This presidential campaign is historic in many respects but as oratory it is not different from others; verbal combat is waged under the dual canopy of context and perspective.
Context, the environment of communication, always affects a candidate’s meaning; the same word in one context has a different, conflicting and even contradictory meaning in another.
I grew up in the negro section of Mobile, Alabama at a time when Jim Crow was alive and well. We said “nigger” a lot, referring to one another and people we knew; it carried a strong impact; like a drum beat it punctuated our funning. That environment exists to this day among blacks, young and old, but society is more open than it was and in this larger socially shifting multi-ethnic context “nigger” is abhorrent. The sound penetrates like a stiletto, cuts like a knife; use of the word, especially by politicians, reflects adversely back on the speaker. Public figures may not use the word but must only refer to it as “the N-word.”
Context affects meaning not only in the political arena but also culturally. Music, because it is extra-linguistic, exhibits a direct impact of context on meaning. Listen to the context Beethoven imposes on an old folk tune, “Hymn to Joy,” in the final movement of his “Choral” Symphony. Or listen to Ray Charles’s jazz-baroque rendition of “America the Beautiful,” our unofficial but musically superior national anthem. And I invite you to listen to the CD “Going Home” (Decca, 2007) where, for example, Morris Robinson (the Jessye Norman of bassos) renders the plaintive gospel lyrics by Dottie Rambo, “He Looked Beyond My Faults,” to the familiar Irish melody “Londonderry Air” (aka “Danny Boy”) backed by jumpy rhythmic percussions. I guarantee you’ll thank me for the referral and you’ll learn the power of context.
Situational ethics was popular back when I was in college. It meant that a right act could be made wrong by the situation or context, e.g. giving a needle to a heroin addict, and a wrong act could be rendered right by a change in context, e.g. when a parent spanks a child for playing with matches.
Context affects meaning but not visa versa.
Meaning also depends and changes according to perspective—the position from which one sees phenomena. Perspective determines, to some extent, what one sees.
The best illustration I can think of for this fact lies in the realm of democratic governance.
It goes without saying that the conservative approach differs from the liberal approach and the reason is a difference in perspective. The conservative perspective is based on “rigorous standards…classical education, hard-earned knowledge, experience and prudence”; it springs from “immersion in the best that has been thought and said” (quotes extracted from a Sept. 16 column by David Brooks of the New York Times).
Liberal governance, by contrast, does not view classical education, experience and prudence as qualifying attributes and although the liberal perspective is familiar with, it is less reverential toward “the best that has been thought or said.” Liberal governance attends more to its extension, enhancement and even-handedness than to its efficiency, it values bold experiment above prudence.
It goes without saying that the Republican Party of today is not conservative nor is today’s Democratic Party liberal; both are perversions of their philosophical roots and both deny it. This cannot be explained by the often asserted non-sequitur: We live in an imperfect world. The sad fact is that governance in our two-party system bears little resemblance to the Constitution that set it in place. It’s like a fish between two cats. The perspective of the party in power entices it to do anything to stay and the party not in power sees no limit to its efforts to seize power; public interest, as perceived by political parties, takes third place after corporate interest and power.
Marvin Chachere is a San Pablo resident.