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Was It Something I Said?
General Semantics, the Outspoken Seven, and the Unacceptable Remark
Nicholas Johnson

Presentation via Skype
Institute for General Semantics
New York City
October 30, 2010

Note: As the heading suggests this is the otherwise-unpublished draft text of remarks delivered on October 30, 2010. The few Power Point slides used on that occasion are also online. It was drawn from the much lengthier (22 single spaced pages and 66 footnotes) unfinished work in progress, "Was It Something I Said? General Semantics and the Unacceptable Remark," October 22, 2010, article draft. After preparing this October 17 draft of the October 30 speech, but before it was delivered, NPR made news by the fact and manner of its firing Juan Williams. This became the subject of a column of mine the Press-Citizen published October 27. Nicholas Johnson, "NPR botched its firing of Juan Williams," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 27, 2010, p. A15 (embedded in the blog entry of that day). (And see the related, Nicholas Johnson, "Unacceptable Remarks: Ex-NPR Juan Williams; What Words Warrant Firing?" October 22, 2010, and subsequent, Nicholas Johnson, "More on NPR and Juan Williams; Some (Hopefully) Final Thoughts," October 29, 2010.)

During 2010 seven individuals of varying prominence discovered they had something in common.

The group included a major corporation’s CEO, U.S. Army General, CNN correspondent, Department of Agriculture employee, talk show host, major political party’s national committee chair, and a White House correspondent.

What did they have in common?

Each endured the experience of joining the ranks of the unemployed.

Because of the economy? No; because of something they said.

I call them “the Outspoken Seven.”

As general semanticists, we say “the map is not the territory,” and “the word is not the thing.” But for these seven individuals their words were the thing – that is, the thing that precipitated their dismissal.

Wendell Johnson often shared the observation that the human species is the only animal species “able to talk itself into difficulties that would not otherwise exist.”

Words matter.

Obviously, losing a job because of something said can be devastating to the feelings and finances of the individual involved.

But the fear it creates in others can have a “chilling effect” on the collective community conversation as well. The reason the First Amendment protects a robust  political rhetoric is because of its fundamental contribution to a democratic citizenry’s capacity for self-governing.

As I reflected on the fate of the outspoken seven I wondered, is there anything that general semantics can contribute to resolving the dilemma their words created for themselves, their employers and our society?

That wondering and wandering ultimately produced a lengthy, footnoted draft that will soon be available on my Web site,, and may ultimately appear in some form in a forthcoming issue of ETC.

We don’t have time to go through all of it this morning.

What I would like to do, within the short time we have and the limitations of Skype, is to engage you in my quest.

I’m about to put the evidence before you, and ask you to tell me what its significance may be for general semantics.

It may be you and I will have nothing to suggest. But it is also possible we’ll find general semantics can, once again, help humankind talk itself out of the problems its words create.

Each of the outspoken seven made the news. You will recall most of them. Then I will provide some brief background and comment. To start our discussion, I’ll close with a reminder of some general semantics principles and techniques in the form of an illustrative, brief, and random list.

The question I would like each of you to think about and address is:

How can general semantics help each of us avoid statements that might cost us our job; and how might it help the administrators who must respond to such statements?

Let’s start with the words.

Following the flow of BP’s gusher into the Gulf of Mexico, BP’s CEO Tony Hayward said, “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”

Michael Hastings wrote in a lengthy piece in Rolling Stone about General Stanley McChrystal, “According to sources familiar with the meeting [between the General and the President], McChrystal thought Obama looked ‘uncomfortable and intimidated’ by the roomful of military brass.”

A CNN correspondent, Octavia Nasr, tweeted, “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah . . .. One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.”

Department of Agriculture’s Shirley Sherrod said in a speech, “The first time I was faced with having to help a white farmer save his farm . . . I was trying to decide just how much help I was going to give him. . . . I didn't give him the full force of what I could do.”

Radio talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger used “the N-word” 11 times in the course of telling a listener, among other things, “Black guys use it all the time. Turn on HBO, listen to a black comic, and all you hear is . . ..”

Republican National Committee Chair, Michael Steele, said of President Obama, "if he is such a student of history, has he not understood that . . . the one thing you don't do is engage in a land war in Afghanistan? . . . Because everyone who has tried over a thousand years of history has failed, and there are reasons for that. There are other ways to engage in Afghanistan.”

Helen Thomas, dean of the White House press corps, asked for, “Any comments on Israel?” replied, “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.” “Where should they go?” “Go home,” she said. “Where’s their home?”  “Poland, Germany, America, everywhere else,” she answered.

As children we are told that only “sticks and stones” can break our bones. As adults we learn that words can hurt us; and not only others’ words.

As the outspoken seven discovered, one’s own words can also destroy a professional career.

First, a caveat.

It is relatively easy for a student of general semantics to point out fallacies in the over-reaction of a majority of the public to a casual remark.

But it is unrealistic to expect a president – whether of a country or a corporation – to assume responsibility for public education regarding general semantics once public opinion has gelled, facts no longer enter closed minds, passions are running high, and mobs are running in the streets.

As general semanticists know, perception comes as much or more from what is inside one’s skull and skin as from what is outside. And as politicians and advertisers know, it is perception that wins elections and sells products.

One can say that the BP board members should have been more sympathetic to Tony Hayward, someone who had led their company to hefty profits. On the other hand, with the public as well as investors turning against the company, billions of dollars of liability at stake, and the stock price plummeting, the decision to replace Hayward was not totally irrational.

One can argue whether a U.S. president’s reaction to criticism is perfectly reasonable or petty and petulant. However, just as a corporate board has a responsibility to shareholders, so does a president have a responsibility to maintain “civilian control of the military.”

On the other hand, unlike each of the six other case studies, there are few if any statements of General McChrystal quoted in Rolling Stone. Most quotes are what the law refers to as “hearsay,” and too unreliable for a jury to hear. The Army and Pentagon are still trying to figure out who actually said what.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics reflects reporters’ and editors’ need for audience trust in their independent perspective. That trust is eroded when reporters’ informal comments reveal their personal or financial relationship to an organization, ideology, political party, government official, corporation, or religion.

Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s offense, while in no sense funny, was otherwise similar to that of George Carlin, with his insightful and comedic routine about the seven words you can never say on television. Moreover, Dr. Laura, like George Carlin, was talking about words as words. She was not using “the ‘N’ word” as an epithet directed at the caller, any more than George Carlin was directing the seven words at anyone in his audience.

The issues involved in the tweet from CNN’s correspondent are closer to those for Helen Thomas. That is, her statement could be perceived as revealing Nasr’s bias regarding a subject, and an individual, about whom she needs to report impartially.

Helen Thomas cannot plausibly argue she was quoted out of context or that her advice to Israelis was ambiguous.  Nasr can make claims of both context and ambiguity – and did in a subsequent statement that all she respected about Fadlallah was his advocacy of women’s rights in Muslim society.

It is worth noting that Nasr, Helen Thomas, and many who suffer the consequences of offhand remarks they assert were “misunderstood,” bear at least some responsibility for the results flowing from their words.

General semanticists sometimes focus on the skills that can benefit readers and listeners. However, it is also useful for speakers to be sensitive to context, and to be as clear, precise and fulsome as necessary to ease understanding by their audience.

That’s not always easy. Any praise of Fadlallah was bound to come across like, “I was so sorry to hear of the death of Hitler. Of course, he did a lot of despicable things, but man, that autobahn system is really something.”

On the other hand, this was not an on-air report by Nasr. It was not, to borrow the words of Chief Justice John Marshall, “a constitution she was expounding.” It was a tweet, for goodness sakes. As such, it was but a further reminder of the danger that lurks in today’s electronic social networks.

I’ll leave the lengthy details of Shirley Sherrod’s case for our discussion, if it comes up.

Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele’s remarks about the U.S. military’s efforts in Afghanistan are unique among those already discussed. They were not open to the charges of insensitivity directed at Hayward. They did not involve insubordination of the U.S. President. They did not suggest his admiration of Hezbollah. There was no suggestion of the racism some saw in Sherrod’s speech, or the anti-Israeli overtones in Helen Thomas’ remarks.

The RNC’s decision after considering leading Republicans’ calls for his resignation – namely, a decision to do nothing – is an option all too often overlooked by boards and CEOs.

Another instance in which an institution successfully chose to do nothing about an employee’s offensive speech involved comments by CBS’ “Late Night” host David Letterman.

In his opening monologue June 8, 2009, Letterman noted the Palins’ trip to New York and commented, “The toughest part of her visit was keeping Eliot Spitzer away from her daughter.” As for the Yankees game, Letterman said they were sitting in the “far, far right field” and that "during the seventh inning, her daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez.” And Letterman's "Top Ten Highlights of Sarah Palin's Trip to New York," included "Bought makeup from Bloomingdale's to update her 'slutty flight attendant' look."

Sarah and Todd Palin lashed back at the inappropriateness of Letterman’s trying to make jokes about an implied statutory rape of a 14-year-old, their daughter Willow.

And what was CBS’ response? “No comment.”

The ultimate response of an institution’s board or CEO to the unacceptable remarks of one of its employees may be to “do nothing” (as in the Michael Steele and David Letterman cases), or to punish the employee in some way, up to and including the possibility of discharge. An obvious compromise, and alternative to discharge, is a “suspension” – as Tom Friedman suggested would have been preferable in the case of Nasr.

Regardless of which it is, there are some basic general semantics concepts, principles and techniques that may be useful to the institution during the process of arriving at a decision.

Random illustrations might include:

• Dates, indexes, etc., quotation marks
• Awareness of projection
• The language of science
• Levels of abstraction
• What do you mean and how do you know?
• Answerable and nonsense questions
So what I would like to hear from you now – in addition to any questions or comments – is:
If you could have advised the “outspoken seven” immediately before they spoke, what techniques from general semantics would you have applied?

Similarly, if their employers asked you for counsel, what would you have advised them regarding general semantics?

Thank you.