October 12, 2004

Beware linguistic and political stereotypes

Dick Hamming always used to say that you should beware of finding what you're looking for. He was talking about the dangers of accepting a mathematical model of natural phenomena just because you could adjust its parameters to fit a few experimental observations. However, his warning applies even more strongly to vaguer sorts of theories, especially those that are sanctioned as socially-accepted stereotypes. In this case, the "facts" that fit are often selected from among many that don't fit, and then exaggerated to boot. Sometimes things are just plain made up.

In today's Register, Thomas C. Greene has an opinion piece under the headline "Was Bush packing Wi-Fi in TV Debate?" Greene makes it clear that he thinks the answer is "yes", based mainly on his evaluation of the president's linguistic performance:

Wireless technology might explain why US President George W. Bush performed better than usual in the last two presidential debates with his opponent, Senator John Kerry.

Unless he's reading a well-rehearsed speech, the President is normally much given to malapropisms and incoherent syntax. [...]

Yet, during both presidential debates, he miraculously spoke in clear, organized sentences that were fairly relevant to the questions asked. He stumbled only occasionally, and then only briefly.

I think that Greene's arguments are nonsense. He's selecting and exaggerating some facts, while ignoring others that don't suit his prejudices.

We've pointed out in several posts here at Language Log that George Bush's contributions to the first two presidential debates were sometimes not particular clear, not particularly well organized, and not particularly relevant to the questions asked. I suppose that the logical way to try to refute Greene's argument would be to show that Bush's debate performance so far has not been been strikingly more coherent than his performance in other settings. But this would not really scuttle the wireless-prompting theory, because other attempts to promote it (like Dave Lindorff's 10/8 Salon article) have speculated that Bush is usually wired in the same alleged way.

The thing is, I don't believe that George Bush's public speaking is nearly as different from John Kerry's, in terms of linguistic coherence, as (many) people think.

Let's start out by noting that the arguments about coherence go both ways. Bush has been stereotyped as linguistically and cognitively inept; but Kerry has been stereotyped as distracted by details, unable to articulate the forest for parenthesizing about the trees. When Kathleen Hall Jamieson told a NYT reporter that "the language of decisiveness is subject, verb, object, end sentence", she was supplying quotes to bolster the reporter's theory that "Kerry has a tendency to ramble, when an audience wants punchiness", and that he uses too many hedges, "words and grammatical constructions that imply uncertainty or qualification".

If you think about it, the two men's different stereotypes can be applied to exactly the same behavior, giving alternative and roughly opposite explanations for the same facts. If Bush sputters or rambles, it's because he's got some sort of linguistic or cognitive deficit: he's not intellectual enough. If Kerry sputters or rambles, it's because he's trying to be too nuanced, not responding from the gut: he's too intellectual.

But roughly as often as not, the stereotypes don't fit. For example, consider this passage from Kerry's side of the second presidential debate:

And I believe ((that)) if we have the option which scientists tell us we do
of curing Parkinson's
curing diabetes
uh uh a- a-
you know
some kind of a- a- of a-
uh ((s- p- th- you know))
paraplegic, or quadraplegic, or
uh uh you know a spinal cord injury, anything
that's the nature of the human spirit.

This is hardly a paragon of linguistic facility, either syntactically or phonetically. There's that embarrassingly long (almost 7-second) delay in lexical access. If George Bush had experienced a lexical-access breakdown like this, we'd have commentary all over the "internets" about early senile dementia and the like. There's also a pronunciation issue here -- an extra schwa between [p] and [l] in paraplegic and quadraplegic, similar to the extra schwa in Bush's much-discussed "nucular" pronunciation of nuclear.

But did Kerry sputter and stumble here because he's trying to be too nuanced, or hedging, or explicating complexities? No, this is an enthusiastic projection of faith straight from the gut, and his difficulty seems to be a purely linguistic one -- he starts with a list of nouns for conditions that stem cells might cure, and then can't figure out what noun to use to describe the condition of suffering from a spinal cord injury. He apparently starts from the adjectival form paraplegic, and then can't decide what the right corresponding noun should be, or how to pronounce it. This is exactly the kind of linguistic muddle that is supposed to characterize George W. Bush. In fact, it's similar to the syntactic trap that resulted in Bush's famous "practicing their love" gaffe. But this kind of syntactic incoherence is a general human problem, and if you want to tag it as characteristic of Bush, you need to do more than to present some anecdotes in which he exhibits it.

John Kerry has gotten a stiff dose of stereotyping in the press. Geoff Nunberg has recently apologized for having repeated a false quotation originally published by the egregious Maureen Dowd, who apparently made something up that John Kerry might have said (but didn't) in order to make a point about the kind of person she thinks Kerry is. And Geoff also debunked the New York Post's gossip column, which reckoned (with no evidence, and as it happens, falsely) that Kerry's use of "sort of" (one of those hedges) "is a subtle indicator of upper-class origins or aspirations."

Those two cases both involved journalists (if we can use that word for Dowd and the Post's gossip columnist) who found what they were looking for. These "journalists" happen to have been looking -- not by chance -- for the same thing: a quote to show how John Kerry is an elitist. And of course, many commentators, journalistic and otherwise, have been looking for years for "Bushisms": evidence to confirm their prejudice that George W. Bush is a dolt. They don't have any trouble finding suitable "facts" -- but the discovery process involves a great deal of selection, exaggeration and over-interpretation.

I'm not trying to say that there are no linguistic or rhetorical differences between these two candidates. We've found plenty to say about that, and so have others, and all the commentary has barely scratched the surface. (For example, I might speculate that Bush is unwilling to fumble around for the right word for as long a span of time as others -- like Kerry -- are, and that this is part of the explanation for his occasional malapropisms.) But when you look into such things yourself, or read others' reports, be careful. If you find what you're looking for, and you care about the truth, beware.

And if you don't find what you're looking for, the explanation doesn't necessarily involve secret wireless transmissions from hidden controllers...


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 12, 2004 02:04 PM