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Are Tea Party candidates channeling Humpty Dumbty?

Robin Lakoff, professor emerita of linguistics | August 16, 2011

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make a word mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

President Obama has been criticized by both left and right for poor communication. That may be true, but the fault lies less with the president than with his adversaries, in particular the members of the Tea Party, many of whom demonstrate contempt not only for the concrete requirements of a social species (like government), but for a more abstract intrinsic human need: language.

Politicians, to be sure, have always been shifty: they make promises they cannot or will not fulfill; they distort realities; they express camaraderie with voters for whom they feel no connection. But the continual and radical misuses of language by conservatives seem to me (as a long-time observer of language) truly extraordinary and quite dangerous.

Sarah Palin plays language games, but a more serious player is Michele Bachmann, who from the beginning of her political career has had few scruples about accuracy in language use: she seems happy to open her mouth and let whatever emerge. I detect no interest in matching words with their referents — that is, semantics. That makes her an anti-semanticist, an un-maker of meaning.

In this she closely resembles Humpty Dumpty, like him refusing to be bound by the conventions of language: to use words to mean what they mean to other speakers. Speakers must use words conventionally if they are to communicate. If some people refuse to play the game, the rest of us, for our own protection, can only take our marbles (if we still have them) and go home.

It isn’t only Bachmann’s tendency to make unsubstantiated claims, to distort history, and to vilify the opposition: that’s unfortunately typical of the group. But she moves into scarily uncharted territory when she assumes a unilateral right to make words mean what they choose them to mean — neither more nor less (Humpty Dumpty again).

Take a recent case in point, one that has evoked a great deal of commentary, mostly for the wrong reason. As reported by Lois Romano in Newsweek:

[Bachmann] has said her husband directed her to study tax law, and she obliged because “the Lord says: be submissive, wives; you are to be submissive to your husbands.” Asked about her choice of words, she explains, “That means that I respect my husband, and he respects me.” But in a Bachmann White House, she adds, “I would be the decision maker.”

When questioned about this statement by another reporter, Byron York, before the Iowa debate,

Bachmann answered, in part: “Marcus and I will be married for 33 years this September 10th…. And both he and I — what submission means to us, if that’s what your question is, it means respect. I respect my husband. He’s a wonderful, godly man, and a great father. And he respects me as his wife.”

Well, that’s much better, you may be thinking. Respect is normal, indeed requisite between spouses. And with “respect” substituted for “submission,” we need not worry about whether we are voting for a candidate on the basis of the views she has expressed and that are her own, or is the candidate a mere stand-in for her husband, about whom we know nothing?

To imply, as Bachmann did, that the words are synonymous is to engage in doublespeak. In the English she was purporting to speak, “respect” and “submit (while sharing a small part of their meanings) are very different semantically.

What they share is the idea of looking up to someone. But that’s about it: everything else is different, and each implies or sets in motion a very different relationship. To “respect,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is “to feel or show deferential regard for”; to “submit” is “to yield or surrender (oneself) to the will or authority of another.”

Respecting is about free choice; submitting, when the object is another human being, about coercion. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable for respect to be mutual or reciprocal: A respects B, and B respects A. But submission can go only one way: if A submits to B, there is no way that B at the same time can submit to A. So the two words make very different claims about the relationship of the persons involved, and to pretend that the two are synonymous is to be playing fast and loose with the conventions of English. Such communicative recklessness might imply equal recklessness elsewhere.

Bachmann’s supporters have argued that questioning these statements is intrusive, a violation of her privacy and the first amendment protection of religion. But voters need to know who will be making important decisions if Bachmann comes into the White House; and if that person is going to be Marcus, they need to know his beliefs and how if at all they differ from hers. If President Bachmann makes a bad decision, will she say, “The buck stops here,” or “My husband made me do it”?

What does her linguistic bait-and-switch tell voters about her? That she doesn’t know the meanings of two ordinary words, or that she knows but doesn’t care? One attitude is indicative of willful ignorance, the other of arrogance.

Bachmann, along with many of her colleagues, should realize two things: first, that you can’t make your words mean one thing for one audience and something very different for another, if you want to be taken seriously as an ethical user of language;

And secondly, you can’t (no matter how godly, or how powerful, you are) unilaterally decide what words mean. Humpty Dumpty was a big egg perched precariously on a high narrow wall. His need to make English work his way arose from fear about his future. But manipulating language could not save him from his fate.

Cross-posted from The Huffington Post