Two unacceptable candidates for presidential office will be on the main-party ballots in a just a day or so. A quick look at how the two of them speak clarifies the troubling nature of Mr. Trump’s views, but also why Mrs. Clinton’s history of lying is an even more severe abuse that undermines authentic communication itself.
The Purposes and Functions of Language
Two basic functions of language are discussing ideas and speaking to one another.
This first purpose, the formal use of language is the language of law, of documents like the Constitution, of logic, of philosophy and academics. It uses specific vocabulary and concepts in an effort to name truths such that we can all understand them and converse about them. The second purpose is basic interpersonal communication and often uses the casual register. It is more colloquial, relying on shared understandings and implications. The vocabulary is much smaller and is non-specific. These two overlap of course, especially in high level conversation such as debates. (I draw these two basic categories: formal and casual, from the five registers discussed in Ruby K. Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty.)
Trump’s Triumphs and Tribulations from Casual Speech
A point of distinction for Mr. Trump is his use the casual register, even in debates. He calls things “tremendous” and “great” or “messes” and “disasters” without further specification and expects to be understood. Meanwhile, the moderator, his opponent, and much of his audience are left with their jaws hanging wondering why he failed to answer the question. He exemplifies the non-specific language of the casual register which functions on shared understandings and implications.
Trump’s casual speech opens him to easy lampooning in the media, but is has also allowed him to connect with a deep well of untapped support from the working class. When asked if he would accept the results of the election in the third debate, Mr. Trump replied that “I’ll keep you in suspense,” which is a vague answer intended to tap into a shared understanding that the election process is somewhat suspect. All he likely meant is that he might sue, as Al Gore did in 2000, and that he might otherwise sulk in his penthouse.
But his comment met with media consternation and uproar about undermining the foundations of our democracy which rest on the peaceful transfer of power. Many commentators construed Trump’s comment as seditious because they do not share the implication that his speech relied upon. To them, “accepting election results,” means accepting the foundations of the rule of law and legal proceedings that govern America. The two assumptions undergirding the question missed each other and led to miscommunication, a danger often present in casual speech. This line bothered the media, but was likely less problematic than many assumed.
Mr. Trump’s Unrespectable Views
Unfortunately, many of Trump’s casual, off-hand remarks are actually as problematic as left-leaning writers say they are because of the the shared understandings that he relies upon do tend to be discriminatory and disrespectful. Mr. Trump’s comments on women are a uncontroversial example
Leaving aside his outrageous 2005 recording, in August 2015 Trump dismissed journalist Megyn Kelly, wondering aloud whether she had “blood coming out of her wherever.” The reference to her menstruating accessed the stereotype that due to the hormones accompanying this bodily process, women are not rational during it. In so speaking, Mr. Trump claims power to dismiss Ms. Kelly’s comments as potentially non-rational. Because menstruation is private, this logically extends to all women being dismissable all the times. Trump’s comments about a judge of Hispanic descent being unable to try an immigration case fairly functioned similarly, as did his comments about imposing a religious test for people coming into America.
Mr. Trump’s temper and reliance on harmful stereotypes pervade his campaign and leaves us with a candidate who holds severely problematic views against a majority of Americans (since non-whites and females together constitute a majority of citizens), attributes which are hardly fitting for someone who is campaigning to lead all these different groups.
Clinton Promulgates Lies
In contrast to Mr. Trump’s blatant sexism and racism, Hillary Clinton appears to occupy a moral high ground. She has command of the formal register, that specific speech we use to explain reality, and she trounced Mr. Trump in debate. But Mrs. Clinton abuses language by unaccountable lying and in doing so, she turns formal speech into propaganda, undermining the end of truthful communication. Continue reading