We've had discussions here lately about whether certain bits of sound coming out of Rick Santorum's mouth are to be taken as evidence of his bigotry ("Blah people", 1/6/12; "The return of 'Blah people'"?, 3/30/12). Santorum's position has been that certain racially-loaded gaffes were merely inadvertent slips of the tongue that reveal nothing about what he intended to communicate. Whenever there's a debate like this, in which the speaker disavows intent for certain utterances, two questions come up:
1) Did the speaker really intend to say what he said, and is only now back-pedaling to avoid the consequences?
2) Even if he didn't intend it, does the slip say something meaningful about his inner thoughts and attitudes?
Many people believe that unintended slips do reveal something about a person's hidden beliefs, taking a Freudian view of speech errors, though there's actually no evidence that this is true. I've used Santorum's most recent slip (in which he uttered the syllable "nig" while launching into criticisms of Barack Obama) as an opportunity to give a short lesson on speech errors over at Discover Magazine's blog, The Crux.
But the discussions here on Language Log have mostly dealt with Question 1, the issue of intent. So I'd like to say something more about that.
In talking about speech errors, I often use the analogy of speech production as an assembly-line process: An intended message is "designed" in the form of a very coarse "blueprint", and then that blueprint becomes implemented by workers on the assembly line who choose the specific words that need to be slotted in for concepts, and further downstream, by workers who assemble the words out of their component parts. So the question about intent can be cast as: Was the offending bit of language an assembly-line failure, or was it there in the original blueprint? If it was there in the original blueprint, then surely, this reflects the true beliefs and opinions of the speaker.
But even this is not so clear. In a normal conversation, meaning is established collaboratively between the speaker and the hearer, a point made repeatedly by psycholinguists such as Herb Clark and Susan Brennan. We check with our hearers to see if they understand what we're saying. We become aware of implications that are drawn, and either confirm or retract them. And on many occasions, we backtrack completely, acknowledging that what we'd said was false or inappropriate and we'd like to replace or refine the original statement. This is all perfectly normal, and without this ongoing process of negotiation and clarification, we'd probably never manage to actually talk to each other in real time. As hearers, we usually couldn't give a flying fandango whether backtracking or retraction has occurred, because what we're really focused on is the meaning the speaker is prepared to commit to, rather than the meaning that is encapsulated within each individual sentence. In other words, in normal conversation, we accept that the original blueprints can be taken back and scratched out or scribbled upon, all in the interest of figuring out what the speaker really intended to say.
So, let's think about this in the context of Santorum's "blah people" slip. Here's the passage in question, in which Santorum was discussing the topic of welfare, and later denied that he intended to utter the phrase "black people":
Santorum: They're just pushing harder and harder to get more and more of you dependent upon them so they can get your vote. That's what the bottom line is. I don't want to- to make ((black)) people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money—I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.
What if the word "black" was indeed in the original blueprint for the sentence, rather than due to an error in assembly-line production? What exactly does this fact on its own reveal? It could mean that Santorum sees African Americans as parasitic on the rest of society. But it could also mean that in talking about welfare, a salient sub-group popped into his mind, and he was using this group as a for-example case. If you or I uttered this sentence, we might then realize the likely implications that the hearer would draw, and revise the thought by adding something like: "Well, of course I don't mean just black welfare recipients, I mean anyone who's in that situation." And under normal circumstances, this would be accepted as a legitimate revision of the intended meaning.
But political candidates can't do that. It's important to realize that modern political campaign discourse is a bizarre distortion of how normal communication works. When candidates' utterances are frozen on video clips, excised from their discourse context and endlessly looped, the focus shifts away from what the candidate is prepared to commit himself to. We become obsessed with scrutinizing the blueprints for individual utterances.
So to succeed, political candidates have to abandon the normal ground rules of communication, a point that was made recently by failed Canadian candidate Michael Ignatieff, a former Harvard professor whose attempt to run for the post of prime minister turned out to be exquisitely disastrous. Here's an excerpt from a recent interview with Ignatieff:
In academia, he said, people finish your sentences and accept that what you say might not be exactly what you meant, and they permit clarification. In politics, he said, language ceases to be expressive and becomes strategic, and if you find yourself saying "What I meant was…" then you have already lost.
He said it has made him—a Booker-nominated author—wary of words, which he compared to grenades, because if you do not throw them far enough away, they blow your legs off.
The only time I've had direct experience with having to communicate in a similar manner was when I gave expert testimony in a trademark infringement trial. You had to get every one of your sentences right the first time. If you didn't, the opposing counsel would seize upon it faster than cockroaches swarming over a sandwich left on the counter. A good deal of the lengthy cross-examination was devoted to scouring your testimony for any inconsistencies in your statements; the same question would be asked over and over in slightly different ways, and any discrepancies would be used to call into question the credibility of your entire testimony.
What struck me the most about this exchange (other than the fact that it was mind-fryingly exhausting) was the speed at which it took place. That is to say, incredibly slowly. The lawyers and the experienced expert witnesses that I observed would often pause for many seconds while considering what question to ask, or how to respond to one. At one point during my testimony, a recess was requested so that the cross-examining attorney could have a look at the court transcripts and challenge me on a statement I'd made an hour earlier. Nothing about any of this resembled a normal, spontaneous communicative interaction.
What we're doing with our politicians is that we're insisting on a similar standard of getting the sentences right the first time, and we insist that they do so without the benefit of the extra processing time that this hyper-accuracy requires. I consider myself a person of reasonable eloquence, but the only way I can imagine coping with these expectations is to have entire discourses pre-programmed inside my head, ready to unspool when I hit PLAY. Which of course, is exactly how many politicians end up sounding. And they take a penalty for this. During the Canadian federal election, it was painful to watch the verbally-endowed Michael Ignatieff reduced to a robo-responder, saying nothing much of any substance. It pained him too. You could see it on his face.
All this is not to defend any particular candidate, or to make the case for what a specific utterance does or doesn't say about his true feelings. My point is simply to say that, so long as we are riveted by rhetorical "gaffes", we create the conditions for a discourse in which we can't possibly expect politicians to actually communicate very much.