Context: Out of Context

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October 20, 2012 by Michael

Context is a complicated issue, covering all the journalistic questions—who, what, where, when, why, how—about something. Most people think about context in the sense of “He took that statement out of context,” thinking about the words immediately preceding and following that statement. That’s one of the many aspects of “context,” which is half of what this blog is all about, but let’s look at this basic aspect of context for now.

What we say before and after a statement affects what that statement means, and taking a statement out of the text that surrounds it can affect the meaning of that statement. Selectively editing of statements out of their original context can completely twist their meanings—imagine what removing the first four words out would do to, “I don’t think that you’re a terrible person.”

The first example of out-of-context political remarks I can think of was the foofaraw  made about President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” statement. At a campaign rally in Virginia, talking about how the wealthy owe more to their community for helping them be successful, Obama said:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

It’s clear that when he says “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that,” Obama is using that to refer to the infrastructure (our roads and schools), not the business itself. But with creative editing, the right took this phrase out of context and said that Obama meant people hadn’t built their businesses themselves, and they ran with it, creating plenty of internet noise and a convention mini-theme, spawning at least one satirical website.

The left has done its share of context removal, too. At last week’s debate, former Massachusetts Governor Romney said

[My Massachusetts governorial staff] took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said, “Can you help us find folks,” and they brought us whole binders full of women. I was proud of the fact that after I staffed my Cabinet and my senior staff, that the University of New York in Albany did a survey of all 50 states, and concluded that mine had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America.

The phrasing “binders full of women” was unfortunate, and Romney certainly didn’t mean that women were literally stuffed in three-ring binders for him. Here, too, the left ran with it, creating plenty of internet noise and leading to its own satirical website, though it was too late to make it a convention theme for the DNC.

Some argued that the unintentional metaphor indicated Romney’s true feelings for women, as mere objects to be stuffed in binders, just as others would argue that Obama’s statement in Virginia actually reflected his deep-seated feelings about government, as a socialist force necessary for capitalist growth. Both require some serious Freudian slippage to accept, and that’s too specious for us to base a political opinion on.

To me, a far more substantial statement, one whose context illuminates it more than obscures it, was Romney’s response a few moments after the “binder” statement. The question had originally been about gender pay inequity, and Romney explained one of his solutions thusly:

We’re going to have to have employers in the new economy, in the economy I’m going to bring to play, that are going to be so anxious to get good workers they’re going to be anxious to hire women. In the — in the last women have lost 580,000 jobs. That’s the net of what’s happened in the last four years. We’re still down 580,000 jobs.

Right there in the middle, Romney says that he’s going to build such a robust economy that employers will be “so anxious to get good workers that they’re going to be anxious to hire women.” In the best reading of this statement, and in the fullest context of a discussion about gender-pay inequity, Romney is merely pointing out that employers don’t appreciate that women are good workers, and that his new economy will force them to hire women. This is his solution to gender inequality: just let the market take care of it.

To my ears, there’s not a context in which Romney’s statement sounds good. At worst, he’s saying that women are only suitable for hiring when the labor force is tight. At best, it says that Romney thinks big business will settle matters for itself, once we’re at precipitously low unemployment levels. Whether those same employers would keep those women on the books when times turn sour, or actually recognize the equality of women, is not the issue. The market will correct for it. (As for the pay inequity issue itself, he neatly sidesteps it—just as Obama does with other questions in the rhetorical pas de deux of a debate.)

Whatever you think about the balance of government and business, surely we can agree that one of government’s primary functions is to ensure a level playing field in the business world, that people are not deprived of their livelihooods due to the bigotry or narrow-mindedness of others. Businesses didn’t integrate on their own after the protests of the turbulent sixties; it took legislation to accomplish what the market had been unable to do for a hundred years. Are we to expect that gender inequity will dissipate just because economics demands it? Apparently so, if this attitude of Romney’s is to be believed.

If the left is looking for a better, more reasonable attack angle on Romney, this seems like a far more productive one than all the foofaraw generated by “binders of women.” That’s a statement taken out of context; his other comment sounds more like a statement of principle.

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