March 06, 2007

Calling people faggot

"Best-selling right-wing author Ann Coulter, speaking to a conservative audience in Washington Friday, called former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., a ‘faggot’", says the UPI news service. No she didn't! Let's get straight on the difference between calling someone something and using conversational implicature to get people to think it for themselves.

As UPI immediately goes on to say:

Coulter was a featured speaker at the 34th annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Following her prepared remarks, televised on C-Span, Coulter was asked to talk about Edwards.

"It turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word ‘faggot,’ so I'm kind of at an impasse — I can't really talk about Edwards," she said.

She stated that use of a certain word (which she mentions but does not use) is now so destructive of one's place in society that entering a rehabilitation facility is required afterwards (the reference is to Isiah Washington), and therefore ("so") she can't discuss Edwards. The remark is clever, funny, and highly indirect, and it conversationally implicates that Edwards is a faggot but does not call him that. (With regard to the law of libel, this is still defamatory — in defamation law conversational implicature is called "innuendo"; but it doesn't matter, because it was long ago established in American law [New York Times vs. Sullivan] that public figures simply can't win a lawsuit over such things, even when the defamatory allegation was false and irresponsible.) I'll bet the line got a huge laugh. (I haven't viewed the video record. If you think I'm going to spend my evenings viewing videos of the Conservative Political Action Conference, then you have absolutely no idea of what my life is like.)

Let's not fall into careless talk about Coulter's language, then. She never called John Edwards a faggot. Not that she wouldn't: UPI notes that she is famous for having stated or implied that all sorts of Democrats are homosexuals — "including former Vice President Al Gore, former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Clinton..." But keep in mind that Coulter is not a serious commentator or writer. She is a performance artist specializing in scurrilous allegations, slanderous insults, wild exaggerations. Her stage act stresses the portrayal of Democrats as irrational, treasonous, blasphemous, Arab-loving, America-hating, chardonnay-swilling, cock-sucking faggots.

And "faggot" is purely an insulting term for her, like "sissy" or "nutcase"; such words do carry certain lexical entailments ("homosexual" for faggot, "effete, feminine, and cowardly" for sissy, "mentally ill" for nutcase), they are typically not used as descriptive terms. Just as people call a bossy doctor's receptionist a fascist, without meaning that she operates a totalitarian militarized corporate state under a charismatic political leader, Coulter does not seriously think she could maintain the truth of the descriptive claim that Edwards' sexual desire is aroused exclusively by men. She's just implying that if she talked about him she would talk about him as a pansy, and she did it with a recently newsworthy taboo word just to be annoying and outrageous.

Coulter is quite a clever operator in her chosen sleazy profession of playing the role for the Christian right that Nancy Spungen played for the Sex Pistols. To object to what she does suggests a tendency to confuse showbiz with the business of government. Think of Coulter in a class with Sarah Silverman, Howard Stern, Sacha Baron Cohen, Andrew Dice Clay. Their job is outrageous shock humor, not presentation of news analysis concerning the sexual lives of married Democratic politicians. Get real. She's playing a game. And it's a game that anyone can play, of course.

By the way, a woman friend of mine in DC whose favorite color is lavender told me some really interesting things about Coulter, but I can't say a lot more. I really can't risk using the phrase "pussy-licking wildcat" in the same sentence as her name without having to go into rehab. Don't ask, I can't tell.

Added later: I hear CPAC has come out denying that they "condone or endorse the use of hate speech", but not exactly condemning Coulter. This is perfectly reasonable. She didn't in any way indulge in hate speech (there is hate speech against gays on the web, and it's not hard to find, but she ain't it), so the disavowal is pointless; and of course they aren't going to insult her after her appearance brought them so much visibility in the media. Heck, it even got them a mention on Language Log. They have hit the big time. Ann Coulter isn't going to be invited to write for Language Log, though, because her writing is not only obnoxious but also obscure, and she thinks which is grammatically forbidden at the beginning of a restrictive relative clause, the silly bimbo. (Oops. Is bimbo hate speech?)

Last update 10:45am March 7th. Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 6, 2007 02:55 PM