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. Continue reading

gender, language, politics

The “Scandal” Scandal


OK, the results are in and the word is out: Clinton, while not “guilty” of a “crime” for which she could be prosecuted, nevertheless is deserving of, and has received, a “stinging rebuke” or a “severe scolding” from James Comey, head of the FBI, for her use of a personal e-mail server rather than the State Department’s server. The Republicans have weighed in, predictably, in turn castigating Comey for not castigating Clinton enough; the Donald has tweeted at length of her “crookedness”; a bit less predictably (maybe), the media is also weighing in to the same effect. Just consider the full-frontal headline in the hard-copy edition of the Paper of Record:




The headline presupposes that “charges” would have been normal, and that the “rebuke” was deserved and appropriate, if minimal. The article, by Patrick Healy, begins:


Hillary Clinton may not be indicted on criminal charges over her handling of classified email, but the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, all but indicted her judgment and competence on Tuesday – two vital pillars of her presidential candidacy – and in the kinds of terms that would be politically devastating in a normal election year.


The silver lining for Mrs. Clinton is that this is not a normal election year.


The implication here is that Comey “all but indicted” all her judgment and competence, about everything, which his statement did not. (There is an issue, too, over the conflation of two senses of “indictment.”) But the overall point of this article, and the Times’s lead editorial, is that Clinton is guilty of severe malfeasance and lucky to have escaped the punishment she deserved; that the use of a personal email server by a Secretary of State is seriously bad behavior. But are either or both of these accusations true? And really, what is the whole “scandal” about? Continue reading

language, other topics, politics

Open and Closed Cases


Now that the primaries are almost over, I want to say a little about them, and in particular one aspect of them that has been much discussed by one of the Democratic candidates: “open” versus “closed” primaries.


An open primary is one in which there are no constraints on who can vote for a party’s nominees: a Republican or unaffiliated voter can cast a ballot for one of the Democratic candidates, and their votes will have equal weight with those of registered Democrats. (The same of course is true on the Republican side.) In a closed primary, then, only voters registered as members of a party can vote in its primary.


Bernie Sanders and his followers wax irate at the idea of closed Democratic primaries. They argue that they are undemocratic, small “d,” because they keep some voters out of voting their preferences. They don’t mention the fact that at least some of Sanders’s victories came about because Republican voters crossed party lines to vote for him – in many if not most cases, because they believed he would be the weaker candidate in the general election. Continue reading

language, other topics, politics

The Donald Has a Dream


I know this will sound bizarre, but I’m going to say it anyway: the media are not paying enough attention to Donald Trump, or at least to one of his recent effusions.


On Saturday, May 28, Trump delivered a speech from the same spot in Washington, D.C., where, in 1963, Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. This choice of venue itself suggests a peculiar kind of effrontery, or immodesty, to begin with. But it gets worse.


King’s audience is estimated to have numbered about 250,000, Trump’s about 5,000. But Trump has an explanation for the discrepancy…of course he does! It couldn’t be that MLK was HUGER than Donald J. Trump. No….


Trump claimed that “more than half a million people” attempted to attend his speech, “but,” he said, absent all evidence, “unfortunately they aren’t allowed to come in.”


Note the passive: “they aren’t allowed.” By whom? Why are there no reports of 245,000 disgruntled citizens milling around Washington, D. C.?


Actually, according to Trump, the situation was even more outrageous: not a trifling 245, 000, but 600,000 denied their right to share in the world’s greatest experience.

As usual, Trump’s aesthetic judgment is about numbers: quantity is quality. “We have the biggest rallies by far, far bigger than Bernie Sanders,” Trump told the crowd on the National Mall. “Far bigger. I mean, look at today. They say you have 600,000 people here trying to get in.”

They. You. Who?

But the most extraordinary piece of chutzpah Trump manifests here is the notion that he is in any way comparable to the Rev. Dr. King. In fact, if we compare Trump only rhetorically, not in terms of morality, accomplishment, or anything concrete, it would be hard to find two human beings who are further apart. Taking a leaf from Trump’s own playbook, one is almost forced into superlatives or superlative equivalents: Trump’s posturing can only be described as outrageous, psychotic, and/or pathetic. And maybe the most outrageous fact of all is that the media, which hang on Trump’s every syllable, has had practically nothing to say about this, although even brief consideration should tell us all something about the man who would be president.

So, Donald, you wanna compare yourself to MLK?


King’s speech was uncontroversially one of the greatest speeches ever delivered in America, remarkable not only for what it said and the courage and passion with which it was delivered, but also for its rhetorical elegance and eloquence. Let’s compare King’s speech with Trump’s typical public address:

King                                                                                        Trump


eloquent                                                                     banal

inspiring                                                                     humdrum

inclusive “we”                                                            exclusive “we”

uniting                                                                        dividing

immortal                                                                    forgettable

all-inclusive                                                                egocentric

trusting                                                                      paranoid

on topic                                                                      meta


MLK’s speeches were powerful, above all, because he explicitly and directly addressed a topic few were willing to confront head-on. Trump, in this speech as elsewhere, proffers no topic. No Trump speech is about anything other than “I am great” and “they are not.” Hence his oratory is necessarily “meta”: Trump’s effusions are about “aboutness,” not on any topics themselves. He is obsessed with numbers and polls, with other people’s responses to him (usually inadequate) and personal irrelevant insults. You will find none of the above in King’s speech. He speaks of soaring ideas.


King could have given a divisive speech about “us” versus “them,” but he did not. It is true that parts of his speech are about how whites have mistreated blacks and how the behavior of whites has to change, but especially near the end, King works to unite his audience: everyone is included in the “we” who will be the beneficiaries of full equality for all. He recites a stanza of one of America’s secular hymns, “America” (the one schoolchildren know as “My country, ‘tis of thee”). We all own this song: we are unified by singing it together.


King’s speech is not only memorable, but immortal. To this day, most of us can recite a phrase or a paragraph, or at least when we hear a line of it, we can identify the source. Can anyone reading these words recite a phrase from any of Trump’s speeches – other than for purposes of parody?


King speaks in metaphor and parable. He refers to the Bible, to the Declaration of Independence, to Lincoln’s speeches. In doing so, not only is he building his inclusive “we” – these are words everyone listening to his speech would share with one another and with him – but he is inviting his audience to make his meaning along with him. The topic – the reality, and the evils, of American racial inequality – is divisive, but the way King brings it to his audience, black and white, is unifying. Despite the dangerousness of his message, King trusts his audience to grasp it and be changed by it.


Trump’s favorite tropes are hyperbole (those superlatives) and anaphora (repetition). He uses metaphor and parable little if at all (unless you count remarks about hand size). His choices do not gently coax the audience to participate, but beat them over the head: they must agree with Trump, or else. Trump does not trust his audience – he feels they are unworthy of trust. Like your average tinpot dictator, Trump is only comfortable wielding absolute power. But you know what Lord Acton said about absolute power.


Contrasting these two orators, separated by half a century and so much more, I am tempted to declaim with Cicero, “O tempora! O mores!” (Roughly, “We are going to hell in a handbasket.”) How could so many Americans have fallen so low as to cast their lots with such a disappointment? But perhaps there is a ray of hope. This Trump speech did not bring out the 600,000 fans he thought his eloquence merited, but a measly 5,000. Is this – dare we hope? – an augury? Was his reaction even more of one?


There is something not quite normal about someone – a candidate for president, no less – falling into a lengthy and vituperative harangue about how “they” aren’t letting 595,000 people into his presence to hear his speech. Is decompensation finally, at long last, setting in? Mother of mercy, is this the end of the Donald?


The right kind of media attention would help the process along.




gender, language, other topics, politics

The Logic of the Primary Process


Ruth Wodak has sent me a thoughtful, and disturbing, article from the Guardian. It makes perfect sense, suggesting what to say to the Sanders fans who are refusing to even consider voting for Clinton, and some of whom are declaring that they would actually prefer Trump. The writer’s arguments are thoroughly persuasive – to me.


It is disturbing on two grounds: first, that Democrats even have to worry about how to persuade presumably rational people to switch to Clinton rather than Trump (this would seem to be a no-brainer, so why isn’t it?). But more disturbing is the fear that the article’s rational arguments will be of little use in accomplishing that goal. The real reasons those voters find it easier to move from Sanders to Trump, rather than Sanders to Clinton, are not rational, and therefore logical arguments against them will fall on deaf ears. Continue reading

language, other topics, politics

Cold Comforts, or None at All


It is comforting to think that Donald Trump is a nutcase who has given his mouth over to his egomania and just opens it up and lets whatever come out, without concern for the fact that he is destroying the Republican Party’s hopes for success in this year’s Presidential election, and perhaps forever. After all, he’s not a real Republican.


It is comforting to think that Bernie Sanders is a nutcase who has let egomania triumph over reason, refusing to get out of the race for the Democratic nomination and show some support for his rival, without concern for the fact that he is destroying the Democratic Party’s hopes for success in this year’s Presidential election, and perhaps forever. After all, he’s not a real Democrat.


Those are the comforting scenarios. But they might not reflect reality. Continue reading

gender, language, other topics, politics

Depth Charge

I know I have dealt with this topic before, but it keeps turning up, unresolved and unresolvable, in new guises, so I keep worrying it (and vice versa) like a problem tooth. It is our inability to distinguish between root causes and superficial symptoms, so that we think we are resolving the former when in fact we are just scratching around at the latter: putting a band aid on a cancer.


Too many problems that we try to resolve at a superficial level are about some form of deep societal malaise – things we really wish would go away, things we really hate to look at – so it’s not surprising that we don’t have the moral stamina to get down to the nitty-gritty and figure out how to change ourselves and our minds in significant ways.


Two such problems, involving the ancient triangulation of language, gender, and power– how we use language to hide the depth and breadth of power differences between the genders — have been in the news a lot. I’ve talked about one before, sexual harassment in universities and other prestigious institutions. The other is the topic of an interesting article in the May 8 New York Times Magazine. By Emily Bazelon, it asks what we should do about prostitution: continue to keep it criminalized, or decriminalize it? Continue reading

other topics, politics

The “Intolerant” University


I am usually a fan of Nicholas Kristof’s op-eds in the New York Times. But as a recovering academic, I must take issue with his latest.


As its title suggests, the op-ed argues that academia is, despite its vaunted tolerance, intolerant – of conservatives. At first glance, Kristof appears to have the facts on his side. Especially in the humanities and social sciences, faculty members skew strongly liberal: only 2% of English professors identify as Republicans; 18% of social scientists claim to be Marxists. Most of the faculty members of every linguistics department I know are liberal. According to Kristof, faculty members express in surveys a preference for liberal colleagues. Most despised of all are evangelical Christians: according to another survey, this one conducted by an evangelical Christian sociologist, “59% of anthropologists and 53% of English professors would be less likely to hire someone they found out was an evangelical.”


Well, that sounds pretty intolerant, making academics look deeply hypocritical – demanding openness of others but creating for themselves closed societies of similar thinkers. Kristof goes on to suggest that, since “universities should be a hubbub of the full range of political perspectives” (because a necessary part of education is exposure to a spectrum of ideas), academia is the very worst place for such intolerance to exist. How embarrassing! Continue reading

gender, language, other topics, politics

Going Negative


The media savants love numbers – it makes their work look like science. Among their favorites, often repeated, are the “negatives” of the leading presidential candidates. Commentators love to point out that this year, the two front-runners score higher negatives than their equivalents at any time in the past. For Trump, the stats are: positive 24%, negative 57%, for a total score of -33; for Clinton, positive 31%, negative 52%, overall -21.


Because the stats are reported side by side, it is easy to get the impression that the negative scores for the two candidates mean the same thing and were in response to the same kinds of behavior. Curiously, the media analysts never address that question – the negs simply are what they are: they show how unlikeable Trump and Clinton are, period.


But the two negativities are in fact very different in origin and meaning, and should be differently understood. Continue reading

language, politics

Donald Trump, the Poet


Opinion is divided on Donald Trump’s talk. His supporters are enthusiastic: “He tells it like it is.” “He’s tough.” “He speaks my language.” They like the Trump they think they see and hear: a man whose linguistic roughness is a promise of nonverbal toughness in our next President. For them, the harshness and cruelty that characterize so much of Trump’s speaking style signal that the man is no “political correctness”-hugging sissy.


Intellectuals, the commentariat, and media personalities have another view. To them, Trump is your basic vulgarian: no topic is too low, no slander too gross, no prejudice too retrograde for him to exploit; and even when he isn’t spouting off offensively, his language lacks grammar, and his arguments lack cohesion, trickling off without a point, other than the incessant one about the speaker’s greatness, largeness, and hugeness. They sneer openly about the common man (or woman) who is taken in. But even as they inveigh against him, the amount of attention they devote to criticizing him suggests that they are just as captivated by The Donald as everyone else – they just can’t admit it.


These Trumpian perspectives would seem to have little in common It’s hard to think of a candidate about whose speaking style public opinion differs so sharply. Why do Americans find it so hard to understand what the man is up to? Continue reading