Monday, October 23, 2006

Misspeaking and Misthinking

The "I misspoke" excuse--currently being deployed by Alberto Fernandez--is common in politics. It's one of those claims that tends to provoke eye-rolling because it so often really translates as "HOLY SH*T did I ever f*ck up--and I got called on the carpet for it, AND HOW."

So it tends to be kind of a joke. Fernandez's case is a great example because it stretches the limits of credulity, and of the "misstatement" defense. There are, after all, limits to how big the gap can be between what you actually said and what you claim you meant to say. I can't, for example, say that you are a flaming fascist and then say that I misspoke, having meant to say that you are a sweetheart.

(My all-time favorite such defense is the "taken-out-of-context" defense. It's astounding how often this simple trick works. People don't seem to be capable of recognizing that some claims are just so patently false or otherwise defective that no fiddling with the context will save them. "Ignorance is strength" can't be salvaged by an appeal to context...unless of course you claim to have said it in the following context: "..... is false.")

In case you care--not that you should--I actually think that there is a phenomoenon related to misspeaking, that it happens all the time, and that we tend to fail to recognize it for what it is and identify it as such. We might call this phenomenon "misthinking."

People often mistakenly think that our ideas are completely worked out before we express them. But they often actually get worked out in the process of being expressed. Sometimes, that is, our thoughts don't come before our words--rather, they come into existence simultaneously. Often this turns out fine. But often such thoughts come out before they're ready. Half-baked. What we need is a convenient and reasonably face-saving way to call an intellectual/verbal do-over. I mean, it's not like this is illegal or anything, it's just that it's way less common than it should be. People should, I'd guess, expect to have to call such do-overs many times per day. We do, in fact, sometimes say that some assertion or other "didn't come out right," but that--to my ear--tends to suggest that the problem is one of tone rather than content.

Perhaps such do-overs aren't institutionalized because such quasi-slips-of-the-tongue are taken to be decent evidence of the speaker's actual thoughts. Dunno. That's just a conjecture.

But if we did allow frequent do-overs of this kind, we'd avoid a certain kind of problem. Currently, people often say things they ought to take back and revise...but once the thought is out there, they feel obligated to defend it--even if it takes them down the road to some conclusion they don't think they ought to defend. Then, as Emerson notes, we end up going on record in a certain way...others chide us if we try to revise our position...and we end up doggedly and reflexively defending something we'd never have chosen to defend under more nearly ideal conditions. And dialog and inquiry get bogged down as a result.

Well, anyway, none of this is going to help out Fernandez. He screwed up big time by speaking the truth that everybody's thinking about. The truth is too obvious and salient, and the administration has spent too long denying it for anyone to grant a do-over in this case. We're all thinking it, even everyone in the administration has to be thinking it by now...Fernandez is just the first one of them to say it. (The first one currently in the administration to say it, that is.) It's as if we were all standing around the crib thinking my god what an ugly baby...and then one of us blurts it out. No way anybody's going to buy the claim that it was a simple misstatement. Nor even that it was a misthinkment. Or whatever.

So there you go. That's all I got.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

People often mistakenly think that our ideas are completely worked out before we express them. But they often actually get worked out in the process of being expressed. Sometimes, that is, our thoughts don't come before our words--rather, they come into existence simultaneously.

Nice theory, too bad it's wrong. Truth is that the signal is already on it's way to the muscles in your throat before your "mind" has made the decision to say something. what we get reported back to us is an executive summary and like all CEOs we claim "I meant to do that."

Besides, you are missing what really happened. Fernandez got a little attitude adjustment from da boss.

Otto dangles Archie out a window

Archie: All right, all right, I apologize.

Otto: You're really sorry.

Archie: I'm really really sorry, I apologize unreservedly.

Otto: You take it back.

Archie: I do, I offer a complete and utter retraction. The imputation was totally without basis in fact, and was in no way fair comment, and was motivated purely by malice, and I deeply regret any distress that my comments may have caused you, or your family, and I hereby undertake not to repeat any such slander at any time in the future.

Otto: OK.

That's how it really went down. Deez guys, dey ain't da sub-tile type ya kno?

9:03 PM  
Blogger Random Michelle K said...

Heard any interesting bit on that this evening. This gist (but you'll want to listen to it yourself, since I was wiring a light switch at the time and slightly distracted) was that of course he meant to say it. The fact that he speaks candidly is what makes him so useful in the middle east. He apologized only so he could keep his job.

So what I took from it is that this guy is used to speaking candidly, and didn't expect these remarks to get translated for an American audience.

But again, I was rather distracted, so you'll want to listen for yourself.

( Go to US policy interview (5:00) U-S State Department official Alberto Fernandez has apologized for saying US policy in Iraq displayed "arrogance" and "stupidity" in an interview on Al-Jazeera. Anchor Lisa Mullins speaks with Marc Lynch, author of "Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics.")

10:08 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Arrogance and stupidity. You can't have a war without them.

I do think there's a component of the administration's character that forbids apology.

But I ran across a quote the other day (which I unfortunately can't recover) that accounts for not just the world situation, but the administration's opponents as well. (I thought of you, WS.)

It was along the line that those who deserve apologies aren't the type who require them, and those who don't deserve them are the ones who will take advantage of them.

If the Iraqis wanted peace, they'd have peace, and no amount of Bush's stupidity and arrogance could deter them.

10:50 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


Um, no, it's actually true. The mind often produces a vague or inchoate signal. Once the action is realized, it's often realized in ways we recognize to be sub-optimal.

Well, this could be false, but it probably isn't. Anyway, your signal remark doesn't refute the claim.

6:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps I ought to have included references for my claim that the body starts to act before the brain "chooses" to move.

Libet, B.1993. Exp. and Theoret. Studies of Consciousness 174: 123-146

P. Haggard, P., and Eimer, M. 199. Exp. and Brain Res. 126: 128-133

Velmans, M. 2003. J. Consciousness Studies 1-: 42-61

2:46 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


1. That wasn't the claim.

I said that we sometimes work our thoughts out while speaking, which entails that inchoate signals leave the brain and get actualized in particular ways in e.g. the mouth.

YOU said, rougly, "that can't be because the signal has to leave the brain first," and then I pointed out why that didn't matter.

Now you are pointing to studies that say that body parts move before the brain "chooses"

Which is, if anything, consistent with my claim, not yours.


2. If those are the studies I'm thinking of, they contain important confusions anyway. What they really show is that AFTER A PATTERN OF BEHAVIOR HAS BEEN HABITUATED our e.g. hands can move before the relevant parts of our brains light up.

Such studies are often taken to refute the claim that we have free will, but they don't. The results only apply to non-volitional, habitual behavior

3:50 PM  

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