Media/Entertainment

Clinton/Shuster brouhaha: beyond political correctness

The Clinton camp, Emily’s List and seemingly all of Left Blogistan are up in arms about an offhand comment MSNBC’s David Shuster made in discussing Chelsea Clinton’s role in her mother’s campaign. The furor led, this afternoon, to Shuster’s suspension by the network.

Here’s the clip in question:

So let me see if I can parse what’s really going in this case, and I’ll begin by saying that I have no relevant opinion on Shuster beyond this instance. I don’t watch him and for better or worse he’s not part of my media or news landscape.

Let’s start here: what do we really believe Shuster said?

Do we think he is suggesting that the Clintons are literally whoring their daughter out? That seems unlikely, right?

Do we believe this is what he actually thinks? Do we think this is what he intended to communicate?

Or do we understand him to mean there’s something not entirely kosher or appropriate about how the campaign is using Chelsea?

If the latter, then I take it we all pretty much know what he means, right? That is, we’re intelligent enough to understand that the term “pimping” can be used in multiple ways, and that we, being fluent speakers of contemporary English, get precisely the intent of the word as used in the context of his comments?

No, I don’t think any of us could be led to believe that he meant it as a compliment, but how far out of bounds would I be if I were to suggest that the furor we’re seeing this afternoon isn’t entirely honest, intellectually speaking? I mean, if this is the most appalling thing that is said during this campaign, we’ll know we’ve entered a new golden age of civility in political discourse.

Trust me, folks, I get the signification power of language. I spent plenty of time in doctoral seminars surrounded by people who could be described as radical constructionists – that is, they believe that socially speaking there’s damned near no such thing as actual, objective reality. It’s all – all – constructed, primarily through language. Language doesn’t just express thought, it dictates what can be thought. And so on.

So please, let’s have no lectures on the power of language, etc.

I get a little nervous when we wander so close to this precipice: what you intended is of absolutely no importance, even if I clearly understood it. The only thing that matters is who wins the ensuing media football game. This isn’t new, of course. It’s merely a public media bubbling up of an academic project that began decades ago with de Saussure and the Structuralists, and which has been force-marched to its illogical extreme by a generation or two of radical deconstructionism. There is no such thing as an individual. The subject is a myth. There is no such thing as authorial intent – because there is no such thing as an author. And so on.

Let me relate an illustrative story from several years ago. In a rampaging debate thread on one of my academic lists I got a little annoyed with something a prominent deconstructionist scholar had written (he wasn’t a member of this particular group). So I poleaxed his argument. Somebody on the list knew him (I think the person was a student at the university where he taught) and took my critique to him for comment.

The man’s response was a marvel to me at the time, and still is. In a nutshell he said that he wished he weren’t a post-structuralist/deconstructionist because he thought I was misinterpreting his words. But he couldn’t say I was wrong, because according to his philosophy he really couldn’t assert any ownership of his own intent.

Let me boil that down a bit. He said that I had more right to define the meaning of his writing than he did. I want you to think about this and apply it to your own world for a minute. Imagine living in a situation where your words can be twisted to mean anything and you have no recourse. You literally are not allowed to argue that what you meant matters.

Davis Shuster is not Don Imus, unless there are facts that I am as yet unacquainted with. Imus had established a context where it was impossible not to read “nappy-headed hos” as anything but more of the same. But I see no examples of Shuster as a misogynyst. In fact, it’s telling to read the Emily’s List statement linked above, which has to attack MSNBC not for the prior misdeeds of Shuster, but for its tolerance of bad behavior by other personalities. Surely if there were a bad-Shuster context we’d hear about it there, right? All of which leads me to the conclusion that people aren’t just overreacting, they’re doing so according to a fairly transparent agenda. No attempt is being made to participate in good-faith communication. Quite the contrary. This is about cynical political arm-wrestling.

I don’t have any particluar concern for Shuster, per se, but yes, I do have a dog in this fight. I write a lot, and I damned well have a vested interest in a world where I can own what I mean. We all know that the same words can be used in ways that are innocuous and offensive, and we understand which is which by resorting to inflection, tone, syntax, what we know about the speaker and the forum, and so on. If we choose to ignore these critical communication and meaning-making markers, then we can turn just about any statement into justification for a duel.

If we don’t rely on these meaning-making tools, then fuck everybody, because I can say anything and never be held accountable again, right? If I’m not in control of my meaning, you can’t blame me for anything, right? Right?

I don’t ever want to find myself in the position where I can be punked into oblivion because somebody has the power to assign meaning to my words that never existed. That’s part and parcel of a decades-long corrosive project of deconstructionism, and it does none of us any good.

Unless I’m missing something. And if I am, please enlighten me.

16 replies »

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  2. You’re not missing much, Sam. Shuster was careless, not misogynistic, and he should be allowed to apologize and continue doing whatever it is he does. Further, some Clinton folk are intentionally misinterpreting his point to garner the sympathy vote. I agree.

    But what you’re not mentioning is that we swim in a sea of misogyny, and that this word retains enough of its incendiary denotation connotation to require care in its use. No one is going to punk you into oblivion, but if you don’t want to demean women (or perhaps be misunderstood to be demeaning women), don’t use the term in a context amenable to such interpretation. Shuster did want to demean Hillary and Chelsea by accusing them of doing something shameful, and his choice of words sharpened that intention.

    On the larger point, I think you’re also missing the explanatory power of deconstructionist thought. Yes, it has sometimes been applied in a simple-minded way, but it’s a necessary corrective to an equally simple-minded understanding of language and its complex, culture-bound usage. As your good friend Barhtes said, “Denotation is not the first meaning, but pretends to be so; under this illusion, it is ultimately no more than the last of the connotations.”

  3. I agree. The brouhaha over Shuster’s comment is political posturing by Clinton and corporate cowardice by NBC. Anything for a headline, I suppose. Shuster looks like he’s fairly young. Too bad his career will take a hit for something that was ill-advised but hardly offensive — there’s a TV show called “Pimp My Ride” — while people like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, among others, make millions for being far more offensive on purpose. Sigh.

  4. I assume that what Shuster meant, when he said “pimping,” was something on the order of “an unseemly and smarmy sales technique.” He should be smart enough not to use the word when referring to women, of course, but I am like most of the previous posters in believing that he didn’t literally mean “soliciting for a whore.”

    Having said that, I think there’s a deeper issue here. It’s quite common in US politics for children to campaign for their parents. I believe Mitt Romney had five sons campaigning for him, if I recollect correctly. Why didn’t Shuster say that Romney’s sons were “pimping”? Why is it just the Clinton campaign that’s pimping someone, who happens to be a daughter? Why is it just Chelsea who’s doing something smarmy?

    I do believe that Shuster was revealing an unconscious prejudice against women taking roles in public life. I don’t think he should be fired for that. He’s certainly less misogynistic than Ann Coulter.

    I would feel a LOT better, however, if his apology (and he did need to apologize) acknowledged the underlying prejudice that must have sparked his words, and I’d feel even better if he went on to say that he will work tirelessly to erradicate this prejudice within himself.

  5. Sam,

    What happened to this dark, mysterious conspiracy you kept alluding to–that this was serving a transparent political agenda? C’mon, man, this tempest in a teapot has pissed you off enough that it’s taking bandwith away from genuinely important issues–don’t wuss out now!

  6. Yeah, Martin, you’re right. When there are forces at work that erode our ability to communicate meaningfully and in good faith, that’s not important at all. Understand, you’re mocking something that can easily be turned against YOU, too. You can be the next David Shuster. And this is, as one of my doc program professors used to say, a “testable hypothesis.”

    By the way, when we’re talking about major, long-term social trends, that doesn’t mean that we’re talking about conspiracies. Societies evolve naturally without conspiracies as various groups and interests act in what they perceive to be their own interests. Over a few decades these kinds of actions add up to real results.

    The transparent political motivation is, well, transparent, and if you’d like to go on record as being unable to imagine what I’m talking about, and what’s obvious enough to any number of others, please do so.

    Finally, if you’d like to address the actual issue, do so. If not, don’t. But resorting to an obvious misdirection like trying to paint me with the conspiracy theorist brush is intellectually dishonest and, as you like to tell others, is beneath you.

  7. I think that the whole thing should be put into context…which our news media seems to be incapable of.

    It does make sense that Chelsea would be out campaigning for her mother. But with the increasing prominence of the “youth” vote in this cycle, one would think that Chelsea would be barnstorming university campuses. In fact, the clip makes it look like Chelsea was out on the streets connecting with the young people.

    But this thing blew up over the fact that Chelsea was calling super delegates on behalf of her mother. What earthly reason would Chelsea Clinton have to talk to super delegates? (outside of brazen sympathy pleas to vote for mom)

    In full context, the word choice makes a lot more sense. However, it was still unseemly word choice for the context in which it was used. I’m a big fan of bad words, i like the emphasis that they can provide; i once, after tiring of hearing my HS Korean students misuse the word “fuck” one too many times, held a whole secret class on the word. I taught them how it can be used; what it really means; and what it can be used to mean. I figured if they were going to use it, they might as well know how to use it…and how their use of it would/could affect the listener.

    None-the-less, i see this more as another example of lowest common denominator America…and that, fundamentally, pisses me right the fuck off.

  8. Robert: Thanks for the comments. Now let me see if I can drag the conversation a level deeper.

    You’re not missing much, Sam. Shuster was careless, not misogynistic, and he should be allowed to apologize and continue doing whatever it is he does. Further, some Clinton folk are intentionally misinterpreting his point to garner the sympathy vote. I agree.

    I also see some people who aren’t related to the Clinton camp playing a broader game with the case, too, but you’re absolutely right.

    But what you’re not mentioning is that we swim in a sea of misogyny, and that this word retains enough of its incendiary denotation connotation to require care in its use. No one is going to punk you into oblivion, but if you don’t want to demean women (or perhaps be misunderstood to be demeaning women), don’t use the term in a context amenable to such interpretation. Shuster did want to demean Hillary and Chelsea by accusing them of doing something shameful, and his choice of words sharpened that intention.

    I agree that his point was clearly to poke at the Clintons, although I think I read the implications for Chelsea less as being less about shameful behavior and more about lacking the autonomy to make decisions and act on her own. That’s not a nice thing, either – clearly she’s an adult, not a puppet, and whatever she’s doing she’s doing because she wants to.

    And yeah, there’s a very good case to be made that Shuster should know better. You make a living with a microphone in front of your face you have to know there’s a 0% margin for error.

    But in the end, there’s malevolence and there’s carelessness, and we do ourselves no favors when we conflate the two. Every day it seems like people – Coulter, Limbaugh, Savage, and god knows how many others, for instance – act with clear malice aforethought and pay no price whatsoever. In other cases we demand the death penalty for jaywalking.

    So a little proportion is called for.

    On the larger point, I think you’re also missing the explanatory power of deconstructionist thought. Yes, it has sometimes been applied in a simple-minded way, but it’s a necessary corrective to an equally simple-minded understanding of language and its complex, culture-bound usage. As your good friend Barhtes said, “Denotation is not the first meaning, but pretends to be so; under this illusion, it is ultimately no more than the last of the connotations.”

    I’m not sure if you’ve read any of Katherine Hayles work, but she provides a really illuminating view of Barthes’ project in ch. 7 of Chaos Bound. In it she contrasts Barthes’ work with that of Claude Shannon, noting that for Shannon the goal was about maximizing signal and minimizing noise (logically, since Bell Labs was working to improve the quality of telecommunications). Barthes, though, came along at an age where things were getting tougher for students and scholars in literary studies. In a very real sense the waters were getting fished out.

    Before poststructuralism, literary criticism was confined to an accepted corpus of literary texts for subjective material. The body of texts remained essentially constant for decades, except for the influx provided by living writers; meanwhile, the academic literary establishment increased enormously. (Hayles, 189)

    In other words, the booming lit academy was running out of things to talk about. What could be said had pretty much been said.

    Into the breach comes Barthes and his poststructuralist contemporaries. And what happens is fascinating. If they can contrive to infinitely problematize every single word by dynamiting the idea that meaning is somehow unitary and universally knowable, then all of a sudden this looming institutional crisis is solved.

    In other words, Shannon was about the elimination of noise. Barthes was about the maximization of noise and the elimination of signal. There is certainly a fair argument to be made that prior to Barthes the making of meaning emerged from social and political structures that were racist, sexist, colonialist, etc. So there is an obvious level on which deconstructionist critiques of That Which Came Before are more than fair and accurate. But the radical solution has foisted upon a cure that often seems worse than the disease.

    As I was thinking about this last night it occurred to me that we might be seeing the same institutional dynamic playing out again, sort of. The academy had an institutional need for a larger textual field for analysis, and actions that corroded the possibility of clear meaning “solved” that problem. In the same way, it seems that our current inane and hellish media environment is also well-served by a corrosion of good faith meaning-making in communication. If everybody takes Shuster’s remarks as they were clearly intended, then we have very little uproar right now. Sure, the campaigns can snipe, but that’s just more of the same arcana that you get every day, and if that kind of thing sold then every left and right blog in America would be doing a million hits a day already.

    But if we can misconstrue Shuster’s meaning, then all of a sudden we have a controversial Bad Word®, and that = ratings.

    So I guess I’m willing to grant Barthes a measure of credit if his apologists will in turn acknowledge his role in helping erode our ability (and willingness) to understand each other when intent is crystal clear.

  9. Sam,

    If the movement’s so obvious and transparent, why aren’t you putting a name to it yourself? Why are you dancing around it? Maybe you, yourself, don’t want to get tarred by the same brush as Shuster.

    The actual issue is that the intent of comments like these IS crystal-clear–Shuster was crassly stating that Clinton was using her daughter as a “worker,” parading her around for the benefit of the campaign. Is that true? Absolutely? Is there anything wrong with it? No, it’s neither impolitic or unseemly, which was the other odd word Shuster used. He said something dumb and he got blasted for it.

    Turning him into some kind of martyr for the ability of people to speak plainly muddies the issue a lot more than anything he, himself, said. By all accounts, the guy is a solid reporter, and it’s a shame that he’s being sacrificed on the altar of impropriety when many of his colleagues–including MSNBC’s own Chris Matthews–have said far worse, far more often.

    If that’s the agenda you’re alluding to, then I agree–MSNBC is going hard on Shuster because he’s not as important as Imus or Chris Matthews are, and therefore gets less leeway. The network execs know that they’re in the hotseat for a continual wave of Hillary-bashing, and have to do something to demonstrate that they aren’t Faux News, if for no other reason than to try and salvage the potential ratings bonanza that would be an Obama/Clinton debate.

    As a writer myself, I know just as well as you do what happens when your work enters the public arena. It’s dissected, analyzed, argued over, recontextualized, and often twisted well beyond what you said. One great advantage of the instant communication engendered by the Internet is that it offers you an opportunity to correct quickly and efficiently–“No, that’s not what I’m saying. HERE’s what I mean.” But even then, people will approach any spoken or written word with their own biases, opinions, and attitudes in mind, and two people will interpret one written statement in their own unique way.

    That’s the risk you take as a communicator, as a creator. You build something larger than yourself, and you lose a portion of the rights to it when it enters the public sphere. Not ALL of it–that’s why George Lucas can fuck up the Star Wars prequels all he wants, or J.K. Rowling can decide Dumbledore is gay. It’s still theirs in the end, and we just go along with the ride. But you do give a bit of it away, opening yourself to larger analysis and exploration.

    Shuster’s a guy who said something dumb and is getting burned for it. His career should not be over because of this, and I would protest if it were. But he’s not a martyr for clear communication any more than Imus is.

  10. Martin, maybe I’m just guilty of thinking that things that are obvious to me are also fairly clear to others, but if not, let me state it more clearly. There are three issues at work, as I see it.

    1: The Clintons making hay for political reasons, as noted by a couple commenters above. Which is fine – that’s politics. I get it.

    2: A broader feminist play, as evidenced by the Emily’s List statement. This dynamic seeks to strengthen the lot of women – rightly so – and plays a hard-line game against anything that can be construed as misogynistic. Here you had a guy using “pimp” in a way that they see as broadly sexist, so they react. I do not see his comments in the same way, obviously. However, an advocacy group of any sort might seize on an issue that is less solid the same way it would on an issue that’s downright dire, because the goal is strenghtening its hand period. I don’t see the feminist angle here as being any different from what any number of other groups have done, and I do share the end goal around gender equity and fairness. But in this specific case, I see a backlash that is not in proportion to the event that touched it off. And that lack of proportionality bothers me, because I’ve always felt that over-reactions by such interests actually harm them in the long run by making it easier for their detractors to paint them as unreasonable.

    3: The issue I talk about in comment #8 above.

  11. Sam,

    Okay, now I get you, especially in regards as to #2. When you’re a member of [insert particular group], everything is going to look like an affront to you, and if you’re viewing everything through the lens of [insert particular group], you’ll start seeing offenses where there may not be any.

    I still disagree with your central point, but the concern you bring up is a valid one. Ultimately, though, careless sexism/racism/ageism/whateverism can be just as bad as full-throttle misogyny and bigotry, because the subject has prejudices ingrained so deep in them that they may not even realize what they’re saying is foul. To them, it’s just the way it is.

    So, to me, Shuster was still wrong, much as Chris Matthews is wrong, and so on. The proportion of the reaction to the offense is worth observing, though, particularly if he actually loses his job over it.

  12. I don’t want to overstate the case or overgeneralize, but we live in an age where being greatly affronted on a national stage is a proven route to a certain type of power. Seriously, who in their right mind wants to offend a large group of people when that group has the power to damage a career?

    I can’t lump Shuster with Matthews. I’m not expert on Tweety, but my sense is that there’s something of an established record there. If I establish a rep for pushing a certain line and maybe crossing it a little on occasion, when I really flop across it my record is going to do nothing to damn me.

    Shuster appears to have ZERO record of misogynistic behavior – at least, if he has such a record I haven’t seen it yet.

    So we’re talking about two people with fundamentally different contexts. And I’m one of these people who thinks context matters quite a lot.

  13. Martin, maybe I’m just guilty of thinking that things that are obvious to me are also fairly clear to others,

    Sam, surely you can’t mean this? Take the word “productivity,” which was popular in the late 80s when used to express to US employees how important it was to produce ever more quality and quantity for ever less money. I used to have to do semantic differential surveys, at great cost, to prove to executives that, while “productivity” meant “greater prosperity,” “job security,” “personal fulfillment,” to them, it often meant “harder work,” “fewer breaks,” “more management pressure,” and “an ever-worsening work environment” to employees. Heck, go back to the Hawthorn experiments and read the actual reports. The wire bank assembly room actually resisted all the changes and incentives, and became LESS productive because of their interpretation of what was actually going on (despite the myth). They did so because they interpreted the objectives as being a ratcheting up of work rules and goals.

    The deconstructionists are wrong in their assertion that words have no meaning, but it is clear to me that words are useful, or not useful, only in the way that they are interpreted by various audiences who “hear” them. In communication aimed at producing action, frankly, that’s all that counts.

    I can’t believe that you would think that what seems obvious to you would be interpreted the same way by others, regardless of their backgrounds, the context in which they hear the words, or other material factors.

  14. JSO: I don’t mean to suggest that things are always obvious to me, of course, or that I always assume that if it’s that clear to me, etc. Your “productivity” example is apt, and I’ve certainly been fortunate to learn hard lessons about the difference between what comes out of my mouth and what enters people’s ears. 🙂

    But this is perhaps a fault of mine, because sometimes I guess I do think some things are (or ought to be) obvious. In THIS case, the #1 and #2 issues I identify above seemed pretty transparent to me. Seriously – we’re looking at what happened and what the response was, and the motivations struck me as straightforward.

    This aside, though, we all make assumptions, when we speak, about how much the audience knows, what it thinks, how much it agrees with us, etc. This is why when we make point A we make it quickly and move on, but we make point B and we spend some time elaborating. We assume in the case of B that the reader needs more explaining.

    And just as obvious, I guess, is the fact that our estimations are sometimes wrong, and I’m as guilty as anybody on that front. Maybe moreso. In this case, I didn’t bother explaining a piece of my thinking and I was wrong about what Martin grokked.

    So no, I don’t always make that assumption, I just made a certain assumption in this case, and turned out to be wrong.

  15. Hillary Clinton actually sent a letter to MSNBC calling for Shuster’s firing. She’s desperate.