Author’s Note: This piece is a re-write of my very first piece of linguistic ethnography. For a fuller explanation of linguistic ethnography check out On “Dude” Usage. A “Keeganism” here is simply a notable phrase used by the former head of the IB Diploma Program for Asia-Pacific Stephen Keegan. Keegan was based out of the Singapore office, which was at the time one of three “hub” offices around the world.
Although fitting in with my other efforts at linguistic ethnography, in this piece I approach Keeganisms as if they are a rare species, like a certain kind of elusive salamander or something. If this little conceit if effective, as it hope it is, this is only because the Keeganisms under investigation are themselves so glorious.
When Stephen Keegan spoke, dozens listened. I was one of them. Darwin sailed around on the Beagle, ran across some turtles in the Galapagos, and his investigation of all that changed the world. While I don’t pretend that my little survey of Keeganisms will change the world, I would not be able to forgive myself if this species was simply lost to time.
Keeganisms were known to flourish between the years 2008-2013, in and around the greater Pacific Rim. Without being able to definitively establish the evolutionary arc of the species, naturalists suspect an increasingly florid progression over the years. For my own part, I was marginally aware of the species in 2008-2009, but did not realize the bounty that Keeganisms provided the scientific community until 2010. What follows is an analysis of some of the most common variants of the species as I was able to observe. All of these instances were found at IB events where Keegan was speaking in public.
Here is Keegen in 2010 describing what the IB provides to its schools in the way of services: “We are not special. I mean, of course we are unique and special in many ways.”
Keegan is making the point that there is a consistency across high quality high school curricula and programs, and that the IB is not somehow in a wholly different category. The first sentence, “we are not special” is a bald statement to this effect. Keegan immediately realizes, however, that this is possibly an infelicitous soundbite, and qualifies with a politician’s cover “I mean, of course we are unique and special in many ways.”
Why is it a Keeganism? The classic form common to the first type of a true Keeganisms can be expressed as (A+D=A>D) where A (Affirmation)=a statement that shows an aspect of Keegan’s actual feelings or opinions about a given matter, and D (Denial)=a qualification which serves to qualify and reduce the sting of the truth-telling in A, but which does not fully counterbalance or neutralize the sentiment of A, thus A>D.
In this case, “I mean, of course we are unique and special in many ways,” gets Keegan off the hook for his heresy, however it is rather obviously a cliched cover (although one does appreciate the “in many ways.”) From a formal point of view, then, this is a classic Keeganism, perhaps the prototype; from a content point of view we can find better.
And we did find better later that year or the next at a meeting of East Asian IB Diploma Coordinators. Here, Keegan is commenting on one of two commercially available software products which were competing for market share for IB schools at that time. “I am not promoting their product. I am promoting the concept of their product (….) They are the future. Of course the future will take many forms.”
In this case Keegan has an opinion about which product if preferable, however in his capacity as an IB employee he cannot state this outright. Instead, he gives an extended tribute to one of the competing companies before making clear that he is “not promoting their product.” Likewise, when he catches himself saying that their product “is the future,” he hastens to make sure we understand that multivalent nature of said future. Thus, he is again “covered.”
“I am not promoting their product. I am promoting the concept of their product” is actually a structural reversal of the classic Keeganism, which reappears in “they are the future. Of course the future will take many forms.” In the first, Keegan’s true opinion comes second, the denial first. Matters are further complicated by the introduction of the word “concept.” While it may be the case that a concept at times can be a free floating entity, in this case Keegan’s semantic distinction is taken, as it is probably intended, with a large measure of salt. Thus again a key feature of the species–the “denial” is consistently underweighted as compared to the affirmation: D+A=D<A.
With Keegan’s statement about the future, the classic structure is back, with a twist. The sentence “of course the future will take many forms” is so nebulous, so frankly metaphysical in its lineaments, that it verges on absurdity. It is also highly arguable, as while it may be true that the characteristics of the future will vary from place to place, it is at least possible to argue that the future will take precisely the form it takes: not a plurality of forms, but exactly one. Of more direct relevance is the point that if the future will take many forms, and in only one of those forms are “they” that future, then why are they “the future” at all? Of course, this is precisely the genius of this particular Keeganism; the “denial” is so slippery that is dissolves almost entirely, assuming instead a purely formal aspect (f). A+D=A(f).
Not all Keeganisms have such an overt affirmation/ denial or denial/ affirmation structure, however. Others slip their denial/ qualification into the body of the affirmation itself. For example: “This alternative is being described as a valid reliable assessment.”
This Keeganism came at an IB conference for the Asian region, Keegan is describing highly contentious changes to the IB Visual Arts curriculum, which at the time the IB was defending against continued protests from art teachers (a fractious bunch when agitated it turns out). An advanced degree in communication theory is not required in order to parse this Keeganism; simply put the addition of “is being described as” shifts the locus of affirmation to some distant body doing the describing and away from Keegan, who is instead stating an unimpeachable fact–somebody somewhere is describing the assessment as reliable. Nonetheless, Keegan is not entirely distancing himself from the affirmation. In fact, there is no counter-affirmation present here, simply a qualification that insulates Keegan from a bald statement of validity and reliability.
Here is Keegan at his final public appearance in Japan before his resignation: “We are delighted to be part of a global organization with global requirements.”
With this one, structurally we are in similar territory, but the valence differs. Keegan is describing some recent “rationalization” of IB services around the world, a change which would reduce some of the autonomy of the Asia Pacific regional office. In fact over the next few years the IB Asia Pacific office, and all of the “hub” offices, would be downgraded from essentially autonomous power centers with a Head of Office of their own to simply branches of the global organization with no clearly assigned leadership of their own. The acute listener will understand that Keegan’s loyalty is more to the region than the global organization; with some justice he feels that Asia-Pacific is the model region. This point has to be borne in mind when approaching this particular Keeganism.
On the face of it this is a fairly simple piece of sarcasm directed at the global infrastructure. However, there are a few complicating factors. First, Keegan uses the plural pronoun–thereby implicating his fellow presenter, and, perhaps, his entire regional office. Of course, the singular here would be far too “on the nose”; still, the “we” puts his colleagues in an interesting position. Second, the repetition of “global” here confers the style we have come to expect from a true Keeganism. Third, there is perhaps more ambiguity here than we might as first suspect. Keegan actually does understand the drive to standardize the regions and the need for global requirements, and he can explain this need in unironic terms. One suspects that an aspect of heart versus head is present here as well. In practice, however, on the communication front lines, Keegan has difficulty standing fully behind the ramifications of certain of these global requirements.
Here is where it gets tricky–the affection with which Keegan was held around the region was in large part a result of his ability to walk a very fine line between representing his employer and representing the region, its Diploma Coordinators, and its Heads of School. In order to sustain this somewhat ambiguous position, Keegan had to be able to ironize, even ridicule, the larger organization. However, were he to cross too far into irony or counter-statements he would risk losing credibility even as he gained affection. Keegan was aware of the bend of this curve, which is why his most overtly heretical affirmations were always immediately qualified. In essence, Keegan was excellent at “triangulating,” and in so doing, it could be argued, simply doing his job.
Then there are a set of statements that fit neither of the above types, but nonetheless qualify as Keeganisms on account of their peculiar word choice/ structure. As the following examples were all taken from a single presentation, one suspects that this category was in fact pretty capacious. Naturalists to this day do not entirely agree as to what counts as a true Keeganism, and there will always be a certain degree of controversy on this point. Here are a couple of examples of these disputed Keeganisms (IB Answers was a kind of help center which would answer stakeholders questions online or by phone):
“Will we be absolutely consistent in absolutely all areas? Absolutely not.”
“IB Answers has provided some answers. They specialize in answers, so it was easy to do.”
First, these enter the realm of possible Keeganisms on account of the repetition of a keyword across sentences. In the first instance, we can imagine the a more normal construction (e.g. a non-Keeganism): “Will we be absolutely consistent in all areas? Probably not.” The meaning here would be similar, however, the addition of the second “absolutely” moves us away from a mere admission of occasional inconsistency to something closer to a statement of purpose. Keegan is not simply stating that inconsistency will occur, he is celebrating it. I believe this to be a Keeganism.
As for the second, one has the suspicion that it may be a standard line, or at least to be making a repeat appearance. A minor area of controversy, of whispered side conversations among modern linguists, is to what extent all Keeganisms are original to their moment. While we have not in fact been able to prove the charge, a line like “they specialize in answers” does raise the antenna of the more conspiratorially minded among us.
Here is Keegan again on IB Answers, which sometimes struggled to get their story straight: “You really have to have more effective answers. It’s a world that really has to be refined.”
The beauty of this Keeganism once again lies in the details. Were we to hear: “You really have to have more effective answers. It’s a process that really has to be refined,” this would account for nothing more than an honest admission of an area of the IB infrastructure that bears improvement. For anyone who knows Keegan, it would be completely unremarkable, as the steps by which an answer is generated through IB Answers are easily imagined as a process. But is IB Answers a “world”? One thinks of Tolkien, of the Wizard of Oz, of the books of Tintin–these are “worlds.” The construction is so odd, so specific, so suggestive of depths and complications unimagined and unimaginable to the listener, that we are swept up in the possibilities, and are once again in the presence of a genuine Keeganism.
“Global PD really has moved in a different way.”
“There is so much happening of a very intriguing nature around the world.”
In this final type of Keeganism we have the apparent qualifier which, under closer examination, turns out to be essentially contentless. After remaking on some recent changes to the IB’s professional development (PD) structure, Keegan’s “global PD really has moved in a different way” is possibly a compliment; however, the use of “different,” instead of any one of a large number of possible alternatives, “better,” “more effective,” “preferable,” etc., so obviously leaves the whole question open that we recognize a stealthy, if minor Keeganism. It is almost as if Keegan, so accustomed to hedging and jousting with language, finds himself here incapable of giving forth a bald, uninflected, statement of praise. From contextual clues we may be able to glean which way Keegan is leaning; on the face of it the sentence could mean absolutely anything.
As for, “there is so much happening of a very intriguing nature around the world,” but of course there is. There is so very much happening that we might almost be tempted to conclude that the future will take many forms.
Dedication: For Steve, thank you for your service.
2 thoughts on “Keeganisms in the Wild: An Exploration”
To Keegan or not to Keegan …
For certain frontline communication professionals there is no choice!