Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Gaffology 101

By Robin Lakoff

The world of the early twenty-first century is one divided by factionalism and suspicion, and connected by new channels of communication that are uneditable, instantaneous, and anonymous. Therefore the most important thing a modern president must know in order to be effective is how to use language,  both interpretively and actively, both domestically and globally. This is Theodore Roosevelt’s “bully pulpit” translated to a century later. But while for TR, the effective use of the presidential bully pulpit was a nice bonus, for today’s president it is essential. To demonstrate a total incapacity in this area is to declare oneself unfit for the office.

Candidates’ gaffes (utterances in which speakers unintentionally display their true feelings, as opposed to the self-representations that they feel they must make on the campaign trail) are neither irrelevant nor trivial. For one thing, a gaffe-prone candidate, if successful, will morph into a gaffe-prone president, and — in the age of Twitter and You-Tube — that could incapacitate even an otherwise competent president. And gaffes are not just meaningless accidents: they reveal more about  their users’ true characters than they would wish the electorate to know, but which the electorate needs to know. Just as the debates offer voters a glimpse into the candidates’ positions on many issues, so their gaffes may offer revelations into who these people really are.

In Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, Sigmund Freud posited the existence of two kinds of jokes, innocent and tendentious, the first lacking the sexual or aggressive content of the second. In a similar vein we can divide political gaffes into those that are innocent and have no bearing on their speaker’s capacity to be president; and gaffes that are tendentious revealing something about their perpetrators that casts doubt on their ability to serve. In the current campaign, a remarkable number of Mitt Romney’s contributions to the genre are of the second, more dangerous kind.

A gaffe may also be either speaker-based or hearer-based. The former is the type with which we are all too familiar, in which a speaker says something that makes him look bad. But we are less aware of the second type, the gaffe of interpretation: a situation in which someone misattributes or perniciously misunderstands something said by an opponent, reading into that utterance an interpretation that would normally be impossible for fluent speakers of the language to make. Both types of gaffe suggest a speaker’s inability to make correct use of the pragmatics of his language: that aspect of the grammar concerned with language use and function. It should go without saying that a candidate for a position in which the ability to communicate effectively is perhaps the most important requisite who shows himself to be pragmatically incompetent is a candidate who should not be taken seriously. And if the gaffes in question are of the tendentious kind, there are even more serious grounds for concern.

In the current campaign, while both sides have made linguistic missteps, it seems to me that Romney and his surrogates have been by far the most gaffe-prone: both speaker- and hearer-based, and while some are innocent, a remarkable number are tendentious. Consider, as an example, a favorite of mine, this one hearer-based.

Speaking to a crowd in Danville, Virginia, with a significant number of African Americans, Biden made the following remark:

“Romney wants to let — he said in the first hundred days, he's going to let the big banks once again write their own rules. 'Unchain Wall Street.' They're going to put y'all back in chains."

The Romney camp immediately interpreted this as “racist,” noting (given the presence of African Americans in the audience) Biden’s use of “y’all,” the alleged “drawl” in which he spoke, and, of course, the reference to “chains.” But understood in the most normal and reasonable way, the statement contains not a scintilla of anything identifiable as “racism.” To make such an interpretation is to torture the meanings of words in Humpty Dumpty mode: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” To do so is to miss what language and communication are about: to achieve a meeting of minds, to convey something to someone else.

First, “y’all” is not and has never been specifically associated with African American English. It has for centuries been characteristic of southern U.S. dialects, and more recently has been co-opted by speakers of standard American English (along with the “dropped g” of, e.g., “walkin’”) to convey casualness and informality, and therefore identification as a regular guy deserving of the trust of other regular people. That is what Biden meant here by his use of “y’all.”

Secondly, the alleged “drawl” is also, for some speakers, a marker of informality and therefore casualness, rather than being racially based.

Finally, the Romney side apparently decided that Biden’s use of “chains” was racist because it made oblique reference to slavery which (they have to assume, for this assumption to make any kind of sense) can only mean the race-based slavery of the antebellum U.S. South. But in its context (about “bankers”) and with some knowledge of world history, the term clearly is being used to make a very different reference. Biden is playing on Romney’s plea to “unchain Wall Street.” In so doing, he suggests, we would in fact be “chaining” the members of his audience, the ordinary workers. The oblique reference is certainly not to the slavery of the antebellum South, but to the Marx and Engels line: “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.”

Yes, I can hear the rejoinder: OK, he’s not a racist, but if he is making reference to Marx, he must be inciting class warfare.

I am tempted to reply with another paraphrase: if this be incitement to class warfare, then make the most of it. But more seriously, it is certainly possible to quote or paraphrase an author without buying into that author’s world-view. To suggest otherwise is otiose.

Now consider a few of Romney’s speaker-based gaffes, most of which suggest that, regardless of his handlers’ attempts to portray him as a man of the people who, unlike his Democratic counterpart, feels the ordinary person’s pain, Romney’s primary identity is with men of wealth and prestige:

“Corporations are people,” to which he appends the patronizing “my friend.”

And, “My wife drives a couple of Cadillacs,” the casualness of a couple making it clear that he is so wealthy he doesn’t even have to  (or can’t even) count his expensive cars.

These might look like innocent gaffes, but they are tendentious because they call into question Romney’s claim of identification with the average American. Both of these utterances (and many like them) show that the real Mitt Romney is not like his public image, so voting for him on the basis of that public self-representations is, even more than is usually the case, voting for a pig in a poke.

But by far the most serious of Romney’s gaffes (because of its ability to do serious and irrevocable damage) is his most recent set of remarks following the horrific events in Cairo and Benghazi. These statements are tendentious gaffes under even the most generous interpretations: they assume that the remarks he is castigating were made under different circumstances than they actually were (i.e., that they were made after, rather than before, the events in question); they seem designed to stir up trouble in an already violence-plagued region; and, perhaps most seriously – although the above two are already serious enough – they demonstrate Romney’s bizarre inability to do normal pragmatics, to understand ordinary English in the way it was clearly intended to be understood. So this set of gaffes is a twofer: both hearer- and speaker-based, in both cases tendentious and indeed a very scary predictor of the kind of president Mitt Romney might be if elected.

I have searched the American Embassy’s brief statement provoked Romney’s charge that it was an “apology” and “appeasement,” and cannot find anything in it that could normally be so interpreted. Try it yourself:

“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.”

An appropriate apology, according to pragmatic theory, must be uttered by someone who has done wrong, to the victim of the misdeed, and who therefore needs forgiveness from the victim. Nothing in the above statement expresses either of these ideas. So if it is an apology, it is a failed one. But there is no reason to suppose that it was intended as an apology.

We could characterize the Embassy’s statement as expressing sympathy – but certainly not toward the rioters (“misguided individuals”) or the producers of the film (who are not even mentioned), but toward Muslims in general, who have done no harm and could be considered victims as much as anyone else.

If Mr. Romney is incapable of distinguishing a statement of censure (which this is) from an apology, we have much to fear in the event of his presidency. With his election, the possibility of exacerbating misunderstandings, domestic and global, and getting America and the world along with it into irredeemable trouble, would be greatly enhanced.