This current political campaign has produced more, “I didn’t mean that” or “That’s out of context” apologies or defenses than I recall for some time. The more I come an understanding of language and how we use it, the more I am skeptical about any such apologies or explanations. Speaking is exactly like walking. When the senses become aware (whether we are conscious or not), the cognitive system goes into action. When I become aware that I am some place other than I want to be, my muscles go into action, guided by structures already in my body, and I will thus walk from here to there. There is no difference in speech. It is nothing more than the muscles of our voice generators being actuated by structures in our cognitive system.
Sometimes I stumble along the path, a sign that my cognitive actuator has not gotten all the necessary information for a smooth journey, like missing the presence of an area rug that undoes my habitual way of walking, or the muscles are injured and do not react the way the nervous system expects them to. Saying things we claim not to mean is just like stumbling, in fact we sometimes refer to ungainly or hesitant speech as stumbling. There is one important similarity between walking and speaking that is highly relevant to the story I am weaving here. Walking is rarely if ever misunderstood by those who observe the act. The meaning of a physical act is usually pretty clear, but not always. The same hand wave is seen to say hello or come here in our side of the Atlantic, but is understood as meaning goodbye in many parts of Europe. The meanings of acts lie, not in the intention of the actor, but in the way they are interpreted by observers.
The meaning of speech is likewise always found in the “ears” of the beholder. And so, whatever responses come forth depend on that meaning, not on the intention of the speaker that shaped the speech that came out of the mouth. When someone says something to me, it is almost always uttered in the context of whatever we are doing at the time. The primary function of language is to coordinate the action among people. In the case of political rhetoric, the intent of the speaker is usually a request for votes or money, and the rest of whatever speech accompanies that request (not always explicit) is just some series of assertions to create the context for a positive response. These assertions are rarely part of a reasoned argument; unnecessary because rationality plays only a tiny part in political campaigns. They are directed more at creating a bridge to the concerns of the audience and convince them that the speaker is “one of us.” But “one of us” is not singular in most circumstances. There are many groups out there with different political identities, so the conversation has to shift to fit the context.
Now when the words of a political speaker find their way from one context to another, especially from a group of partisans of one sort or another to a different audience, they will always be interpreted in a different context. Out of earshot of the original utterance, they are always out of context! Where originally they might have been interpreted closely to what the speaker intended, they will now be heard through the filters of different audiences. They will mean whatever the new listeners deem them to mean, no matter how hard the speaker tries to explain his meaning.
Romney doesn’t understand this at all. He must believe that the words that flow from his mouth are always clear and distinct. In this he is no different from just about everyone. That’s why we are so often trying to explain what we just meant, and disturbing the flow of speech with the question, “Do you understand?” That question is unnecessary in cases where the actors are familiar to one another, and have already established common meanings to the languaging they engage in.
Political campaigns pose a very difficult challenge for candidates running against incumbents. In the philosophical way of thinking I engage in, identity is established, not as any sort of ego or inner thing, but according to the assessments of those who observe a person in action. The action context is critical. My identity as a parent has emerged from about 50 years of being, that is, acting as, one. No matter what I think of myself in this role, my children have other opinions based on their observations and assessments over these years. And if I am the same as almost all other parents, my self-assessment doesn’t line up perfectly (and in some cases, not at all) with the assessments of my children. Incumbents can claim who they are by their records of action on the job. Of course, those assessments are filtered through the ideologies and prejudices of all who listen. Non-incumbents, like Romney, cannot point to their performance in the job, and must make claims based on other, non-related contexts. And in the case of Romney, the context of his life is far from that of about 99% of adult American voters.
So when he speaks from that context, that is, his personal life history, he is bound to miss the mark with almost all who he is addressing, even in his own party. I opened with a comparison of walking and speaking, and I will return in concluding this post. Our speaking is a competency just like walking. What we have to say is guided by our experiences of living. We walk easily because we have embodied the actuators in our nervous system over time. The same is true of speech. There is no way I would ever talk about my two expensive cars, multiple dwellings, automobile elevators and so on. This phrasing, even though I know all the parts and can construct meaningful sentences with them, simply is not in my body to come out at any moment in the middle of any conversation.
In this day of instant publication, recognizing how speech is heard is important for anyone seeking office, political or otherwise, or making formal speeches for any purpose out of the context of immediate action. The meaning of a heard utterance is always filtered through the listener’s cognitive system, and only coincidently carries the intended meaning by the speaker. With YouTube ever at the ready to spill the beans about what I said privately last night, I always need to pick my words carefully, understanding that most of the people not present at my private remarks will get it wrong. Or from their point of view, they will always get it right.
If I do care about what all these folks think about what I said and, thus, about me, I need to be completely authentic, meaning I will always say the same thing in the same circumstances, and my utterances will have some sort of natural coherence. That’s the only way people will get to know me (really understand who I am). It’s always risky being authentic simply because whatever you do or say will be interpreted by those observing or listening to you, whether already with you or not. Authenticity is a critical pillar in building trust, and trust is essential in communal activities, that is, all real life. Trust is in short supply in the world today. So my request (far all it’s worth) to all running for office today is to speak authentically so we can have a chance to get to know you, the real you. What you promise to do means little if trust is missing. If you do try to frame your utterances to what you think the audience wants to hear, remember that you always mean what you say, but others will make up their own minds about whatever it was. There is no out of context in public speaking.
ps. Literally snipping pieces of a speech and sometimes piecing them together differently than they were spoken is deliberately taking them out of context, but in a way quite differently from the process above. This practice is tantamount to lying even if it used somebody else’s words, and ultimately fritters away trust.