Context and Rhetoric: The Art of Thinking for Yourself

The media has been abuzz today with coverage of Mitt Romney’s “latest gaffe,” in which he says that he’s not concerned about the very poor. Gingrich jumped all over this and immediately incorporated it into his campaign speeches.  Romney argues that this comment (made to Soledad O’Brien) was taken out of context, and he’s right. The entire sentence was, “I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich. They’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America.” (Of course, the sentiment isn’t exactly noble, but it is a little more complicated than an outright abandonment of the poor.)

I’m not one to defend Conservatives, but taking comments out of context and using them to attack one’s opponent happens all the time, and we’ll continue to see it happen more and more as the election goes on (and the civility goes down).

Assaulting an opponent with their own out-of-context words is a flawed tactic, especially now that the average American, with YouTube, Facebook, and other online tools, can easily see the original utterance and judge for herself. For example, when I saw the CNN headline “Michelle Obama Insults Mitt Romney for his Singing Voice,” it didn’t rake me long to find the actual clip from Jay Leno.  During her interview Mrs. Obama makes a lighthearted joke about the republican front-runner, which is kind and completely appropriate and wow I love that lady.

The problem is that many people don’t take advantage of the tools available to them to sort through the garbage spewing from politicians’ mouths (and, of course, some people don’t have access to these tools — the “very poor” included). They take what candidates say at face value or rely on the media to relay the information. And the media, love them as I do, have their own agenda and reasons for taking things out of context. Soledad O’Brien, another lady I love, hit the jackpot with that sound bite.

Americans need to learn the art of dissecting rhetoric: listening to a politicians’ speech, identifying its main argument, and understanding how the speaker is trying to influence us through appeals to our emotions.  When we see a campaign ad that frames the economic recession in terms of how it’s affecting little Sally from Michigan (She’s white!  She has asthma!), we need to realize what’s happening. When we hear a candidate subtly interchange the words woman, wife, and mother, we need to think about what she’s implying.  When we hear a candidate quote his opponent, we need to do our own research to find out what he or she really said.  Unless we do so, we can’t make an educated decision.