Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The L-Word

No, I mean, the other L-Word, circa 1988. The one that "connotes moral squishiness and effete elistism . . . a sort of birth defect," as Leonard Pitts recently encapsulated the term in a commentary on election-year word games. Or as members of a "Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New-York-Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show," as linguist Geoffrey Nunberg's so-titled book discussing the dysfunctional state of political discourse suggests. Or as espousing a "worldview that never met a bureaucrat it didn't like," as Steven Johnson offered in a recent New York Times (ooops -- I'm busted . . . but, just for the record, I drive an Audi, not a Volvo) essay about social and political keywords and Google-ability (which I ponder as I write, wondering whether my title-line should include something about the upcoming elections to increase my hits).

Election-year politics are full of word games ("word magic," in Pitts's parlance), distortions, misquotes, and monikers. By the way, in case you hadn't heard, Tony Snow announced on Monday that the White House has retired the slogan "Stay the course," to describe the Administration's Iraq strategy. (As reported by Maureen Dowd, who might not have pierced anything other than her ears but, I would guess, has tried sushi.) No word yet on the new Iraq strategy. Maybe: "Read my lips: No more stay the course"? My point is that mud-slinging, name-calling, and talking-points are part of the culture of partisan politics. We expect nothing less and might be disappointed if no one's hands got dirty in the process.

Talking RightI write here to suggest that our political process might benefit from a little less mud-in-the-face and a little more face-work. Sociolinguist Erving Goffman coined the term "face-work" to refer to people's desire to maintain "face," i.e., to present a consistent image of self to others. One can gain or lose face by improving or spoiling the image. The better one's image, the more others will approve. But if one aims too high, he may "lose face" by making a mistake. Thus, there is a strong tendency to aim at the middle, or average, of one's group. "Face-work" in communication is a cooperative activity whereby everyone tries to help one another maintain "face." We endeavor to avoid exposing others' weaknesses or raise heated controversy unless we are sure it will not affect others' attitudes or we are indifferent to their opinions. As listeners, we give speakers the benefit of the doubt; we interpret meaning generously; we overlook obvious misstatements and avoid embarrassing corrections; we make concessions. We try hard to make sense of what others are saying, even reading between the lines.

In political campaigns, of course, speech serves a different purpose than in everyday communication. The cooperative principle is at cross-purposes with adversarial, partisan politics. Candidates try to save their own faces while smearing egg on those of their opponents. Language is used not to find common ground but to highlight differences. Words do not clarify issues but obfuscate meaning.

I say, "of course." Of course, "face-work" in political speech is about aiming as low as possible at the opponent's image and highlighting mistakes. Indeed the Supreme Court in New York Times v. Sullivan expressly carved out an exception for political speech, based on a "profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks." The democratic process depends on such uninhibited debate, according to the Times Court. Doesn't it?

But a recent David Brooks commentary on Adam Smith's "The Theory of Moral Sentimentalism" suggests that the conclusion is not so obvious. Smith's lesser-known moral philosophy offers an approach to social ordering derived from our innate, intense desire for approval and sympathy of others. We strive to act in praise-worthy ways and to live up to societal ideals. Smith suggests that if we could harness those desires to impose a moral order on society, we might all be better off. Similarly, our political process might be improved by a little more cooperation and mutual face-work. The Dems (read: L-Word) are campaigning under a midterm slogan to that effect: "Together, America Can Do Better." It sounds cheesy (by which I mean the soft, French, Brie-type cheese), but, really, can't we?


Anonymous Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

I really enjoyed that!

In the spirit of the first paragraph, I would add Steven Poole's Unspeak: How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How That Message Becomes Reality (New York: Grove Press, 2006).

In keeping with the theme of the last paragraph, may I suggest Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit, The Economy of Esteem: An Essay on Civil and Political Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

All good wishes,

11/01/2006 10:58 PM  

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