On letting implicatures do the dirty work

Geraldine Ferraro has been widely and rightly criticised for saying the following:

“If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position,” she continued. “And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.” 

But now let’s look closely. “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position”. True. In the very, very basic sense that one’s racial identity has a huge effect on one’s life, no mater what sort of life that is. And in politics, where one’s personal narrative is part of what one is selling, that is especially obvious. “And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position.” Again, true, because one’s gender identity also has a huge effect, etc. “He happens to be very lucky to be who he is.” Sure, he’s lucky to be who he is– an immensely successful, immensely talented individual. “And the country is caught up in the concept.” Certainly true for a lot of the country.So nothing false was said.

But– what she conveyed (via implicatures, if one wants to get technical) was that Obama was undeserving of his successes. That his successes were solely a result of his race. And that being non-white is a huge and undeserved stroke of luck in America. All false. And all so offensive and obviously false that nobody would explicitly say them. But all very clearly what she wanted to convey, and what she does convey (to at least many people). And when she is called on her offensive utterance, she can insist that she said nothing false. She let her implicatures do that dirty work.

11 thoughts on “On letting implicatures do the dirty work

  1. I am so disappointed and angry with the Clinton campaign I don’t even know where to begin. I am just stunned that in 2008(!) a democratic(!) candidate the president would employ the despicable racist strategies that Clinton has employed.

  2. And the whole irony is that you could say exactly the same thing about Hillary Clinton, which then would use sexist impicatures and just as wrong…

    “If Hillary was a white man, she would not be in this position,” we could say. “And if she was a man (of color) she would not be in this position. She happens to be very lucky to be who she is. And the country is caught up in the concept.” Oh, and we could add, “and she was not married to a former President, she would not be in this position.” and on and on we could go…

    It’s sad that the Clinton campaign is stooping to these attacks. I just hope that Obama isn’t going to start doing the same… That would be one ugly (and completely self-destructive) fight.

  3. I have to confess being a bit confused by the outrage directed at Geraldine Ferraro and Gloria Steinem. While I agree with the analysis of Ferraro as using implicature to do the dirty work–suggesting that Obama does not deserve to be where he is, I also agree with Steinem that had Obama been a Black woman, he would not be where he is. Why is that racist? Furthermore, to claim that Americans prefer men to women as presidents, including a Black man over a white woman, due to sexism, does not, it seems to me, imply that one thinks that sexism is somehow worse than, or more entrenched than, racism. It simply states that in that particular context–the context of choosing heads of state or commander’s in chief–sexism seems to be more of a barrier than racism. Things might be totally different when it comes to, for instance, one’s experience in dealing with the police, etc. I think a generous interpretation of Ferraro’s remarks would take her as making exactly this point–that when it comes to prominent positions of political leadership, Americans judge being a man to be of utmost importance.

  4. No one here is talking about Steinem. It is pretty obvious to anyone paying attention to the context in which her remarks were made that the Clinton campaign has decided to appeal to white racists in Pennsylvania, just as they did in earlier contests. That is what is outrageous.

  5. The outrage is because these aren’t mere “suggestions” made as a part of random musing. On a factual basis, yeah, they’re probably true, but only because mixing up life factors randomly is always likely to produce a different result. How technically correct they are is soooo not the point.

    They are attacks designed specifically to diminish the effects of racism. If this was said by the Obama camp with the words changed (as Rachel suggests), it would be designed to diminish the effects of sexism. This isn’t rocket science, and of course, that’s the point — so that your average blue collar worker who thinks that affirmative action stole their job away will relate and agree.

  6. Are implicatures the same as what are called “dog whistles,” do you think. The latter is a message that a person does not notice for what it is unless the person has a certain level of awareness, social consciousness or education. Dog whistles, for example, are pitched high enough that usually only dogs hear them.

  7. I wish I could comment more knowledgeably on the racism and sexism coming out of the two camps, and I’m worried that many of us are relying on press reports.

    It’s tempting to think that everything noteworthy that happens is some how planned by the top person, but that’s probably not right. Even adults often behave like little children. You know, you’re sometimes told not to tell a small child before a party, “don’t mention X,” because then that’s the first thing they’ll say. Very unfortunately, adults are too similar. Tell them not to say anything remotely racist and you’ve focused their attention on the issue of race.

  8. Yes, I agree with this blog post. Geraldine Ferraro’s implications were definitely an appeal to racists and a way to falsely assert that Obama’s talents are not why he has achieved what he has.

  9. 2nd Anon– one could indeed take the position that racism and sexism pose different barriers, with sexism being more of a barrier to political success in the US than racism. But this would be tough to defend, given the composition of the US senate.
    JJ– yes, there could be an element of “don’t mention the war!” (Fawlty Towers) in some of this, but Ferraro has made the same claim more than once.
    4th Anon– I think some implicatures are dog-whistles, but I don’t think these are. The reason is that the message of the implicatures is clear to *everyone*. There’s nothing sneaky about that. What’s sneaky is the way that the speaker leaves open the possibility of defending herself by retreating to the literal content of what she said and insisting that it is only that which she meant/is committed to. So I think it’s a different, though related maneuver. (I’m actually really interested in both these sorts of maneuvers, and would welcome further thoughts!)

  10. Jender – the reason I was thinking they could be “dog whistles” is because I suspect there are people for whom the Ferraro comment made lots of sense and the implications of it were missed. I know for me, working in a university means I forget how differently I hear things than some neighbors and family members. My son told me, while I was writing my dissertation, that I no longer knew “how to think like a normal person,” and he meant it. I first saw “dog whistles” mentioned on Metafilter.

  11. There are many possible implicatures for Ms. Ferraro’s statement. You chose one of them and an unlikely one in my opinion: you chose the one involving anti-black racism.

    The fact that you cannot see other implicatures, and more plausible ones at that, does not mean that Ms. Ferraro is a racist. The racism is in your mind, not hers.

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