Casting Aspersions: Palin and Letterman

A few weeks ago, Sarah Palin accused David Letterman of making inappropriate comments.  This post examines some aspects and implications of their public communications in that matter.  After presenting some interactions involving the two of them, the following discussion lays a groundwork by offering viewpoints supporting Letterman and Palin.  The discussion then identifies some interesting features of their interactions from a male social worker’s perspective.

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As reported by various websites, including Robert Schlesinger’s column on the U.S. News & World Report website, Palin’s office released a statement that read as follows:

The Palins have no intention of providing a rating’s [sic] boost for David Letterman by appearing on the show. Plus, it would be wise to keep Willow away from David Letterman.

Schlesinger asked, “Does she know something about Letterman that the rest of us don’t? Or was Palin (or her staff) trying to … score some cheap laughs with a tasteless joke about David Letterman.”  Matt Lauer asked Palin about this in an interview:

Lauer: Are you suggesting that David Letterman can’t be trusted around a 14-year-old girl?

Palin: Hey—take it however you want to take it. It is a comment that came from the heart that Willow no doubt would want to stay away from David Letterman after he made such a comment. And you can interpret that however you want to interpret it.

Lauer: Well but is that not perhaps in bad taste also governor, if you’re you know suggesting that a 62-year old man couldn’t be trusted—

Palin: No, it’s not in bad taste. It’s not in bad taste. Hey—maybe he couldn’t be trusted because Willow’s had enough of this type of comments and maybe Willow would want to, uh, react to him in a way that maybe would catch him off guard. That’s one way to interpret such a comment.

Comments responding to Schlesinger’s column (and, no doubt, to other commentaries on the matter) suggest that people interpreted Palin’s response in two general ways:  either (a) Palin meant to imply that Letterman considered statutory rape funny, or else (b) she meant that there might be some undesirable non-sex-related interaction between Willow and Letterman (e.g., Letterman might make another wisecrack; Willow might kick him).  And within each of those two possibilities, commenters seemed to take one of two positions:  Palin’s remark was (1) justified or (2) not justified.

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In the foregoing exchanges, Schlesinger assumed, and Lauer at least asked about, possibility (a)(2).  In that view, Palin implied that Letterman approved of sexual predatation, but she was unjustified in doing so.  In such circumstances, it seems that a social worker would want to balance the need for sensitivity surrounding matters of gender (i.e., being appropriately cautious about accusing someone of sexual predation) against the need for protection against abuse (i.e., warning against a demonstrated risk of sexual predation).

In the materials quoted above, Schlesinger and Palin adopted divergent approaches to interpretation.  Schlesinger was particularly concerned with a single implication – that Letterman was a predator – while Palin was open to multiple possible implications.  Palin said, “You can interpret that however you want to interpret it.” Likewise, in her next comment, she referred to “one way to interpret such a comment.”  Palin thus seemed to feel that there were different ways to construe her statement, several of which would be acceptable, while Schlesinger seems to feel that at least one interpretation – namely, (a)(2) – is not acceptable.  On this point, social workers face a question of priorities:  whether to defend a statement that may express a defensible idea or, instead, to reject a statement that may express an indefensible idea.

Perhaps every statement can be understood as expressing at least one indefensible idea.  For instance, the statement “The sky is blue” can be seen as inaccurate, incomplete, irrelevant, or otherwise open to criticism if, instead, what seems more accurate or important is that the sky is partly cloudy, or aqua, or high, or filled with birds.  The words, themselves, do not stand alone.  Their meanings and uses vary from one situation to another.  A social worker typically cannot safely look at a statement, outside of its context, and reach a well-informed opinion on what it means or what effect it has.

Moreover, an attempt to understand the context can be quite complex.  As this discussion illustrates, there are many factors to consider, and not everyone is going to interpret every comment in the same way.  On this basis, a social worker might prudently hesitate to condemn Palin’s statement about Letterman merely because it can be interpreted as having at least one objectionable meaning:  almost every statement has that.

This indeterminacy in language leads to a fork in the road.  It can be annoying to insist upon clarity when people are merely attempting ordinary interaction.  A complete and accurate report is not usually expected, for example, when someone asks, “How are you?”  But for purposes of solving problems – in science, for instance, or in a context of disagreement – complete and accurate information may be essential.  People who mostly interact in everyday, non-scientific, non-legal terminology can find it perplexing to be pinned to the wall when they unwittingly stumble into an area of unexpected sensitivity.  At the same time, people who have more experience interacting in more precise language may arrive at unflattering conclusions about those who express themselves in vague generalities (e.g., that such a person is evasive or ignorant).

In this regard, Palin speaks for those who are not sophisticated in the specialized use of words – who are, too often, impaled by what she sees as “gotcha journalism,” or by lawyers or others who seem to have (or to invent) a negative reaction to almost everything that one says.  At the same time, from the other side of the table, when people like Palin seem to avoid clarifying their language, and insist that there is nothing at all wrong with what they have said, they can appear irresponsible and opposed to self-improvement.  This observation suggests that social workers should be aware that a kind of verbal interaction that appears normal in one culture may be resisted and denigrated in another.  Indeed, for purposes of that statement, “culture” varies from context to context, as people who are not normally precise in their language become very much so in some circumstances, and conversely for those who normally insist upon verbal precision.

Hopefully the social worker does not assume, from the outset, that one side is right and the other is wrong – in, say, the Letterman-Palin matter.  On the point of “gotcha journalism,” for instance, there does appear to be some unwillingness, on both sides, to understand the opposing perspective and to portray it fairly.  One might hope that Sarah Palin’s social worker (if she had one) would encourage her to understand and acknowledge Schlesinger’s viewpoint.  One might also hope that Schlesinger (and those who share his views) would be encouraged to accept Palin’s assurances that she did not mean what he inferred, or (if applicable) would accept an apology for her insensitivity.  Granted, pundits and politicians have points to prove, and as such are often not inclined to behave cooperatively; but for purposes of dealing with ordinary people more generally, it does appear that social workers should seek to foster goodhearted and conciliatory attitudes.

These remarks apply, not only to Schlesinger’s response to Palin, but also to Palin’s response to Letterman.  There were, inevitably, multiple ways to interpret what he said about Palin’s daughter, just as there were multiple ways to interpret what Palin said about keeping Willow away from him.  A social worker, expected to keep the client’s interests in mind, would presumably disapprove of an effort to single out the most negative possible interpretation of what either Palin or Letterman said.

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Interpreting their interaction on that basis, it could be said that Letterman made a joke about Palin’s daughter Bristol (not Willow); Palin retorted that jokes about Willow were not appreciated (without any predatory implication); Letterman apologized for any misunderstanding; and Palin thanked him for doing so.  Had events truly and openly transpired that way, I would not be writing this post.

What actually happened is interesting on several points.  First, the focus of the media and of many members of the public was upon the comedian, not the politician.  This is unusual.  Since the days of the court jester, it has been generally understood that political comics make a living by inventing amusing stories about, and by imposing unexpected juxtapositions upon, the behavior of political leaders.  Comedians routinely test (and sometimes transgress) the boundaries of socially accepted humor.  This seems unavoidable.  Jokes about the chicken crossing the road get tiresome after a while.  It is precisely the unexpected, invented nature of a joke that makes it funny – and, sometimes, offensive.  From a social work perspective, negative reactions against humorous expression probably should be tempered by awareness of the beneficial effects of humor on health, as well as of the uses of humor to influence behavior of, and responsese to, abusive individuals and entities.

A social worker may sometimes consider it appropriate to agitate against offensive humor, although presumably s/he will simultaneously hesitate to impair the individual’s right of self-expression.  After all, TV personalities are not the only ones who tell political jokes.  As a general rule, if speech can be suppressed in one context, it can more readily be suppressed in other contexts as well, especially by those who possess power in legal, media, and other spheres.  The commonsense reaction to a bad joke is to shrug it off and maybe switch to some other entertainment.  Live and let live.  If a joke is truly outrageous, it may call for a letter of complaint.   More extreme reactions to humorous expression rarely seem appropriate.

It would have been more difficult for Palin to attack a female comedienne who spoke the words Letterman spoke.  The implication of sexual predation would probably not have had much traction. Letterman, by contrast, was an easy target. Late-night political comedy’s leaders are almost all male:  Letterman, Leno, O’Brien, Maher, and so on – Tina Fey being the primary exception related to Palin.  Maybe this will change; maybe it should change.  But in terms of present realities on the national scale, political comedy is predominantly something that men do.  A woman attacking a political comic is thus in a position somewhat like that of a woman who attacks a major league baseball player or a Catholic priest.  Such a man may have his admirers, but he has few if any female peers to demonstrate publicly that men are not the only ones who behave in this or that putatively objectionable way.  The problem for social work, in this regard, is that the large majority of social workers are female and, as such, do not generally appear inclined toward, and skilled in, advocating on behalf of a male perspective in such situations.

Palin wanted Lauer to accept that she might have meant something other than what Schlesinger understood, in her remark about Letterman, and yet she was reluctant to accept Letterman’s assurance that he did mean something other than what Palin assumed.  Thus, a statement that could easily have been understood as being about Palin’s famously non-abstaining daughter, Bristol, was implausibly converted into a statement about her politically unknown daughter Willow.  The expressions of support on her behalf indicate that Palin was supported by many women – including some who substantially oppose her politics – in making this improbable complaint against this man.

In short, Palin derived political advantage from drawing the world’s attention to the unnecessary, unlikely assertion that, according to a comedian, her 14-year-old daughter had sex with Alex Rodriguez.  (There does not appear to have been much outrage at Palin’s implication that Rodriguez would readily participate in statutory rape.)

There was (and still is) an actual “Fire Dave” movement.  This might appear to be a fringe phenomenon.  But this fringe was sufficient to cause the loss of an advertiser for CBS, Dave’s employer.  Hence we saw Letterman grovelling in apology.  Presidents can’t get that from Letterman, but Sarah Palin did.  There was plainly some kind of power at work there.  Social workers interested in manifestations of power may want to reflect upon what is, I’m told, Foucault’s construal of power as constantly shifting, often to those who use claims of powerlessness to cloak their own exercises of power over others.

Along those lines, one might contemplate the assumption that Willow Palin was powerless in comparison to David Letterman.  Among the world’s children, there are sons and daughters of kings.  Childhood does not always imply powerlessness.  Even the suggestion that Letterman might have been joking at Willow’s expense was sufficient to move millions of people.  This is not powerlessness.

Social workers, observing these events, were hopefully aware that a false accusation against Letterman could have severe adverse effects upon him.  He might have lost his job.  It is not clear that he knows how to do anything else.  At his age, jobs are hard to find.  Globally publicized firing wouldn’t help.  Rates of suicide are high among older white males, and wealth is a risk factor for suicide.  Willow Palin, a privileged child, experienced no such threat. Indeed, someone thinking on her behalf might hesitate to impose, upon her, the possible burden of considering herself partially responsible for what might have happened to him.

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This has been a discussion of some male-oriented social work issues that seem to arise from the controversy involving David Letterman’s joke about Sarah Palin’s daughter.  This discussion does not purport to exhaust that topic.  It merely provides an opportunity to provide a perspective on men that does not appear to be commonly provided in schools of social work.

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