Thursday, May 08, 2008

Adventures in Speech Act Theory

Hillary Clinton said:

I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on," she said in an interview with USA TODAY. As evidence, Clinton cited an Associated Press article "that found how Sen. Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me."

"There's a pattern emerging here," she said.

Leaving aside the probably-unintended implication that non-whites are not "hard working", what is the objection here? After all, what Ms. Clinton cites is a fact. She won the white vote in both states.

Similarly, it was a fact that the secession of Quebec was defeated in 1995 by the ethnic vote. But M. Parizeau was widely criticized for getting drunk and angrily pointing this out.

I'm never quite sure how sincere these questions are, but they do provide for a good illustration of how unimportant the truth sometimes is. (Another example of the unimportance of the truth, dear to the heart of the Clintons, is the deliberately misleading statement under oath. But there will be time enough to return to that.)

All utterances include the pragmatic implicature that they are relevant. For politicians, this means that you have to add to everything they say, "And that's a reason you should vote for me." So when Ms. Clinton cites the fact that she won the white vote, she claims not only that she won the white vote, but also that that constitutes a good reason that the audience of her remark should vote for her.

In this case, the audience is Democratic superdelegates. She is therefore saying that they should not pay attention to the vote totals, but to the white votes.

It will be said in defence that she is not saying that the superdelegates should do that because white votes are in principle worth more than black ones, but because the white vote is needed in the general election, while the black vote can be taken for granted. That claim might be false if the superdelegates take her advice. But further, the claim is objectionable because there is no difference between saying someone should not vote for a black candidate because other people won't then there is for any other reason. Acting negatively towards someone because of their skin colour just is the objectionable conduct, and the reasons for that conduct are irrelevant. George Wallace is just as much a segregationist because he was motivated by political ambition as he would have been if he were otherwise motivated.

Clinton is advocating an explicitly discriminatory course of action on the Democratic Party. She is in effect calling for the repeal of the Voting Rights Act and the Fifteenth Amendment. Since the former is the proudest achievement of her party in the twentieth century, she is deserving of criticism.

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