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Deniability of implicit meanings

Another point to consider is the deniability of implicit meanings by the candidate. As van Dijk (1992a) remarks, politicians tend to vehemently deny all accusations that they are racist, since any such implication is extremely threatening to their public persona. As public figures, they are concerned with maintaining and managing their image, even though they may be engaging in ideological, discriminatory discourse that, despite their explicit denials, contributes to the (re)production of racism.

The three elements present in the campaign-i.e. the “I’ll say what I think” slogan, the candidate’s controversial anti-Roma past, and the box of matches-could be seen in terms of the preferred and dispreferred meanings which they project (cf. van Dijk 2006: 376). This pair of terms combines the perspectives of the production and of the reception of the message. A preferred interpretation is one that may have been intended by the speaker, or that the speaker may find beneficial for himself or herself. A dispreferred interpretation is typically an interpretation that a speaker did not intend. The latter is arrived at by the recipients and may be detrimental to the speaker, e.g. threatening the speaker’s public persona. Of course, this is the result of the fact that communication does not concern the transmission of some encoded content; words-once uttered-will live their own life and be interpreted differently by different recipients. The message constitutes a “meaning potential” that may be realized differently by different speakers in different situations, reflecting different contextualizations.

At this point, it may be beneficial to introduce an additional dimension, namely the distinction between overt and covert meanings, to deal with the complex indirect and implicit nature of communication in racist discourse. Overt meanings are literal and tend not to be questioned; covert (or implicit) meanings, on the other hand, involve various kinds of indirect communication (metaphor, presuppositions, background knowledge, use of in-group codes, etc.) and are deniable once the speaker is confronted with the unfavourable reception of such meanings. The distinction “overt/covert” captures the often intentionally ambiguous nature of racist utterances.

Table 4-1 represents some of the preferred vs. dispreferred interpretations of the three elements:

Table 4-1: Preferred and dispreferred meanings


Meanings obtained on the basis of

Preferred meaning





Textual presence (explicit presence)

Metalingual promise:

Overt: unchanging opinions, Covert: continuation of intolerant rhetoric

Targeting the Roma

The discursive history of the politician

Shared knowledge,



(implicit presence)

Political promise:

Overt: strength of character, honesty,

Covert: anti-Roma stance, tough line, no compromise

Targeting the Roma




(implicit presence)

Overt: Literal meaning (“Matches as matches”, cf. the “practical gift” defence invoked by the politician, Covert: Racist joke (?)

Enticement to ethnically motivated violence

As regards the slogan expressing the candidate’s unchanging opinions, it is explicitly articulated in the text. Its preferred interpretation seems to be the “metalingual promise” detailed above. This is the literal reading of the election poster, i.e. the surface reading that is obvious to everybody. Apart from this overt meaning, the slogan may, when contextualized with respect to the candidate’s past, communicate another preferred meaning: no change in her anti-Roma rhetoric, i.e. she will not be daunted by antiracists to change her opinions/rhetoric. Such a meaning is covert, because it is not explicitly articulated in the slogan and can be denied by the politician as mis- or over-interpretation.

In this sense, the slogan is ambiguous, having, in fact, two meanings: a preferred overt meaning (a pure metalingual promise) and a preferred covert meaning (continuation of anti-Roma stance). It is a paradox that the overt meaning is quite vague, while the covert meaning appears (once contextualized) quite definite.

As regards the other two elements, they rely on the recipients’ inferencing on the basis of their sociocultural background knowledge. The politician’s discursive history and racist reputation have no textual presence in the advert. Yet, the presupposed knowledge of the politician’s anti-Roma past may guide the recipients to the preferred (intended) meaning of the politician’s real, programmatic appeal to the voters: an anti-Roma, hard-liner stance. This reading seems to be supported by the visual analysis of the photograph-the knowing look of the smiling candidate who looks the recipient straight in the eye.

The matches are explicitly present-either as an actual object handed out to voters or as a visual representation (a photograph). If read literally, matches are just matches (or a “practical gift”, which is the preferred overt meaning that the politician tried to argue for, later on). As regards preferred covert meanings, one can only approximate what may have been the original intentions-whether the matches were meant as an attempt at a racist joke or something else. Nevertheless, the reception side of the message is something that can hardly be controlled by its author: hence the dispreferred meaning of the matches as a symbol of racial violence, i.e. the interpretation that the public and the media inferred on the basis of their background knowledge of the politician and the recent arson attacks against the Roma.

This interpretation also needs to be seen in the context of the election campaign, as taking place within a specific genre of political advertising, which typically follows the “problem/solution” pattern. Since politicians proffer themselves as “selling” solutions to the public, the public may seek for what the intended “problem” might be in this case. Once again, if the box of matches is interpreted as some kind of “solution”, it is not implausible to infer that-given the anti-Roma history of the politician and the prevalent socio-cultural perception of the Roma by the majority in- group-the problem might actually be ... the Roma. The public may then assume that this is, in fact, the candidate’s openly undisclosed but implicitly communicated and presupposed political programme.

The question also needs to be addressed as to whether the area of such implicit and covert meanings is not open to over-interpretation. Any implicit and covert meaning may always be denied by politicians as not intended. However, since meaning is negotiated rather than transferred and since it arises out of a contextual reading at the intersection of diverse verbal and non-verbal elements, responsible politicians cannot discount the meanings that the recipients arrive at, particularly where their messages are ambiguous. What matters is that verbal and non-verbal signs can be meaningfully contextualized to yield such an interpretation. As Sperber and Wilson (1995) specify, people operate with the presumption of relevance, i.e. implicit messages are considered sufficiently relevant to justify the extra processing effort that is needed to arrive at meanings that can be justifiably inferred from the textual clues.

Covert racist or other discriminatory discourse commonly plays with such implicit meanings. Whenever practitioners of covert racist discourse are openly confronted with the racist implications of their utterances, they can deny such readings by resorting to the literal-and overt-meanings of messages that are offered as the preferred meanings. The ambiguous nature of such utterances allows speakers to turn their back on the preferred covert meanings, particularly where these could appear excessively face-threatening. Preferred covert meanings are then relegated to the status of dispreferred meanings and denied. This leads politicians to discount the metaphorical, extended and inferred meanings which could reasonably be obtained from their intentionally vague or semantically indeterminate utterances. Thus, defending one’s public non-racist persona requires that inferential communication of relevant meanings is decried as over-interpretation, and its application is ostensibly blocked.

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