Friday, February 23, 2007

Spin and Gaffes

An essay by Michael Kinsley in Time, "Gaffes to the Rescue," offers some interesting insights into the public utterances of politicians. It's sad to think what it must be like to follow a profession in which you have to manipulate your words (spin) in furtherance of your quest for power and control, while at the same time you have to be ever vigilant not to say something that can get you in trouble or possibly even chased off the field (gaffes).

Kinsley gives some useful definitions of "spin" and "gaffe" in his essay:

"Spin is often thought to be synonymous with falsehood or lying, but more accurately it is indifference to the truth. A politician engaged in spin is saying what he or she wishes were true, and sometimes, by coincidence, it is. Meanwhile, a gaffe, it has been said, is when a politician tells the truth--or more precisely, when he or she accidentally reveals something truthful about what is going on in his or her head. A gaffe is what happens when the spin breaks down."

Kinsley uses recent examples of gaffes by Jacques Chirac, Joseph Biden, and Barbara Boxer, but some classic examples of gaffes that come to my mind are two that seriously derailed the political careers of the utterers:

+ Al Gore's statement that he was one of the people in the legislature who took the initiative providing the funding to build the Internet -- which somehow got twisted around to make it look like he was taking credit for inventing the Internet

+ Trent Lott's tribute to Strom Thurmond, in which he said things probably would have been better if Thurmond had been elected as President -- which always sounded to me like one of those things good ol' boys say to each other at banquets to make each other feel good. Seems pretty unlikely that Lott had in mind endorsing Thurmond's long-ago segregationist stance.

I think there's a lot more to say about spin, which I plan to write about in the future. But in brief I think my point will be that spin is employed much more often than we acknowledge, in all kinds of situations, and can be very hard to identify and expose. I think it is often used as a tool to gain power by rhetorical intimidation.

This takes place in all kinds of arenas -- including more public arenas such as politics, academia, science, and marketing -- but also in groups and interpersonally.

AB -- 23 February 2007