Saturday, January 21, 2017

Not excusing Trump talk

By "not excusing Trump talk" I don't mean we mustn't excuse the casual hatred and bigotry that drips so easily from him. That's a given.

No, I'm responding to John McWhorter's opinion piece in the New York Times' Sunday Review.

McWhorter argues that there's a distinction between "talking" and "speaking". While other politicians speak, that is, they use formal language, Trump only knows how to talk — to put his thoughts into the more casual language we all use in ordinary conversation. It was only a matter of time before we increasingly informal Americans elected somebody who, like Trump, doesn't speak, but only talks. (George W. Bush similarly was a talker by nature rather than a speaker, but McWhorter notes that "Mr. Bush, however, always gave the impression of at least trying to 'speak' rather than 'talk'".)

The distinction between speaking and talking is all well and good. However, McWhorter continues:

... President Trump’s speaking style is throwing off the news media. All understand that his speech is structurally ungraceful. It may be harder to grasp that Mr. Trump, as someone just talking rather than artfully communicating ideas, has no sense of the tacit understanding that a politician’s utterances are more signals than statements, vehicles meant to convey larger messages.
This is not quite true. Politicians' utterances can and often do contain "dog whistle" subtexts that their fans are trained to hear, or at least assume they hear. However, we also hold politicians accountable for the very specific things they say, on the assumption that they wouldn't be saying it if they didn't mean it. This is considered by some to be nit-picking, but we do nit-pick, especially when it's somebody we don't like.

However, McWhorter really goes off the rails when he writes:

... the reporter and the pundit assume that Mr. Trump is “speaking” rather than talking. “What did Trump mean by that?” they say, scratching their heads. A Trump aide retorts, “The tweet speaks for itself.” That sounds trivial or deflective, until we understand that it makes perfect sense for someone who is just talking.
As a description of what's happening, this is true: most of us are puzzled not just by Trump's original tweets, but also by his staff's retorts that those tweets speak for themselves. Perhaps, too, it does make "perfect sense for someone who is just talking". But McWhorter is totally missing the point.

To explain that Trump is talking rather than speaking doesn't change the fact that we need to know what the hell he's saying.

It's one thing for me to talk casually among my friends. We share a lot of experiences and past conversations, and if they need me to explain myself they can just ask. Moreover, for the most part, if they don't understand me, it doesn't matter all that much. Nothing I do is going to loom all that large in their lives — or if it might, they'll pin me down until they understand exactly what I mean.

A public official isn't a close friend to most of the people to whom he or she will speak. A public official, speaking in his or her official capacity, has to be understood. That's part of the job.

I don't give a shit that Trump is more comfortable talking rather than speaking. If he's going to say something as President, it's his fucking responsibility to be clear. It's part of his fucking job.

McWhorter concludes:

Linguistically, I listen to the man who is now president as if he were roughly 12 years old. That way, he is always perfectly understandable.
That's a nice dismissal of the new president. It's a sentiment I understand. But it also lets him off the hook. He wanted the job and I'm damned well going to hold his feet to the fire. If he can't be bothered to speak rather than talk, let his feet scorch.

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