There is a hackneyed old saying that talk is cheap. This is generally true. For example, it is easy and free to talk about fixing the problems in American health care. Actually fixing the problems will most likely be neither cheap nor easy.
There are, however, cases in which talk is not cheap. There are times when it can be downright pricey. There are numerous cases of people, inside and outside of politics, paying a steep price for a few ill chosen words. Don Imus is a good example of this. George Allen’s “macaca moment” incident is also an excellent example. The most recent example is, of course, Obama’s remarks about the bitter working class and their apparent habit of clinging to God, guns, and a dislike of people who are different.
As this is being written, Obama and his minions are in spin control mode. They are, obviously enough, trying to minimize the damage done by these ill chosen words. Meanwhile, Clinton and her minions, seeing this open spot in Obama’s gleaming armor, have attempted to drive a barbed spear home. From this spear flies the banners of “elitist” and “out of touch.” It is their fond dream that this spear will stick and thus mark Obama. McCain and his minions have also joined the fray. It is politics as usual.
In addition to providing fresh meat for the media frenzy, this situation also raises various matters that are philosophically interesting. One of which is the extent to which a person should be held accountable for “ill chosen” words.
On one hand, there is the easy and obvious position: when a person speaks, then she is accountable for what is said. After all, unless a person is coerced or incompetent, then that person is responsible for what he did. Since speaking is an action, then it would follow that a person is responsible for what she says.
On the other hand, there is a view that requires more consideration. Another way to look at such a situation is to place yourself into that situation. Think of a time in which you spoke words that were ill chosen. In that situation you might have spoken what you truly believe. But, just perhaps, your words did not reflect what truly lies in your heart and mind. In the former case, you should expect to be held accountable for what was said. But, in the latter case, you would no doubt want to be able to take back your words or to be at least given the chance to clear things up. If this is the case, then you should extend the same privilege to others and grant them the same chance.
Switching to look at the situation from the outside, think of cases in which people you know have said ill chosen words. While it is natural to respond to such words with anger, reason and sympathy move us to consider the matter more carefully. The main question that should be asked is this: do those words reveal the person’s true character? If they do, then there are good grounds for holding the person fully accountable. If the words are not true to the person’s character and arose from some other factor, then the person should be given the opportunity to apologize and that apology should be accepted. After all, though the person spoke the words, they were not really his.
From a practical standpoint it can sometimes be difficult to tell whether such ill chosen words reflect what the person truly thinks. For example, does Obama really think what his words seemed to express? Perhaps he was just tired and frustrated and it simply popped out. After all, who among us has not had that sort of thing happen? Then again, maybe he spoke from his heart and thought his words would not be heard by those who would use them against him. Obama is the only person who truly knows for sure (and perhaps not even him-sometimes such words reveal something new to the person who spoke them).
Unfortunately, finding the answer to that key question is as important as it is difficult. Further complicating the matter is the fact that his words can, as words often do, be taken many ways. Someone who is pro-Obama would tend to see the words as being critical of people who cling to certain ideas and are unwilling to change. Someone less enamored of Obama would probably regard them as expressing a negative view of guns and religion. In any case, the true meaning of the words is rather important. Taking just the religious aspect, Obama has taken great pains to establish himself as a person of faith (as have the other candidates). If his remark reflects a dislike of religion, then this would seem to reveal that his piety might be a clever front calculated to win over voters. Of course, a person can be religious and still critical of both religion and how people use their faith. As such, his remark is consistent with both piety and a lack thereof.
One way to judge the character of the person who says such words is to see what they do afterwards. If the person’s actions go against the words they claimed were but an ill chosen slip, then there are grounds to believe the person (or be impressed by their ability to engage in damage control). If the person’s actions match the allegedly ill chosen words, then it would be reasonable to conclude that the words were not ill chosen. Instead, it would be reasonable to think that they fit all too well. In Obama’s case, the matter is still open.