We have a growing mass of public figures in politics and government who increasingly communicate in sloppy, vague, hyperbolic and ambiguous language and assume that they can wait and see how the public reacts to it before they, their spokespersons, defenders, enablers or friendly pundits need to clarify what they “really meant.”
Well, the hell with that.
Communication precision is more crucial than ever in the new, technology-driven public media, when tweets can be circulated to millions within minutes, and on-camera statements live on YouTube forever. This habit of allowing influential figures to spout lies, nonsense , smoking gun revelations about their character and worse and then insist on a do-over when they are called on the obvious meaning of their own words must stop. Among other things, it appears to be killing the little switch in the brains of these people that is supposed to stop human beings from saying stupid things before they say them. That switch goes by the name Prudence, which encompasses common sense, respect, responsibility, restraint, honesty in communication, and more. We should want our leaders to have that switch working perfectly. Unfortunately, most of our most prominent leaders and would-be leaders appear not to have a functioning switch at all.
Thus we have statements that are completely re-interpreted by the news media after occurrences relevant to the irresponsible statement. Over the weekend, an ISIS recruitment video surfaced that featured Donald Trump making one of his imprudent, blathering statements. In the last Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton stated that Trump’s verbal bombs were being used to recruit ISIS members, which was either a mistake or a lie: her words were not equivocal. Nonetheless, her defenders rushed to explain that what she meant was that his words could be used by ISIS. Now that they have been so-used, ABC’s Good Morning America co-host Dan Harris suggested Hillary Clinton “may actually have been right” about ISIS videos featuring Trump, while reporter Mary Bruce said Hillary “predicted” Trump “would become” recruitment fodder.
No, that’s not what she said, nor is it true. She might have given ISIS the idea of using Trump, since her statement came before the video was made. But a Presidential candidate should not be giving free marketing advice to brutal terrorist organizations, so of course she didn’t say that. You know…what she actually said.
Admittedly, the Ethics Alarms new rule for 2016 will affect Hillary Clinton more than everyone else combined, because she makes statements that need to be re-composed after the fact virtually every time she opens her mouth. For example, when she tweeted, “Every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported,” she only meant that only those who really were assaulted have the right to be believed, while other accusers, like those who accuse her husband of sexual assault, don’t. This re-interpretation is like saying that all accused criminals should be sent to jail, but only if they committed the crime. It’s a tautology, and not worth saying or tweeting. Never mind! That’s what Hillary “meant.” Just like when she said that she never, ever EVER, kept classified material on her server, she meant that she never kept classified material that was marked classified, and when it is conclusively shown that this isn’t true either, we will be told that she meant to say that she never kept classified material that was appropriately marked classified.
See how it works?
In a sillier, non-Hillary example, Carly Fiorina sent out the most insultingly obvious piece of pandering in recent history when she authored a pre-Rose Bowl tweet announcing that she had suddenly become an Iowa football fan despite having every reason to root for Iowa’s opponents in the game, her alma mater, Stanford. After her betrayal received exactly the on-line contempt it deserved, Fiorina explained that her tweet didn’t mean what it meant.
Before I give you the signature significance, revolting and unethical Fiorina response, here’s what an ethical, trustworthy candidate would say in response to criticism for…well, acting like Hillary Clinton, who infamously told New Yorkers that she had “always” been a Yankee fan when she first ran for the U. S. Senate in New York, when it was screamingly obvious that she had never been a Yankee fan.
Fiorina should have said that her critics were right, that her tweet was pandering, that she is of course a Stanford rooter, and that she apologizes to her alma mater, its students, grads and fans, and also Iowans. She could add that political campaigns can warp judgment and values in the heat of competition when teh stakes are so high, and that this happened to her. She would then promise to do better, and never forget that a victory means nothing if one has to abandon integrity and honesty to achieve it.
Wouldn’t that be refreshing and impressive?
Nah! Here’s what Fiorina, who really is awful, decided was the right way to handle the matter. She told CNN…(my commentary is in bold):
“Can’t a girl have a little fun? [ Thus playing the gender card that Carly has said should never be played] That was a tongue-in-cheek tweet [The Joke Excuse, Rationalization #54] , which the people of Iowa understand, because I was asked over and over again in Iowa, having attended a Hawkeye tailgate. [ Obviously a lot of Iowans didn’t understand, and thus she is calling those who called her on her pandering too dim to get her clever “tongue in cheek” gag.] They knew that my heart was torn, that I had said something really controversial, like, you know, ‘ISIS is a JV team,’ or, ‘This demonstration was a result of a video,’ ” she said, referring to comments made by President Obama and Democratic primary front-runner Hillary Clinton, respectively. [ Rationalizations #2. Ethics Estoppel, or “They’re Just as Bad” and #22. The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.”] Let’s just say, if the biggest mistake I make is a tongue-in-cheek tweet about a Rose Bowl, the American people will sleep safely when I’m president of the United States. [Ugh.]I guess it was a slow news day for the media. [ Thus blaming the victim. And besides, if you didn’t know about the tweet, it wouldn’t matter! That’s #10. The Unethical Tree in the Forest, or “What they don’t know won’t hurt them.” ]
Wow—dishonesty, arrogance, blameshifting, insults.
If candidates and elected officials know that in 2016 they will have to deal with the meaning of their words and not the spin they put on their careless statements afterwards, maybe they’ll practice a skill they need be better at anyway: thinking.