Using ‘gaffes’ to evade accountability

The media has to stop this practice of labeling anything controversial said by a politicians (or the one-percenters) as a ‘flub’ or a ‘gaffe’. Those labels should be reserved for either honest mistakes or for statements that were intended but have fairly trivial consequences. For a politician, confusing the names of the leaders of foreign countries is a gaffe. It does not tell us much about what the person’s views on foreign policy are. But saying something that you believe does not become transformed into a gaffe simply because it gets you in hot water.

When the Republican candidate for the US senate in Missouri Todd Akin propounded his bizarre theory that ‘legitimate rape’ does not usually result in pregnancy because a woman who does not want to be raped secretes something that kills sperm, that is not a flub or a gaffe, as some media outlets refer to it. It is also not something that was ‘misspoken’, as Akin tried to claim later.

Such a statement is in fact the product of a belief that arises from the desire to draw an absolute line and oppose abortion under all circumstances. Such people run into the problem that requiring a raped woman to carry the baby to term when she does not want to is extraordinarily cruel and not acceptable to most people. So this bizarre ‘theory’ has been created that argues backwards, that if the woman gets pregnant, she could not have been raped in the first place and so abortion should not be permitted.

So people who say such things are not making a ‘gaffe’ or a ‘flub’ or ‘misspeaking’. They are revealing an integral part of their belief system and should be held accountable for them. Akin should be pressed on why he believes that and whether he now repudiates it. He should not be allowed to claim the ‘gaffe’ exemption because that only allows this deeply wrong and offensive idea to have continued currency.

And what kind of people would believe such ‘theories’ in the first place? We can let Gene Wilder describe them to us.


  1. smrnda says

    Great post. You make the important, and I would think, obvious distinction that what Akin said wasn’t a bad choice of words or mistake or minor factual mistake, but was a position that he has actually thought out and supported with false medical information. I wish a journalist had asked Akin, later, if he actually believed that it is somehow impossible for pregnancy to result from rape, and if he believes this, where he gets his information from. He shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this just by pretending to say ‘oops, bad choice of words.’ He expressed a coherent opinion that, stated in the most careful and precise way possible, would have still been false given facts and also offensive to many people.

  2. EthicistDan says

    Your point about the need to make a distinction between factual and speaking errors is apt, but I disagree that gaffes are necessarily not major errors. In terms of a political campaign or any public relations campaign, saying anything that casts the person or thing you are trying to promote in an unpopular light or distracts from the ideas you are trying to publicize is a gaffe insofar as it is an error in the execution of your strategy. If one claims to have misspoken after having said anything hugely offensive, very few people are going to take that seriously as an excuse regardless of whether the statement was truly a slip of the tongue or not. I think the broader truth that is brought to the fore in these cases is the fact that successful public relations is not about saying things that are factual but about saying things that are not unpopular and insuring that all half-truths, outright lies, and controversial opinions are well covered or distracted from. Staying on message is the point. Akin went off message, and that constitutes a major category of gaffes. He’s not getting reprimanded (and possibly materially punished) for holding a controversial opinion; he’s getting reprimanded for expressing tactlessly in a way that distracts from the message the Republicans are trying to send. He’s obviously wrong and obviously disengaged from the scientific facts, and I’m frankly glad that we get to say that and point out the larger trend toward that sort of attitude in our political rhetoric and policy making.

  3. Randomfactor says

    So they’d rather be thought of as morons than known to actually tell the truth?

    Their voters identify with morons. They can’t identify with people who tell the truth.

  4. unbound says

    I much prefer the dishonesty of “I was only joking”. At least there was always a very, very slim chance that the douche-bag was actually joking. There is zero chance that this douche-bag just “misspoke”.

  5. says

    But saying something that you believe does not become transformed into a gaffe simply because it gets you in hot water.


    It’s like a comment I read the other day – someone said (paraphrasing) “it’s as if any time you say anything negative about gays, it’s hate speech” Well, yeah, it is if what you’re saying is hateful!!

    The whole thing about “gaffe” is it’s as if you say something really stupid, but it’s somehow not stupid because, um, you’re not a stupid guy so you couldn’t possibly have said something stupid, QED!

  6. Joe T says

    Such a good post. This isn’t a simple flub like an exhausted Obama saying there are 57 states. Akin was obviously laying out his understanding of rape and pregnancy. I don’t wanna hear “misspoke” I want him to acknowledge that he was wrong.

  7. says

    Perhaps “gaffe” should just be globally search/replaced with “thing I wish I hadn’t said” or “thing X wishes they hadn’t said”

    Often when dealing with newspeak I form these automatic translations and let my brain apply them; it’s useful anti-marketing. Especially if you do translations for blah-blah-blah-marketing-terminology to “bullshit” Then listening to a presentation at a tradeshow becomes downright amusing! “Would you like to see our latest 10gb/sec bullshit? It uses bullshit to bullshit bullshit!” I can nod and say, “I bet it does.”

  8. lordshipmayhem says

    The thing is, he’s not the first social conservative who has come out with this bizarre idea – at least two other Republican legislators over the past 30 years have come out with statements explicitly stating exactly the same belief – that rape victims can’t become pregnant.

    Note that the usual Tea Party spokesdroids have remained silent on this issue. I think they’re shocked that Akin is being mocked so angrily by people from the far left wing to the few surviving moderate Republicans, and from the bulk of the American medical establishment.

  9. left0ver1under says

    Another example is those who claim “I didn’t say that” despite it being caught on video or audio tape (e.g. Dick Cheney).

    They’ve gotten so used to lying that they think no one will check facts anymore. But what’s worse, a great many of the public will swallow the lie and ignore the fact checking.

  10. N. Nescio says

    I preferred “that was not intended to be a factual statement”.

    At least Kyl admitted he was bullshitting.

  11. Corvus illustris says

    So people who say such things are not making a ‘gaffe’ or a ‘flub’ or ‘misspeaking’. They are revealing an integral part of their belief system and should be held accountable for them.

    But an alternative to this–and IMHO the prevalent case–is that belief is not involved; the guy has just pulled it out of his/her lower intestine and is saying it because (1) it will appeal to his/her public and (2) it is perfectly clear that the “reporters” will never bring a day of reckoning. Akin just had bad luck and was dumb enough to believe that no one would track down his medical “facts”.

    Nonetheless, there is still hope that he will stay in the Senate race.

  12. says

    A great way of handling that is to look the “joker” in the eye and say, “I don’t think you were joking. I think you’re saying that to dismiss your own words so you don’t have to stand up for them. (long pause) Just kidding.”

  13. Jandorian says

    Akin’s notpology included the phrase “I used the wrong words in the wrong way.” Note he doesn’t admit to any counterfactuality, or that the general gist of his point was wrong, or that his motivations were wrong. Just that he used the wrong words to explain them.

    He later says that rape *could* lead to pregnancy, but notice that this is not a walk-back or repudiation of his previous counterfactual claim that rape=pregnancy is rare, he is merely acknowledging that it is non-zero.

    He hasn’t learned anything, or changed anything, and shame on the approx. half of Missourians who are going to vote for this tool.

  14. lorn says

    Akin’s ‘misunderstanding’ and ‘unfortunate choice of words’ is also an evil meme that serves to legitimate opposition to all abortions. It also serves to paint any woman raped as undeserving of any relief or consideration because her pregnancy, according to this convenient lie, was only made biologically possible because she wanted, possibly even enjoyed, the sex.

    It is a tight and nasty bit of self-referential logic that says that only consensual sex causes pregnancy so any pregnant woman must have, therefore, consented. It eliminates the uncomfortable feelings over woman raped and pregnant by defining away the rape. This makes antiabortion theocrats and rapists everywhere feel much better about themselves. Doing that while laying guilt and anguish onto women who were raped and pregnant is just an extra bit of sweet misogynist gravy. Entirely appropriate for gravy sucking pigs.

    Akin’s failure to identify rape as inherently traumatic and destructive, and his failure to apprehend the biological reality are just the almost excusable tip of his inexcusable and heinous attack upon women in dire straits.

  15. says

    Good morning Mano,

    Two points:

    First, a few days ago a commenter on Have Coffee Will Write wrote: Sexual orientation is a made-up psychological abstraction for those with ‘certain feelings’ (i.e., an emotion).

    Notcrooked was voicing an opinion on my protesting the Boy Scouts of America stance on GLBT scouts and leaders by joining my brothers in returning our Eagle medals.

    I replied: If you truly believe that sexual orientation is a made-up psychological abstraction, then we are not having a conversation based on reality, and I ended that conversation. At some point I have to conclude that someone I’m speaking with is either a sociopathic liar or mentally deranged and since I don’t know how to have an intelligence conversation with either, I walk away.

    Second: I came to the Akin conversation late, but my initial reaction, tweeted to Jill Miller Zimon, was: I see this lunacy as a case of “tell a lie enough and it mimics truth.” Akin believes himself. I still think Akin believes every word he’s saying which only reinforces the point that he is either a sociopathic liar or mentally deranged.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,



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