Words, Not Just Tone, Matter

In the “heated argument” between Kellyanne Conway and Jennifer Palmieri at Harvard last week, the press attention focused on the seemingly angry tones between these two. The audio reflects that tone, both speakers (and others) talking over the others in incomplete sentences, neither side making a coherent argument. What should have been an instructive and reflective examination of the past presidential campaign devolved into a shouted barrage of “Oh yeah?”, “Did not!” and “Did too!”

But for all the shouting and hostility, we should not forget the words — yes, there were words spoken and statements made and claims denied, and these should not be ignored. These words matter, because the claims they make matter and the denial of these claims matter.

So — what set off this heated argument?

Palmieri expressed her pride that Clinton stood up against the “white supremacists, white nationalists” who were attaching themselves to Trump’s campaign as a way to get their message out.

“One of my proudest moments with [Hillary Clinton] is her standing up with courage and with clarity in Steve Bannon’s own words and Donald Trump’s own words the platform that they gave to white supremacists, white nationalists. And it is a very, very important moment in our history as a country and I think as his presidency goes forward I am going to be very glad to be part of the campaign that tried to stop this,” Palmieri said.

The claim, then, is that the Trump campaign gave “a platform” to these groups.

The counter-claim is that the Trump campaign had “a decent message for the white working class voters” and that Clinton “doesn’t connect with people, […] they have nothing in common with her [and] you had no economic message.”

The counter-claim is not, as it turns out, a denial. Conway doesn’t say “no, we did not give white supremacists a platform, we kicked them out whenever they latched on to us.” Conway doesn’t quote any statement by Trump or anyone else in the campaign, telling David Duke, the KKK, Breitbart, the Spencers’ or other known white nationalists to go away. Indeed, when those statements did come, they were only after the election was over and Trump had been declared “president-elect.”

So we have a claim, an accusation if you will, which — given the opportunity — the accused does not deny.

Words shouldn’t be lost in the heat of the exchange. Words aren’t as entertaining as a shouting match, true, but they are instructive.

Words — and the absence of words to the contrary — matter.