Tag Archives: linguistic theory

Donald Trump and Jacques Derrida

This year’s presidential contest has once again started me thinking about language – specifically postmodern language theory.

I know that must seem odd. Most people quite sensibly go straight to the content of a candidate’s statement. What candidates say is considered much more important than how they say it.

Language philosophers, on the other hand, claim that language choices can be just as interesting as the content of a statement. Sometimes those experts are dismissed as ivory-tower types who are playing an academic game with no relevance to real life.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

My musings about postmodern language issues began last week when candidate Donald Trump took a controversial position about abortion in an exchange with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews:

Trump: “There has to be some form of punishment.”
Matthews: “For the woman?”
Trump: “Yes.”

After a huge outcry, Trump reversed himself, declaring that punishment should be reserved for doctors who perform the procedure.

Meanwhile, another controversy was brewing over Trump’s habit of speaking to news pundits by telephone. Chris Wallace of FOX News has spoken out against this practice, insisting that candidates appear on camera if they want to talk to him. The reason? A telephone makes it too easy for candidates to get surreptitious coaching from advisors sitting near the phone.

What do these two apparently unrelated news stories have to do with postmodernism? A lot.

Chris Wallace is taking a Platonist position about language: When someone speaks to you in person, you’re seeing the real deal. In postmodern terms, face-to-face conversation has presence – it is “written on the soul.”

That advantage of presence is lost when we take the time to chew over an idea, revise it, and restate it. Language activities disconnected from the warm breath of living speech are characterized by absence. So, for example, writing is suspect because it allows authors to calculate the effect of each word before it reaches its audience.

The terms absence and presence come from postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida. In his essay “Plato’s Pharmacy,” he noted that Western thinking has a strong preference for presence. We think it’s common sense to prefer the spontaneous authenticity of speech to the dispassionate thought processes of someone who’s writing. (Similarly many voters prefer the shoot-from-the-hip pronouncements of Donald Trump to the carefully measured positions of Hillary Clinton.)

Trump modified his statements about abortion when both pro-life and pro-choice advocates came after him.  He explained that he’d been speaking to Chris Matthews off the cuff about multiple topics and didn’t have time to think through his position on abortion.

In Derridean terms, presence betrayed Donald Trump, as it sometimes betrays all of us. His authentic thinking surfaced only after he’d consulted his advisors and had time to choose his words carefully – doing exactly what Chris Wallace from FOX News doesn’t want candidates to do.

And so it is with us. More often than we like to admit, absence has the advantage. A blurted-out answer to a question may not truly represent our thoughts, ideas, and beliefs.  An artificial, carefully worked statement can be more representative of who we really are than a spontaneous, off-the-cuff response. Sometimes artifice trumps (hah!) naturalness.

I think the postmodern theorists are right. Language does not simply report and record the events of our lives: It shapes and alters them, often in subtle ways that most people miss. If you’re reading this blog, very likely you’re already a writer – or you aspire to become one. Make it your business to learn more about this crafty, mysterious, and complex tool we call language.

(You can read an article I’ve written about postmodern language theory at this link.)