The Eragon fantasy series I enjoyed as a child isn’t very good, but one aspect of its magic system is pretty interesting. Wizards use magic by speaking in an enchanted language, but the literal meaning of the words trumps the magician’s intent. A single word mispronounced during the blessing of an infant turns the child into a “shield against misfortune” rather than one “shielded against misfortune.” The child grows up to lead a hellish life, haunted by an irresistible compulsion to take the suffering of others upon herself.
This is the stuff of fantasy precisely because it’s not how language actually works. People get tongue-tied. They use terms that have different meanings in different contexts. They open their word-hoards and pull out the wrong ones. It happens.
Twitter trolls might act as if a single typo (or the verbal equivalent) invalidates the speaker’s entire argument, but in adult conversations, we show each other a little grace. To do otherwise is childish.
And yet, that tendency was on full display last week when Representative Debbie Lesko misspoke during a Wednesday floor speech opposing new gun control measures.
“I have five grandchildren. I would do anything, anything to protect my five grandchildren, including — as a last resort — shooting them, if I had to, to protect the lives of my grandchildren,” she said.
Huh? She’d shoot her own grandchildren to protect the lives of her grandchildren? That doesn’t make any sense. Clearly she meant to say something else. The “them” she said she’d shoot probably refers to an attacker. Now that makes sense. Let me just Google it real quick… yep. “Lesko told Reuters the word ‘them’ was ‘referring to violent criminals.’” Case closed.
See that? That’s how a rational person would process Lesko’s speech. Left-leaning Twitter users chose a different approach. Lesko “said she would shoot her own grandchildren to oppose a gun safety reform bill,” left-wing political commentator Brian Tyler Cohen wrote. This quickly became the dominant interpretation. “If they try to take her guns away from her, she would kill them,” one user explained. Others suggested that Lesko was mentally ill and should not be allowed to see her grandchildren. Even Atlantic staff writer Liz Bruenig, who knows better, got in on the fun, paraphrasing Lesko’s comments as “[I]’d shoot my own grandkids to oppose gun control.”
I tried to point out the obvious, but to no avail. Even if Lesko had intended to say something else, I was told, what she really meant, deep down, was that she’d kill her grandchildren for the sake of her gun rights. It was, at best, a Freudian slip. That’s just what Republicans are like. And if you dispute that interpretation, you’re one of them too.
If your opponent is merely possessed by devils, he might occasionally be able to speak his own words. When he does that, you should listen. But if your opponent is a devil, you must regard everything he says as evil. He is incapable of any other type of utterance.
One more example: when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, former President Barack Obama took to Twitter, outraged that the court would reverse “nearly 50 years of precedent.” Senator John Cornyn responded, “Now do Plessy vs Ferguson/Brown vs Board of Education,” pointing out that overturning precedent isn’t always a bad thing.
Elie Mystal of The Nation quickly shot back, “Look at this racist f*ck tweeting at the Black President about his desire to overturn Brown v. Board of Ed and return Black people to a state of segregation.” That’s not what Cornyn meant, and Mystal is smart enough to know that. Maybe. Actually, maybe not.
Well, I thought as I prepared to write this piece, maybe I’m just biased. Do I engage in the same bad-faith reading of Democrats’ words? Let me examine my conscience…no, I don’t. If I did, I’d insist that Joe Biden literally thinks there’s no such thing as a poor white kid. He also, I would claim, wants to amend the Constitution to abolish his own office — why else would he use the phrase “terminate the presidency”? He believes voting for Democrats in November would “restore woe” to our country. He even thinks the assassination of Shinzo Abe was the first gun murder in Japanese history.
(Those last three, by the way, are all from the same speech, which Biden delivered Friday.)
I’ll laugh at Biden’s malapropisms, but I’m not ideologically possessed enough to insist on taking the hyperliteral meaning of every word he says and then subjecting it to the least charitable interpretation possible. To do so is to exchange commitment to truth for a few cheap political points. It makes communication across party lines literally impossible. It’s a good way to turn yourself into a moron, a monster, or both.
I’m not pushing for some kind of centrist paradise where we split every issue 50/50 and sing Kumbaya. It’s okay to believe that the policies of your political enemies are evil and that their agenda must be totally eradicated if this country is to survive. But that doesn’t mean I have a philosophical pre-commitment to bad-faith reading.
I’ve long stopped believing there’s any way to restore civic discourse in this country. But this is an especially troubling symptom of its breakdown, and one we should try to avoid.