Sowing and Reaping

Some of my friends and family may not have heard the Republican Presidential Candidate’s latest words that are causing Americans to have fits.  To very briefly recap, he stated at a rally that:

Hillary wants to abolish — essentially abolish the Second Amendment. By the way, if she gets to pick, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.

The reactions were swift on both sides for the candidate has his defenders along with his detractors, but the purpose of this post is to outline something that has become “classic” modus operandi for the Republican Presidential Candidate.  His statement could be read/heard either way.  Of course, one could dissect the speech and tease out the fact that he hints that it is after the fact that Hillary has picked a judge that a “Second Amendment person” (let’s not start on that idiotic phrase) could do something.  But what has been and what remains constant out of the double-talking and the inconstancy of this nominee’s words are their seeming open-ended nature.  This statement, indeed, could be read more than one way.  Which brings me to something one denouncing journalist wrote in response to this.  Dan Rather, in addition to bringing up a rhetoric that incites violence, says of the American people in general

We are a democratic republic governed by the rule of law. We are an honest, fair and decent people.

Let us spend the rest of this blog doing two things.  Let us examine speech acts, and let us really ask ourselves if Americans are, indeed, “honest, fair and decent” people.  The examination leads, I promise, not to an indictment of a nation, but to an understanding of the lies we all tell ourselves every day.

First, it was John Searle who studied indirect speech acts in the 1970’s.  Spare yourselves the boredom of reading about it because reading about speech acts is enough to make one want to bang one’s head repeatedly with a blunt object until reading is no longer possible.  But when a person studies what is obvious, abundant and part of the everyday that is the kind of writing that emerges.  It is simply a fact of that kind of scholarship that unearthing the links and chains that bind together common phrases, tone of voice, and apprehension of speech leads to writing so stultifying that you have to take it page (or sometimes paragraph) at a time with breaks in between.  But it IS worthwhile reading if only to understand to a visceral level what is meant by the phrase “speech act.” For starters, there are many different kinds of speech acts, and some of these, as Searle outlined,

The hypothesis I wish to defend is simply this: In indirect speech acts the speaker communicates to the hearer more than he actually says by way of relying on their mutually shared background information, both linguistic and nonlinguistic, together with the general powers of rationality and inference on the part of the hearer.  (Searle 1975: 60 & 61)

The Republican Presidential Candidate, however, usually engages in a standard few of these types of speech act, and almost all of them fall into the category of “ambiguous” statements.  This allows him turning room, because it is the only room left to him being that he has no facts, data, or valid, credible information at his disposal with which to speak, and no policy experience at all upon which to draw. Thus it is, perhaps, no surprise, then, that his only acts of speech must all be laden with ambiguity.  But this ambiguity, satisfactory as it is for his candidacy thus far– when you have gaping holes in your own knowledge or experience, pointing at other holes is a means of distracting your listeners– is dangerous to the consuming listener.  It allows the semblance of credibility to emerge in the void so neatly created.  In place of concrete meaning we have concrete accusations followed by ambiguous suggestions.  This is dangerous on the level of understanding for the public (and understanding has never been more crucial for humanity than it is right now on the ticking time bomb we’re living on) and dangerous for the political process because it invites masqueraders into the praxis.

Historically, the United States would seem to have never shied away from electing the, technically, unqualified.  (I am thinking primarily of Reagan here because of the jokes about the fact that he was mostly a polished actor.) But, truthfully, even Reagan was the Governor of California before being elected to office.  It is a claim to legitimate political leadership experience which the current Republican Presidential Candidate cannot make.  His appeal is partially that he seems “detached” from the games, iniquities and policy princes of our current government, two branches of which come under regular fire for their own sectarian and partisan idiosyncrasies.  This does not help matters of ambiguity.  It muddies the waters, as it were, because appealing to those who have lost all hope in the “established” political mode is a ploy to those who really do seek an overthrow.  This is an appeal to a rogue, vigilante form of “governance” and I use the term governance most loosely because these are the types of people who defend what Cliven Bundy and his ilk did in holding a Federal Reserve hostage.  The Republican Presidential Candidate is banking on the support of these people, and his ambiguity satisfies enough of their anger and power lust to be appealing, while at the same time allowing him room to maneuver out of his own seeming words.

In general, in the performance of any illocutionary act with a propositional content, the speaker expresses some attitude, state, etc., to that propositional content. Notice that this holds even if he is insincere, even if he does not have the belief, desire, intention, regret or pleasure which he expresses, he none the less expresses a belief, desire, intention, regret or pleasure in the performance of the speech act. This fact is marked linguistically by the fact that it is linguistically unacceptable (though not self-contradictory) to conjoin the explicit performative verb with the denial of the expressed psychological state. (Searle 1976: 4) [emphasis mine]

The ambiguity of the Republican Presidential Candidate’s statements finds its roots in two homes simultaneously: his words themselves (the syntax of his statements) and the supposed sincerity thereof, the latter he may always disavow.  The second is the more dangerous root for being able to disavow one’s sincerity at any moment leads only to one logical conclusion: we are dealing with a genuinely insincere human, a person who really will say anything and mean perhaps nothing.  What this candidate says is easily recorded, but what he claims to have meant, what he claims to believe always turns out to be negotiable, and that is simply unacceptable in a candidate for the presidency.  Even if we were to let go as people of the enormity of his false claims (Politifact could publish a book by now… Or several books!) what cannot be let go of is the fact that at any given moment, NO ONE KNOWS WHAT THIS HUMAN BEING MEANS BY WHAT HE SAYS!  A person who continually relies on ambiguous statements which could be read or heard in any manner of ways, and whose true intent is always negotiable is not someone you want sitting in command of incredible power.  This is not only someone difficult to understand, but who cannot be trusted to ever speak their mind.

And this leads me to whether or not Americans are “honest, fair, and decent” people.  That’s a comforting statement isn’t it?  It’s comforting to think that we’re honest, in general, fair, on the whole, and a decent bunch of folks, right?  Well if you look at how our social constructs look then that claim cannot really be made very well.  Flint, Michigan is the work of honest people?  How many young voters this year truly screamed and cried about feelings that their voices were stifled in an election/primary process that was unfair to them?  How many of you wander through the world asking yourselves, “Where has common decency gone?”  I want to point out that Americans are no different than any other society on Earth.  We’re not more honest (nor are we bigger liars), we’re not more fair (nor are we visibly less fair), and we’re not more decent than the other citizens of this planet, though whether we’re just as despicable in our capacity to cave into fear, hate and disgust by choosing to seat a man who has not a single sincere moment of air time to his name in the Oval Office remains to be seen.

We have to do two things as a nation and they’re simple things that can be accomplished at the level of the individual.

  1. We have to stop listening to people who refuse to own their speech acts!!!!
  2. We have to start owning our cowardice and start talking beyond the digital sphere.

It’s all well and good to type out a blog like this, but if I am too much of a coward to say these things to my friends, neighbors and family then I serve the silence surrounding the ridiculous human currently holding the Republican Presidential Candidacy!  I will not pander to this kind of insincerity anymore by according it my snooty disgust and failing to speak out against it.  If we all did the same, come this November, there will be no more ambiguity, but one clear choice about the direction we all want our society to go, and none of us want more placation, none of us want more of the same.  What this election cycle has shown us is that we’re tired as a nation of voters of Statesmen and women whose candidacies are empty except as a means to fill their bloated bank books, who work for no one, and whose voices do not represent more than their own greed.  We need to retake our local elections, our state elections, and we need to hold our candidates responsible for their words by voting, by writing, by talking and by saying this is OUR land and you serve the COMMON good!

Sources:

CNN. “Donald Trump: ‘Second Amendment’ gun advocates could deal with Hillary Clinton.” Accessed August 8, 2016.  http://edition.cnn.com/2016/08/09/politics/donald-trump-hillary-clinton-second-amendment/.

Facebook. “Dan Rather Status Update.”  Accessed August 8, 2016.  https://www.facebook.com/theDanRather/?fref=nf.

Searle, John. “Indirect Speech Acts.” Syntax and Semantics 3 (1975): 59-82.

Searle, John. “A Classification of Illocutionary Acts.” Language in Society 5 (1976): 1-23.

 

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~ by Rebecca Erickson on August 10, 2016.

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