August 16, 2016

Does anyone else feel as if the coverage of this presidential election is less about events, issues, ads and poll numbers than it is about language? Hillary Clinton and countless others have reminded Donald Trump that “Words matter.”

(By the way, Hillary, they should matter to you, too.)

Like all short sentences, “Words matter” has that ring of gospel truth. It follows a language trend in which more and more things are declared to “matter”: Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter….

A recent editorial in the Tampa Bay Times, titled “Trump’s talk irresponsible, dangerous,” contained these sentences: “Words matter.…Facts matter.…Context matters.…Records matter….Elections matter….”

If this is a words election, then journalists must expand their roles from watchdogs to word dogs. That’s what I am. At key moments, like my Jack Russell terrier Rex, word dogs stop, sniff the air, then prick our ears, testing political language in every way we can. More and more journalists are fact-checking the words of candidates, and that is a powerful tool. But other language tools can be brought to bear, perspectives such as grammar, semantics, narrative, slang and rhetoric.

Let’s test a recent and incendiary statement made by Trump at a rally:

It was Hillary Clinton’s intent, Trump argued, to abolish the Second Amendment. And then this: “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks.” Crowd boos. “Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”

As a word dog I can bring an important distinction to bear in evaluating this statement: the difference between “imply” and “infer.” In short, a speaker “implies” something, that is, states it indirectly. A listener “infers,” that is, extracts indirect meaning.

I inferred Trump to mean that fervent gun owners had the ability to take out the elected tyrant who wanted to confiscate their weapons. In other words: If Hillary is elected, she can be assassinated and therefore will not be able to pick judges hostile to the Second Amendment. Trump and some supporters argued that he was not implying that at all, only that NRA members would use the power of the vote: the ballot and not the bullet.

It is possible to infer something that was not implied. We do it all the time.

Let’s use another word dog tool: the distinction between the denotation and connotation of a word. The former indicates the literal meaning, the way the word “green” describes the color of the carpet at The Poynter Institute. But the word green carries connotations – associations that are disparate and at times contradictory: nature, grass, money, envy, environmental activism, inexperience, nausea.

This gets us to the increasingly popular phrase “dog whistle.” That phrase denotes an actual whistle pitched so high that only dogs and not humans can hear it. Metaphorically, it describes the way a demagogue can send a veiled message to radical supporters. Words like “urban” can carry the veiled connotation of “race.” “New York” has been used as a veil for “Jewish.”

When Trump used the phrase “the Second Amendment people,” he denoted those who support gun ownership. As a dog whistle, the phrase connotes everything from hunters and collectors to gun nuts, survivalists and neo-Nazis. The speaker can deny that he was whistling to those groups, but he cannot control how his messages are received and by whom.

The world could see on video, right behind Trump, a supporter named Darrell Vickers, whose jaw dropped when he heard the master’s dog whistle. He told CNN: “I would have taken him to the shed. Down here in the South, we don’t curse in front of women, we don’t drink liquor in front of the preacher and we don’t make jokes like that in public.”

Of all the outraged criticism, from all corners of the political spectrum, the most persuasive came from Bernice King, the daughter of the assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. According to The New York Times, she called Trump’s words “distasteful, disturbing, dangerous.”

Patti Davis, daughter of Ronald Reagan, who survived an assassin’s bullet, also weighed in. Her conclusion: “Words matter.” They could call into motion the bad intent of a twisted mind — the next John Hinckley.

A speaker or writer creates a text, but it is the reader or listener who completes its meaning. Each of us brings to a text our autobiography: Darrell Vickers, who as a polite Southern man embraces certain values of decorum; Bernice King and Patti Davis, who are daughters of fathers who were targets of assassins. Word dogs report not just on the speakers, but also the listeners.

As a word dog, I feel the need to ask not just did he say it, but did he mean it. This is a crucial distinction in law, ethics, and in personal relations. “But you said it!” “But I didn’t mean it!” “I don’t care, you said it, and you can’t take it back.” “I was only kidding!”

I remember this example from my childhood. My dad, who would have been 100 years old this week, was proud of me. But not always. One sad day he introduced me to a group of his co-workers on the docks of New York City. I was, maybe, 10 years old. “Is he a good dad?” one of his friends asked. “He’s a cheap bum,” I said.

I didn’t mean it. But I described him that way because it was the way that my mother talked about him — all the time, and in his presence. Looking back, it was the way many of us New Yorkers talked to each other and about each other. We were wise guys.

We say it, but we don’t mean it. And not meaning it gives us license to say it. What would a word dog call this: snark, sarcasm, irony, hyperbole, euphemism, dysphemism, dare I say paralipsis?

It is foolish to generalize about the way New Yorkers — or any large group — talk. How can a word dog account for accent, dialect, gender, social class, migration patterns, age, slang, professional experience — even the borough of Queens?

There is something about Trump’s language that at times tempts me to let him off the hook. To call him a “bullshit artist,” as did Fareed Zakaria, does not quite get us there. In my father’s vernacular, Trump is a “wiseass.” I know it has a negative connotation, but I am using the word descriptively. I recognize that guy. I sorta am that guy, or was. I’m better now. And I’m not running for president or even worddogcatcher.

Here’s my New York (Lower Manhattan and Long Island) take on Trump: Yes, he said exactly what his critics heard. No, he did not mean it. That is what wiseasses do. Yes, he should still be held accountable.

Not long ago I noticed a social media post from a New Yorker whose dislike for Obama led him to wonder in print if there was someone who could “take this guy out.” No, he didn’t mean it. I told him in public to knock it off. He took it back with “just kidding,” the safety valve for someone who comes to realize his words have needled into the danger zone.

When we say that “words matter,” we are making a case for social responsibility. You can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater. Nor should you shout the equivalent of “fire” to an audience that includes even a few zealots packing heat.

That said, when I lived in Montgomery, Alabama (where the history is vicious, but the discourse polite) I read a book called “North Toward Home” by the late Willie Morris. Raised in Yazoo City, Mississippi, Morris won a Rhodes Scholarship and became famous as author, editor and journalist, first in Texas and then in New York.

There is a scene from his book I am recalling from memory, an early experience in New York City. I believe Morris was in a cab that was cut off by a bus. What followed was a profane exchange between the two drivers, one Morris was sure would devolve into violence…until he came to realize that the two drivers knew each other, that they were friends, and their invective was affectionate. They didn’t mean it.

I wish George Orwell, maybe the greatest word dog of all, were in a position to drop an essay from beyond, offering his take on the language of Donald Trump. I think his word for it would be “demotic.” No, not “demonic,” but “demotic.” It comes from the Greek word for the common people, a root that grew into both “democracy” and “demagogue.”

In a memorable 1944 essay titled “Propaganda and Demotic Speech,” Orwell argued that British politicians, experts and journalists were too highfalutin in their language. Common people could not understand what they were saying. Persuasive speech must come from speakers of the common tongue, men (and now women) who speak in the dialect of the tribe, not reading off a script, but speaking off the cuff and into the hearts and minds of the distracted and alienated masses. The most powerful messages cannot be delivered from a written text; they must be spoken in an authentic voice for all to hear.

Wait a minute. It’s as if he were imagining a benign version of Donald Trump. Orwell wrote 1984, but did he write an unpublished work titled 2016?

From Orwell: “Someday we may have a genuinely democratic government, a government which will want to tell people what is happening, and what must be done next, and what sacrifices are necessary, and why. It will need the mechanisms for doing so, of which the first are the right words, the right tone of voice.”

To Trump’s followers, I imagine, he speaks the right words in the right tone of voice. What he lacks, from all objective standards, is another virtue of speech that Orwell honored: sincerity. Without it, he is nothing more than a wiseass, and the things he does not mean could incite violence — or worse. Word dogs, keep your ears up.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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