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Trump reaction to Charlottesville was ‘quasi-neutral’ and ‘sickening’

PA Wire/PA Images - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Donald Trump has been widely criticised for failing to condemn neo-Nazis after the violence in Charlottesville. Here Nigel Warburton explores the theory of implicature

Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old civil rights activist, run down and killed by a car in Charlottesville while protesting against white supremacists, had been dead for 48 hours before President Donald Trump finally found the words to condemn racism, the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and the rest. This belated corrective response seemed like a few drops of blood squeezed from a reluctant stone by intense political pressure, much of it coming from his allies in God’s Own Party.

Coming so late, it did little to heal the wounds he had opened. While many liberals would wish to uphold even white supremacists’ First Amendment rights to gather to protest the planned removal of the Confederate general Robert E Lee’s statue from a Charlottesville park, because free speech means free speech even for the views you despise, the shock of Heyer’s murder has been compounded by Trump’s slow and in many ways disturbing response to the unfolding events.

Trump’s first reaction to the violence at the rally and to the murder was altogether more telling, and strangely neutral: ‘We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.’ This was a form of words that in its quasi-neutrality sickened many of us who heard it. He was instantly and rightly condemned on many sides for what he didn’t say – this, in context was a significant act of omission, a choice not to condemn the supremacists.

And this sort of omission is not a one-off: given opportunities to speak out against racist violence and anti-semitism, Trump has frequently chosen neutral terms, where previous presidents have been quick to call these things for what they are. In using the phrase ‘violence on many sides’ to describe the flashpoint in Charlottesville, he conveniently neglected the fact that a woman who had been peacefully protesting bigotry had just been killed by what looks to have been a homegrown terrorist using a car as a weapon.

Few were in doubt that Trump was going out of his way to avoid offending the extremists. The obvious reason for his reluctance was that they were on his side; some even suspect that he may be on theirs.

The philosophy of language can shed some light on Trump’s methods here. In particular, HP Grice’s (1913 – 88) notion of implicature is useful. Grice, a British philosopher who spent most of his academic career at the University of California Berkeley, is not well known outside of philosophy and linguistics, but he perhaps should be. He was fascinated by how we use words to create meaning.

Implicature is the name he gave to the act of implying a meaning which is beyond the literal meaning of the words expressed, and not something which can logically be inferred from them.

We use implicature all the time. It is the basis of our communication. It’s how we understand each other. We have a context in which we speak or write, expectations, a set of social conventions about what we can expect. When someone says ‘nice weather!’ in the middle of a hailstorm, we know exactly what they mean, even though the words literally mean the opposite of what is understood by the act of communication here.

Similarly, if a friend said to me, ‘Donald Trump is the greatest President the United States has ever had’, I would instantly appreciate the irony. Precisely the same words uttered by a white supremacist at a rally in Virginia would be chilling. The context and speaker would convey the intended message, and I would wonder what sort of person could sincerely believe that, and what terrible consequences might follow from that belief.

Some extremists showed an appreciation of the philosophy of language behind Trump’s omissions. The neo-Nazi publication The Daily Stormer, for instance, included this:

”Trump’s comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us. He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate…on both sides! So he implied the anitfa [anti-fascists] are haters. There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all.’

The logic here is surely right. Trump spoke against hate on many sides. If he spoke against hate on many sides and one of the many sides he included in that was the anti-fascist side, that implies that he spoke against the hatred of the anti-fascists, something that gives comfort to anti-fascists. But the important recognition here was that he omitted to attack the neo-fascists who had paraded their vile ideas around Charlottesville.

The neo-Nazis immediately read this omission as a clear act of communication. And this does not seem like wishful thinking on their part. Though not strictly implied by the words Trump used, the message, that shows sympathy to the neo-fascists and their crew, seems clear. Perhaps it is the fact that there is no strictly implied meaning is what makes this form of communication so attractive to Trump – he can get away with not saying things that might be expected of him far more easily than he can by either saying things directly, or by saying things which logically commit him to views he perhaps doesn’t hold.

Whatever the truth here. A message has been received. It is a message that will also have been received far beyond the United States. There are many in Europe who want to hear a similar message. Let’s hope that implicature doesn’t give them too much hope.

Nigel Warburton is the author of A Little History of Philosophy and host of the Philosophy Bites podcast. He tweets at @philosophybites

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