Complexity isn’t a Vice: 10 Word Answers and Doubletalk in Election 2016

How Donald Trump is leveraging an old Vaudeville trick to heavily contest the presidential election

A Problem with Transcripts

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen dozens of news outlets publish multi-paragraph excerpts of speeches from Donald Trump and have been appalled that I was unable to read them in any coherent way. I could not honestly follow or discern any coherent thought or argument in the majority of them. I was a bit shocked because in listening to him, he often sounds like he has some kind of point, though he seems to be spouting variations on one of ten one-liners he’s been using for over a year now. There’s apparently a flaw in our primal reptilian brains that seems to be tricking us into thinking that there’s some sort of substance in his speech when there honestly is none. I’m going to have to spend some time reading more on linguistics and cognitive neuroscience. Maybe Stephen Pinker knows of an answer?

The situation got worse this week as I turned to news sources for fact-checking of the recent presidential debate. While it’s nice to have web-based annotation tools like Genius[1] and Hypothes.is[2] to mark up these debates, it becomes another thing altogether to understand the meaning of what’s being said in order to actually attempt to annotate it. I’ve included some links so that readers can attempt the exercise for themselves.

Recent transcripts (some with highlights/annotations):

Doubletalk and Doublespeech

It’s been a while since Americans were broadly exposed to actual doubletalk. For the most part our national experience with it has been a passing curiosity highlighted by comedians.

dou·ble-talk
ˈdəblˌtôk/
n. (NORTH AMERICAN)
a deliberately unintelligible form of speech in which inappropriate, invented or nonsense syllables are combined with actual words. This type of speech is commonly used to give the appearance of knowledge and thereby confuse, amuse, or entertain the speaker’s audience.
another term for doublespeak
see also n. doubletalk [3]

Since the days of vaudeville (and likely before), comedians have used doubletalk to great effect on stage, in film, and on television. Some comedians who have historically used the technique as part of their acts include Al Kelly, Cliff Nazarro, Danny Kaye, Gary Owens, Irwin Corey, Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, Stanley Unwin, and Reggie Watts. I’m including some short video clips below as examples.

A well-known, but foreshortened, form of it was used by Dana Carvey in his Saturday Night Live performances caricaturizing George H.W. Bush by using a few standard catch phrases with pablum in between: “Not gonna do it…”, “Wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture”, and “Thousand Points of Light…”. These snippets in combination with some creative hand gestures (pointing, lacing fingers together), along with a voice melding of Mr. Rogers and John Wayne were the simple constructs that largely transformed a diminutive comedian convincingly into a president.

Doubletalk also has a more “educated” sibling known as technobabble. Engineers are sure to recall a famous (and still very humorous) example of both doubletalk and technobabble in the famed description of the Turboencabulator.[4] (See also, the short videos below.)

Doubletalk comedy examples

Al Kelly on Ernie Kovaks

Sid Caesar

Technobabble examples

Turboencabulator

Rockwell Turbo Encabulator Version 2

Politicobabble

And of course doubletalk and technobabble have closely related cousins named doublespeak and politicobabble. These are far more dangerous than the others because they move over the line of comedy into seriousness and are used by people who make decisions effecting hundreds of thousands to millions, if not billions, of people on the planet. I’m sure an archeo-linguist might be able to discern where exactly politicobabble emerged and managed to evolve into a non-comedic form of speech which people manage to take far more seriously than its close ancestors. One surely suspects some heavy influence from George Orwell’s corpus of work:

The term “doublespeak” probably has its roots in George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four.[5] Although the term is not used in the book, it is a close relative of one of the book’s central concepts, “doublethink”. Another variant, “doubletalk”, also referring to deliberately ambiguous speech, did exist at the time Orwell wrote his book, but the usage of “doublespeak” as well as of “doubletalk” in the sense emphasizing ambiguity clearly postdates the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Parallels have also been drawn between doublespeak and Orwell’s classic essay Politics and the English Language [6] , which discusses the distortion of language for political purposes.

in Wikipedia.com [7]

 

While politicobabble is nothing new, I did find a very elucidating passage from the 1992 U.S. Presidential Election cycle which seems to be a major part of the Trump campaign playbook:

Repetition of a meaningless mantra is supposed to empty the mind, clearing the way for meditation on more profound matters. This campaign has achieved the first part. I’m not sure about the second.

Candidates are now told to pick a theme, and keep repeating it-until polls show it’s not working, at which point the theme vanishes and another takes its place.

The mantra-style repetition of the theme of the week, however, leaves the impression that Teen Talk Barbie has acquired some life-size Campaign Talk Ken dolls. Pull the string and you get: ‘Congress is tough,’ ‘worst economic performance since the Depression,’ or ‘a giant sucking sound south of the border.’

A number of words and phrases, once used to express meaningful concepts, are becoming as useful as ‘ommm’ in the political discourse. Still, these words and phrases have meanings, just not the ones the dictionary originally intended.

Joanne Jacobs
in A Handy Guide To Politico-babble in the Chicago Tribune on

 

In the continuation of the article, Jacobs goes on to give a variety of examples of the term as well as a “translation” guide for some of the common politicobabble words from that particular election. I’ll leave it to the capable hands of others (perhaps in the comments, below?) to come up with the translation guide for our current political climate.

The interesting evolutionary change I’ll note for the current election cycle is that Trump hasn’t delved into any depth on any of his themes to offend anyone significantly enough. This has allowed him to stay with the dozen or so themes he started out using and therefore hasn’t needed to change them as in campaigns of old.

Filling in the Blanks

These forms of pseudo-speech area all meant to fool us into thinking that something of substance is being discussed and that a conversation is happening, when in fact, nothing is really being communicated at all. Most of the intended meaning and reaction to such speech seems to stem from the demeanor of the speaker as well as, in some part, to the reaction of the surrounding interlocutor and audience. In reading Donald Trump transcripts, an entirely different meaning (or lack thereof) is more quickly realized as the surrounding elements which prop up the narrative have been completely stripped away. In a transcript version, gone is the hypnotizing element of the crowd which is vehemently sure that the emperor is truly wearing clothes.

In many of these transcripts, in fact, I find so little is being said that the listener is actually being forced to piece together the larger story in their head. Being forced to fill in the blanks in this way leaves too much of the communication up to the listener who isn’t necessarily engaged at a high level. Without more detail or context to understand what is being communicated, the listener is far more likely to fill in the blanks to fit a story that doesn’t create any cognitive dissonance for themselves — in part because Trump is usually smiling and welcoming towards his adoring audiences.

One will surely recall that Trump even wanted Secretary Clinton to be happy during the debate when he said, “Now, in all fairness to Secretary Clinton — yes, is that OK? Good. I want you to be very happy. It’s very important to me.” (This question also doubles as an example of a standard psychological sales tactic of attempting to get the purchaser to start by saying ‘yes’ as a means to keep them saying yes while moving them towards making a purchase.)

His method of communicating by leaving large holes in his meaning reminds me of the way our brain smooths out information as indicated in this old internet meme [9]:

I cdn’uolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg: the phaonmneel pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to a rseearch taem at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Scuh a cdonition is arpppoiatrely cllaed typoglycemia.

 

I’m also reminded of the biases and heuristics research carried out in part (and the remainder cited) by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow [10] in which he discusses the mechanics of how system 1 and system 2 work in our brains. Is Trump taking advantage of the deficits of language processing in our brains in something akin to system 1 biases to win large blocks of votes? Is he creating a virtual real-time Choose-Your-Own-Adventure to subvert the laziness of the electorate? Kahneman would suggest the the combination of what Trump does say and what he doesn’t leaves it up to every individual listener to create their own story. Their system 1 is going to default to the easiest and most palatable one available to them: a happy story that fits their own worldview and is likely to encourage them to support Trump.

Ten Word Answers

As an information theorist, I know all too well that there must be a ‘linguistic Shannon limit’ to the amount of semantic meaning one can compress into a single word. [11] One is ultimately forced to attempt to form sentences to convey more meaning. But usually the less politicians say, the less trouble they can get into — a lesson hard won through generations of political fighting.

I’m reminded of a scene from The West Wing television series. In season 4, episode 6 which aired on October 30, 2002 on NBC, Game On had a poignant moment (video clip below) which is germane to our subject: [12]

Moderator: Governor Ritchie, many economists have stated that the tax cut, which is the centrepiece of your economic agenda, could actually harm the economy. Is now really the time to cut taxes?
Governor Ritchie, R-FL: You bet it is. We need to cut taxes for one reason – the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does.
Moderator: Mr. President, your rebuttal.
President Bartlet: There it is…
That’s the 10 word answer my staff’s been looking for for 2 weeks. There it is.
10 word answers can kill you in political campaigns — they’re the tip of the sword.
Here’s my question: What are the next 10 words of your answer?
“Your taxes are too high?” So are mine…
Give me the next 10 words: How are we going to do it?
Give me 10 after that — I’ll drop out of the race right now.
Every once in a while — every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that there aren’t very many un-nuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for 10 words.
I’m the President of the United States, not the president of the people who agree with me. And by the way, if the left has a problem with that, they should vote for somebody else.

As someone who studies information theory and complexity theory and even delves into sub-topics like complexity and economics, I can agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment. Though again, here I can also see the massive gaps between system 1 and 2 that force us to want to simplify things down to such a base level that we don’t have to do the work to puzzle them out.

(And yes, that is Jennifer Anniston’s father playing the moderator.)

One can’t but wonder why Mr. Trump doesn’t seem to have ever gone past the first ten words? Is it because he isn’t capable? interested? Or does he instinctively know better? It would seem that he’s been doing business by using the uncertainty inherent in his speech for decades, but always operating by using what he meant (or thought he wanted to mean) than what the other party heard and thought they understood. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Idiocracy or Something Worse?

In our increasingly specialized world, people eventually have to give in and quit doing some tasks that everyone used to do for themselves. Yesterday I saw a lifeworn woman in her 70s pushing a wheeled wire basket with a 5 gallon container of water from the store to her home. As she shuffled along, I contemplated Thracian people from fourth century BCE doing the same thing except they likely carried amphorae possibly with a yoke and without the benefit of the $10 manufactured custom shopping cart. 20,000 years before that people were still carrying their own water, but possibly without even the benefit of earthenware containers. Things in human history have changed very slowly for the most part, but as we continually sub-specialize further and further, we need to remember that we can’t give up one of the primary functions that makes us human: the ability to think deeply and analytically for ourselves.

I suspect that far too many people are too wrapped up in their own lives and problems to listen to more than the ten word answers our politicians are advertising to us. We need to remember to ask for the next ten words and the ten after that.

Otherwise there are two extreme possible outcomes:

We’re either at the beginning of what Mike Judge would term Idiocracy[13]

Or we’re headed to what Michiko Kakutani is “subtweeting” about in her recent review In ‘Hitler’ an Ascent from ‘Dunderhead’ to Demagogue [14] of Volker Ulrich’s new book Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939[15] 

Here, one is tempted to quote George Santayana’s famous line (from The Life of Reason, 1905), “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” However, I far prefer the following as more apropos to our present national situation:

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill (), a British statesman, historian, writer and artist,
in House of Commons, 2 May 1935, after the Stresa Conference, in which Britain, France and Italy agreed—futilely—to maintain the independence of Austria.

 

tl;dr

If Cliff Navarro comes back to run for president, I hope no one falls for his joke just because he wasn’t laughing as he acted it out. If his instructions for fixing the wagon (America) are any indication, the voters who are listening and making the repairs will be in severe pain.

Cliff Navarro

Footnotes

[1]
“Genius | Song Lyrics & Knowledge,” Genius, 2016. [Online]. Available: http://genius.com. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[2]
“Hypothesis | The Internet, peer reviewed. | Hypothesis,” hypothes.is, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://hypothes.is/. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[3]
“Double-talk – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,” en.wikipedia.org, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double-talk. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[4]
“Turboencabulator – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,” en.wikipedia.org, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turboencabulator. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[5]
G. Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four, 1st ed. London: Harvill Secker & Warburg, 1949.
[6]
G. Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” Horizon, vol. 13, no. 76, pp. 252–265, Apr. 1946 [Online]. Available: http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit/
[7]
“Doublespeak – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,” en.wikipedia.org, 29-Sep-2016. [Online]. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doublespeak. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[8]
J. Jacobs, “A Handy Guide To Politico-babble,” Chicago Tribune, 31-Oct-1992. [Online]. Available: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1992-10-31/news/9204080638_1_family-values-trickle-bill-clinton. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[9]
M. Davis, “cmabridge | Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit,” mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk, 2012. [Online]. Available: https://www.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/people/matt.davis/cmabridge/. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[10]
D. Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan, 2011.
[11]
C. Shanon E., “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” Bell System Technical Journal, vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 379–423, Jul. 1948. [Source]
[12]
A. Sorkin, J. Wells, and T. Schlamme , “Game On,” The West Wing, NBC, 30-Oct-2002.
[13]
M. Judge, Idiocracy. Twentieth Century Fox, 2006.
[14]
M. Katutani, “In ‘Hitler’ an Ascent from ‘Dunderhead’ to Demagogue,” New York Times, p. 1, 27-Sep-2016 [Online]. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/28/books/hitler-ascent-volker-ullrich.html?_r=0. [Accessed: 28-Sep-2016] [Source]
[15]
V. Ullrich, Adolf Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939, 1st ed. Knopf Publishing Group, 2016.
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Author: Chris Aldrich

I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer with interests in information theory, complexity, evolution, genetics, signal processing, theoretical mathematics, and big history. I'm also a talent manager-producer-publisher in the entertainment industry with expertise in representation, distribution, finance, production, content delivery, and new media.

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