Hilton vs. Prejean

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A while back there was a to-do at the Miss USA Pageant when one of the judges, someone named Perez Hilton (at first I thought they meant Paris Hilton, but he seems to be distinct) asked candidate Carrie Prejean:

Vermont recently became the fourth state to legalize same-sex marriage. Do you think every state should follow suit? Why or why not?

and she responded:

Well I think it's great that Americans are able to choose one way or the other. We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. You know what, in my country, in my family, I do believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman, no offense to anybody out there. But that's how I was raised and I believe that it should be between a man and a woman.

Hilton called this "the worst answer in pageant history" and said:

There are various other ways she could have answered that question and still stayed true to herself without alienating millions of people.

On what planet is this true? What are the other ways in which she could have answered the question while staying true to her opposition to same sex marriage? It seems to me that she was about as tactful as she could possibly be. She tries not to be confrontational. She says that its just her opinion. She says that its great that Americans can choose same-sex marriage. I don't believe that the people who were offended by this statement were offended by its tone: the only thing that they could have been offended by was her opposition to same sex marriage, and that she could not change without lying.

As far as I can tell, the question was a set-up, and Hilton is lying when he claims to support her stating her views truthfully while objecting to the way she put them. He knew that she was a socially conservative Christian and deliberately asked her a question that forced her either to lie about her moral views or to take a position that he and the pageant organizers dislike.

If anyone can provide an example of the "various other ways she could have answered" honestly without alienating gay people, I'd be interested.

Please note that the question here is NOT whether same sex marriage is right or wrong. Please do not comment on that question. The question is: could Ms. Prejean in fact have responded differently but honestly, or is Perez Hilton blowing smoke?


  1. Sridhar Ramesh said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 7:33 pm

    One thing she could have done differently is not state "We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage.", which is factually incorrect on the most straightforward reading, and, in highlighting its falsity, does not serve the apparently intended goal of smoothing the delivery of her opinions to those who disagree with her.

  2. joanne salton said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 7:36 pm

    What does "in my country" mean? It seems to indicate that she actually feels that choice should not be allowed in "her country", in opposition to what she said first.

  3. Nathan Myers said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 7:46 pm

    I would start by proposing that she actually answer the question that was asked. She wasn't asked whether she wants members of her family, or anybody else, to marry people of the same sex. She was asked about changing the laws of states.

    Maybe evasion is a traditional mode in pageant answers, and (like Supreme Court appointments) should not be taken to be offensive to the questioner or anybody else who wants to hear an answer to the question asked?

  4. Bill Poser said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 7:48 pm

    Joanne Salton@It looks to me like "in my country" was a mistake with "in my family" intended as a correction.

    Sridhar Ramesh@Marriage is not a federal matter in the US. Some states allow same-sex marriage, others don't. I think that she was quite correct in saying that she lives in a country that allows the choice insofar as some states do.

    It seems to me that what she is doing in that answer is saying that due to her upbringing and religious views she personally does not approve of same-sex marriage, but that she is not eager to impose her views on everyone. If she had actually intended the confrontational stance that Hilton accuses her of, her answer would have been something like:

    I am a Christian and my religion tells me that homosexuality is a sin and that marriage is a sacrament joining a man and a woman. The law should not recognize same-sex marriage because doing so would encourage depravity and sin and because it would tarnish the institution of marriage.

    One can certainly find any number of statements along these lines. What struck me about her statement was how far it was from anything like this. As people can probably guess from other things that I have written, I myself favor the legalization of same-sex marriage, but I am hard put to read Prejean's answer as the nastiness that Hilton takes it to be.

  5. Seth Dove said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 7:52 pm

    Simply not worthy of discussion on this site. Perez Hilton is not to be taken seriously.

  6. Sam Ley said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 7:53 pm

    I think the source of most people's offense came from the line, "no offense", which is nearly always used when one knows they've offended people, and is trying to worm their way out of it. "No offense, BUT, here is something offensive."

    Here would be my attempt at an "honest but different" answer to the question.

    "While I was raised to believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman, I support laws that give Americans the right to marry who they choose."

    Simple, honest, and answers the question. It may leave the question of her current beliefs a bit vague, but it does so in a way that isn't evasive, and then gets to the issue at hand, laws, not personal feelings.

    There are always ways to acknowledge one's personal feelings, without either giving in to them and derailing the question, or ignoring their presence and leaving an empty answer.

  7. Jonathan Badger said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 7:53 pm

    She could have gone the route that claims marriage is a religious affair and whether same sex marriage is allowed is up to the religion in question. As a heterosexual atheist, I wish the government would get out of the marriage business and just recognize civil unions of whatever preference. Religious folks could still get married, if that's what their religion demands.

  8. Sam Ley said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 7:55 pm

    Also, the thing I remember most about the press coverage of this comment was people's amusement at the new term for a man/woman marriage as an "opposite marriage", which is a term I've used quite a bit since then.

  9. Bill Poser said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 7:56 pm

    Nathan Myers@I agree that she didn't answer the question head on, but that is certainly not what Hilton is complaining about. To the extent that one can infer the answer to the original question from her response, I would say that she actually favors legalization, since she says that in spite of her personal distaste for it, she is glad that she lives in a country that offers the choice.

    I don't watch these pageants much, but I suspect that she was not expecting a question of this sort and was not well prepared to answer it. Let's face it, beauty pageants are not primarily about the intellectual depth and knowledge of current affairs of the competitors, and they don't expect to be asked tough questions. (Remember the scene in Miss Congeniality in which Demi Moore's answer to what she most hopes for is "Stricter sentencing guidelines for parole violators", which elicits stunned silence until she adds the answer that all the other girls have given: "and world peace"?)

  10. Falstaff said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 8:00 pm

    Four things:

    a) As joanne observes above, she could have left out the "my country", which implies that people who believe in or support same-sex marriage belong in some other country – talk about alienating. She could also have said "we live in a land where WE can choose" rather than "YOU can choose", thus implying that people who would even consider the choice are somehow fundamentally other.

    b) She could just have said, "I believe every state should put that question to a public referendum and the will of the people should prevail." She could have interpreted the question as being not about whether same-sex marriage is right or wrong, but whether the right way to decide that is through the courts, through the state legislature or through Congress (which is a perfectly valid question in itself).

    c) She could have emphasized what rights same-sex couples should have instead of talking about what they should be denied. I'm not a fan of the "civil unions but not marriage" line, but it's more diplomatic than what she says here, because it conveys the illusion of acceptance, however partial.

    d) She could have done a better job of separating her political views (people should have the right to choose) from her personal views (marriage should be between a man and a woman). The way it sounds here, it's like she started to be politically correct, then got fed up with the pretense (the "you know what") and said what she really felt.

  11. Bill Poser said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 8:03 pm

    Sam Ley@Interesting point, but I'm not sure that I agree completely with your take on the use of "no offense". It seems to me that it is used when the speaker knows that she is going to say something that might be offensive and wants to dampen that reaction. That doesn't necessarily mean that she thinks that saying it could be avoided in an honest statement. It's similar to expressions like "to be blunt" and "to put it baldly". It can be used hypocritically as you characterize it, but I don't think it is necessarily hypocritical.

    Your attempt at a similar statement is an improvement on hers, but do we really want to equate not being wonderfully articulate and nuanced in extemporaneous discussion of controversial issues with being a horrible bigot? She wasn't trying out for the debate team or putting herself forward as a political candidate.

  12. Outis said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 8:10 pm

    I don't find her answer particularly offensive, at least just from the words. But depending on her tone of delivery, I can think of plenty of ways that the very same statement could sound very offensive. Is there a recording of the actual exchange?

  13. Julie said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 8:22 pm

    I'm voting disingenuous on Prejean's part. Or at least utterly inarticulate.

    1. Not all states allow this "choice"; that was the point of the question. If Prejean thinks it's "great" that Americans are able to choose, does that mean that more of them should be able to choose, or not?

    2. It's kind of ridiculous to frame it as a "choice" in the first place. I imagine that few gay or lesbian people would consider marrying an opposite-sex partner a desirable life strategy, so the actual currently available choices in most states are "marry an undesirable partner" or "no marriage".

    3. Prejean dodged the actual question, which was whether more states should offer legally recognized same-sex marriage. Unlike Bill, I'm interpreting her statement as a wimpily-worded "no". If she does in fact feel that it should not be legal for same-sex couples to marry, she could have said so; such a statement could be phrased more tactfully than the hellfire-and-damnation example Bill gave. If she feels that should be legal, despite her personal opinions, she could have said that clearly.

  14. NoDeli said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 8:23 pm

    You guys have pretty much scooped everyone on this story! Big ups!

  15. John Laviolette said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 8:36 pm

    I think there's not much she could have done differently except be more coherent. The problem as I see it is this sentence: "We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage." I think she doesn't mean "you" as in "people who want to get married" but "all of you states". Interpreted the first way, it just seems inaccurate: not everyone can choose to marry a person of the same sex. However, interpreted the second way, it's actually answering the question put to her: we live in a land where the states can choose one or the other. If she had finished with "… I do believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman, but I also believe the people of each state should decide," she probably would have been forgotten.

  16. tablogloid said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 8:39 pm

    What I find unbelievable is that Bill Poser seems to never have heard of Perez Hilton.

  17. Julian said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 8:42 pm

    I seem to have read this slightly differently from some other commenters. I took the "Americans are able to choose one way or another," to mean that she was pleased that states vote on the issue individually. This resolves the glaring factual error, and it can potentially give us some insight into the way she views marriage: as an institution of a political and/or religious body, and not as a commitment between two people. I would interpret her statement as saying, essentially, "I would vote against same-sex marriage, but I'm glad we vote about it. It would be improper for me to dictate to another person how to vote."

    With that out of the way, I really cannot see a way where she could both "stay true to herself," along with her frankly offensive views, and not "alienate millions of people." Her wording is about as polite as you can get, and she'd hardly be staying true to herself if she failed to note that she's opposed to same-sex marriage. Perez comes across disingenuous here; he's trying to sound accommodating to her views, but the reality is he is not. He finds the very idea that she's opposed to same-sex marriage offensive, and it would bother him even were it couched in the most saccharine context imaginable.

  18. bulbul said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 8:45 pm

    Marriage is not a federal matter in the US.
    Some would argue it is, due to the Full Faith and Credit Clause. Some would argue it is, as a consequence of DOMA.

    Remember the scene in Miss Congeniality in which Demi Moore's
    IIRC, it was Sandra Bullock. Lord help me, I have no idea why I know this.

    What are the other ways in which she could have answered the question while staying true to her opposition to same sex marriage?
    How about full evasion, i.e. something along the lines of "It doesn't matter what I believe, people should decide that, democracy is awesome blah blah" ? I think she was trying to go in that direction, but got lost. Then again, I'm really not sure whether this would fulfill the criterion of "staying true to her opposition to same sex marriage." Does avoiding to say what is expedient/perceived as correct/expected while not saying what you mean qualify as staying true to oneself?

  19. bulbul said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 8:50 pm

    yes, there is.

  20. The effin' bear said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 8:53 pm

    "No, my personal views on same-sex marriage notwithstanding, I do not believe that it should be legalized in every state. I think it should be legalized in states where the gay population is proportionately small and barred in states with large gay populations, in order to drive gays into states traditionally hostile toward them, whose nascent fashion, entertainment, and fine dining industries have the greatest potential for development and expansion. But that's how I was raised: I love beautiful clothing, funny films, and wonderful food! And perhaps more seriously, I support any creative strategy for generating jobs in the rural states."

  21. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 8:57 pm

    Falstaff: I think 'you' in this context means 'one'. In this sense it is frequently used of groups including oneself, and does not imply 'otherness'.

  22. Jeff said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 8:58 pm

    You have a point, Bill. When he asked that question, to him, there was only one right answer. The same could be said of a lot of the viewers who were still sore over Prop 8 passing a few months prior.

    The clip is on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8XMvviFbkf0

    To me, the "my country" part cuts a little. It reminds me of when some conservative politicians refer to some parts of the US as "more American" than other parts. Don't forget, too, there was talk during the Bush administration of a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, on top of the existing Defense of Marriage Act.

    I think the setting doesn't help her response, either. This is a topic that people feel really passionately about, and pageants are stereotypically a place for glib soundbites.

    I think this response would have come across as less "alienating":
    "I think it's great that Americans are able to choose one way or the other, whether same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. My personal belief is that marriage should only be between one man and one woman. However, this is a choice that the voters of each state should make for themselves based upon their values and beliefs." That comes across less as her having the "final say" on the matter, but recognizing that it's up for debate.

  23. Constant said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 8:59 pm

    I see a lot of hair-splitting in the comments about the absolute best way of answering it given her views, but given that people have had many months of exposure to the controversy and Prejean had maybe about five seconds to compose an answer to this extremely politically sensitive and divisive question before, this all strikes me as being Monday morning quarterbacking a few million times over (ratio of several months to five seconds).

    Look, our very best speakers have trouble extemporizing. Obama, who is such a brilliant speaker that we elected him President largely on the strength of his speaking, has a notorious tendency to stumble without the help of a teleprompter. It is unreasonable to expect her to have given a more carefully worded answer.

    Moreover, people know all this. People know that people have trouble extemporizing. And for this reason, people listen for meaning, and not for supreme felicity of expression. And that is clearly what happened here. So, no, it was not the precise way she said it. It was what she said that certain parties found unacceptable. It was her views that were unacceptable. Obviously.

  24. bulbul said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 9:04 pm

    Somewhat OT:
    I don't believe that the people who were offended by this statement were offended by its tone
    I wasn't actually offended by the statement itself, but between "You know what" and "No offense", I really didn't like her tone. Anybody else feel that way?

  25. mollymooly said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 9:07 pm

    I think Hilton's meaning, in saying "without alienating millions of people", was not "alienating fewer than one million people", but rather "alienating millions of people fewer". Prejean had managed to offend both camps in the same-sex-marriage debate, by saying both that choice is great and that it's how she was raised.Therefore any answer which came down on one side or the other would have offended only one camp, leaving millions unalienated.

  26. Sridhar Ramesh said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 9:49 pm

    @Bill Poser: I think it's a little disingenuous to use "You can choose" to mean "If you would like to choose a certain way, then you can go to one of what is currently a small handful of states, though the choice may be denied you at home" rather than more straightforwardly, and as such it can presumably come off a little rankling to those for whom it is a sore issue, but alright, I can buy your reading as a defense of her statements, even if I'm not convinced that she actually had anything in mind concerning the nuances of whether marriage is a federal or state matter

  27. jfruh said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 9:52 pm

    @Bill: "Marriage is not a federal matter in the US. Some states allow same-sex marriage, others don't."

    This is not really true. The federal government may not conduct marriages, but it does recognize them, and there are more than 1,000 rights and responsibilities that apply to people under federal law based on their marital status, according to the GAO (see http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d04353r.pdf ).

    Ever since the Defense of Marriage Act was passed in 1996, the federal government only recognizes marriage between a man and a woman. Thus, two men married to each other in Massachusetts or Vermont are treated differently under federal law than a man and a woman married in those states would be, and in significant ways that affect their day-to-day lives — for instance, they cannot file a joint federal tax return, or a man could be compelled to testify against his husband in federal court, whereas a man could not be compelled to testify against his wife under the 5th amendment. Thus, marriage is very much a federal matter in the U.S.

    Personally I am somewhat baffled as to why a fluffy, overblown story that played out in the media nine months ago is being discussed here, but if you ask me the most linguistically interesting thing about her response was her use of the phrase "opposite marriage." I don't know if she coined it or not, and I chuckled when I first heard it, but it solves a problem as to a neutral way to describe a man-woman marriage ("traditional marriage" perhaps being somewhat more tilted). "Opposite-sex marriage" may be a more felicitous construction, though it's longer.

  28. Sridhar Ramesh said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 9:53 pm

    I also agree that the whole thing was overblown (way back when) and it's silly to expect a craftedly politic extemporaneous response to a pointed question at a beauty pageant

  29. Falstaff said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 9:57 pm

    Andrew: Quite possibly that is how she meant it – but coming straight after an earlier 'we' and taken together with her views (and the fact that she's answering Perez Hilton) it could be (and I suspect was) interpreted as being alienating, which 'we' would have avoided.

    Just to be clear, btw, I'm not trying to make any statement about Prejean and what she was really thinking, nor am I suggesting that a beauty pageant contestant with a few seconds to think could be reasonably expected to think of all these alternatives; Bill's post asked – is there a way she could have answered the question that would have had offended fewer people – which is the question I'm answering.

  30. ilya said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 10:38 pm

    Hilton gives his own answer to your question in this video:

    It is neither her opinion nor the tone of her comments that he describes as stupidly alienating – it's the fact that she stated a personal opinion on the moral standing of gay marriage at all. Whether pro or anti, this was bound to alienate lots of people, and that, he says is not the role of Miss USA, who should "unite and inspire".
    What could she have said? Hilton gives one example:

    Hmm. Perez, that's a great question. That's a very hot topic in our country right now, and I think that that is a question that each state should decide for themselves, because that's how our forefathers designed our government, you know. The states rule themselves, and then there are certain laws that are federal.

    Not eloquent, and not exactly answering the question, but by veering off into a civics lesson, rather than a discussion of her own moral opinions, she probably would have avoided controversy. And avoiding controversy is a big part of becoming a beauty queen – wishing, in the cliché, for World peace rather than, say, Alaskan independence.

    I would say that she actually favors legalization, since she says that in spite of her personal distaste for it, she is glad that she lives in a country that offers the choice.

    That was my impression, too, when I first read her answer. But she has since explicitly said otherwise, and has even taken on a limited campaigning role opposing legalisation. She isn't sure about civil partnerships either, but does favour allowing hospital visitation.

  31. Julia Sullivan said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 10:56 pm

    On what planet is this true? What are the other ways in which she could have answered the question while staying true to her opposition to same sex marriage?

    On the planet where people say things like "I personally oppose same-sex marriage, but I am only one voter and don't believe my opinion should have any more weight than that of a voter who takes the opposite position," or even "I personally oppose same-sex marriage, and I believe that individual states' voters should decide the issue" or something else that didn't get into a personal statement of what she wanted in "her country."

    You know what I don't like? Disingenuous rhetorical questions from linguists, replete with over-the-top rhetorical figures. There are, in fact, lots of ways on the planet Earth that Prejean could have stated her personal opposition to same-sex marriage without being an ass to people who support same-sex marriage rights.

    I live in Prejean's country, and I want same-sex marriage to be just as available as opposite-sex marriage to any citizen of my country. Handwaving her "my country" away as a misstatement for "my family" seems like a bit of special pleading. When I listen to the audio, I parse her meaning as "in my country {and} in my family" from its rhythm and emphasis, not "in my country ^H^H^H my family."

    And your snippy comment about Perez Hilton's professional pseudonym is also off-putting. You seem to have missed the point that the pseudonym was chosen because it sounded like "Paris Hilton." It's admirably focused as a signifier–a man calling himself "Perez Hilton" is making a quite economical statement about celebrity culture, drag culture, and his own Latino identity.

    I don't come to Language Log for this kind of tendentious shit, to be quite honest. Especially not tendentious shit about stuff that happened months ago, presented as though it were Breaking News, including the implication that How Dare Perez Hilton have an opinion that Prejean's comments were offensive to millions of people, and clearly nobody on the planet Earth could agree that she could have, or should have, expressed herself more appropriately.

    This is not what I read Language Log for at all, at all. If I want outdated slanging matches about bloggers' opinions, there are plenty of other places to find that on the Internet.

  32. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 10:57 pm

    Well, if you ask me, Hilton is bowing smokes about believing it to be the single worst answer in pageant history. Everybody knows that goes to Caitlin Upton's 2007 famous answer. Even Hilton seems to agree.

  33. joanne salton said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 11:18 pm

    Neither "in my country" nor "in my family" make a great deal of sense, and they seem to function to mark her as a certain type of person so that we know what will come next, and I can't believe that it was a (senseless) correction. Therefore we are left with the image that she really dislikes gay marriage but is an inarticulate and dishonest bigot. Thus, despite the bright start, it is a very poor answer.

  34. Bloix said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 11:59 pm

    Bill Poser, is this the most interesting thing to you about the Prejean affair? I thought Perez Hilton – whose name, as one would expect a linguist to recognize, is positively brilliant – did a real public service by blowing up that foolish beauty pageant. I suggest you google prejean and follow up on the whole sorry, sordid, and eventually hilarious business.

  35. Sven said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 12:45 am

    Come on, Bill, what are you smoking? This post is way beneath Language Log, for several reasons:

    1. On merits, you are full of shit. Her answer was dishonest, ignorant, or both. If she opposes the right of some people to marry, she should say so and not hide behind some nonsense about choice. Her position is that people should not have a choice. Fine, if she thinks so, why didn't she stand by that? We know this because she has since revealed, more articulately, that she opposes legalization of same-sex marriage. But you wouldn't know it from her answer at the pageant. She didn't answer the question that was asked. And her first two sentences you quoted are patently false.

    2. Where is a language-related issue in your post? You can't be serious that you are analyzing a set-up that makes it difficult to answer the question without pissing off some people. Most questions about political or social issues are like that. Practically every question asked in televised political debates is like that. I don't know what questions are typically asked at the Miss USA pageant. It is possible that other candidates were not asked questions about controversial issues. If that is true, then it is a legitimate claim that she was put at a disadvantage because of the nature of the question. But you show no evidence about questions asked of other candidates; you don't even describe the issue in those terms. When the question and her answer are viewed by themselves, it is ridiculous to claim that there was something unfair about the process.

    3. Again, what about language-related issues? For example, what does "choose" mean? What does it mean that "you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage"? I am not going to mock her for the "opposite marriage" slip, as more experienced people can misspeak even worse (for example, Arnold Schwarzenegger once said he believed "gay marriage should be between a man and a woman"), but on which planet is the statement neither nonsensical nor false?

    4. Another language issue that might be interesting is the meaning of the word "why". A lot of people don't seem to understand that word. Carrie Prejean certainly doesn't seem to understand it, or she covered her ears and went "LALALALALALALA" while Perez Hilton was asking "Why or why not?" The only part of her answer that can be related to "why" is "that's how I was raised" and I am sorry, but that just isn't a respectable answer, to any question, ever.

    5. While some of the issues I mentioned could lead to interesting posts related to language, there are probably far better examples to illustrate them than a stale Miss USA pageant. What's next? An episode of Jerry Springer?

  36. koldito said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 3:16 am

    If anyone can provide an example of the "various other ways she could have answered" honestly without alienating gay people, I'd be interested.

    I'm thinking of Rowan Atkinson's "obfuscation by multiple negation" method: if you can't parse it, you can't be offended.

    "It is not the case that I do not believe that not allowing same-sex marriage is not against my religious beliefs."

  37. Peter Taylor said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 5:06 am

    She could certainly have given herself time to think by saying that it's impossible for any state to follow suit: there can be only one fourth state to legalise same-sex marriage.

    By the way, is it possible (I ask this as an ignorant foreigner who has a fuzzy notion that words relating to national identity mean something different in the USA) that by "my country" she was referring to California?

  38. bulbul said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 5:31 am

    Where is a language-related issue in your post?
    Pragmatics? Discourse analysis? Rhetorics?
    No matter what you might think abou Ms. Prejean and the issue of same-sex marriage, Bill's question addresses a linguistic issue as legitimate as anything discussed here.

    This is not what I read Language Log for at all, at all.
    Talk to Mark L. about canceling your subscription. The money back guarantee is in full effect, just don't forget to bring your proof of purchase.

    Seriously, people – chill.

  39. Nick Lamb said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 6:36 am

    The only part of her answer that can be related to "why" is "that's how I was raised" and I am sorry, but that just isn't a respectable answer, to any question, ever.

    "Why do you use a fork to eat cheesecake?"
    "That's how I was raised"

    I can offer no deeper explanation for my choice of utensils when eating than the fact that I learned from my parents, the notable exception being that I acquired the skill of using chop sticks as a student because Chinese came with free chop sticks and no-one wants to wash up.

    or more snarkily (snarklier?)

    "Why is this rope tied around your waist?"
    "That's how I was raised"

  40. Ken Brown said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 10:21 am

    Falstaff said: She could also have said "we live in a land where WE can choose" rather than "YOU can choose", thus implying that people who would even consider the choice are somehow fundamentally other.

    Is this a dialect difference?

    To me that "YOU" is just an indefinite pronoun. Its what normal people say where the royal family would say "one can choose". Doesn't construct a social other at all.

    (it can even do the opposite in some contexts: If I said "In some countries fireworks are banned except at official displays but in England you can buy fireworks legally" its inclusive – "you" includes the speaker and the hearer & just about everybody else. If I said "…we can buy fireworks…" I might be excluding others from that "we".)

  41. Sven said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 10:47 am

    Nick Lamb: You have a point about the cheesecake, but not a very strong one (and it's the wrong dessert for a brownie point, anyway). There are plenty of other reasons I use a fork to eat cheesecake. The fork was on the table. I don't use any other utensil as skillfully for that purpose. It keeps my hands from getting messy. Cheesecake was probably designed to be eaten by fork, so it may be objectively the most efficient way (try cleaning up your cheesecake plate with, say, chopsticks). And so on. Some of those reasons are related to how I was raised, but none fully depends on it, and all are more relevant if a justification is seriously needed.

    Besides, you didn't provide a convincing argument that your answer would be respectable, even if no other true answer were available. To illustrate this, consider what happens to the cheesecake a few hours later. "Why do you defecate from your anus?" "Because that's where my digestive tract ends." True and pretty much the only relevant reason, but completely neutral respectability-wise. Of course, eating a cheesecake or getting rid of its bulk is not like forming an opinion; the respectability of our reasons for those actions has little or no bearing to our personal esteem.

    The rope, however, was funny. (But, to return the snark, it's undignified to hang by a rope, so it still isn't a respectable answer. :-p)

  42. Sven said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 10:49 am

    Peter Taylor: No. If she were from Texas, conceivably, although still a huge stretch.

  43. Mr Punch said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

    She had no way out, and that was intended — she was set up. The most famous recent similar case was when Bill Clinton was asked, under oath, a question along the lines of "Is there an affair between you and Monica Lewinsky?" There had been, but it was over. Clinton was not a Vermont beauty queen ("Vermont girls are the maple syrup on the pancake of America" — T-shirt) but a very intelligent product of the Jesuits at Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale Law, and he understood his predicament, and he couldn't get out of it. He tried that "what do you mean by 'is'" thing and was excoriated for it, but the straightforward answer would have been deemed a lie.

    The only possible way to respond effectively to such questions is to attack, and that option is not available in certain contexts (depositions, beauty pageants).

  44. Ralph Hickok said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

    I also had never heard of Perez Hilton. I saw the name in print once before and thought it was a joking reference to Paris Hilton.

  45. Ellie said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 2:45 pm

    I agree that this is dated, but both Carie Prejean and Pageant Answers amuse me to no end so I'll bite.

    In hindsight, it looks to me as if she was more positioning herself to be a correspondant on Fox News after she won the Pageant. If her answer hadn't led Perez and the other judges to give her zeroes or ones, she likely would have both won that night and succeeded in this secondary goal. And if that whole sexting scandal and following Larry King freak-out hadn't occured, she likely would have succeeded still.

    Unfairly vilified perhaps, but she failed in her primary task, which was to play the pageant game until she was crowned (plus her ridiculousness since then makes me feel not-so-bad…but I digress). Pageant answers are not meant to seek actual answers. It is a test to see how begningly charming a contestant can be in a situation that she does not have a good answer for.

    The rules for succesfully answering a pageant question are:

    1. Give a shoutout to either your home ot host city/state. Example: "Hello New Orleans! (smile, wave)"

    2. Restate the question in a way that sounds as if you think you answered it. Example: "Yes, we are legalizing same-sex marriage!"

    3. Mention America, Children, The Future, or a combination of the three. Example: "This is America! (pause for woooo from the audience) America (!) is great country (!) where our children will have opportunity and choice."

    4. End on a sound bite that ends with either America, Children, or the Future or something of that ilk. Example: "So the most important thing is to get out there and VOTE, AMERICA!"

    5. Smile as if you have no idea how pretty you actually are.

  46. Sandra Wilde said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

    Clearly, Perez wanted her to admit publicly to being anti-gay so gave her a loaded question. When she tried to dodge and fudge (yet, honorably, not be dishonest about her own views), as pageant contestants clearly learn how to do with loaded questions (this is perhaps the linguistic aspect), he was probably annoyed that she wasn't more blatantly anti-gay and offensive. 'Nuff said.

    He can be pretty nasty himself; check out his blog.

  47. Acilius said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 5:40 pm

    I think Ellie wins the prize.

  48. Dave said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 8:05 pm

    Julia Sullivan said

    "You seem to have missed the point that the pseudonym was chosen because it sounded like "Paris Hilton." It's admirably focused as a signifier–a man calling himself "Perez Hilton" is making a quite economical statement about celebrity culture, drag culture, and his own Latino identity."

    Sometimes, you learn the weirdest things here.

  49. joanne salton said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 4:56 am

    I think what Ellie said is true, but it contributes to the problem here. After we have the buzzwords out we go back and re-understand the first part of the message as " despite the gays my America is FREE and therefore the GREATEST" so it just sounds worse.

    Not really worth such a fuss though, and yes, a kind of unpleasant PC baiting game.

  50. Ellie said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

    Oh Joanne, I agree with you completely. It is an absurd, twisted game that judges play with pageant contestants. Beyond that, it is a frightening glimpse into what many people in America value: superficial glamour and pleasant politeness without any real depth. All pageant questions are completely out of context for their seriousness and depth (although perhaps not controversial nature as mentioned earlier).

    But the basic assupmtion in many of these posts, that the contestant actually has to answer the question, is completely false – she just has to say something that is "OK words," using the theme of the question as a jumping off point for a response that sounds good and hits her talking points (America, Children, Cuture, etc.; See also: interviews with politicians).

    There is an extremely fine line between answering a pageant question with integrity and thoughtfulness and being uncharismatic/unglamourous. I can see a small bit of validity here, as this is, after all, a contest for narrowing down to the best spokesperson; the delicate balance of charm and wit is necessary for someone who will be center stage at all sorts of events and in a wide variety of circumstances, and this is what a Miss America or Miss USA will do. Due to the essence of the contest, the winners are more often those who err on the side of "flaky yet charming" versus "intelligent but abrasive;" meaning, let's remember that this is Miss USA, not the USA Debate championship. (I will add that those who can achieve the perfect balance are relatively rare. Think Oprah, Bill Clinton, former Miss World Aishwarya Rai, Johnny Carson.)

    The trick is to know your audience. Consider a different context: Sarah Palin is too flaky, but in a situation where we'd prefer her to err on the side of intelligance; Hillary Clinton is on the other side of that spectrum, meaning she could use a dash more lightheartedness and charm. But because this is politics, this tendancy to sound abrasive is not a significant detriment. However, if this were a beauty pageant, say, 20 years ago – and they are both very handsome women – who would win? I'd wager perky Palin over learned Hillary, because that's the context. Carrie Prejean's cardinal sin was that she didn't play the game; she tried to be too "smart" without sufficient tact and charm to pull it off, lost sight of who her audience was and insulted the judge who asked her the question.

    It *is* completely absurd that people aren't always expected to actually answer questions, but it is also sometimes helpful to recognize things for what they truly are rather than what we wish they would be.

  51. Ellie said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 12:15 pm

    PS – Over a decade ago, I was talked into entering a Miss Something Ridiculous pageant and made the mistake of thinking too much and rehearsing my tallent, rather than practicing giving simple soundbite answers and buying a more-sparkly dress to wear on stage. When I saw the $6000 Polynesian Dance costume I was up against on rehersal night, I acknowledged, "My musical skills can not compete with those feathers and sequins."

    I've been analyzing without any outlet for quite a while now…at least a couple of you enjoyed it 8-)

  52. Acilius said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

    @Ellie: I wondered why Bill Poser put this topic up. I still don't know, but I'm glad he did, for the sake of your comments. At the time the controversy was going on I had something similar in mind, but I couldn't pin it down, not in the way you've so elegantly done.

    At any rate, I hereby nominate you for the title Miss Language Log.

  53. Dave said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 2:20 pm

    I tend to agree with the idea that this post isn't up to Language Log's usual standards. The basic situation appears to have been one publicity hound asking another publicity hound a "provocative" question and getting a confusing/incoherent answer. It seems that one response (and the appropriate one, in my opinion) would have been to ignore it.

  54. Joe said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

    Yeah Ellie, smile as if you have no idea how erudite you actually are.

  55. Mr Fnortner said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 3:34 pm

    My answer: The notion that marriage should be of interest to and regulated by government is very weird. This is a compact between adults, and until the government became involved in financial and other benefits and rights of married couples in the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, its primary interest was in record keeping. Now it feels empowered to determine who should be permitted to marry. Religious organizations and families managed for millennia to practice and document marriage without the help of governments or the approval of other (unknown) citizens. I believe it is appropriate to return to that status. Those adults who do not want to involve a church could enlist a justice of the peace or other officiant, or the Universe itself. All newly married couples would then notify the government for record-keeping purposes, maybe on their first tax return.

  56. Chris Waigl said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 7:57 pm

    Well, I think you've got two people here that are talking bullshit, and I agree about the baiting of someone who's after all in a situation where she's not specifically expected or prepared to excel in the department of reasoned discourse.

    But the reason her statement sounds alienating, to me, has been pointed out, in particular by joanne salton above: the entire "America's so great because Americans ["we" Americans, but I'm not one] have a choice" just comes across as terrible. Americans have a choice between same-sex and opposite-sex marriage only in a small number of places, if you look at it from the perspective of an individual desiring to get married. And if you understand this to be about the voting about the rights *other* people have to get married, it's not a choice between same-sex and opposite-sex at all, but a choice to allow or disallow one of the types, while no one suggests to disallow the other type.

    So in a summary, "I personally believe marriage is between a man and a woman only, but I'm glad that states can vote about the matter" would have sounded much less hypocritical and alienating to me, even though I disagree with the stance.

  57. Acilius said,

    December 18, 2009 @ 10:22 am

    @Chris Waigl: It probably would have been less bad if she'd phrased it that way. Maybe if she'd had time to think about it, that's how it would have come out. Of course, she didn't have that time. Probably what she should have done was memorize a template she could plug words into in case she was asked about an explosive social issue.

    "Thank you so much for that question. Of course, ________ is a vital issue all over our country, and nowhere more so than in my home state of _________. You know, a lot of people have preconceived ideas about what kind of place ________ is, but it really is a cross section of America. [Contestant lists ways in which her home state is a cross-section of America.] As I grew up, the adults in my life always went out of their way to teach me the importance of [social equality/ traditional values/ patriotism.] That's why I'm so glad you asked that question, because it shows that you and I share a concern for [common decency/ right and wrong/ this great land of ours.] I wish people on both sides of this issue would take their cue from you and pay more attention to [the human beings affected by it/ the communities we live in/ the sacrifices our brave men and women in uniform make every day] and less attention to who gets the last word. If that happened, I think we'd find that we aren't really so far apart after all."

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