Sarah Palin has been unsurprising in her criticisms of Barack Obama’s credentials and policies, fulfilling the traditional role of the vice presidential candidate being the most aggressive and pointed rhetorical attacker in a campaign. But a closer look at her deliberate use of vernacular and language reveals that she has gone far beyond any other candidate in vice presidential history in the dangerous and irresponsible implications of her attacks. She has phrased her attacks on Obama in a way that avoids accountability to the press while specifically addressing the subset of her audience who are most likely to advocate extreme actions against Obama.
Code Switching, Oprah, and Straight Talk
Palin has been hammering home this alleged link between Obama and terrorism for weeks. And there’s a deliberate intellectual dishonesty of using the plural form of “terrorist” for describing what was meant to be an allusion to William Ayers alone.
But just as telling as her assertions is the way in which she phrases them. Obama is not consorting with terrorists, in her formulation, he’s palling around with them. I’m not one of those overbearing language nerds who’s chiding her for using informal speech; instead, I want to point out a deliberate and telling choice of grammar that she’s employed.
Linguists use the phrase “code switching” to refer to the act of using more than one language when speaking. As someone who grew up in a multilingual household, I’m intimately familiar with code-switching, and one of the most interesting traits about the practice is not merely how easy it is for people to switch language on the fly, but rather how the choice of language actually informs the meaning and the nuance of the words being said.
This gets even more pronounced if we use an expansive definition of the idea of “code switching” and include switching between dialects of the same language. Then, we can look at some familiar examples to learn from them.
For example, Oprah Winfrey is an extremely successful businesswoman, obviously well-versed in the General American or Standard American English that’s the language of business in this country. But Oprah regularly and effortlessly code switches to AAVE (also known as “Black English” or, to its detractors, ebonics) on her show or in various media appearances. Though her use of the dialect is clearly sincere and authentic, it’s also obviously a savvy way to stay connected to audiences with whom she wants to maintain a particular resonance or credibility. In short, code switching is an efficient way to target a particular message to a particular group without explicitly telling the world that’s who you’re speaking to. The context makes it obvious.
We see George W. Bush do the same thing regularly, as well. No man who has an MBA from Harvard and grew up among the most privileged families in the United States can be unaware that “smoke ’em out” isn’t Standard American English. That’s not to say his use of folksy sayings is merely a put-on, but rather that it’s a linguistic choice he makes in some settings, and with the same goal as Oprah: He’s speaking directly to a particular audience in a way that resonates with them as credible, and signifies to others that they’re not the target audience for his words.
In the case of Sarah Palin, this strategy has been taken to its logical extreme. Where John McCain used the phrase “straight talk” in his 2000 campaign to represent the idea of telling the unvarnished truth, without regard to the actual grammar of the statements themselves, Palin has changed the meaning of the phrase slightly. In her formulation, “straight talk” is not so much about the clarity of the points being made, but rather a signifier of the dialect in which she is offering up her talking points.
I’m not speaking solely of the North Central American dialect, though Palin’s use of what’s often referred to as “the Fargo accent” is of course one of her most distinctive verbal traits. In fact, you can see her attenuate how pronounced that accent is based on where and when she’s speaking; In front of large crowds in rural areas it tends to be pretty strong, and when she’s on TV with an interviewer (or on Saturday Night Live), she dials it back. Those attenuations are normal, and any of us who’ve ever done any public speaking in different circumstances know that we adapt our language to the audience we’re addressing.
Others have criticized Palin for her language. I have no interest in taking her to task over the fact that many of her statements lack a clear structure or that she often reverts to rambling, run-on sentences. The truth is, coherent, cogent public speaking, especially trying to tailor one’s speech to sound bites, is a difficult skill that must be practiced. I don’t fault Palin for not being expert at it yet, and in fact even when her syntax is tortured, the general point she’s trying to make is often still very clear.
Rather, the most dramatic technique in Sarah Palin’s speeches is the use of vernacular to mask the seriousness of an assertion. Sarah Palin cloaks her ideas in “straight talk” to avoid them being subject to fact-checking that would happen if she were to use standard english to make the same points.
Saying It Plainly
Put simply, if Palin says “Barack Obama consorts with terrorists”, she is making the assertion that he supports acts of violence against American citizens and the media will refute this obviously false assertion. If, instead, Palin says he “pals around with terrorists”, she’s used code-switching to mask the seriousness of the charge, obfuscating her meaning enough to get away with making an assertion that inevitably calls for the imprisonment or even assassination of a political opponent.
This clever use of language only hides Palin’s meaning from members of the press. Because writers for traditional media are usually highly educated and pride themselves on their mastery of Standard American English, they can often look down on dialects like AAVE and North Central English. Instead these forms of language being seen as legitimate and interpreted in the social context where they’ve formed, they’re dismissed as being the words of “people who don’t even speak proper English!” In the cases where the ideas aren’t outright dismissed, there is still rampant misinterpretation of meaning: Reporters wrongly see a term like “palling” as imprecise, when compared to a word like “consorting”.
But these words are not imprecise to their intended audience. They are, in fact, clearer than using legalistic terms like “consorting”. They amplify the urgency of the statements, and increase the sense for Palin’s audience that they’re on the same page with her, speaking a language too “plain”, too full of “straight talk”, for the press to understand. And they’re right. Palin has consistently pitted herself against the media, depicting them as hostile and foreign to her campaign, and thus making it even less likely they’d take her less formal-sounding charges seriously.
On top of this, by deliberately omitting the word “domestic” as a descriptor of “terrorist” after its initial mention in her speeches, Palin has amplified the recurring theme of “otherness” that the McCain campaign and its surrogates have pinned on Obama. There is an unequivocal attempt to assign a commonality of purpose and intent between Obama, his supporters and campaigners, and terrorists who would attack Americans.
This is especially telling because “domestic terrorism” hasn’t been raised, by Sarah Palin or anyone else, as an issue that the McCain campaign is genuinely concerned about. There has been no mention of Joel Henry Hinrichs, or Jim David Adkisson, or even Timothy McVeigh. There is not a single mention of domestic terror on the McCain campaign website except in reference to William Ayers. So it’s impossible to assert that Palin is introducing this term to raise the issue of security for Americans; It exists only in the context of attacking Obama and inciting a specifically targeted subset of her audience to see him as deserving of imprisonment or violence.
I firmly believe that Sarah Palin is a smart, talented public speaker who makes deliberate choices about her use of language to elicit particular responses from different segments of her audience. She’s college-educated and has been a professional broadcaster, understanding the nuances of addressing a large audience. She is certainly experienced enough to understand that signifiers like “hockey mom” and “Joe Six Pack” are explicitly communicating to an audience that is white, overwhelmingly not college educated, and lives in rural or suburban areas.
I know because I’ve been part of that audience. I grew up in an overwhelmingly white part of rural and suburban Pennsylvania, the very same place that many of these attacks are being leveled. I was coincidentally in Greensboro, North Carolina on the same day that Palin first talked about “Real America”. I don’t have a college education, and I’ve spent a lot of time around highly-educated professional writers working for the biggest media organizations in the world, and seen their attitudes about language, dialect and vernacular within our country. I’ve done enough public speaking myself to understand how important word choice, and use of slang, and choice of accent is when speaking to different groups. And it’s obvious to anyone who knows American culture why Palin wouldn’t identify as a “basketball mom” or talk about “Joe Forty Ounce”. These things are not accidents.
So we see a simple pattern emerge:
- George W. Bush uses informal language like “smoke ’em out” when referring to targeting terrorists, setting the precedent of such terms being not only appropriate for the conversation, but in fact binding as policy.
- Bush, Palin and the Republican Party keep most media outlets on the defensive by consistently distancing the media with both fair assertions of bias and unfair attacks on the journalistic imperative to act as a check to political power.
- Palin sets a tone from her very first national speech where her deliberate use of vernacular explicitly connects her to rural white Americans.
- Palin defines Obama as linked to terrorism, ignoring the actual issue of domestic terrorism in favor of a context which is most likely to inspire radical elements of her audience to pursue the Bush policy of striking at friends of terrorists before they have attacked.
- Palin presses the argument using language that the mainstream press cannot grasp firmly enough to refute or highlight as incendiary.
I believe the vast majority of supporters of the campaign of John McCain are honorable, honest, well-intentioned and sincere Americans who want what’s best for this country. And I believe that all of us, regardless of party affiliation or political support, deserve better than someone who cynically twists language to inflame and incite the very worst elements of our culture. That’s why it’s important to point out the danger of these actions.
Sarah Palin’s conduct has gone far past the bounds of decency, and far past even the most dangerous efforts of any previous candidate for such high office. This is an inexcusable, unforgivable, and unacceptable transgression and my belief is that she should be removed from consideration for the office of Vice President for her dangerous, unethical and unamerican display of irresponsibility.