JOHN MCWHORTER MAY 19, 2010
For Richard Blumenthal to claim that he has been “misspeaking” in implying that he fought in Vietnam rather than obtaining multiple deferments and finally waiting things out in the Marine Reserves right here at home is repulsive. I am not exactly the first one out of the gate on that.
However, he is also using language in the same way a great many Americans do when doing what they think of as The Right Thing. And as speakers of English always have – as well as speakers of any human language. “Everybody does it” will not do, of course, as a moral justification, anymore than “Everybody always has done it.” Yet this means that Blumenthal’s linguistic ploy sheds a new light on the supposed legitimacy of others’ usage of the exact same gambit in the name of other causes.
It starts with language itself, or, to keep things moving along, English will serve as the demonstration case. Meat used to refer to any kind of food, but now refers only to animal flesh. A fowl used to be any kind of bird (just as Vogel still is in German) but is now just one kind. A hound used to be just any kind of dog; now, it isn’t.
Words’ meanings commonly narrow over time. An implication hovering in a general meaning slowly becomes the meaning itself. Think about innumerable: technically it should mean “not susceptible to counting,” period – as because of limited visibility, physical composition as a substance rather than as discrete entities, etc. But what it really means is “of great number,” a quality that is only one of many ways of being uncountable.
Many of the terms now central to American English discourse have narrowed in that way. Racism once referred to discrimination or bias against a group because of race. That sentiment, however, implies logically that the racist action in question will discomfit the race undergoing the assault. That implication is now the totality of how racist is often used today.
The Tea Partier who feels that America makes too much effort to assist black people is termed a racist even if he or she genuinely feels that history shows that even oppressed people do best when required to make the best of the worst. Even if said racist made an eloquent case based on the works of Hoover Institution Fellow Thomas Sowell or University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax, he would qualify to many, under the new definition, as racist nonetheless because a critical mass of people dislike “bootstraps” views of this kind.
Now, my opinion on this is, for the purposes of this piece, irrelevant (although maybe my post here can serve as one example of where I stand on such issues, which is not where either Sowell or Wax, both of whom I admire, do). The key point here is that a critical mass of Americans of all races support this drift in what racism is taken to mean. Many would feel similarly about what diversity means to us today – imagine explaining, even to a classic Great Society-supporting liberal of 1966, what we mean by it today, and why we’re not really thinking about people from Idaho, with one leg, or high voices when we champion it.
But if we embrace what linguists call semantic narrowing, then it informs how we process Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman’s current pique over the use of the word Holocaust by opponents of Arizona’s new law requiring immigrants to carry identification. Foxman rightly points out that while the Nazis required Jews to carry identification, no one in Arizona intends to round up immigrants and march them off to death camps.
Some are fond, excessively so in my opinion, of claims that we can’t be so sure that a Final Solution of that kind isn’t what supporters of the Arizona law have in mind. As I see it, Foxman is resisting an increasingly well-established trend towards using Holocaust to refer to just a part of what the original event encompassed. Here, it is the I.D. requirement. In other cases it is an unfeeling neglect or minimization; in others, it is a destructive action with a widespread negative impact on a group even devoid of explicit genocidal intent.
We could see Foxman’s insistence that this minimizes the memory of the Holocaust itself as fighting a rising tide. Words’ meanings bleach, morph, or in this case, narrow regardless of our personal memories, priorities, or sentiments. The Holocaust must be remembered as it was in all of its horror. However, to resist the usage of the word we use to refer to it as a metaphor for that which ails a group of people is as futile as resisting the use of racism to refer to something that rankles a black person reading the paper (or the N-word as a term of affection).
An example of the confusion that can result from resisting semantic narrowing is Stanley Fish’s rather peculiar argument against something else out of Arizona of late, House Bill 2281 banning ethnic studies departments that promote race consciousness, espousing that people treat one another as individuals. Fish, whose ability to rise above conventionalized notions of truth is something I usually admire, somehow falls into this notion about the bill’s crafters:
The declaration tendentiously, and without support either of argument or evidence, affirms a relationship between critically questioning the ideology of individual rights — and make no mistake, it is an ideology — and the production of racism and hatred.
This would be a great surprise to those communitarian theorists like Robert Bellah, Michael Sandel and Robert Putnam, generally as American as apple pie, who contend that an excessive focus on the individual results in an unhealthy atomization and tends to loosen and even undo the ties that bind society together.
Fish thus accuses the opponents of ethnic studies in Arizona as having an individualist “ideology” of their own that they are imposing upon those they designate as ideologues in promoting racial divisiveness and agitational politics.
But wait a minute – since when do ethnic studies departments have a problem with the Enlightenment? The influence of views like Bellah’s and Sandel’s on the Black Power perspective is minimal. Last time I checked, the basic argument from the left in such departments is that the nature of oppression is such that people of color cannot exercise the individual rights that the nation is founded upon. They lack “agency,” as one is to put it
Now, I have my problems with whole departments devoted primarily to that proposition rather than presenting them as one of many ways of looking at the world.
However, Fish’s mischaracterization of this kind of politics as anti-individualist, as if based on some kind of tribalist vision openly discouraging individual voices as if black intellectuals are wishing Detroit were run like a village in Yemen, neglects that black resistance to the Western canon’s focus on liberty and individualism is based on one part of what those terms refer to: the feasibility of access to it within a context of unequal distribution of resources.
Thus in the name of defending ethnic studies -- which one can – Fish turns a blind eye to the reality of language evolution, mischaracterizing such departments’ mission and making them look almost bizarrely unsophisticated.
I know there were black figures connected to earlier renditions of such departments back in the day going around talking about how black Americans needed to “go back” to the “communal” ethos of the African village. But they had dashikis and big Afros and are retiring now. Surely Fish doesn’t think this is still a going concern.
Which brings us back to Richard Blumenthal. In using the word misspeak, he is taking advantage of a semantic narrowing involved in the prefix mis-. In the pure sense, mis- implies having done something incorrect: misdeed, misbehave. However, more often than not, mis- carries an implication, absent in more pristine cases of outright evil like misdeed and misbehave, that one intended to do the right thing.
To misspell is generally to have intended to spell correctly; the same analysis applies to mistrial, mislay, miscalculate, and so on. My use of mischaracterize in reference to Fish could be seen as an intermediate case, in that I wonder whether it was an accident or not.
Thus Blumenthal, in saying that he has “misspoken,” is technically simply acknowledging that he said things that he should not have. He thus slaps himself on the wrist. But in such a fey way – because misspeak also implies that he intended to say the right thing. The mis- prefix carries an implication of one part of doing something incorrectly – intention not to have, which is hardly always the case.
That is, we are to suppose that he meant to indicate that he never went to Vietnam, but somehow what came out could have been interpreted otherwise – an apologia that has no logical application when he has repeatedly recounted how it felt to come home to the opprobrium vented on soldiers such as, well, himself.
We might allow that words (and prefixes, which are basically words that stick to other ones) will narrow semantically. It will mean some compromises: if a racist is someone who makes a tacky joke, then we have to get over people using Holocaust to refer to things less genocidal than sad.
But it also allows us a handily precise riposte to a strange argument like Fish’s – namely, that he is neglecting semantic narrowing – as well as to nonsense like Blumenthal’s. Here is someone taking advantage of the inevitable slippage between a dictionary definition and its implications, equally prominent in our minds – which will hopefully be designated the tacky, dissimulating misfire that it is.