Sunday, 12 October 2014

Misquoting and Misspeaking

     Once again, I must bring up the proper use of quotation marks. They are not to be used for emphasis. See? I just emphasized "not" with italics. And just now, I set apart "not" with quotation marks because I'm referring to the word itself, not its meaning or reference or anything else. Putting something in quotation marks means you're quoting (hence the name) what someone said, not paraphrasing or restating.

     I bring this up because another pseudoquote just crossed my Facebook feed today, this time attributed to Vice President Joe Biden.

"No ordinary American cares about their constitutional rights."

     The image circulated with this alleged quote goes on to say, "Yes, America, our Vice President said that!" Except he didn't. He did not utter this sentence.

     I watched the video, and what he does say is almost as dumb, if you take it strictly literally: "And let me say at the outset to all the press: No law-abiding citizen in the United States of America has any fear that their constitutional rights will be infringed in any way. None. Zero."
     That is obviously false. There's lots of law-abiding citizens in the U.S. who do fear that their constitutional rights will be infringed, and lots of law-abiding citizens whose constitutional rights are infringed every day. (The practice of civil forfeiture, for example, has gotten rather out of hand, which I take to be a pretty clear violation of the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment.)

     Now, you could take Mr. Biden as meaning exactly what he said, and if in fact he does believe that no law-abiding citizen does fear infringements to their rights, then statement attributed to him in the image macro would be a defensible inference about his beliefs. But it's not a quotation. You could say "Joe Biden believes that no ordinary American cares about their constitutional rights", and that'd be fine. Just don't use quotes unless you're actually quoting the actual words he actually said. (Seriously, is that so hard to understand?)

     But I want to go a little farther and argue that this would be a silly and uncharitable inference about Mr. Biden's actual beliefs. To me, it seems far more likely that he missed a word in his written speech, and that what he was supposed to say was that no law-abiding citizen has any reason to fear infringement of their constitutional rights. If you watch the video from the beginning, you'll see a couple of similarly clumsy oratory missteps.
     Let's be fair. Public speaking is not an easy thing to do, and mistakes happen. Working from a script (which is what any written speech is going to be, even if you write it yourself) has its own difficulties; it takes time to absorb the flow of the lines and internalize their meaning, and to find your own inflections, pauses, emphases. Joe Biden may be affable and confident, but if he's a gifted orator then this was not a day that showed it. Interpreting what someone says always takes a bit of cognitive effort at the best of times, and sometimes requires us to cut the speaker some slack while we correct for errors. We should do this regardless of whether or not we agree with the speaker's views, because successful communication is a matter of trying to discern what the speaker actually means, rather than seizing upon whichever meaning reinforces our own beliefs.

3 comments:

  1. Not all media allow for the use of italics and when they are not available (thinking Facebook here) then some sort of shorthand method is necessary to draw attention to a specific word or phrase. This developing technology of sharing ideas means that our rules of language have to adapt to new circumstances. As has always been the case.

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    1. Sure, and indeed the comments section right here doesn't allow for italics, either. I've tried. But I maintain that you still shouldn't use quotation marks for anything other than to identify a direct quote. There ARE alternatives.

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  2. Gaaah. I HATE it when both sides do this... It is so easy to take what that person actually said and argue against it. Why do the media from both sides struggle with this so much?

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