Do you mean what you say?

Remember Senator John McCain? He- that -promoted -Sarah Palin -to -Vice- Presidential- candidate? And daughter Bristol to equivalent reality TV stardom?
Well, I’m happy to say that this month marks the two- year anniversary of his inclusion in my Undergraduate essay of the title The Field of Pragmatics is concerned with how people manage to mean more than their words seem to say. Discuss how they do this, with reference to Grice’s maxims.
It was a dull essay, believe me, but Senator JMC managed to spice things up about 1500 words in.
You see, one day in 2008, when JMC was on his campaign trail, an elderly lady supporter petitioned him for a quick word about his no-hoper opponent, Barack Obama. She told JMC proudly that she had “read about him”. JMC nodded in sympathy. By God, hadn’t he had to do his own reading up on that guy. It was the lady’s next utterance that scored the inclusion in my essay. She asked simply; “he’s an Arab?”, to which McCain- swiftly removing the microphone from under her- replied “no, he’s a decent family man … and citizen”.
The whole interchange was a delight to me. It justified the discipline of pragmatics as the study of meaning beyond words and made clear to me that language is as much about what’s not said as what is. Of course, the obvious implication in this interchange is that being an Arab and a decent family man are mutually exclusive. Were this to have been made explicit however, JMC would have been immediately asked to answer to accusations of racism. As his response was veiled in an (arguably irrelevant) compliment to Obama’s family values and citizenship (oh, the irony!) however, he faced no such charges.

Paul Grice was a linguist with a mission. He wanted to create a taxonomy of the unspoken rules that govern the kind of communication that generates meaning beyond words. You can read all about his maxims here but in short, he believed that successful communication relies on adherence to a few basic rules: tell me what’s true, tell me what’s relevant, don’t flood me with information, be polite. So, when I ask you whether you like my new haircut and you tell me that you think long hair really suited me, I can assume, based on the maxims of relevance and clarity, that you are politely answering “no”.

Saying what you mean is so rare that shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm exploit it as a particular kind of comedic art. Sugar-coating our utterances and beating about the bush are so ingrained in our psyche that they have come to represent what we consider civil society to entail. An insidious underbelly is revealed however when we consider the larger-scale effects of such rigid use of linguistic decoration. As recently as last week, the White House claimed that Bin Laden was killed “after a fire-fight”. What emerged later however, was that he couldn’t in fact have had any part in the fire-fight, since he wasn’t armed. When we hear the term “firefight” it’s fair to assume that both parties (now there’s an incongruous word) exchange fire, isn’t it?

Things don’t seem to go so well for those who do say what they mean though. Poor Old Gordon Brown had a terrible time during his campaign trail last year when he called a lady a “bigoted woman”. Even though she was.

At the end of King Lear, Edgar reminds us to “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”. Respect to Mr Brown for favouring William Shakespeare over Alistair Campbell.

The Which Blair Project

 In matters of business and politics I share the bewilderment of E.M. Forster’s character Mrs Wilcox, who asks, “Why do people who have enough money try to get more money?” and claims that she is “sure that if the mothers of various nations could meet, there would be no more wars.”

Mrs Wilcox’s desire to understand motivation and personal responsibility in business and politics is less naïve and unsophisticated than is suggested by the author of Howards End. As Tony Blair releases his aptly-named “A Journey”, the spotlight is cast firmly toward the mind and away from the body politic.

As if Tony Blair’s premiership has retrospectively been subjected to a magnifying glass of the mundane, the rubber gloves of the Queen and half bottle of wine before bed, as well as the bickering with Brown become intimately linked to revelations about WMD, sexed up dossiers and the ban on fox hunting.  

The documentation of conflict between the public and private self has existed for centuries if not millennia and semblance of their successful co-existence remains the hallmark of a media savvy politician. President Obama courted the idea of a blurred distinction between public and private as he invited the world to accompany him in his choice of the perfect puppy to install in the White House and his wife as she watered the patches of her organic vegetable garden. The habit of familiarity backfired however when he referred in an interview to his bowling skills as akin to those of competitors in the Special Olympics. It was a particularly poignant moment for those of us who had believed that Obama struck a rare balance between the public and the private. But oh how we relish the untoward entry of private mumblings into the public sphere! When a stressed Gordan Brown entered into his car during the election trail and muttered that a supporter he had just encountered was a “bigoted woman”, reporters on the scene became breathless with excitement.

While Blair succeeds in couching his public performance in a language of (albeit formal) familiarity, Brown, whom Blair accuses of having “zero” emotional intelligence does not. Emotional intelligence should not however be mistaken for empathy; particularly not in a political context. One suspects that when David Cameron lost a child, Brown’s move to cancel Prime Minister’s Questions  was motivated by no more than the indiscriminate sympathy of one who has endured a tragedy for another that now encounters it. Empathy is unbridled; emotional intelligence stores up for release the cleverly latent bi-product of self-preservation. Blair’s memoirs are an expression of emotional intelligence. Battling against his branding as war criminal, he fights for his name by supplying details of intimate conversations and personal weaknesses. 

Curiosity has got the better of me and though I share Mrs Wilcox’s self-consciously confused conclusions about the world, I should not mind taking a gander to Easons with her this Saturday to catch a single glimpse of the man’s many faces.