Je Suis “Random Folk in a Deli”—What Went Wrong With Obama’s Remark?

Feb 20, 2015 by

Je_Suis_Random_FolksLast week, the lowly English adverb randomly found itself at the center of a political controversy. In an interview, President Obama made a comment that generated a barrage of criticisms from Republicans and from Jewish organizations alike; he said, as quoted by CNN, that it is “entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you’ve got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris”. The comment was in reference to a man claiming allegiance to ISIS killing four Jewish men and taking over a dozen others hostage at a Kosher deli in Paris in early January 2015. In response to Obama’s remark, images such as the one reproduced on the left from inundated the social media. White House spokesman Josh Earnest tried to defend President’s remark by saying: “The adverb that the president chose was used to indicate that the individuals who were killed in that terrible, tragic incident were killed not because of who they were but because of where they randomly happened to be.” To this former Texas Governor and a potential 2016 presidential candidate Rick Perry responded by saying: “What he called a ‘random’ attack was obviously meant to kill Jews — which is precisely what happened. The individual victims may have been those unlucky enough to be in the grocery that day, but it was far from random”.

Yet, despite appearances, it is not the meaning of the adverb itself that is the true cause of the hullabaloo, but the phrase “a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris”. Some people were offended by the expression “a bunch of folk”, which they thought too casual and condescending, not unlike “the folders of women” comment by presidential candidate Mitt Romney that had caused an earlier linguo-political controversy. But in my opinion, it is not what is actually in the President’s comment, but rather what is lacking in it, namely the word “Jewish”, that is most misleading and offensive. Defenders of the President’s remark claim that he was not lying: after all, there were several people in a deli in Paris who did get shot. But as discussed in several of my earlier posts (see here and here), there are more ways to conceal the truth than straightforward lying. Consider, for example, a situation in which a child who broke his mom’s favorite vase is asked what happened. To avoid the blame, the child might lie: “The cat broke it”. Or the child might say: “It broke”. Note that the latter is a truthful yet not entirely honest statement. Both the child’s “it broke” response and the President’s comment illustrate the same strategy for avoiding an unpleasant truth. Thus, one does not need to be a consummate politician or a masterful journalist to be able to use this strategy—we all do, even (remarkably!) small children. Yet it is a virtually indispensable device in a politician’s or propagandist’s toolbox, and it is thus very useful to learn to recognize this trick and the ideologically charged, distorted claims it frequently conveys. (Another example of this same strategy being used to make an anti-Jewish statement is discussed in my earlier post.)

To understand how this strategy works, we need to understand more generally how people use language to convey meaning. According to a groundbreaking work by H. Paul Grice, we are able to communicate information not only by what we say explicitly (in technical terms, what is “expressed” and “entailed” by an utterance), but also by “reading between the lines” and recognizing “hidden meaning” (in technical terms, “recognizing implicatures”). While entailments are unavoidable part of meaning, implicatures can be cancelled. For example, the sentence John ate some of the pizza entails that “some of the pizza was eaten”: it is impossible for “John ate some of the pizza” to be true and at the same time “Some of the pizza was eaten” to be false. In contrast, the same sentence John ate some of the pizza implies that only some but not all of the pizza was consumed. This implicature can be “cancelled” or corrected: one can say John ate some of the pizza, in fact he ate all of it. Note that such a “cancellation” does not work with entailments: John ate some of the pizza but it is not true that some of the pizza was eaten is absurd and self-contradictory.

According to Grice, most implicatures come from violations (or “flouting”) of four principles of conversation, which he called “Maxims”. Lying, according to Grice, is a violation of the Maxim of Quality, which requires that one make statements that are true to the best of one’s knowledge. Metaphors, idioms, and other colorful “turns of phrase” are also examples of violating the Maxim of Quality. Since we have already established that the President’s remark was not a lie, we must turn to some other Maxims as a source of the inappropriateness—or in linguist-speak, “infelicity”—of Obama’s statement.

The two Maxims that are relevant for this presidential blunder—and more generally for the “it broke” truth-concealment strategy—are the Maxims of Quantity and of Relevance. While “quantity of information” may be understood as both “too much information” (TMI) and “too little information”, Grice divided these two possibilities into separate Maxims: the Maxim of Quantity requires that one’s contribution to the conversation be informative enough, while the Maxim of Relevance rules out TMI. The tensions between the two Maxims is what generally keeps most people at that golden middle of saying just enough. Of course, these two Maxims can be violated too, as is evident from certain types of posts on Facebook (for example: people who make enigmatic comments that are difficult to interpret flout the Maxim of Quantity, while those who go on and on about every single little thing they have done violate the Maxim of Relevance (“Why on Earth should I care about what you had for breakfast?”).

Going back to the President’s comment, the problem with it is that, either intentionally or not, it violates the Maxim of Quantity in that a crucial piece of information vital to the understanding of the event, namely that the location was chosen by the terrorist so as to hurt Jews, is omitted. As a result, the comment is at least misleading, in that it creates an impression that the attack had nothing to do with anti-Semitism. To Jews, who have all too often become victims of violent persecution for no other reason than being Jewish, this omission is not just disingenuous but deeply offensive.

A frequent reader of my blog, James Wilson, asked if the comment would have been better had the President used a more specific “a bunch of male French Jews in a deli” instead. Great question, James! Like the actual comment, this more specific version is true and hence in compliance with the Maxim of Quality. And like the actual comment, it too appears inappropriate, albeit in a different way. Unlike the actual comment, “a bunch of male French Jews in a deli” errs by violating the Maxim of Relevance. It is questionable whether the victims’ French passports are relevant to the understanding of the story, and their being male probably is not. Of course, one could err to an even greater degree by being either even more vague (“a bunch of living organisms”) or even more specific (“a bunch of French Jewish men who shop instead of their wives”): the former dehumanizes the victims, and the latter muddles the matter even further by providing more unnecessary (albeit truthful!) details.

All in all, the balance between the two Maxims, Quantity and Relevance, is a fine one. Speaking accurately and effectively is, therefore, a delicate art, which one expects public speakers and writers to have mastered—but, of course, such figures frequently intentionally aim to conceal part of the truth. In my humble opinion, being intentionally misleading makes one “wicked”, to use James’ term, just as outright lying does. Being unintentionally deceptive reveals a certain inadequacy in a public figure, be it a politician or a journalist: if a small child can navigate these murky waters for her own purposes, as the “it broke” example above shows, a trained professional whose job it is to speak or write effectively definitely must be able to do so as well.

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