September 30, 2004

Decisiveness is SVO: a Hitlerian theory of communication?

The 2004 U.S. presidential election is turning out to be a rather linguistic affair. Unfortunately, this is not because reforming the language-related parts of the American educational system has become a major issue. Rather, this season's wonkery and punditry have been focused to an unusual degree on language-related properties of the candidates, and on linguistic aspects of their presentation of the issues. There's the whole Bushisms industry, and the rise of frame-speak. About a week ago, there was even a NYT Op-Ed by Stanley Fish, analyzing the candidates' stump speeches as if they were homework essays from a freshman composition class.

Continuing this trend, the Fashion & Style section of last Sunday's NYT had an article by Alex Williams about tonight's presidential debate, running under the headline "Live from Miami, a Style Showdown". According to this story, "[t]he subtle style cues of gesture, posture, syntax and tone of voice account for as much as 75 percent of a viewer's judgment about the electability of a candidate".

I don't expect much substance from these presidential debates. I expect even less substance from the newspaper articles discussing the debates in advance. And when we get to the pre-debate discussion in the Fashion & Style section of the New York Times, I'd be shocked to find any public-policy content at all. So when I read this article and stuck it in the list of links that I might blog about some day, my angle was how amusing it is, for a phonetician like me, to see someone calling syntax one of those "subtle style cues".

But not everyone was amused.

According to a story by Sarah Breger in the 9/29 Daily Pennsylvanian ("Critical letter circulates among profs"), my colleague John Richetti found this article "offensively vulgar". John was especially upset about the article's quotes from our colleague Kathleen Hall Jamieson:

"It is possible to be decisive and not sound decisive," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "People who speak in sentences that contain parenthetical phrases, people who begin a sentence and then deflect to add a series of illustrative examples before they end the sentences" do not seem authoritative, she said. "The language of decisiveness is subject, verb, object, end sentence."

Equally important to Mr. Kerry, she said, is to refrain from using words like "gilded" and "panoply" at the lectern, as he has on the stump.

"Words found on the SAT verbal exam," she added, "should not appear in candidate's speeches."

John expressed his opinions forcefully and eloquently, in a letter sent to the faculty of John's own department of English, and Kathleen's Annenberg School of Communications. According to Breger's story, Richetti's letter asserted that

"This disgracefully simple-minded, pseudo-rhetorical analysis of the most important events in the most crucial election of my lifetime from one of my Penn colleagues is an insult to me and I should think to all of us who teach writing and communications."

and ended with an even stronger condemnation:

"The theory of communication she enunciates is in my view nothing less than Hitlerian and [endorses] demagoguery of a pernicious kind with appalling complacency."

I think we can all agree that John's letter provides a sort of meta-level proof of its first point, by using words like demogoguery and pernicious with no sacrifice of authority or decisiveness.

But I'm less convinced by his second point, that a policy of using simple sentence structures and simple words should be viewed as a "Hitlerian theory of communication." It's certainly true that Goebbels' recipe for propaganda includes the view that

Political propaganda ... speaks the language of the people because it wants to be understood by the people. Its task is the highest creative art of putting sometimes complicated events and facts in a way simple enough to be understood by the man on the street. Its foundation is that there is nothing the people cannot understand, rather things must be put in a way that they can understand.

However, this prescription has been followed by the leaders of mass movements for millennia, and Goebbels was neither the first nor the last to recommend it explicitly. The advice to "keep it simple" follows directly from the premise that public opinion matters, a premise that can be adopted by good and evil forces alike. What I associate more specifically with "Hitlerian" views on mass communications is the "big lie" concept, which was described in this passage from Mein Kampf as a practice of Hitler's enemies:

... the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.

and was then, of course, taken up systematically in practice by Goebbels and others. But obviously, nothing in Kathleen Hall Jamieson's quoted remarks recommends Hitlerian theories in this sense.

I do agree with John that Kathleen's prescriptions (as quoted!) are simple-minded. Perhaps it would be better to say "overstated", "caricatured" and "linguistically not very careful". For example, if we take literally her advice that "The language of decisiveness is subject, verb, object, end sentence," we'll find that by this standard, political decisiveness is in rather short supply in all times and places.

George Bush's most recent speech on the website, one given extemporaneously yesterday in Lake Wales, Florida, contains 36 sentences (by my quick and informal count). The number of these that can be analyzed as "subject, verb, object" is zero. It's not the most decisive-sounding speech I've ever read, but it does have a sort of common touch, in a style that is curiously zany for a speech about hurricane damage:

I want to thank Adam Putnam, congressman from this part of the world. Every time I see Adam, all he does is talk about oranges. His hair is kind of orange.

W's 9/21/2004 speech to the U.N. was of course entirely scripted, and quite decisive-sounding. Among its 161 sentences, I found nine (about 5.6%) that are simply SVO in form -- if you allow complex subjects like "Both the American Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights", and complex objects like "the support of every nation that believes in self-determination and desires peace", and verbal sequences like "has earned" and "will honor". There are a few others that might be assimilated to an SVO pattern, depending on how you treat some loosely-associated modifying phrases, and whether you allow initial connectives, but in any case, the proportion is probably under 10%. More important, some of the most forceful and authoritative-sounding passages in this speech do not involve any simple SVO structures at all -- for example:

Terrorists and their allies believe the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the American Bill of Rights, and every charter of liberty ever written, are lies, to be burned and destroyed and forgotten. They believe that dictators should control every mind and tongue in the Middle East and beyond. They believe that suicide and torture and murder are fully justified to serve any goal they declare. And they act on their beliefs.

At the same time, some of the SVO sentences strike me as valleys rather than peaks of rhetorical force: "The government of Prime Minister Allawi has earned the support of every nation that believes in self-determination and desires peace", or "History will honor the high ideals of this organization."

As a point of comparison, among the 223 sentences in John Kerry's 9/24/2004 address at Temple University (which focused on similar issues, and is similarly forceful and authoritative-sounding), about 21 can be given a Subject Verb Object analysis, a using similarly rough-and-ready analytic method. This is about 9.4% of the total. The difference in SVO proportions between these two foreign policy speeches is probably not statistically significant, but in any case I'm very sure that it's not rhetorically significant. As in the case of the Bush speech, most of the most authoritative and decisive-sounding sections of Kerry's speech happen not to be among the SVO sentences, but instead (in my opinion) are things like the 10-times-repeated phrase "That was the wrong choice", or the many other short, crisp sentences with non-SVO structure, like "I will show the world that America finishes what it begins", or "To destroy our enemy, we have to know our enemy."

There's certainly a serious issue about how syntactic styles convey characteristics like clarity of vision or decisiveness. It would be interesting to study this carefully. To caricature the syntactic style of decisiveness as "subject, verb, object, end sentence" certainly doesn't advance the scholarship of political rhetoric, though I suppose that it may be like those odd things that voice teachers and golf instructors tell their pupils to do: "sing through a hole in your forehead", "don't follow the ball with your eyes after impact". Although these prescriptions seem impossible or irrelevant, apparently the consequences of trying to follow them are sometimes helpful to some people.

In the end, I'm not sure what to conclude about this brouhaha. I like and respect the two Penn participants, both personally and professionally. I sympathize with aspects of both positions, at least as seen through the dark journalistic glass of the DP and the NYT Fashion & Style section. And I don't know enough about either participant's position to judge to what extent they really disagree.

I don't know what Kathleen Hall Jamieson actually said to (NYT reporter) Alex Williams. It probably doesn't matter -- no one with any sense will believe that this reporters overall conclusions were based on any actual "reporting". Here (as often) the reporter no doubt decided in advance on the content of the story, and then called the usual suspects to get some quotes to plug in. I'm also very much aware that quotes in such articles are not necessarily accurate, much less complete.

I also don't know what John Richetti really wrote about the NYT article. I'm not a member of one of the departments he sent his letter to, and so I'm relying on the couple of sentences quoted in the Daily Pennsylvanian article. Again, these quotes may or may not be accurate, and they are surely not a complete picture of what John said, much less what he meant.

So for now, I'll just take this as more evidence that (the discussion of) political language has become a central issue in (the discussion of) contemporary American politics. As a linguist, I reckon that this is good for business. As a citizen, I think that it's bad for the country.


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 30, 2004 11:15 AM