Radical mis-speaking

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"Santorum Spokesperson Refers To Obama's 'Radical Islamic Policies'", TPM 2/20/2012:

Rick Santorum spokesperson Alice Stewart slipped up on MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell Reports Monday afternoon when talking about President Obama's environmental policies. Instead, she called them Obama's "radical Islamic policies."

Santorum communications director Hogan Gidley told TPM that Stewart "misspoke." Andrea Mitchell said that Stewart called her to say she slipped up. "She had repeatedly said during that same interview ‘radical environmental policies’ and she said she slipped when she apparently said [it]."

Ms. Stewart was explaining Senator Santorum's criticism of President Obama's "phony theology … not a theology based on the Bible". What she said in context:

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well certainly uh Rick has said it, we've all said it before uh
uh Robert Gibbs took it out of context
he wasn't questioning the president's character, he wasn't questioning the president's uh religion
as he said as he's clarified the statement
he was talking about radical environmentalist- he was talking about it- there is a type of- of-
theological secularism when it comes to the global warmists in this country, that's what he was referring to
he was referring to the president's policies in terms of
the radical islamic policies the president has
and specifically in terms of- of
the en- the energy exploration …

This is a good example of the kind of slip of the tongue that happens when the wrong word is highly activated in the context, and comes out in place of the word the speaker intended. Here the word islamic is highly activated for several reasons.

In the first place, the whole discussion is about what Stewart claims was Santorum's non-standard use of "theology" as a cover term for "environmentalism". The standard sense of "theology" references religions, which gives islamic a bit of a kick to start with.

In the second place, the top 10 current adjectival collocates of radical (with their counts in COCA) are:

islamic (286), new (158), political (94), islamist (92), economic (76), social (69), shiite (61), muslim (53), feminist (50), religious (42), environmental (34)

Overall, "radical X" occurs at a rate of about 4 per million, and "radical islamic|islamist accounts for about a quarter of that total; "radical environmental|environmentalist" is less than a tenth as frequent.

There's not much phonological similarity, but the stressed syllables do share /m/, and there's an /l/ nearby in both cases (and also in the neologism "global warmists" which she uses as a equivalent for "environmentalists" earlier in the same sentence). Of course, islamic and environmental are both modifiers.

And finally, there's a background accusation (apparently believed by about a third of Republicans) that President Obama is a secret (or perhaps even open) Muslim. It's not necessary to think that Ms. Stewart believes this, or meant to send a message to those who do, for this association to play a role in her mis-speaking.


  1. Morten Jonsson said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 10:08 pm

    It's interesting that Santorum would call environmentalism a theology. Could he have been reading this recent book? http://www.amazon.com/New-Holy-Wars-Environmental-Contemporary/dp/027103582X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1329792738&sr=8-1 It studies environmentalism and economics as two opposed secular religions, rooted in and continuing the concerns of traditional theology. There's no reason reason to assume he's heard of it, since religious conservatives often see secular movements like environmentalism as a kind of inferior substitute for for real belief. But having just read the book myself, I was naturally intrigued by his remarks.

  2. bloix said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 10:15 pm

    "Santorum's non-standard use of "theology" as a cover term for "environmentalism"."

    This is not a non-standard use. It's a dog-whistle. The characterization of environmentalism as a form of pagan worship is bog-standard right-wing fundamentalist wingnuttery. Environmentalists worship the earth and the things that crawl upon it, instead of worshipping the earth's creator, who made earth for man and not the other way around.

  3. Victor said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 10:39 pm

    Note, however, that this is the secondary explanation of the meaning. When Santorum was asked about his statement initially, he said something quite different–far closer to what one would suspect. Only when the story hit national wires did his campaign change the story to the environmental angle. I'd vote for reason #4: Stewart was primed to steer away from "Muslim/Islam/Islamic" if it came up in the interview. And what happens why you're primed to steer away from something so strongly and it doesn't come up? It's the "prevent defense" phenomenon–the only thing that the "prevent defense" prevents is you from winning… I would say she was anticipating the questions to get there eventually and simply blew it.

  4. jfruh said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 10:53 pm

    I personally am more intrigued by "global warmists".

  5. Robert Coren said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 11:00 pm

    What, no comments on "global warmists"?

    [(myl) It's out there. There's something to be said about the recent adoption of -ist as a negative-valence affix connoting irrational or fanatical adherence to a belief system: "islamist" vs. "islamic", "christianist" vs. "christian", and yes, "global wormist".]

  6. John said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 11:31 pm

    I'd be curious to see the tally of LL posts about political slips-o'-the-tongue. Is there a bias along the political spectrum?

    My own completely biased view is that right-wing politicians are constantly avoiding saying things in the MSM that would say without hesitation in other contexts and this is one of those times (which I think means I agree with Victor).

    And, "theological secularism"?

  7. andrewD said,

    February 21, 2012 @ 5:06 am

    I like "global wormist", can you define it please

    [(myl) Someone who is fanatically devoted to the political implications of the belief that the earth rides on the back of a giant worm? Or perhaps a bigoted and politically active worshiper of Ouroboros? Yet another example of why I tend to be tolerant of others' slips of the tongue and pen.]

  8. Electric Dragon said,

    February 21, 2012 @ 6:14 am

    "a phony theology…not based on the Bible" – if he's saying that all theology should be based on the Bible, isn't that a rather heterodox position for a Catholic like Santorum to take? Many Catholic doctrines (e.g. the Immaculate Conception) are not to be found in the Bible.

    (Of course the "phoniness" or otherwise of a theology depends rather on one's point of view. To an atheist like myself, "phony theology" smacks somewhat of tautology.)

  9. GeorgeW said,

    February 21, 2012 @ 6:16 am

    "There's not much phonological similarity, but the stressed syllables do share /m/, and there's an /l/ nearby in both cases"

    Both have no onset and the same initial vowel.

  10. John said,

    February 21, 2012 @ 7:32 am


    Santorum is no orthodox Catholic. That's been clear for a while.

  11. Bobbie said,

    February 21, 2012 @ 8:37 am

    "a phony theology…not based on the Bible" may be another dog-whistle. It implies (again) that Obama is a Muslim and believes in the Koran, not in the Bible.

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 21, 2012 @ 12:56 pm

    In addition to other possible reasons for Alice Stewart's slip, I suspect radical Islam and radical environmentalism are filed together in her mind under "enemy". More speculatively, she must know it's acceptable for a candidate to criticize "radical Islam" and "radical environmentalism", but not without "radical"; can that kind of similarity trigger a slip of the tongue?

    The idea that environmentalism is seen as Gaiolatry (?) was new to me (though someone did once call me a tree-hugging dirt-worshipper just because of my hybrid car :-), but here's a related example from a Catholic blogger and one from Glenn Beck.

  13. Eric P Smith said,

    February 21, 2012 @ 2:01 pm

    As Mark Liberman says, the word "Muslim" was highly activated in the context, both because religion had been mentioned, and because the phrase "radical Islamic" is common.

    But surely the most plausible reason for Ms. Stewart's slip of the tongue is the common Republican propaganda that Obama is a Muslim. The story immediately reminded me of Basil Fawlty accidentally mentioning the war (see Geoff Pullum's following post). Just as Basil Fawlty would never have accidentally mentioned the war if he were not already virulently Xenophobic, it seems inconceivable to me that Ms. Stewart would have accidentally said that Obama has "radical Islamic policies" if she were not already strongly sympathetic to the propaganda that he has. Failed taboo avoidance indeed.

    Which means, I think, that I agree with Victor, John and Jerry Friedman.

  14. Felix said,

    February 22, 2012 @ 4:46 pm

    I can attest to bloix's comment. My brother is an angry died-in-the-wool fundamentalist who has told me that everyone who recycles is a pagan because they worship Mother Earth more than our Lord Jesus.

  15. Ken Brown said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 3:34 pm

    Bobbie said: "a phony theology…not based on the Bible" may be another dog-whistle. It implies (again) that Obama is a Muslim and believes in the Koran, not in the Bible.

    And also neatly reminds us that Santorum's main rival for the nomination is a Mormon, and Mormons have what Christians think of as a phony theology, "not based on the Bible".

    The idea of Green politics as "theology" is common, and not just among fundamentalists. I've come across it used from secularists of both left and right, the sense being that environmentalists are basing their ideas on emotions or superstition.

    I've also come acroiss the idea that environmentalism is a characteristic heresy of Euroopean Liberal Protestantism, or even Lutheranism. Or if not quite a heresy, a characteristic form of secularism that Liberal Protestants often fall into when they give up basing their politics directly on religion.

    Though I can't remember *where* I read that so I might be making it up. Might be Anna Bramwell's interesting but absurdly mid-titled "Ecology in the 20th Century: A History" which sounds as if it ought to be a history of the science of ecology, but is in fact a history of environmentalist politics. But its years since I read it so I might be wrong.

    (And it also goes along in my mind with the equally dodgy notion that fascism is a characteristially ex-Catholic heresy, and anarchism an ex-Orthodox one. )

  16. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    February 24, 2012 @ 11:43 am

    […] at what’s wrong with Democrat Party. At Language Log, Mark Liberman looked at Rick Santorum’s radical mis-speaking about President Obama; a Republican slogan that has Communist roots; and a grammar-based […]

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