Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Wright Con Text

Why is it that every time a public figure gets in trouble for something s/he said in the past, the modal excuse is, “taken out of context?” Let’s parse that.

If I were deploying the context excuse, I would be saying some or all of these things:

1. Were it not for journalistic knavery or ineptitude, I would not have been so sorely misunderstood. Ergo A: the media is always to be blamed.
2. Had my words been properly placed in context, what I said would have been utterly unobjectionable. Ergo B: I am always right.
3. Any string of words, with enough words restored before and after it can have its meaning altered and even reversed. Ergo C: Words can mean everything, and therefore nothing.

Propositions A, B, and C evidence the worse kind of rhetorical relativism to which our political culture stridently trends. Public figures do not take responsibility for their words (and those who defend them argue that they have been woefully “taken out of context”). They are contemptuous of their interlocutors’ ability to perceive their disingenuousness. (“Depends on what the meaning of ‘is,’ is”) Most toxically, the perennial recourse to “context” perpetuates a culture that permits and rewards rhetorical stunts calculated to deceive. Anything can mean anything, with just enough verbal trickery. Rev Jeremiah Wright is the latest disciple of this well-trodden path. For someone who purports to teach the Word, he is mighty versed in its elaborate and variable meanings.

All too often today, context is sought not to clarify but to throw a smokescreen over what was previously said. Only in politics and public life are we so frequently invited to read between and across the lines so that we may be confounded by them.

Update of May 6: See a piece I submitted to the Wesleyan Argus on Wright's impact on Obama's campaign.

No comments: