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.

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/07/27/president-obama-and-language-used-stupidly/

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