01 February 2012

Death by sound bite

Mitt Romney has done it again. Not just won a primary, that is, but uttered a sentence that will be used against him in the general election, if not sooner, despite its intended context. The last such moment was when he famously stated "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me"
while explaining how his preferred health insurance reforms would make it easier for people to switch providers. Today, fresh from his latest victory over an unconciliatory Newt Gingrich, Romney attempted to explain to a CNN reporter that his campaign was focused on the concerns of the middle class. He did this by saying, "I'm not concerned about the very poor -- we have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it." The remark as a whole may disturb people, depending on their assessment of the state of the "safety net." But reduced to the sound bite, "I'm not concerned about the very poor," it's likely to sound more disturbing. Again, the follow-up somewhat belies the implication of the excerpt, and some angry comments on the page I've linked to show that the usual suspects are already protesting the "liberal media's" unfair habit of taking remarks out of context to stir up class or party hatred. They point out that, in his emphasis on a broadly-defined middle class, Romney also said, "I'm not concerned about the very rich -- they're doing just fine." This is meant to refute the charge that the very rich are precisely the constituency Romney is most concerned with -- but a liberal could still object that the very rich and very poor should never be objects of equal unconcern. They can also contest Romney's core argument that the middle class has been "most badly hurt" by the recession and President Obama's alleged malpractice to reverse it. It may all boil down to how you define classes and your sensitivity to degrees of suffering.

The art of death-by-sound-bite is not exclusive to either major party. A cottage industry within the right-wing media is dedicated to out-of-context citations designed to damn both the President and his wife as resentful subversives hostile to essential American values. Since both sides employ the tactic, we can ask objectively whether it's fair or not. The answer may depend on whether you're willing to see a single sentence within a speech or interview as equivalent to the classic Freudian slip. As far as laymen are concerned, the Freudian slip is a meaningful malapropism, an unconscious substitution of one word for another through which someone says what he is presumed to really mean, rather than what he means to say. To the extent that any conventional subject-verb-object sentence is a coherent thought on its own terms, regardless of its surrounding context, every sentence may be liable to analysis in isolation from the context the speaker intends. On this assumption, when Romney says he likes to be able to fire people who provide services to him, it is further assumed that he means this beyond the immediate context of choosing health-care providers -- that he likes having the power to fire people and the actual act. Some may contend that his newest potential gaffe is even easier to parse -- that his disinterest in the condition of the "very poor" on the assumption (which he admits he hasn't verified) that the "safety net" is adequate for them is deplorable no matter what the context. It must seem self-evident to some observers that the very poor are the ones most in need of immediate attention in a recession. People are free to disagree with that viewpoint, but their disagreement is also subject to judgment. Romney's remarks inevitably will be judged subjectively. For some, the context of their own beliefs will make his words perfectly sensible and reasonable. For others, no context anyone might propose can possibly redeem them. It may be unfair to Romney in the end, but political rhetoric is a kind of art that he ought to study more carefully if he doesn't want to be misjudged so often. Modern rhetoric should be a matter of avoiding the sound bite that bites you, but that would mean admitting more complexity and subtlety of thought into political speeches, and I don't know if many politicians in any party are capable of that.

Update: Romney believes in clarification by reiteration, though his comments to in-flight reporters may have muddled matters further. He said: "The area that I think is the greatest challenge that the country faces right now is not to focus our effort on how we help the poor, as much as to focus our effort on how to help the middle class in America, and get more people in the middle class, and get people out of being poor and becoming middle income.” That is, the challenge is not to focus on helping the poor, but to get people out of being poor, which can only be done, Romney implies, by helping the middle class. Presumably, he means that helping the middle class will mean more jobs for the poor, who'll be hired by the middle class -- but you just might excuse someone for not getting that.

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