March 18, 2008

Taken out of context

Thomas Sowell, the African-American conservative commentator, thinks "Barack Obama has been leading as much of a double life as Eliot Spitzer." Obama has belonged for twenty years to a Chicago church where Jeremiah Wright used to preach. Wright has reportedly stated "that 'God Bless America' should be replaced by 'God damn America'," and has preached sermons containing "wild and even obscene denunciations of American society, including blanket racist attacks on whites." And, says Sowell in The National Review*:

Now that the facts have come out in a number of places, and can no longer be suppressed, many in the media are trying to spin these facts out of existence.

Spin number one is that Jeremiah Wright's words were "taken out of context." Like most people who use this escape hatch, those who say this do not explain what the words mean when taken in context.

In just what context does "God damn America" mean something different?

I know little about Jeremiah Wright or his teachings (I saw him for the first time tonight on BBC TV news for perhaps twenty seconds). But I do know that like Sowell, I have often been annoyed by bald protestations about words, phrases, and sentences having been taken out of context.

*Hat tip: Paul Postal.

Linguists agree that context can have a radical effect on the conveyed meaning of an utterance. But they can provide illustrations and argumentation. I have heard a lot of people who have made incredibly damning statements but think that if they just mouth the talismanic phrase "it was taken out of context", and nothing more, it gives them a sort of get-out-of-disgrace-free card.

In some cases, a context can indeed reverse the conveyed meaning, and render anodyne an apparently damning assertion (for example, suppose the context were that the speaker was performing the opening monologue on Saturday Night Live). But you have to cite the context and do some analysis.

For the most part, "damn America" cannot mean "bless America". And if anyone wants to suggest that nonetheless in a certain context (the very one in which the original utterance occurred) it can, then they do have to answer Sowell's question. He may have written it as a mere rhetorical question, designed never to receive an answer; but it would be perfectly reasonable to ask it in all seriousness, and expect an answer that could be examined in the light of linguistic and philosophical work on pragmatics.

By the way, the above should not be interpreted to mean that I think it is right or proper to try and make political trouble for Obama solely on the grounds that he belongs to Wright's former church. In some of the institutions I have belonged to — clubs, societies, associations, groups, teams, parties, rock bands, committees, companies, universities — I have come in contact with, and worked with, some really disgusting people. Unprincipled bullies, flagrant racists, evil crooks, immoral cheats, eccentric nutballs, corrupt officials, hostile misogynists, fundamentalist crazies, thoughtless twits, callous bigots, ruthless authoritarians, cruel bastards... Don't judge me by them.

Judge me by my actions and my statements — my serious statements, on those occasions when I am not kidding around, telling tall tales for entertainment, or engaging in hyperbolic rants or other humorous conceits to delight Language Log readers.

There are occasions when the context really does change everything. But when pressed I can tell you exactly why and how, and present clear evidence and pragmatic or literary analysis. I don't just say, "Oh, my remarks were taken out of context", as if those magic words would fix it all without further elucidation. Nor can such words fix it for Jeremiah Wright.

Barack Obama is in a different position, though, and Sowell's effort at attacking him through his connection to Wright does not look reasonable to me. Obama didn't say these things. He may at most have sat through plenty of them. Perhaps in a black church in Chicago you have little choice about that: crowd-pleasing overstated rants are a familiar feature of African-American churches, and once the minister starts getting hoarse and the sweat is flying and the congregation is responding, he may get totally carried away.

Obama has now given a speech saying that he firmly disagreed with the controversial political views. It scarcely matters much to me whether he utters such words of disavowal or not. Obama should be judged by what he says for himself on occasions when he understands that he is on the record and will not be taken to be either joking or exaggerating for rhetorical effect.

You can retain my respect without abandoning all association with your church at any episode of rhetorical excess on the part of the minister.

If I left every institution where someone in a prominent position said things I thought were indefensible, I would hardly be a member of anything. Maybe not even Language Log.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 18, 2008 11:48 AM