Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Sanford and Palin: Straight From the Heart

If concision is a virtue Stanley Fish should be canonized.

Describing the rambling emotion-laden public pronouncements of Mark Sanford and Sarah Palin, Fish writes: "Sanford is in love. Palin is in pain. Sometimes what it seems to be is what it is." Link to Fish's blog post here.

Fish's point is clear and simple: the political pundits who attempted to see these public expressions of deep feeling as calculated should go back to their caves.

Chastising the pundits who tried to calculate the effect of Palin's statement, he says: "They couldn't fathom the possibility that she was just giving voice to her feelings. It must, they assumed, be a calculation, and having decided that, they went happily on to describe how bad a calculation it was."

While I admire his analysis, I do not think that Fish is correct. When you are public official, your role defines your meaning. If you have not calculated the effect that your words will produce, that is a dereliction of duty.

I would even take it a step further, and say that all of us have roles in society, from parent to sibling to professional to chief. When we ignore our roles we ignore the effect our words will produce on others and we fail at a fundamental ethical responsibility.

I have made much of the fact that Jenny Sanford seems to have better discipline and better self-control than her hapless husband. Being an expert at public relations she has better control of the effects her words produce. Thus, she is an expert at the ancient and often derided art of rhetoric-- that is, choosing your language according to the effect you want to produce in your audience.

Her husband and Sarah Palin may very well have believed that they were speaking straight from the heart, and that they would elicit sympathy.

If so, they were wrong. By pretending to wear their hearts on their sleeves, they were both, in their separate ways, bowing out of public life.

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