Saturday, January 22, 2022

Asking, not asking

From The Washington Post: “A single word sparks a crossfire between the Supreme Court, NPR and its star reporter Nina Totenberg.”

At issue: whether Chief Justice John Roberts, “in some form, asked the other justices to mask up” in the courtroom, as Nina Totenberg had reported for NPR. Roberts denied making that request, and NPR’s public editor, Kelly McBride, deemed the word asked “inaccurate” and “misleading,” and called for a clarification, which has yet to appear.

The part of the Post report that interests me:

On Friday, NPR spokesperson Isabel Lara reiterated the organization’s support for Totenberg. She said McBride “is independent and doesn’t speak on behalf of NPR.”

Lara added, “Someone can ask without explicitly asking. Someone can say, ‘This person doesn’t feel comfortable being around people who aren’t masked’ or some other permutation of that and the listeners get the message.”
Exactly. That’s basic pragmatics.

In the polite, restrained setting of the Supreme Court, the indirect approach — “I think it better that we all wear masks in court,” or words along those lines — seems apt. To say such words is still to make a request. In claiming not to have made a request, Roberts might be parsing his words a bit too literally, without regard for pragmatics.

All this parsing might have been avoided if Justice Gorsuch had just worn a damn mask.

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