Words Have Power: On Speech Acts and Presidential Phone Calls

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

If only. It’s a lovely sentiment to try to convey to kindergartners, but the true fact is that words have tremendous power in our society. We make promises and commitments. We tell lies that hurt other people. In many ways, we define our reality through the words we use to describe it. We label others, and the label we apply to them changes them in our eyes and the eyes of others.

Linguists describe some phrases as “speech acts.” Actions that happen because of certain words that are spoken by certain individuals. I can go up to a couple of people and say, “I now pronounce you man and wife,” and those words lack any power. I have no authority to do that. But give me that authority and the right ceremony, and suddenly those words pack a punch that they wouldn’t have otherwise had.

Some speech acts are direct. I can ask my son to take out the trash. I can promise to pay you back for lunch. In these cases, it’s obvious to all what’s being discussed and what actions those words are intended to effect. True, I can break my promise, or my son can decide not to take out the trash, but that’s a separate issue.

Some speech acts are indirect. When my son is walking by, I can say, “The trash sure is getting full.” If he’s paying attention, he’ll likely understand that statement is an indirect request for him to take the trash out. I might even follow it up with a statement like, “It sure would be nice if someone took this trash out.” In a like manner, if I meet up with some friends, and one of them has an order of french fries they’re munching on, I could say, “Wow, those sure do look good.” Maybe I’d add, “I sure am hungry.” At no point in time will I have come right out and said, “Please give me some of your fries,” but the implication is there for anyone to see, plain as day.

It’s true, sometimes indirect speech acts fall on deaf ears. My wife might make an observation about how dirty the kitchen is. She might have meant I should mop the floor. Maybe I understand she thinks I should declutter it. Indirect speech acts are only as effective as the understanding between the people communicating. But make no mistake: they’re just as powerful and intentional as direct speech acts, under the right circumstances.

Of course, indirect speech acts also open the door for plausible deniability. The person saying those things can say he was kidding. He can say it was a misunderstanding. He can say he meant something else. If, for example, a candidate for office were to stand up and publicly say, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press,” then the implication is clear to all who hear that. “Russia, hack into whatever servers you need to and find those emails.” But there’s enough space between the person making the request and the intended audience that you can argue it wasn’t a serious request. He never thought they’d actually pay attention.

Remove that amount of space, and the room for misinterpretation plummets. Have a phone call with the new Ukrainian President, for example, and say, “The United States has been very very good to Ukraine.  I would like you to do us a favor. I would like you to find out what happened with Crowdstrike and the DNC hack. That whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible. The other thing, There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great.” What are you left with?

When someone in authority reminds someone who’s been receiving help from them that they’ve been receiving a lot of help, and then immediately asks that person for “a favor,” what’s really happening? Asking for a favor is a direct speech act. The threat (that they’ll stop getting help if they turn down the favor) is an indirect speech act, but very present nonetheless. The effect that favor had on its audience is quite clear from the conversation.

Does this matter? You’ll have Republicans tell you it’s immaterial. You’ll have Democrats tell you it’s treasonous. But what you’ve got on your hands is a person who keeps pushing the boundaries further and further into territory no politician should be anywhere near, regardless of their affiliation. I would be just as upset if Hilary Clinton did this. I wish people on both sides of the aisle would agree.

Trump has a very casual relationship with words. They mean one thing when he wants them to, and the same exact statement means something else when he wants it to, despite the fact it was given at the same time and place. That might work as a businessman. It doesn’t work as President of the United States, and it’s time he’s reminded of that fact.

Will this give the Republicans the fodder they need to reelect Trump? I don’t know. I’d like to think it will disgust the rest of the country to the point that no one but die hard Republicans will vote for the man. Make a group more and more narrow, and suddenly it matters a whole lot less what that group thinks, when it’s time for elections. But we won’t really know what kind of an effect that’s had until next November. I highly doubt any Republican controlled Senate will boot Trump from office, no matter the circumstances.

But for today, I’m just thinking about speech acts and the power of words.

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