October 2004

Textual Silences and Critical Thinking

A hallmark of the humanities is the ability to think critically about the world. In practice, this has typically meant the close examination of language, be it discourse, texts, or data.

When we read some of George W. Bush’s notorious struggles with English, we tend to see deeper meanings in them:

“I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy–but that could change.” 5/22/98

“First, let me make it very clear, poor people aren’t necessarily killers. Just because you happen to be not rich doesn’t mean you’re willing to kill.” 5/19/03

“Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.” 8/5/04

Much of the public discourse we are exposed to on a daily basis–advertisements, political speech, radio interviews, editorials, letters to the editor, etc.–is effective not so much for what it is saying as for what it is not saying, that is, what it is leaving out. Ads, for example, Likewise, letters to the editor–because of space constraints–typically present only one point of view. Political speeches, of course, leave much unsaid. In all of these cases, the text producer is trying to manipulate his or her audience by setting the agenda. Critical thinking involves not just what or how to think but what to think about. This can occur in ways both big and small.

Big silences:

Bush’s 2004 acceptance speech. Conspicuous absences include:

  • Osama bin Laden
  • Civil liberties (Patriot Acts I and II, TIPS, TIA, etc.)
  • The deficit (now projected at $2.29 trillion over 10 years)
  • Environmentalism
  • Framing
    • Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant
    • “death tax” or “tax relief”
    • “We don’t need a permission slip to defend America.”

Consider President Bush’s acceptance speech September 2, in New York City as an expert example of framing:

“Mr. Chairman, delegates, fellow citizens: I am honored by your support, and I accept your nomination for president of the United States.

When I said those words four years ago, none of us could have envisioned what these years would bring. In the heart of this great city, we saw tragedy arrive on a quiet morning. We saw the bravery of rescuers grow with danger. We learned of passengers on a doomed plane who died with a courage that frightened their killers. We have seen a shaken economy rise to its feet. And we have seen Americans in uniform storming mountain strongholds, and charging through sandstorms and liberating millions, with acts of valor that would make the men of Normandy proud.

Since 2001, Americans have been given hills to climb, and found the strength to climb them. Now, because we have made the hard journey, we can see the valley below. Now, because we have faced challenges with resolve, we have historic goals within our reach, and greatness in our future. We will build a safer world and a more hopeful America, and nothing will hold us back. . .

Conceptual metaphors

  • The ‘war on terror’ metaphor
  • The ‘freedom’ metaphor in 2004 acceptance speech (39 mentions in the 2004 acceptance speech)

Small silences

From Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address, after many paragraphs of misinformation about Saddam’s WMDs“Year after year, Saddam Hussein has gone to elaborate lengths, spent enormous sums, taken great risks to build and keep weapons of mass destruction. But why? The only possible explanation, the only possible use he could have for those weapons, is to dominate, intimidate, or attack.” But the US maintains its stockpiles for self-defense and for national pride.

This last example, one of the many lies in this speech, begins the heart of Bush’s speech–where he lays out the rationale for the new American policy of pre-emptive aggression. This short section consists mainly of insinuations, another form of textual silence which is especially insidious because it’s defeasible (deniable).


“With nuclear arms or a full arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, Saddam Hussein could resume his ambitions of conquest in the Middle East and create deadly havoc in that region…”

  • Governing frame: Saddam wants to take over neighboring countries and has the military arsenal to do it.
  • Vague assertion: Use of the hedge “could,” which in the context Bush has painted will be interpreted by many as “will try to.”
  • Why this, why here? Bush wants us to think it’s an urgent situation. There is no good alternative interpretation.

“…And this Congress and the American people must recognize another threat. Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications, and statements by people now in custody reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al Qaeda. Secretly, and without fingerprints, he could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own.”

  • Governing frame: Saddam is collaborating with al Qaeda, which wants to attack the US again. Saddam is therefore an accomplice, and he has WMDs.
  • Vague assertion: Use of the hedge ‘could,’ which in this context will be interpreted as “will.”
  • Why this, why here? Bush wants us to think it’s an urgent situation. There is no good alternative interpretation.

“Before September the 11th, many in the world believed that Saddam Hussein could be contained.”

  • Governing frame: same as above
  • Vague assertion: September 11 showed that Saddam Hussein was not contained. This insinuates that Saddam was behind September 11.
  • Why this, why here? The prominent use of the time frame plus the context up to this point blocks any good alternative interpretation.

“But chemical agents, lethal viruses and shadowy terrorist networks are not easily contained.”

  • Governing frame: same
  • Vague assertion: “…are not easily contained.” This will be interpreted as “cannot be contained.”
  • Why this, why here? Reinforces the insinuation that Saddam played a key role in 9-11.

“Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans, this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known.”

  • Governing frame: same
  • The reference to those 19 hijackers is hypothetical, since they are now dead. The insinuation is that Bush means hijackers like those 19 al Qaeda members. The hypothetical Imagine, in this context, invites a more definite interpretation.
  • Why this, why here? There is no good alternative interpretation. (cf. Justin Frank’s analysis)

“Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike? If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words, and all recriminations would come too late.”.

  • Governing frame: same.
  • The conditional If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge is unclear in its meaning. A fearful listener might think that the threat is real and present.
  • Why this, why here? Earlier Bush had said, “[These outlaw regimes] could give or sell those weapons to terrorist allies, who would use them without the least hesitation.” So the only good interpretation is one of imminent threat.

Detecting silences requires a good knowledge of the relevant context. If you don’t know much about a topic, you won’t know what’s being left unsaid. This is why, in a democracy where an informed citizenry is essential, the citizenry needs to be informed. This is why citizens need a broad education, whether formal or otherwise. For most people, school is just a beginning. Learning about the world must continue throughout adult life.

For most citizens, lifelong learning about political matters occurs through the media–television especially, but also film, radio, the Internet, newspapers, etc. Mainstream journalism is too shallow and too compromised to do the job, so much of what we learn as educated citizens comes to us through polemical discourse. Learning from such discourse requires special critical thinking skills–the ability and desire to expose oneself to contrasting, passionately-held views.

–Professor Thomas Huckin

What YOU Can Do

The election is rapidly approaching. Many of us feel helpless because rational thinkers are a definite minority in this state.

Former Utah Humanist editor Richard Garrard eloquently addressed these thoughts in the November 2002 edition of this journal. Here is a short summary of his remarks. The complete original article is here.

  1. Learn–get a computer and get on the Internet.
  2. Read
  3. Change the channel, there ARE decent TV offerings, you just have to look!
  4. Listen to Community Radio
  5. Watch movies and videos (see #3 above)
  6. Act!, write letters to the editor, support causes you believe.
  7. Register to vote and go to the polls in November. Make an informed decision!

–Richard Garrard

Homegrown Democrat

~Book Review~

Garrison Keillor, host of the PBS weekly show Prairie Home Companion says “I’m a Democrat because I received a good education in public schools and attended a great state university.” Garrison Keillor describes the Democratic values of hard-working people and the idea of the common good, the civil compact, the politics of kindness, the obligation to defend the weak against the powerful. In contrast Keillor says of Republicans whose goal is to repeal the New Deal, they “are determined to cripple the social compact by cutting taxes so as to starve government and kill off public services and reduce us to a low-wage no-services plantation economy…”

In his best Prairie Home Companion style satire he devastates the ultra conservatives who currently control the Republican party under the leadership of “their Etch-a-Sketch president with a voice like a dial tone, who for almost four years has looked as if he were about to say something smart…”

This is a fast, factual, funny read you will find hard to put down.

–Flo Wineriter

What’s The Matter With Kansas?

~Book Review~

Author, editor, and social critic, Thomas Frank sees a different side of the demise of The Democratic Party. In the introduction to his latest book, What’s the Matter With Kansas? he describes the Great Backlash as a style of conservatism that began with public response to the protests of the late sixties. The response resulted in many democrats becoming republicans. He says, “Having rolled back the landmark economic reforms of the sixties (the war on poverty) and those of the thirties (labor law, agricultural price supports, banking regulation), its leaders now turn their guns on the accomplishments of the earliest years of progressivism (Woodrow Wilson’s estate tax; Theodore Roosevelt’s antitrust measures). With a little more effort, the backlash may well repeal the entire twentieth century.”

The author lays much of the blame on the New Democrats who neglect the problems of their low and middle income base and join traditional Republicans in supporting free trade and corporations.

This book explores all the forces that have pulled U.S. voters to the right.

–Flo Wineriter

Podium Upgrade

Our humanist podium has been dramatically improved. Thanks to your generous response to our appeal for contributions a few months ago our podium now has two new state-of-the-art wireless Shure microphones, a new power amplifier, and a new Shure mixer.

We tried out the renovated system at our September meeting and the results were excellent. Chapter President Heather Dorrell and Secretary Wayne Wilson used the wired podium mike, the speaker used the new wireless lapel microphone and the audience used the new wireless portable microphone. All produced clear voices with no squealing feedback. A new wiring system will also eliminate dangerous lengthy cords strung around the Eliot Hall floor.

Thanks for your financial support to make these improvements and thanks to Lee Shuster and Layne Owens for their installation expertise Humanists of Utah has an outstanding, modern, electronic sound system.

–Flo Wineriter


Member Recommended Websites

his month’s featured site is submitted by Wayne Wilson. He writes, “Many people think that the SETI (Search for Intelligent Life) is the stuff of science fiction. Actually, it is a serious effort that you can support with no pain and virtually no cost. The University of California at Berkley sponsors one of the largest distributed computing projects in the world. Here’s how it works: the university receives data collected by the giant radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico and sends out ‘units’ to millions of desktop computers world wide. These computers, instead of flying toasters or cruising fish for screensavers, run a number of scientific processes against the data looking for signs of intelligence in the radio signals. Once the analysis of the unit is complete, the results are returned to Berkley and another unit downloaded for analysis. Each unit will take between 2 and 36 hours to crunch depending on the power of the PC and options the user selects. If you like the ‘screensaver’ display, it takes longer; turn to black screen and the units process faster. Have a powerful machine and want to get through a lot of units? There are command line and Windows services options to run SETI@home. But it doesn’t have to be complicated.”

It is fun and you are contributing otherwise idle computer cycles to a good cause!