Judging People By How They Speak

From a Wall Street Journal column by Michael P.H. Stanley headlined “John Fetterman and the Gravity of Language”:

As a neurologist, I had two reactions to last week’s Pennsylvania Senate debate between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz. First, I thought it was admirable of Mr. Fetterman to participate, even though the effects of his recent stroke were grossly apparent. Second, the alarm over Mr. Fetterman’s fitness for office tells me that even in this image-saturated age, the American people are hungry for serious thought.

Before last week, most of the race between Messrs. Fetterman and Oz had been fought in images. Since Mr. Fetterman stopped making public appearances after suffering a stroke in May, his campaign had resorted to trolling Mr. Oz on Twitter. The strategy made good use of a People magazine photo spread of the physician-turned-TV personality’s massive New Jersey home.

The other defining image of the campaign was of a pull quote. As the weeks rolled by with no sign of Mr. Fetterman, people naturally began to wonder about his condition. To assuage their concerns, Mr. Fetterman released a statement from his doctor declaring that “he has no work restrictions and can work full duty in public office.” If voters had decided the campaign on these two images alone, they would have likely gone decisively for Mr. Fetterman, who led Mr. Oz in the polls throughout the summer.

And then they heard Mr. Fetterman at the debate. You don’t have to be a Republican to admit Mr. Oz clearly got the better of Mr. Fetterman. The public reaction, however, hasn’t been focused on how the candidates looked—who was better dressed, who was better poised, who had the better quip—but on where they stood on the issues. Fracking was one prominent example. Years ago Mr. Fetterman declared he unequivocally opposed fracking and always had. Yet when asked during the debate, he said, “I do support fracking. And I don’t, I don’t—I support fracking, and I stand, and I do support fracking.” The response was garbled enough to leave people wondering if he had flip-flopped—or if he simply misspoke. What I heard wasn’t a failure of rhetoric but of language itself.

There have been mismatches in rhetorical skill on stage before, but this wasn’t a case of a “learned fool” articulating his nonsense better than the unlearned. Rather, it demonstrated that Mr. Fetterman’s specific brain injury, aphasia, has had a direct effect on his ability to communicate. That raises legitimate concerns over, if not his fitness for office, then his judgment in still seeking it. If voters can’t understand what a candidate is saying, can they trust he’ll effectively represent them? If the candidate can’t make his thoughts coherent, can he work effectively with colleagues?

Aphasia, which is seen in many brain diseases, is an impairment in the construction and communication of ideas. It doesn’t merely prevent someone from translating his thoughts into a natural language. An aphasic patient who can’t speak in Cantonese won’t be able to communicate his meaning any better by switching to American Sign Language. Nor does it simply distort one’s articulated speech. An aphasic patient can’t get around his inability to speak by writing instead. By impairing language itself, an aphasia mars the mechanisms that make formulating and understanding one’s thoughts possible.

Our own language reveals how significant this disability is. Because language allows our reasoning to be understood by others, it is the plane on which politics is played. Our Founders used words and articulated reason to unite 13 colonies separated by religious and ethnic backgrounds. That’s why America has a Declaration of Independence, a speaker of the House and propositions on which we vote. Even today, what unites America’s diverse citizens is a belief in the rule of the law, which is simply reason written out.

For most of U.S. history, the vast majority of public officials were judged solely by their words because the public never saw or heard from them directly. The advent of television changed that, by privileging images over ideas. In a world of the 24-hour news cycle, our meme-making media mills are filled with such a babble of opinions that the public can’t trust its ears. We’re told that the voice of reason is overshadowed by political visuals.

But for a moment in the coherent campaign between Messrs. Fetterman and Oz, we’ve been reminded that words—and the ideals they underpin—are more important than the prosody of a politician’s performance. In civic discourse, a matter of semantics is a semantics that matters.

Dr. Stanley is a fellow in neurology at Brigham & Women’s Hospital.

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