Bennett and the linguistic turn, redux
There are two factors at work here—one, an intellectual understanding of how communication works, and two, a political understanding of how the current reality works.
First, communicators must ALWAYS be aware of how their messages may be interpreted. This is standard business and political doctrine. If this were purely about intent, it would be a non-story. I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know of anyone who truly believes Bill Bennett is a racist in his heart. So the big fault here on Bennett is incompetent communication. Such a crime is a major failing for a public pundit with his own radio show.
Secondly, Republicans are not allowed to comment on racial matters without toeing the politically correct line. Bill Cosby issued more direct criticism at the black community (go ahead, bash me for not using African-American) on self-reliance, education, and not blaming others for their problems- without being crucified in the media. Why? HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not an outsider. Although CosbyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s politics have seemed more conservative the last few years, he has not fallen victim to the race traitor label applied to Condi Rice and Colin Powell.
There are several important admissions here that are worth taking up, each in its turn. First, politechnical makes the claim that it is standard business and political doctrine that communicators be aware of how they are likely to be interpreted, which conflates the idea of practice with rectitude. And the fact is, being aware of how your utterances may be interpreted by those who are looking to maliciously misrepresent them in a soundbite culture is a fool’s errand—one that is shown up by the very issue at hand: Bennett was careful to note that the hypothetical in question was morally reprehensible—and in fact used it to argue against utilitarian rationalizations for moral problems (a stand that implicitly rejects statistics-based racialist arguments)—but that important qualification was left out of many media representations of his quote, which allowed those who wished to embarrass Bennett to call him out. In this case, Bennett clearly was aware of how his words might be used, but that awareness could not prevent misuse. For Bennett to have avoided the “major failing” politechnical identifies, he would have had to avoid the subject altogether. And to do so is to trade intellectualism for the kind of circumspection that has the practical effect of chilling free speech.
Linguistically speaking, we have but two choices: either insist language be ground in the intentions of its utterers, or else conclude that we must each be responsible, in perpetuity, for whatever might be done with our utterance once it leaves our control. Politechnical, it seems to me, is chosing the latter—an unfortunate choice, in that it will forever codify a use of language that demands of its users the kind of overly-self-conscious self-censorship that is anathema to the free exchange of ideas. And if our goal is to hash out policy or to discuss potentially controversial issues, we simply must be able to do so without worry that parties invested in maintaining the status quo are allowed to silence us by assuming control over the terms of debate.
Politechnical’s thesis here is straightforward—and it matches the theses of many of those (including the White House and the Corner’s Ramesh Ponnuru) who’ve taken Bennett to task for his “impolitic” remarks. Bennett, the argument goes, is a seasoned political operative and a professional communicator, and so he should have known that certain people—from the perpetually aggrieved to those in whose interests it is to try to smear what they take it he represents—would use his remarks against him. Which is certainly true.
But why must an awareness of such dictate a surrender to it?
Descriptions about how communication can be made to function are no substitute for the insistence that it be made to function as it should—in a linguistically coherent way that is dependent on appeals to the utterer’s intent, and so therefore refuses to give equal weight to the whims and motivations of interpreters who wish to use their interpretations as a rhetorical cudgel (in this case, quite disingenously) against the utterer. Each time a conservative makes such excuses for linguistic surrender in the guise of world weary linguistic pragmatism (which it is not; it is a feint toward relativism and certain pernicious post-modern ideas of language that undercut its moorings), they cede a bit more control over future debates to their opponents.
I refuse to do so. And while I can understand why many on the left wish me to be cowed by their linguistic presumptuousness, what I can’t understand is why so many on the right allow them to get away with it.
update: More here (via Terry Hastings)