Let's Get Technical

by Bartholomew Martin by Bartholomew Martin

As a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, I can tell you there is no such thing as a "typical" West Pointer. They come in all shades: arrogant or modest, driven or laid-back, genuinely brilliant or marginally intelligent. I hear contradictory assessments from my friends and associates all the time: both "you're such a typical West Pointer" and "you don't seem like a typical West Pointer at all."

If there is one thing for which West Point cadets and graduates do have a consistent reputation, though, it would be this: you can trust what they say. A cadet lives by a time-proven Honor Code: "a cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do." A cadet can in fact be a moral degenerate, but his words and actions had better conform to the standards of the Honor System if he wishes to graduate.

If a cadet gets caught lying, it is no defense for him to demonstrate that the words he uttered were "technically correct." A cadet can say something that is "technically correct," but if it is clear that his intention was to deceive, then he is guilty of lying and is thus subject to disciplinary action.

Would that the commander-in-chief and his inner circle of advisers were held to the same standards as the West Point graduates they send into battle.

Since Joseph Wilson went public last week about the dubious use of intelligence in President Bush's State of the Union Address, Team Bush has been working all angles to maintain its tenuous hold on some semblance of credibility. Still, having admitted Monday of last week that the statement about Iraq seeking uranium in Africa was "wrong" and probably should not have been included in the speech, they changed their tune a bit when it came time for the Sunday morning talk shows.

"The statement that he made was indeed accurate," claimed Condoleezza Rice on Fox News Sunday.

The statement was "technically correct," according to Donald Rumsfeld on ABC's This Week.

So which is it? Was the statement "wrong" or "accurate"?

OK, we'll play. We'll even play by Rumsfeld's rules. Let's get technical.

Linguists, rhetoricians, and philosophers employ specialized terms when evaluating human speech acts. "Locution" refers to the literal meaning of a speech act. "Illocution" refers to the effect the speaker wants to achieve in making the utterance, while "perlocution" refers to the actual effect of the utterance upon the audience. The latter – the "perlocution" of a speech act, the way it is received by audience – is often affected by what is known as "extra-locutionary" factors.

For example, if a man wants to motivate his son to get up early and work, he might utter the clich, "you know, son, the early bird gets the worm." The man is not so much concerned about the locution of his utterance – most likely he cares very little about the actual eating habits of birds. Instead, what is significant is his illocution; that is, he intends to provide ample motivation to get his son's tail out of bed. If the man's son responds with an indifferent shrug of his shoulders, coupled with a "yeah, maybe," that is the perlocution, the actual effect of the father's utterance upon his audience. This perlocution could have been influenced by numerous extra-locutionary factors: perhaps the son was particularly tired that day, or maybe he just had enough of his father's pathetic attempts to motivate him.

So now let us apply this terminology to the President's statement on January 28, 2003: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

The locution of that utterance is simply the propositional content of the words between the quotation marks. That is not the most important factor in human communication: most linguists would be very quick to tell you that the meaning of an utterance is much more broad than its mere propositional content.

What is significant, then, is the illocution of the statement. What did the President wish to communicate by uttering that sentence? What effect did he hope it would have on his audience, the American people? Clearly, the sentence was uttered for one and only one reason: it was intended not so much to inform the American public as it was intended to persuade them to adopt a significant course of action, namely, preemptive war against Iraq.

Equally significant is the perlocution of the utterance – in other words, did the illocution of the utterance achieve its aim? Did the President's utterance contribute to the intended effect of moving the nation towards preemptive war with Iraq? Without a doubt, it did achieve its intended result. And it did so with the aid of numerous extra-locutionary factors, among them the fact that the American public had been primed for this war for quite some time. The President's utterance landed on fertile ground, simply confirmed what the American public (for the most part) had wanted to begin with.

One of the ways to evaluate the effectiveness of a speech act is by observing whether or not the illocution and the perlocution of the speech act are roughly proportional to one another. By this reckoning, the President's speech was very effective indeed: the missile hit its intended target, and did so without any collateral damage – that is, until Joseph Wilson's story broke.

So how can President Bush's statement be both "wrong" and "accurate" at the same time? How can it be "technically correct" though factually false? Quite simply: in true Clintonian fashion, Team Bush would now like us to believe that the illocution of the President's statement is insignificant. What matters now is the mere locution of his statement, its literal meaning.

Hence, with a straight face Condoleezza Rice can tell Tony Snow, "the statement that he made was indeed accurate. The British government did say that." In other words, the fact that the British made a claim about Saddam attempting to acquire uranium from Africa is true. In its pure literalness, the statement is true. Never mind that the statement was crafted to have a specific effect upon its audience. Never mind that statement did influence its audience exactly as it was intended to do.

One can easily imagine how this sort of linguistic procedure, if consistently applied through a culture, would wreck havoc upon personal and business relationships. "Hey honey, when I said I loved you, I really, truly, literally meant it. I'm sorry you took it to mean that I should love only you, and be faithful to you and all that. But what I said is technically accurate." Or "Hey, boss, when I said I deposited the money in the bank, what I said was true – I deposited it last year. I'm sorry you were under the impression that I meant that the money was deposited every day this year. You have to admit, what I said was technically accurate."

The West Point honor system has a name for this kind of verbal legerdemain – it's called "lying." Many cadets have received disciplinary action, including expulsion, for lesser lies than what we see parading before us right now on the news networks. Many Americans are beginning to wax nostalgic for the good old days of Boy Clinton, who at least had the decency to tell us up front that he intended to alter the syntactical meaning of the word "is."