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.

Looking For Trouble? Why Being “Friends With Benefits” Might Not Be To Your Benefit

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/7e/US_Navy_091107-N-6214F-008_A_Navy_SEAL_shows_a_child_an_M4_carbine_during_the_2009_Veterans_Day_Ceremony.jpg/512px-US_Navy_091107-N-6214F-008_A_Navy_SEAL_shows_a_child_an_M4_carbine_during_the_2009_Veterans_Day_Ceremony.jpg

Like a parent putting a weapon in the hands of someone too young to use it safely, Mother Nature has given teenagers sex. And, along with its novelty and thrill, come bodies that are drawn to each other with an out-of-control animal magnetism. They are spring-loaded even before spring time, aching to be launched.

And, perhaps worst of all, Western culture has made sex into something almost as impersonal as buying your groceries.

Like those groceries, it is a thing to be consumed. And, like food, it produces sensations, with particular attention to appearance, shape, smell, taste, and texture.

But unfortunately, this thing that we consume with alacrity, just might eat the consumer alive.

Sex has always been a problematic commodity, even before the days when it began to be used to sell other commodities: cars, soft drinks, and the like.

Now the idea of “friends with benefits,” with No Strings Attached as the movie title promises, has added a new wrinkle to the long list of carnal complications.

For ages sex has put young people in the position of trying to figure out how to have it, without the concomitant problems of shame, disease, and pregnancy. For a long while access to young women was restricted by their families and trustworthy chaperones, with religious institutions casting a long shadow over the entire reproductive process. Perhaps George Orwell’s Big Brother wasn’t involved in surveillance of one’s comings and goings, but your own big brother was likely to be if you were female.

What the church couldn’t monitor, it condemned. Punishment by shunning and shaming was Hester Prynne’s reward for an out-of-wedlock pregnancy in Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Church-derived predictions of a hellish afterlife and a powerfully ingrained sense of guilt also contributed to hesitation even when your older male sibling wasn’t close by.

Eventually, however, several things happened. Urbanization made people more anonymous and independent than when they lived in small communities. They were now less easily watched and controlled. Women asserted their rights, and politicians and voters followed their lead in granting them. The automobile assisted a couple in getting away from watchful eyes and offered a place, even if uncomfortable, where sex could occur.

Meanwhile, more women began to go to school in co-ed institutions and economic necessity brought them out of the kitchen and into the work place. The weakening of religion’s governance and the invention of the birth control pill further undermined the likelihood of negative consequences if the female became sexually active.

With less to constrain them, young people did what comes naturally. Casual sex always existed, but now it was a game that the woman could play with less chance of social disgrace. The 1969 movie John and Mary portrayed the very young Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow as two characters who become sexually involved and only introduce themselves by name at the film’s end.

One night stands, of course, can last more than one night. “Hook ups,” can hook you permanently. But the once common expectation of something meaningful coming from a sexual encounter has been relegated to a past that many young people see as a relic from the prehistoric age of their grandparents.

Which brings us to the idea of “friendship with benefits.” There are even instructions on the internet on how best to achieve this (apparently desirable) change in a platonic relationship. You are expected to think clearly, recognize in advance whether you can keep your emotions in check, choose the right person, and create clear and mutually agreeable rules about how often and under what circumstances you will see each other.

Unfortunately, even with some guidance, you are working against biology and psychology. And, you are risking the conventional friendship (without benefits) that existed before. As Robert Burns put it, “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men” often go awry.

Let me count the ways, leaving out such complications as sexually transmitted disease, religion, and pregnancy:

  1. The human heart is hard-wired to “care,” especially the female heart. Having won equality and the right to control their own bodies, women are well-advised not to assume that they can objectify the opposite sex with the ease that men can.
  2. Even in friendships jealousy can be an issue. Despite the new set of “rules” that govern your sexualized relatedness, how might it feel to you after intercourse if your companion finds other things and people to occupy himself? Eventually, at least one of the parties is likely to attach to someone permanently. How will the “old friend” like it when his or her status is changed unilaterally back to what it was before sex?
  3. A “romance” with no commitments, no responsibilities, and no future is not likely to bring out the best in either person. It encourages treatment that is callous or indifferent.
  4. Do you believe that it is possible to make the relationship sexual without changing it? A kind of vulnerability can come with nakedness; the other person now knows some very personal things about you. Will he look at you and you at him in the same way later?
  5. Performance questions are almost inevitable. Was the sex good? Good enough? How did it compare to others? If it was not satisfying, how do you move back to a platonic relationship without injuring your friend?
  6. Perhaps you believe that you will get out of the “benefits” portion of the connection before your emotions get in the way. This represents a pretty basic misunderstanding of how (and how rapidly) love can bloom. If I had a nickel for every time one of my patients predicted incorrectly that her brain was in charge and would signal the moment in which to exit, I would be the richest man in the world.
  7. Even if you are able to keep your head dominant over your heart, your decision to get out might leave your friend devastated. Why would you want to risk something (your friendship) that you claim is so important to you?
  8. Does your mate-of-convenience have a different agenda than you do? Does he hope that love will follow sex, even if he states that he does not want or expect that?

One more point. Why would you want to give up the romance, the mystery, the allure of growing intimacy that might lead to love? Why debase something that can be precious and make it a commonplace?

We lose our appreciation of things too easily achieved. If gold grew on trees, it would not be so highly valued as it is. Few of life’s offerings escape the law of supply and demand.

Society puts young people, even including some not quite so young, in a tough spot. “Choose!” it says at the extreme, between an inflexible abstinence based on religious text and physical contact that has been so commoditized it is little more than the raw reproductive act of our mammalian cousins.

Remember: song writers write love songs, not songs about friends with benefits.

The photo above captures a Navy Seal showing a child an M4 carbine at the Veteran’s Day Ceremony of November 7, 2009 at Ft. Pierce, Florida. The author is Chief Mass Communications Specialist Robert J. Fluegel. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.