Presumptive Republican nominee for President, as crazy as that sounds, Donald Trump, says he “misspoke” when he said women should be punished if they got illegal abortions.
Hillary Clinton said she “misspoke” when she credited President and Mrs. Reagan for “starting a conversation” on HIV/AIDS. She apologized. She also wrote a detailed op-ed that gets the history correct, honoring those men and women who pushed a reluctant establishment to finally take gay lives seriously.
Ted Cruz says he “misspoke” when he claimed that he pushed Senator John McCain to allow servicemembers to carry concealed weapons on military bases.
And that’s just this election cycle. Mitt Romney said he “misspoke” when he said he didn’t care about the poor. Back in 2008, President Obama said that he was excited to meet the “President of Canada.” His Press Secretary said he “misspoke.” As Justin Trudeau reminds us, Canada has a prime minister, and he has amazing core strength.
What does it mean to “misspeak”? And did Trump, Clinton, Cruz, Romney, and President Obama all commit the same sin?
To “misspeak” is to “express improperly or imperfectly, to speak otherwise than according to one’s intention,” per the multi-volume Century Dictionary of 1890. Lying would be intentionally and willfully misleading, or knowing one thing to be the case while stating something different.
It’s hard to imagine that Donald Trump lied about thinking women should be punished for getting illegal abortions. He could have been too honest! That makes him like Romney. Romney didn’t lie when he said he didn’t care about the poor. Rather, he was probably honest: his policies were not geared toward helping the lowest quintile of earners. Nor did Secretary Clinton likely lie when she credited Ronald and Nancy Reagan for helping defeat HIV. It’s unlikely that she knew the extent of the Reagans’ indifference and just said the opposite to win over Republican votes. President Obama didn’t lie when he referred to Canada’s “president.” These are accidental errors, verbal typos. They are misstatements made my someone misspeaking.
Ted Cruz and Bill Clinton are different. They lied. Ted Cruz knew he didn’t tell John McCain anything, as McCain himself noted. Bill Clinton knew he had a relationship with young intern. We cannot allow politicians who “lie” to pass it off as “misspeaking.”
Using the word “misspeak” every time something falls out of a politician’s mouth that isn’t entirely accurate is troublesome.
Lies are not misstatements. Neither are misleading statements. During President Obama’s first run for the presidency, in 2008, various anchors, commentators, and visitors to Fox News “accidentally” said “Osama” when referring the then-Senator Obama. Later, a Fox affiliate also “accidentally” said that “Obama bin Laden Dead” when President Obama killed Osama bin Laden. The latter was clearly a flub, a mistake, a truly unintentional slip of the tongue. But was the former? Given how many times Fox News referred to then-Senator Obama as “Barack Hussein Obama” and its virulent hatred for anything associated with the President, it is hard to discount the possibility that there was something more going on.
And it gets even fuzzier. It is now common for Republicans to use the noun “Democrat” as an adjective. In one day, Fox News said “the Democrat Party” or “the Democrat official” or something similar almost four times per hour. MSNBC says “Democratic policies” or “Democratic official.” Are conservatives “misspeak”ing? No. They are intentionally leaving off the “ic” at the end of “Democrat” to leave us with the taste of the word “rat” whenever we hear “Democrat.”
These turns of phrase are part of a larger pattern of permissive, euphemistic language. George Carlin famously criticized the modern military’s use of “post traumatic stress disorder” as opposed to “shell shock” (the World War I version), noting: “Had we still been calling it ‘shell shock,’ some of those Vietnam veterans would’ve gotten the attention they needed at the time.”
Our politicians are at times too cavalier with the language they use. They are also too frequently manipulators of language for their own benefit. And the media is complicit in their behavior when they refer to lies and intentionally misleading statements as “misspeaking.” We cannot let them.