Breaking the Code: When Words are Not What They Seem

arcimboldo+2

Plain English is hard to come by. Some of us struggle with directness, while others take diplomacy to an extreme. We are caught between people who speak with the bluntness of a club to the head and those who are so careful it is difficult to know whether they make a sound.

Worse still, some speak in code. Psychologists and other therapists do their best to break the code, to find the meaning inside.

You might have heard Governor Scott Walker’s address pulling out of the Republican Party (GOP) presidential race. You heard the words, but did you get the meaning? The first sentence of his announcement provides an example of words in disguise and an opportunity to analyze them:

“I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field.”

The “field” to which he referred includes more than a dozen competitors for the 2016 presidential nomination of the Republican Party. He went on to state it would be better if the voters had a limited number of alternatives in the run-up to producing a party standard-bearer.

The single sentence is revealing. Those 15 words did two things beyond informing us he was dropping out:

  1. The Governor gave a coded message to many of his Christian supporters.
  2. Mr. Walker offered a preposterous reason for his decision to leave the campaign. He tried to disguise his loss of public support as the cause of his decision.

The former candidate’s sentence can be decoded even without the help of the late Alan Turing, the man who broke the Nazi’s Enigma codes during World War II. The second word in Walker’s opening is “believe,” a powerful utterance for some of strong Christian faith. Even more significantly, he went on: “I believe I am being called …” This phrase carries with it the notion of a “calling,” associated with life direction provided by a supernatural entity. Ministers, such as Scott Walker’s father, often say they are called to the vocation of ministry. Not coincidentally, many of the candidate’s strongest supporters are on the religious right.

In effect, Mr. Walker’s sentence was partly addressed to his spiritual backers, letting them know he is keeping faith with them, and acting according to his (and their own) religious beliefs. By so doing, he provided them with a reason to think favorably of him if he chooses to run again for public office. Thus, one can imagine Mr. Walker’s desire is to be thought of as a man of God doing God’s will.

I can’t comment on the Governor’s private contact with a superior being, if indeed such occurred. Yet it is difficult to think that Scott Walker’s disappearing public support did not determine his decision. The notion that he might have ended his campaign after receiving “the call,” even were he leading in the polls, strains credulity. The Governor is playing his religious believers for chumps.

512px-Scott_Walker_in_2015

Remember what the press said about Mr. Walker’s decision to exit the race. The following quote comes from the September 21st issue of the The Wall Street Journal:

“He led most polls in Iowa until mid-July, and regularly ranked among the top three or four contenders in national surveys of GOP primary voters. But after a lackluster performance in Wednesday’s GOP debate, he didn’t register any support in a CNN/ORC national poll conducted right afterward. …

“But his biggest problem appeared to be fundraising. Many of his top donors expressed concern in recent weeks that … he wouldn’t raise enough money to maintain a large campaign staff.”

Following Walker’s message to the faithful, the remainder of his sentence attempts to recast his political failure as an act of leadership:

“I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field.” Thus, Mr. Walker anoints himself a leader, not a loser. Moreover, he says he just wants to “help.” Wow, he is an altruist, too.

Instead of telling us all this, the Governor might have been frank:

“I have less than 1% support of the likely primary voters. I can understand why potential backers will not fund my campaign. Hats off to those who beat me.”

What Walker did, in a mere 15 words, was an act of “spin.” His simple sentence was reprehensible because he mocked his alleged faith, tried to play on the religious convictions of his followers, and fashioned himself not as the loser in the race, but as a leader who exemplified high principle and, perhaps, divine guidance.

Yes, political speech is an easy target. Who can forget Bill Clinton’s righteously angry statement, “I did not have sex with that woman!” This sentence defined “sex” as intercourse alone, thereby giving him license to deny the accusation of inappropriate behavior with a White House intern.

My conclusion is this: George Orwell, the author of 1984, was correct. We live in a time, as he predicted, when language’s meaning is torn syllable from syllable. Communication has always been hard enough. Now, not so long after Orwell imagined it, failure is sold to us as success and religious references play to the gullibility of the flock.

Sadly, much of this has occurred for millennia, but was thought dishonorable in times past. The difference now is that such deceit is considered clever by too many of those who notice, and honest by those who don’t.

Words matter, in therapy and out.

Especially in disguise.

The top images are called Reversible Head with Basket of Fruit, the work of Arcimboldo, 1590. If you take a close look, you’ll notice the painting on the left is an inversion of the one on the right. Thus, they represent a visual analogue of the essay’s topic: disguised speech. The bottom image is Governor Walker speaking in 2015, by Michael Vadon, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

7 thoughts on “Breaking the Code: When Words are Not What They Seem

  1. Yes, one of the tools that a master manipulator uses is to say they have the backing of a higher authority or that they are only saying things because they are speaking on behalf of the majority to pressure someone to come round to their way of thinking. Unfortunately many of these tactics are used by abusers to groom young and trusting childen who dont have the capacity to sift through the hidden meanings in words, to keep the child silent and comply with and take responsibility for the abuse that is being perpetrated on them. Regardless of the context those who stoop to these tactics invariably have there own selfish hidden agengas running without any care or thought as to the effect or pain it will inflict on people around them. As you say Gerald ‘words matter’ and how they are used has incredible power to harm or heal, to accomplish good or do damage.

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  2. Dr. Stein, great post on the importance of critical-thinking skills!

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  3. Excellent article, Dr. Stein. You’re absolutely right in your analysis of Scott Walker’s statement to the public. He “fashioned himself not as the loser in the race, but as a leader who exemplified high principle and, perhaps, divine guidance.”

    Some of us have great difficulty in admitting failure and remain silent. Others, like Scott Walker and Donald Trump, sell themselves as winners by whatever means possible. Sadly, some people fall for their deception.

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