think I've ever been on the receiving end of, blogging, stephen!

You have evidently lived a very sheltered cyberlife!

I think it is about time we quote the ex-Poet Laureate. I'm sure he wouldn't have minded being sacked by the Slough branch of Asda/WalMart, but GB would probably have him up on the anti-terrorist laws (can't have competition to Burns can we?).


Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough
It isn't fit for humans now,
There isn't grass to graze a cow
Swarm over, Death!

Come, bombs, and blow to smithereens
Those air-conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans
Tinned minds, tinned breath.

Mess up the mess they call a town --
A house for ninety-seven down
And once a week for half-a-crown
For twenty years,

And get that man with double chin
Who'll always cheat and always win,
Who washes his repulsive skin
In women's tears,

And smash his desk of polished oak
And smash his hands so used to stroke
And stop his boring dirty joke
And make him yell.

But spare the bald young clerks who add
The profits of the stinking cad;
It's not their fault that they are mad,
They've tasted Hell.

It's not their fault they do not know
The birdsong from the radio,
It's not their fault they often go
To Maidenhead

And talk of sports and makes of cars
In various bogus Tudor bars
And daren't look up and see the stars
But belch instead.

In labour-saving homes, with care
Their wives frizz out peroxide hair
And dry it in synthetic air
And paint their nails.

Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough
To get it ready for the plough.
The cabbages are coming now;
The earth exhales.

-- John Betjeman

With regard to better EFL sites dealing with the conditional, unfortunately there probably aren't any. The idea of four types of conditionals has become an engrained illusion in the minds of most EFL authorities and nearly every EFL textbook goes along with copycat lessons. You would think that the fact that those who proposed the classification couldn't count to four originally, and needed to call the one they'd forgotten about the zero conditional would be a warning, but no way. Lewis rightly ridicules the idea in "The English Verb" but only his acolytes have followed his steps.

The best description I know of the subjunctive in English comes from the "Cambridge Grammar of the English Language" but there is no online version, only the dead tree version, which does admittedly come with a free chapter 9 filing and bonus hernia attached.

11:38 AM  
Anonymous dermatologist detective said...

Actualy what does he meant as drop a bomb on all walmarts all about. There are some errors in his sentence itself. Probably, he might want people to get shock a bit before posting the comments or perhaps he wants to be in super trouble or else.

8:46 PM  
Anonymous daexion said...

To someone with any shred of commonsense it's obviously not a threatening sentence, but we all know that corporations that care more about the bottom line then people don't have a shred of commonsense, or a shred of decency. The simple fact that they had to quote mine him simply means that they're slime.

10:25 PM  
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5:51 PM  

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