by Anne K. Yoder
The season’s political buzz is quickly careening from an ominous hum to a paranoid scream. Last week the Republican presidential candidate patted his daughter’s ass as he took the stage to accept his party’s nomination, just one offense among many in a speech that included promises only mash-up superhero-fascist-villain could make good on. “I am your voice,” he said. I find this to be terribly unsettling.
I mean, because how is one man’s self-aggrandizing voice to speak for a nation? It’s not my voice, it’s certainly not the voice of Latinos or Black Lives Matter or Muslims or Christians or blue collar workers.
If his wife had said, “I am your voice,” during her speech two days before his, it at least would have been delivered with an element of truth among the lines she cribbed from the current first lady’s speech delivered at another convention.
“You word is your bond,” the hopeful first lady said just like the current first lady said eight years before. With these words parroted, plagiarized, divested of their power—what bond does their empty promise hold? And who is she, really? By speaking another’s words, by claiming to have credentials she doesn’t hold, her words create a vacuum of wanting to be.
Awash in words, is what I think. Also: nightmare, also: hoodwinked. A promise is a vow. One’s word is a bond. Except when words are empty, hollow, insincere.
Philosopher of language J.L. Austin described this insincerity as a type of abuse of speech in his book, How to Do Things with Words. The book contains transcriptions of lectures Austin gave at Harvard. His concern was with the performative utterance, the ways that words –when spoken – also do. “Felicities” fulfill the act they promise, like a marriage vow, like an apology delivered with apologetic intent. “Infelicities” are their sad sisters, speech acts gone awry, that have been in some way defeated or undermined. They are further divided into misfires and abuses. The Trump speeches fall into this latter category of abuses: speech acts “professed but hollow” and filled with insincerities.
Wittgenstein proposed that we socially engage in agreed upon language-games. We learn and create ways to deploy words and the rules that govern their use: words delivered as commands, as stories, as jokes, as a form of problem solving. A joke in order to be deployed must be understood as one or the joke’s on you.
Sincerity is important under many certain circumstances, too. Memoir is one. Vivian Gornick spoke recently on Bookworm about the necessity of a reliable narrator in memoir. The narrator’s voice must be authentic for readers to become invested. Unlike in fiction, Gornick points out, where the narrator’s blindness or deceit is welcome. Think Humbert Humbert, think Holden Caulfield. Forever charmed by the trickster as readers, accomplices, bystanders, but we stop short of wanting them to make our decisions.
Political candidacy is another, yet Trump’s ability to contradict himself and shatter the political decorum has been taken by some as favorable, more authentic in its deviation from what’s expected. This white, male billionaire real estate mogul cum reality television star is somehow posturing as if he knows and cares and can speak for the plights of the common man.
When he says “I am your voice” and there is no room for these other voices, this is a problem for a democracy. The voice of a population is by definition a plurality, and like an ecosystem, it is strengthened by diversity. The multiplicity of voices listened to, recorded, and given voice to as one is something writer Svetlana Alexievich does in her books which bridge the journalistic with the documentary. In the ten years she spent making Voices from Chernobyl she interviewed hundreds of people whose lives were impacted by the nuclear disaster. She collected stories of residents and physicians and soldiers and firefighters who went into the zone. She spoke with those who suffered the ills of nuclear fallout and those who lived to bury them. Their voices are gathered and stitched together as a collective oral history, a single voice emerging from the people. “I am your voice.” Except she doesn’t say that at all, doesn’t presume to speak for anyone. Instead: “I would say that I am a human ear. When I walk down the street and catch words, phrases, and exclamations, I always think – how many novels disappear without a trace!”
Anne K. Yoder’s fiction, essays, and criticism have been published Fence, Bomb, and Tin House, among other publications. She is a staff writer for The Millions, co-editrix of Projecttile, a journal of nontraditional writing with a feminist bent, and a member of Meekling Press. She lives in Chicago, where she’s at work on a novel.