Words that blow your legs off

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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.


  1. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 2:23 am

    Julie's absolutely right: Our candidates stream their prepared blather because their handlers have trained them to do that, and they have been thus trained in order to ensure that they can avoid the relentless scrutiny of their linguistic output for slips that can be used to blow their legs off. They are trained to ignore the questions and spout the scripted blather. All the same, they get many opportunities to make statements of importance that will be widely reported. The Doonesbury site today reports one statement that Rick Santorum recently chose to make:

    I think it's seven or eight of the California system of universities don't even teach an American history course. It's not even available to be taught.

    Yes, he's saying that California has started to give up on teaching American history — a way of representing California as disloyal, I suppose. In fact the implication is that 70 to 80 percent of the campuses of the University of California (my former university) have abandoned teaching about our country's history.

    The Doonesbury site notes correctly that in truth all of California's undergraduate institutions teach American history. (There are 10 UC campuses, 23 California State University campuses, and 112 community colleges. One of the UC campuses, UC San Francisco, is just a large medical research institution and medical school, and that's the only State-funded institution that isn't in the US history biz.) Santorum's linguistic output isn't being judged solely on putative slips of the tongue; he is also being judged for making assertions that are so fantastic, so far away from verifiable truth, that one can hardly believe one's eyes. Whether he's lying or just blundering, the psycholinguistics of cooperative conversational practice can't dig him out of holes of this kind.

    [(js) Right. It's precisely this kind of linguistic output that should be scrutinized. During elections here in Canada, the CBC has a practice of setting up a "fact-checker" page on its website, where assertions of the various parties are evaluated for their truth. The results are very revealing and very useful. It would be wonderful if this were standard journalistic practice during election campaigns, but I'm afraid it's not.]

  2. Rubrick said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 3:10 am

    I've been generally impressed by Obama's ability to sound neither like an idiot nor like a tape recorder when speaking (relatively) extemporaneously. A key, I think, is his pacing: he speaks slowly, pausing often, giving the (presumably accurate) impression that he's thinking carefully about what he's trying to say and how to say it.

    Of course, being the President has its advantages here: he can have long pauses without fear of someone seizing the opportunity to interrupt him.

  3. Adam said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 3:48 am

    It's important to realize that modern political campaign discourse is a bizarre distortion of how normal communication works.

    Aren't many politicians to blame for that situation, since they always try to say whatever they think will win votes instead of being honest with the public?

  4. Michael Newman said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 4:29 am

    Geoff's right that the wider context for this is crucial in the case of Santorum. I'm not a psycholinguist, but my reading of Julie's post seems limited to the truth-conditional aspects of meaning, which misses what makes Santorum's issue problematic for him and the rest of us. This is the social associations of the language he's using and what that language and terms used say about him and his views on race.

    To see what I mean consider one of Biden's gaffes, where he called Obama an articulate African American, supposedly implying that this was not the norm for African Americans. Although no speech processing issues were involved (only interpretation) it is relevant because it was quickly forgotten. I think ultimately it was impossible to construct a compelling story about how he was really deep down a racist out of this gaffe. The same can be said for similar gaffes of any number of other liberal politicians.

    However, in the case of Santorum, what makes the issue resonate is not literal intention of the phrase used. Instead, that saying Blacks are dependent and certainly the use of nigger (or perhaps even negro) are elements of discourse(s) that are not acceptable to most Americans. However, complaints about Black dependency on handouts from hard working Whites IS part of the discourse of some Americans, and I think this fact is implicitly recognized by many others. In fact, they form explanations of the social inferior position of many Blacks developed in various strands of conservative thought. They relate most closely to the views of Charles Murray and other conservative intellectual icons that in various ways find Blacks themselves responsible for their situation and claim that White "handouts" only make the problem worse.

    Santorum is famously very conservative. Therefore, it is easy to see what he was saying as the employment of tropes that are common in these circles for a wider audience. It therefore implies his subscribing to a whole set of beliefs, widely considered racist, that are associated with these groups. People do not even have to know who Charles Murray is to make these associations.

  5. DaveB said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 4:55 am

    I can't remember whether you've covered this yet on the Log, but the most striking example of the "robo-responder" phenomenon is surely when Ed Miliband replied to an interviewer by saying four things in a slightly different order each time, irrespective of the question. It's mind-boggling: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jlTggc0uBA8

    [(js) Mind-boggling indeed! It reminds me of a long-ago interview in which, Vaclav Havel, Czech President at the time, was asked for his opinion about Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Havel's response was to say that Clinton was an excellent saxophone player (Havel and Clinton had recently engaged in a much-publicized impromptu jazz session). When asked again two more times, Havel again responded with exactly the same assertion. Of course, Havel was using these non-sequiturs as a way of highlighting what he perceived to be the inappropriateness of the question. Sadly, I don't think that's what's occurring in the clip you provided… Brilliant example!]

  6. Ginger Yellow said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 6:34 am

    DaveB, that comment is wrong while negotiations are still under way. You have acted in a reckless and provocative manner, and it's time for both sides to put aside the rhetoric and get round the negotiating table.

  7. Iain said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 8:52 am

    While I agree with the general point of this article, even if Santorum used "black people" only as an example for one type of welfare recipients, the fact that he jumped to that is still just as revealing of being steeped in unexamined institutional racism and holding mainstream racist attitudes. But one the whole, I would have to agree with the rest of this article.

  8. Missy said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 2:35 pm

    Re the Ed Milliband clip: imagine if our leaders and wannabes indicated their commitment to substantive policy positions by relentlessly repeating firmly stated views that they followed through on. We might actually come to expect more than rhetoric, pandering, and positioning. If political coverage took a more substantive bent, media giants might actually have to train journalists to explain the details and implications of policies… which just might result in a functioning participatory democracy. But hey, a fact-checking website would be a start. this one is sometimes helpful: http://www.factcheck.org/

  9. Duncan said,

    April 6, 2012 @ 1:56 am

    @ Rubrick: I recall being distinctly impressed some years ago, watching Bill Clinton when he was running the first time, take questions at some televised forum or other. He'd pause for a moment, then answer. It really looked like he was thinking the question thru, then answering it, and I distinctly remember the contrast between that and what I'd seen of the others at the time.

    I do remember wondering if he was only mentally counting to 10 (or 20 or whatever) before answering, trained to do so by his handlers in ordered to look deliberative, or whether he was flipping thru rehearsed lines for one that might match, or whatever, but regardless of that scepticism, I couldn't help but be impressed, because show or not, /somebody/ had recognized that it looked good, and show or not, sometimes counting to ten before spouting the first thing that comes into your head can be a GOOD thing. It really did impress me, I know that.

    Meanwhile, I like the assembly line analogy, but there's assembly line and there's assembly line. An assembly line, say for a Ford pickup, might have "option" mag wheels and "stock" steel wheels to choose from, and accidentally picking the wrong one for a specific order or run is plausible. But the poor guy that somehow ends up finding a bicycle wheel and mounting it… will have a LOT of explaining to do! Bicycle wheels shouldn't even be in the plant (tho I suppose someone might ride one to work and park it outside), let alone close enough to that stack of wheels to get chosen by mistake, and even if it was somehow nearby, the poor guy still has some explaining to do, as pickup trucks simply do NOT come with bicycle wheels as an option… it's both practically and socially unacceptable, and both the QA department and guy who put it on will have some explaining to do as to how it was even POSSIBLE!

    "Black" is, like that steel wheel where a mag wheel should have been, at least plausible. But where in the /world/ did that "nig/neg" initial syllable come from? At least /some/ of us might know what the word generally means, but WAAAYYY before it gets even CLOSE to that assembly line, QA is hitting that emergency stop-line button, to ensure it doesn't! There might be contexts like direct quotes in which I could arguably use it, but my assembly line QA department would be extremely uncomfortable even with that, to the point that I'd probably substitute N*, "the N word" or the like, not because it's improper in every single context including meta, but simply to avoid the possibility of it even getting CLOSE to that assembly line, where it MIGHT get used by accident.

    So "black people" is explainable, there's a plausible use for "black" as a color, without a lot of replacement options, so it simply has to be available to the assembly line, and could accidentally slip in inappropriately. But IMO, "nig-" is an entirely different story.. The fact that it was even close to that verbal assembly line in the first place says something important about what the guy behind it finds acceptable.

    (Even with this, my verbal assembly line QA department is having a fit. I hope I've not tainted my assembly area with this post!)

  10. Graeme said,

    April 6, 2012 @ 7:50 am

    I stumbled over the identity relation between 'prepared to commit to' and 'really intended to say'. There seems to be a element of cross examination (albeit driven by social expectation rather than client interest) in Julie's depiction of the negotiating conversation.

    But on reflection, we all adjust and compromise our thoughts and speech and writing, in a process of rehearsing ideas via pretend conversation in our heads. The problem for modern politics, as alluded to here, is that there is altogether too much said, and too much of that captured broadcast and churned over out of context.

  11. Bloix said,

    April 8, 2012 @ 2:01 pm

    "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."

    As a lawyer, I make this point to my clients who are about to be deposed as a matter of course. The way I put it is that a deposition feels like a conversation, but the feeling is an illusion. A deposition is the creation of a written transcript (and, nowadays, a video record as well), any part of which can be excerpted and presented in isolation from the rest of the transcript. It does no good to complain that such excerpting takes statements "out of context." The witness must learn to speak in such a way that every utterance contains the context.

  12. [links] Link salad is quicker than they thought | jlake.com said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

    […] Words that blow your legs off — On language and political discourse. This is why you mostly don't see me jumping all over politicians for slips of the tongue or even open mic errors. Statements in writing, or contextualized in prepared speeches, are certainly fair game. […]

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