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Private Speech Made Public

2010 November 5
by Randy H. Milgrom

During the latter stages of the political campaign of former – and now two-time – California Governor Jerry Brown, an audiotape surfaced in the media that was said to contain a conversation among the Governor and his staff members during which one of the staffers called Brown’s opponent, Meg Whitman, a “whore.” The Whitman campaign promptly tried to use this transgression to its political advantage, but the attempt failed – not only in the obvious sense that Brown ultimately won the election but also based on the more immediate polling and gamesmanship aftermath – even though most observers agreed that Brown also mishandled his muted and confusing semi-apology during a televised debate just a few days later.

          The tape was inconsequential because most people understood that the staffer was not making a specific sexual reference, nor employing a sexist term (as the Whitman camp insisted) but was merely calling Whitman a “sellout” in the same generic way that many of us now seem to think of most politicians, regardless of gender. Besides – it was a staffer, not Brown, who said it, even if it’s also true that Brown seemed neither shocked nor offended by its usage, and sounded just as excited as the others about the prospect of hurling it as a public insult (at least in television advertisements). So in a state – and a country – with more pressing problems to solve, the voters largely shrugged. They understood that language uttered during a private conversation would not – and should not – determine the outcome of an election. And without passing judgment on its content, they acknowledged that different standards apply in different contexts. And this is true regardless of party affiliation. Neither Richard Nixon nor Lyndon Johnson would have been elected President had voters judged them on their purported private vocabularies.

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