President Obama and language used stupidly

This is “a teachable moment” according to President Barack Obama.  I agree. This blog is devoted to advancing the art and science of communications, not politics,  so I won’t dwell on the rhyme or reason of the President’s statement made during his nationally televised prime time press conference this past Wednesday which opened Pandora’s box regarding the issue of racial profiling in this country. Suffice it to say that strictly rhetorically speaking, he either knew what he was doing or he didn’t. Given the context, a press conference convened principally to push his health insurance reform agenda – the latest nomenclature chosen in lieu of “health care reform”, as hopefully more effective – this same President who usually measures his  words, certainly should have considered  that his comment would be a pot boiler  and a distraction in terms of staying on message. Giving credit to the President as an astute public speaker, which few would deny, at the time, this was very possibly a “slip of the tongue”; Speaking extemporaneously, even with advance preparation and briefing, does not give much time for reflection ahead of utterance –  so, this public speaking “incident” becomes an excellent example to demonstrate that indeed  communication – particularly verbal communication – is most certainly in many respects an art as much as anything.

The particulars are that in response to a reporter’s question posed late in the press conference asking for the President’s reaction to an occurrence involving the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who happens to be African-American and who happens to be a renowned African-American scholar and who happens to own the home and the property where he was hand-cuffed and charged  with disorderly conduct (the charges were subsequently dropped), the President used the following language – among other language used: he stated that the police officers “acted stupidly”.

There are a number of words which in any language are “charged” with emotion – “stupid” and its variations are in such a lexicon. The word was used as an adverb, a form which modifies the verb “acted” and tells us in what manner someone acted. Like an adjective modifies a noun, like a rose becomes a red rose, an action becomes “stupid”. Now what was attempted to be qualified was the action, not the actor. Unfortunately the word chosen was also in the category of what I call “splatter” words – a word that “paints with a broad brush” so that everything in sight becomes “splattered” by it; so what was imputed by the media, the public in general, and the Cambridge Police Department in particular? Was  the President of the United States suggesting –  that the police officers involved were stupid! “Strong” language –  “stupid” qualifies as “strong” language – is to be used judiciously when warranted. When warranted? When circumstances require such a term for emphasis.

The latest “Special Features” section of this blog, “The Lens”, showcases the pronouncements of none other than the great Mark Twain addressing specifically all matters germane to communications, written and oral – Twain knew a thing or two about public speaking and his work as presented in this section is recommended to you; I want to quote one pithy point here. Twain said: “An adjective habit…once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.” He cautioned about using adjectives, and by extension their cousins, adverbs, sparingly – which would then strengthen their impact when they were used. Well President Obama normally heeds Twain’s advice, not peppering his speaking with such words, and therefore his use of the word “stupidly” was reacted to vigorously (whoops there I go as well, you can see how easy it is to fall into the trap).

So what is the lesson to be learned? Choose your words carefully.

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9 Responses

  1. Language also occurs in a socio-cultural context. In this case one of profound racism, with the police being the primary guardians of the “racist American way of life.” You know it and I know it, but you are pretending not to know it.

    Parsing syntax, only appears to be a helpful (dare I say teachable ?) activity. However, stripped of its race-latent content, and its socio-cultural context, simply renders it empty and profoundly meaningless, like Obama being elected as the first mulatto President in a racist America.

    If Obama, as a Mulatto, (he is black only by the one-drop law) cannot say that a white policeman acted stupidly when in fact he did, then who can? And if the policeman did not act stupidly, why then were the charges of disorderly conduct so quickly dismissed? And why have we not ever (that is, in the history of the world) heard of a white man being arrested in a similar circumstance?

    I have first hand experience with the Cambridge Mass. police’s tendency to want to jail blacks on sight and on the slightest of pretense.

    While attending MIT, in 1991, I rented a basement apartment just down the street from the Upon Street metro, in Cambridge. I had to enter the apartment from the rear entrance, and often returned to the apartment late at night.

    I was reported as a (black) burglar so often that my landlady, a Japanese woman, had to begin to allow me to enter through her apartment out of her own fear that I would eventually be shot, either by the police or by one of her racist neighbors. She commiserated with me on this often, commenting on how barbaric a country the U.S. was that this sort of thing had to happen.

    Now, I am from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, which has a very high (mostly black) crime rate. But even there, never under any circumstances would a policeman arrest a black entering his own home, stupidly or otherwise.

    This is not a fine point of sociological analysis, nor is it a “teachable moment:” It is racism American style, pure and simple. Anyone who does not see this, has his head buried in the sand.

  2. When Pres. Obama spoke of it being a “teachable moment”, I’m sure he in no way anticipated that he would be the student in a refresher on public speaking, political correctness or public debate. I would like to think that, going forward, Pres. Obama will not allow himself to be taken off message like that again.

  3. One problem in contemporary public debate is the prevalence of arguments grounded in characterizations of the other side’s motives.
    Liberals insist conservatives are racist or sexist; conservatives that liberals are unpatriotic or worse (and now they are using the racism card, too).

    Often today arguments seek to hook on to misstatements and inappropriate phrases that, they insist, demonstrates the other side’s malign motives.
    Good arguments acknowledge and contest the best reasons and reasoning on the other side. Obama at his best –though not so much lately –does that well, I think.

    I am not stupid, but I have done many stupid things in my life. I hold nothing against those who have pointed out the stupid things I have done. Do you?
    Gary M. Klass
    Associate Professor
    Department of Politics and Government
    Illinois State University
    Normal, Illinois

  4. I enjoyed your blog. I was surprised that the President spoke prejudiciously. I think he expected the arresting officer to be some “stupid” redneck acting on “stupidity” and racially profiled his college professor friend. I don’t think he considered that the officer was not who he thought he was and may have reacted to a reported potential crime in progress while the President’s friend used foul and disrepectful language and, the officer may have acted prudently. I believe the officer could have sucked it up and left his pride behind when the learned professor berated him in front of others. Likewise the professor should have considered that maybe the officer was not racially profiling him. The President should have checked the facts before he spoke and should have realized his comments would spark the racial divide that some are preconditioned to support. Nevertheless, we are all human, we’re not all there to bear witness, and we all are less than perfect and subject to learned and conditioned experience. I am not sure who is at fault, but I do not see this as a story that we should dwell upon.

    I believe that President Obama is a good man. I am sure that the professor is too. The officer is likewise a professional and a good man too. Inspite of all of our education and training, from time to time we all become victims of our emotionally charged predicaments. Such is life. Please note that in spite of the President’s comment, I thought that he handled it well. He invited both parties to the White House for a beer to make peace. I believe that the lesson here is that the President of the United States is held to a higher standard and his every word is judged. I don’t always agree with him; however, I trust him and believe that he is a great communicator. Nevertheless, like all human beings, he is fallible.

  5. I enjoyed your post. It was well written and perceptive.
    The only quibbles I found myself feeling were these: I believe Obama said the “Cambridge Police” acted stupidly, which I understood to mean the police department, not necessarily the individual officers. Your blog implies that Obama said the “police officers acted stupidly.” In my mind, that’s as big a difference as the ones you describe. The officers responded to a call and made a judgement out in the world. The department actually threw the man in jail when he had not, as far as I can tell, broken a law. He was rude to the officer, the officer asked him to step outside. Once outside, the same rude behavior was deemed disorderly conduct and he was arrested. That sounds to me like entrapment. Even so, the Cambridge Police Department did not need to throw him in jail, even for six hours, for that non crime. Plus, the department sets the rules for how officers act. I tend to agree with Obama that those rules are actually stupid. Stupid rules lead to problems just like this one; problems large enough to require beer.

    But, from the bully platform, Obama’s got to be careful about his choice of words. You’re exactly correct there. The fact that your own blog, obviously trying to be scrupulously careful, used language that did not perfectly match the real quote is a great example of how easily we can slip into unintended meanings. He could have done better, but then we all could.

    The other area where we may disagree is that I want to cut everyone involved, including Obama, some slack. Geez, Gates just got home from the airport after a long flight from China, his door woudn’t open, and then the cops showed up to hassle him. I’d be rude too, especially after I show them my ID and they don’t simply leave. On the other hand,the cop has spent a lot of time trying to improve race relations, he answered a call and stepped into a scene that may well have been dangerous. He’s putting his life on the line for whoever owns this house. Rather than be grateful, this clown starts yelling at him for doing his job. Obama’s hears that his friend is arrested in his own home after providing proof that it is his own home. From the preliminary evidence, yes, that was stupid, and even the President has a right to get upset when his friend is hassled. He’s even got the right to commit a poor choice of words. To his credit, once he realized the uproar, I think he did a good job of patching it up. Some of our Presidents have said dumb stuff and then simply let the country absorb the resulting blows.

    The flip side of being careful with one’s language is that we’ve developed a cult of phony outrage. I don’t think very many people misunderstood Obama’s comment and were truly upset. But many people recognized a situation where someone else might be upset, if only their outrage were described to them. People spend a lot of time trying to convince each other that they have been insulted, they should be upset, perhaps they should even sue because someone said something insensitive.

    Like you, I enjoy Mark Twain. Can you imagine the lawsuits he’d be fending off today? It’s nice to see someone who respects language the way you do. I think you’re doing a great job. If I have phrased something insensitively here, I’m sorry, I did not intend it.
    Kenn Amdahl
    Clearwater Publishing
    Broomfield, CO 80038-0778
    read the C&C response to this comment below:

    • Dear Kenn,

      Thanks for taking the time (time is a precious thing, and should be used as judiciously as one’s words) to react to the post I referred you to on the C&C blog. You are absolutely correct that the President’s exact words were that, “…the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home” –

      I quoted only the “acted stupidly” element of his statement and made the attribution that it applied to the police officers on the scene – I consider this a fair appreciation of his intended meaning from the phrasing of what he said, it would be doubtful that the entire Cambridge police department “acted” in “arresting somebody”; however, it is not much of a leap to interpret his remarks to have applied in the way you recognized, that is one of the pitfalls of using “splatter” words such as “stupidly” which I mentioned in my post end up covering more than intended; in any case I am in good – I hope you consider Reuters good – company; here is their piece on the incident; yes they provide the exact statement in quotes in the body of the report, but note both the headline and the lead paragraph:

      Finally, I commend the President for his follow-up “impromptu” appearance at a press briefing in the aftermath of all of this, where he basically said what he should have said originally – this statement is an excellent example of his wordsmith capabilities, his speaking prowess, and demonstrates why he deserves the “bully pulpit” –

      on the other hand, from strictly a communications standpoint, I am not so pleased with the “biergarten” attempt – I have some concern his communications team may be a little off stride of late: I will continue to monitor this and report appropriately on the C&C blog (hope you stop by occasionally to check) and I am hoping these recent missteps are not indicative of a trend, but rather a “slip and fall” in an otherwise stellar tightrope act.

      Howard R. Debs
      Communicators & Communications

  6. I have read attentively your blog and your Aesopian moral: “So what is the lesson to be learned? Choose your words carefully.”

    And the thought that came to my mind was St Jerome’s faulty recollection of even Homer nodding off now and then: interdum magnus dormitat Homerus. If Homer can nod, who can’t?

    On the substance of the issue: racial profiling,

    I also remembered the hyper sensitivity of a Jewish professor friend of mine
    to words and sentences that strike me as anything but anti-semitic.

    It is therefore useful, I think, in effective communication to know what part of a person’s psyche not to gouge if we don’t have to.

    And Irish Americans, at least once upon a time, felt like forming an anti-defamation league of their own to protest words like “paddy wagon” and the implication that most people arrested were Irish.

    If Colin Powell could weigh in on Prof. Gates virtually cautioning us white folk
    not to be surprised if black folk jump to conclusions
    as to why they are arrested,
    then what I am taught is
    to NOTICE things people are sensitive to.
    Patrick K
    US Foreign Service (retired)

  7. I was aware of this incident, and had spent some time wondering about President Obama’s choice of words. Of course, the coverage I saw did not show the communication that took place before the President’s comment. President Obama has always struck me as a careful communicator: one who carefully measures and selects words appropriate to his message. Alas, that is so much easier to achieve when writing.
    Jennifer Cameron-Smith
    Canberra, Australia

  8. I read your posting, and I think your analysis of how language is properly used and properly misused right on the mark.

    Splendid job.

    We need to be aware of how we use language and, in particular, certain words in order to avoid “splatter” language on the one hand and unnecessarily inflammatory language (there are times when inflammatory language is quite appropriate) on the other.

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