Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Meaning Too Far: Macaca and Holocaust Moments

By Gary Berg-Cross

Words are used as surrogates to look into what people are thinking about candidates. Below is a partial list of unweighted word counts that people apply to President Obama. These are emotional words and part of sentiment analysis (which was pioneered to see what people thought of car and brand names):

Good/good man/good job 38
Trying/Tried/Tries 30
President 27
Failed/Failure 25
Incompetent 24

As you can see it is a mixed list of good and bad, but the good polarity sentiments outnumber the bad.

That’s analysis of what people think. Analysis going the other way looks at how speeches are crafted to make people think a certain way about a candidate or topic. There was a bit of a word storm of analysis after the recent political conventions. Commentators made much of the fact that Romney ignored the Afghan war and hadn’t said the word. But beyond that papers such as the NY Times did detailed analysis on which words were actually used and what we might surmise was the “message” being thrown out.

The graphic below is from the Times and shows that Barack Obama used the word “Health” or the phrase “Middle Class” much more than Romney who used God and Business much more. You can also see a chart of the words used by just Romney and other speakers from the NY Times. Words associated with foreign policy accounted for a small part – but the recent events in Libya have turned that around a bit. Pundits have always discussed campaign wars of words and the stories they tell, but text analysis has gotten incrementally more sophisticated to get closer to understanding the meanings that speech writers try to evoke and the images they cast. Words & phrases like “American Exceptionalism” used this way may have an uncertain alignment with history and external reality.

It has all to do with evoking powerful concepts a person already believes in. The skill is often in getting that fine tuning of moving people just a little way from where they are to where you want them to be. Use a phrase like “American Exceptionalism” often enough and it becomes a tool. You can then wrap your statements in this familiar language with just a hint of evidence (I created jobs) and hope your audience makes the connection you want. You might suggest that Entrepreneurs are part of “American Exceptionalism”. Tell that story and imply that community organizers are less a part of this. They don’t create jobs and are not “Exceptional”– look at the trouble they make.

Of course the story may go wrong if you deviate too widely and seem unfair.

Language requires massive amount of  commonsense knowledge, knowledge
 that a 5 year old has based on experience, but a computer problem doesn’t have. Connecting certain words makes sense and conveys an meaning in normal circumstance. So we may talk about picking up a “blue toy”, but not “burning a blue virtue”. Older kids may even understand a proposition such as “ the far table needs some more soda” even thought tables don’t drink.  We understand that the table includes people who do drink. We buy into the idea being communicated with an interpretation.

But political language can stretch our comprehension system a bit beyond its comfort zone and into interpretations we may find aesthetically disturbing. I’m thinking of the language of politicians like George Allen, Virginia’s 67th Governor, who had a "Macaca” Moment caught on camera. It seemed extreme and racist to label a citizen with an oblique monkey reference this way. It’s a triangle of meaning as I've blogged on before, with words too far from the concepts most of us have. Of course Allen just thought he had chosen the wrong word, but people judged a meaning in the word and perhaps too cheap a political trick to stir the crowd's emotions. More recently Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett a 10-term incumbent from Frederick County MD,  had a difficult moment. Bartlett is battling Democratic challenger John Delaney, a financier from Montgomery County in a redrawn district. He was asked during a town hall meeting in Cumberland MD if he favored government-issued student loans. Bartlett replied that such loans are unconstitutional - bad sentiment there. He thought that ignoring the Constitution to do something good (helping students has a good sentiment) can be “a very slippery slope.” What was he trying to connect government loans to? What was the path he saw? He cited the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews during World War II as an example of something bad that could happen if we support the federal government’s role in subsidized student loans. Here’s what he said about that slipper slope:

“The Holocaust that occurred in Germany -- how in the heck could that happen? And when you start down the wrong road, it can be a very slippery slope."

He’s apologizing vigorously for this poor choices of words and may be on a slippery slope himself, but what about his concepts? He finds no evidence in the U.S. Constitution that the federal government should be involved with education or that student loans were “a good idea.” This seems so 18th century and what, I guess, some call strict constructionism. Well at least people in parts of MD will have a chance to think about what a simple term like "student loans", "federal government" and "slippery slope" mean to people like Bartlett. The truth is that we often need more than commonsense to interpret political talk which is full of gaps and jumps and historical and cultural reference. There' s a plethora of things not spelled out in the constitution such as privacy rights that slick talk may make seem easy issues, but they are not since they involve more than some obvious meaning in a phrase like "student load" and who is responsible for what as part of that commitment. It's important to inquire into what is really being argued in these seemingly simple statements.

Image Crdits
Sentiment Analysis:
George Allen:

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