gender, language, other topics, politics

Who Makes Meaning?


A conversation (meaning any form of communication – private or public; written or spoken; physical or electronic) is properly constructed so as to transmit meaning between or among participants. It is often thought that a speaker is responsible for encoding meaning, and a hearer’s job is simply to understand what a speaker says. But it’s a more complicated relationship: it is the speaker’s responsibility to encode meanings in such a way that a hearer is likely to be able to understand them as the speaker intended; and it is the hearer’s responsibility to bring her experiences to bear so as to make sense of the communication: meaning is jointly constructed.


This is necessarily true because human beings are social animals. By working in this cooperative way, language (and other forms of interpersonal communication) both make the best use of our social capacities, and enhance them. Uncooperative communication does the opposite: it drives us apart.


In our current political (and specifically presidential) discourse, there are violations of those expectations and needs.


Trump’s Language Games:


Donald Trump violates our normal assumptions about how to express and understand language in several disturbing ways:


  1. He deliberately confuses or mystifies speakers about how he intends his utterances to be understood, and blames speakers for their confusion.


Normally, especially in speech that is highly important (like presidential candidates’ communications to the public) we all share a high expectation that candidates will be truthful, and are indignant if we perceive them to be telling untruths or lies. And we should be.


But there are ways of talking that fall in between truth and lie, and normal adults have learned when to use them and how to interpret them. Among them are forms we call sarcasm, irony, hyperbole, and kidding. In all of these, speakers say things that they know are not literally true; hearers make use of nonverbal cues (winks, smiles, shrugs, tone of voice, and so on), prior and subsequent linguistic context, and long acquaintance with the speaker to determine that one of these special ways of speaking is in play, and can use their communicative skills to understand them. This complex interplay between speaker and hearers can be socially beneficial, an advantage that outweighs the dangers inherent in these forms of misunderstanding: the speaker implicitly flatters the hearers (“I know you are smart enough to figure this out”), and underscores their shared assumptions and thus strengthens their mutual trust. Note though that the literal understanding of an utterance is the unmarked one: without cues, subtle or otherwise, hearers properly assume that an utterance is intended to be interpreted literally.


Speakers who misuse this complex communicative relationship create mistrust and, paradoxically, drive at least some hearers to place more reliance on them, because they alone know what they mean.


Trump on several recent occasions has said things that, taken literally, have provoked outrage. Rather than apologizing (or being more careful in the first place), each time his response has been to claim that he had spoken non-literally: was “sarcastic” or “kidding.” Thus it was with his suggestion that Russia hack Clinton’s emails; and that Clinton and Obama were “founders” of ISIS. He was “kidding” about the crying baby. Trump’s game in such cases is to roll out an outrageous claim and if it flies, fine; if not, it’s the hearers’ fault that they misunderstood his intention. The result is to sow confusion and mystification: how exactly are his hearers to understand the things he says? It makes them more dependent on him and more afraid to protest – they’re afraid they’ll look stupid, like someone who doesn’t get a joke. Trump, meanwhile, doesn’t have to take responsibility for his words – unless he wants to. He maintains control.


The trouble here is that sarcasm and kidding work only under specific contextual conditions: speaker and hearer must share assumptions about what the speaker is likely to mean literally, and agree that there is reason to interpret the speaker’s words in a special, marked way. It is impossible to do this in any of these cases, so Trump just isn’t making sense – but in an underhanded, uncatchable way.


  1. He doesn’t acknowledge the normal, conventional meanings of words.


Examples are: his repurposing of “sacrifice” in his interview with George Stephanopoulos; and his (or his spokesman’s) use of “unification” to describe his scarily ambiguous “second amendment” comments.


In Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty is a big egg perched precariously on a high narrow wall. He has received a prophecy (“All the king’s horses and all the king’s men….”), which he would like to nullify. But he can’t control his future, so he tries to control language, hoping that will have the same effect.


“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean a ‘nice knock-down argument,’ “ Alice objected.


“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “ it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”


“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”


“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”


And that is just what the Donald would say. And as with Humpty Dumpty, it’s a form of both asserting control and increasing it. If speakers of English can’t agree on the meaning of a word like “sacrifice,” we come apart and become anxious – we can’t be fully human. And since Trump makes his definition of the word aggressively, there is no room to negotiate.


Speakers of English have conventionally agreed on the meaning “sacrifice”: willingly giving up or losing something of great value for the greater good of a larger community. It is pretty clear that the Khans had sacrificed greatly for their adoptive country. Trump argued that he, too, had “sacrificed”: by constructing buildings and providing jobs. You can do a quick test: losing something? No. On the other hand, his building and job-making brought him huge profits. For the larger community? Please.


Trump’s communicative trick is to insist on making language a one-way proposition: he, the speaker, makes the meanings. You, the hearer, must accept those meanings of his words or you cannot play the game. Convention goes out the window, along with the cooperation essential for a social species to operate successfully.


But sometimes Trump is completely truthful. When he says, “I want to debate very badly,” I take him at his word – and assume he will do just that.


Clinton’s Language Problem:


It has always been the case that the more powerful had the right to make meaning, and the less powerful had it made for them. This has universally and traditionally been true between men and women – only very recently have women begun to assert the right to make meaning for themselves.


For instance, the old male rejoinder to a woman, “You’re cute when you’re mad,” is a way of denying the woman the right to express her own emotions and have them understood as she intended them to be. It is a reminder of powerlessness and communicative incompetence (i.e., of being less than fully human).


Hillary Clinton is functioning as a representative of all women, and in particular of all powerful women. There are those who are not comfortable seeing a woman playing that role, and do all they can to undercut her communicative options (and thus deny her full humanity.


Humans usually understand communication as two-sided: speaker and hearer collaborate to determine the meaning of a shared utterance. But when Clinton speaks (as is traditionally true for women in general), many hearers, including media savants, demand total control of her intentions, leaving her unable to claim control of her own communications. Words are regularly put into her mouth. (This is the exact reverse of Trump’s situation.) There is very little attempt to ask her what she actually meant: this is of no interest to her interpreters.


Thus, when she says that she might have “short-circuited [her answers]” to James Comey, Donald Trump was permitted to (1) misunderstand the verb “short-circuit” as intransitive (i.e., that she had “short-circuited”; and (2) go on from that to understand the verb to mean, “behave erratically” or “be crazy,” although there is no precedent for this meaning. I have to admit that I am not sure what Clinton meant, and certainly she spoke inartfully, as she does all too often when off-script. But nothing in her utterance could appropriately be taken to mean that she was calling herself crazy, and further (à la Trump) that she therefore was crazy. Yet his inaccuracy went unexplored.


Their sloppiness isn’t entirely her hearers’ fault. Clinton is a novel phenomenon for Americans: a woman speaking in a position of potential authority and power. So we hang on her words, as we do not for a man in her situation, or a woman running for a lesser, less symbolically powerful, position, but we do so in order to make her words mean what we want them to mean – not what she might have intended them to mean.


As a speaker, she is subjected to relentless critique and analysis: why is she so “cold” and “inauthentic”? Why are her “likables” so low? We never look at male candidates in this gimlet-eyed way. So our judgment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: we read negative meanings into her self-presentation, because we don’t have any other way to listen to such a woman; then we blame her for making us dislike her.


We analyze Clinton’s “unlikableness” and Trump’s as if they were the same thing. Trump’s arises because of his individual and unique characteristics and history. This is reasonable. But Clinton’s arises to a very significant degree as constructs of the hearer’s mind: stereotypes we all carry unconsciously with us, usually not consciously, of how a woman should be and behave. Running for president violates the stereotype and forces us to see women in a new way, making many of us very uneasy, so we disapprove of her and interpret her utterances negatively. But her unlikability is our failure, not hers.


We interpret, or rather over-interpret, her smiles and lack of them. When she makes a gaffe, we never hear the end of it. We declare every imperfection to be evidence of her unsuitability for the role she is seeking. She is not allowed to be human, because we can’t see her as properly female. And we deprive her of the essential human power to make her own meaning.


So in this presidential campaign, American audiences are experiencing communicative difficulties with both candidates. Both have to do with the answer to the question: who makes the meaning of this conversation? The right answer is, or should be, that we all do. But with each of the major candidates, for very different reasons, we cannot truthfully give that answer.