Monday, April 2, 2012

When We Say the Wrong Thing

Did Rick Santorum come this close to calling Barack Obama the slur-that-shall-not-be-named? The answer is probably no, as evidenced by the fact that the media, instead of saying he did, merely pointed to the video and asked its audience, "what do you think?" If this was a blog about politics, I'd spend my time railing against what a scuzzy tactic it is to drive traffic by drumming up a non-existent controversy, or how this type of story reinforces the divisions in our society by implying that the "other side" is secretly thinking awful things.

But this is (supposed to be) a blog about the mind, and now that I've done the savvy blogger thing of connecting my post to a topical event, I'm going to give some time to discussing the "Freudian slip", and whether it is really the telling event we think it is.

I'd be remiss if I didn't say that Julie Sedivy got there first, her excellent post on the topic covers the current science on the subject of speech errors. I particularly liked this analogy:
Speech errors occur because when it comes to talking, the mind cares much more about speed than it does about accuracy. We literally speak before we’re done thinking about what we’re going to say, and this is true not just for the more impetuous amongst us, but for all speakers, all of the time. Speech production really is like an assembly line, but an astoundingly frenzied one in which an incomplete set of blueprints is snatched out of the hands of the designers by workers eager to begin assembling the product before it’s fully sketched out.
This "just in time" language production is inherently risky, in that our minds only have a broad sketch of how they're going to express the thought they have. Believe it or not, an entire book has been written on the topic: Um… Slips, Stumbles, And Verbal Blunders, And What They Mean. In a review by Charles Ester, I learned that we make errors in between 5% and 8% of the words we utter each day. What is generally agreed is that or mistakes as speakers are balanced by our skills as listeners. In other words, we quickly pick out the speaker's intent and discard the incorrect information from all of those slips and disfigurations in speech.

Unless, of course, the mistake ends up being particularly noteworthy or humorous, in which case it will be noticed. George W. Bush might have been at the far side of the bell curve in terms of language assembly errors, but he was known as a poor speaker in part because some of his miscues were very funny (I personally love, "I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family") and of course were noteworthy as they were coming from the most powerful man in the world. 

But here's the thing: we knew exactly what caused Bush to mess up. His brain mixed up "put food on your table" and "feed your family" and out came a bizarre visual image. And of course, President Obama and everyone else who speaks in public has their share of mistakes. We recognize these as errors we could just as easily make, and yet we use them to help make our partisan arguments. Why? 

I think, perhaps, we've confused a slip of the tongue, meaning a speech construction error, with a gaffe, meaning a statement where a public figure accidentally says something they would rather not admit in public, or that reinforces the public's reason to dislike that figure. In this (otherwise excellent) Jonah Goldberg column about the "etch-a-sketch" remark made by Romney's communications director, the headline is, "A Fawlty Slip of the Tongue." That remark was not a slip of the tongue, but rather a gaffe, confirming the view of many people that Romney has no core, and just says what he needs to in the pursuit of power. 

In our public life, a gaffe can usefully highlight a fault in a public figure, but we should just let the slips of the tongue pass by without comment. It seems pretty clear from the science, and from common sense, that these errors don't carry the meaning we'd like to assign to them.

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