Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sarah Palin and Two Views of Language

Right now, Sarah Palin is one of the most talked-about and polarizing figures in American culture. To break it down along simplified party lines, liberals hate her and conservatives love her – or, at least, they hate/love whatever it is she represents to them. But why is she so fascinating to both sides? I think it’s because Palin, like GW before her, represents a fundamental split among Americans over language and what it means to communicate successfully.


Palin’s detractors see a woman who enters into a sentence like a spelunker who hasn’t thought to wear a headlamp, losing her way in the sense-obliterating darkness of mixed metaphors, weak analogies, and verbs with no discernable subjects. Lets call these folks the Listeners. (In the interest of full disclosure, and if it’s not clear already, I belong to this camp.) But her supporters see someone who says what she feels in the unadorned, perfectly imperfect cadences of everyday people, someone who clearly values actions over words and can therefore be trusted to do what she thinks is right and to tell us about it in a way we can understand. Let’s call these folks the Watchers. For both groups she is utterly comprehensible. Each sees a set of values reflected in her use of language, and based on that set accepts or rejects her.  


Listeners think words are important enough to be viewed on their own, apart from the person speaking them. They like transcripts. They also believe that scrutinizing words, especially the words of powerful people or people who wish to be powerful, is a civic virtue. To Listeners, Palin’s infelicities with the English language amount to an ethical failing. They hear her compare herself to a point guard passing the ball in her recent resignation speech and extend the analogy until it breaks down completely, which, it turns out, isn’t very far at all: a point guard who passes the ball stays on the court, and is around for the next play; basketball fans who go to see a professional point guard aren’t interested in watching her replacement.


The Watchers, on the other hand, aren’t worried about her verbal miscues because they know what she means. Maybe the basketball analogy isn’t perfect, but who cares? She’s saying that she’s part of a team, and is doing what she thinks is best for the team as a whole, not just for herself. The Watchers feel that Palin’s words are less important than who she is, and that the two are separate. We can’t all be great speakers, but we can tell right from wrong and it’s our actions that count.


But the problem with the latter view is that, like it or not, the words we use are a fundamental and very large part of who we are as individuals in the world. I should qualify this: To our families and those with whom we’re intimate, we’re much more than our words. And no matter who we are, words without actions are empty signifiers. But if we aspire to any profession that requires public communication, words must be the currency of our trade. To be in such a position and to be careless with words is to invite others to shape our words for us.


GW stands as an example of this. Our first MBA president, lacking an appreciation for the nuance of language that comes from studying law, bumbled his way through press conferences while administration lawyers crafted some very tricky memos that allowed all sorts of horrible things to be done to people who were, more often than not, of little if any value to us as sources of information. And this is becoming his legacy, as more of their language and its consequences come to light.


A Palin presidency would be equally disastrous. We can tell from her words. Understand I’m not just talking about a disregard for proper grammar – public speakers, no matter how formal the occasion, aren’t held to the same standards as published writers, and this is as it should be. I’m talking about the fine line between carelessness and obfuscation that is all too easy to cross. As when Palin, in her resignation speech, gave us muddled and meandering reasons for her decision and then repeatedly said that she’d “candidly, truthfully” told us why she was quitting her job. Did she think she’d actually done this? Or did she think that by saying she had done this that it was so, or that we would believe it was so?


The good news for us is that the media, despite their many shortcomings, are good at unmasking this type of person. Teleprompted speeches can only take you so far when the 24-hour news cycle demands at least a moment of your unscripted self. If in that moment you claim to read “all” of the news publications (rough translation: “I read none of them”), viewers should discern your lack of respect for words, yourself, and the office you’re seeking.


The sad truth, though, is that the Watchers discern something else. They see a liberal media bullying someone whose values, as she has represented them, are similar to theirs. They are every bit as intelligent as the Listeners, but they value words much less. Because of this they resent it when people scrutinize Palin’s sentences, or see it as a waste of time. Like Plato, they see language as a murky reflection of the real, many times removed from concrete things and meaningful actions. But we can only compare the Watchers to Plato because he turned his thoughts into words and wrote them down. A hundred years from now, words are all that will remain of Palin. Americans will read them and be thankful that more of us chose to listen, instead of merely watching.  

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