Saying but disavowing

From the NYT on Monday (9/30), “Some Judicial Opinions Require Only 140 Characters: Justice Don Willett of the Texas Supreme Court Lights Up Twitter” by Jesse Wegman:

One of Justice Willett’s tweets in 2013 showed a Bundt cake covered in chocolate sauce. The caption — “I like big bundts & I cannot lie” — was a pun on a line in “Baby Got Back,” a hugely popular and sexually explicit 1990s rap song. (When asked about that tweet, he said in an email, “Believe me, I’d never tweet the actual lyrics, or anything close to them.”) He said he has heard no complaints about that tweet, or any other.

Of course, the justice would never utter those words (and openly accept the sexist import of the rap song), but he’ll do his best to allude to them so clearly that anyone in the know will get the message. He’s saying, as clearly as he can, but disavowing the substance of what he’s saying. I’m not sure what the right term is for this speech act, but it certainly deserves one.

For those who are not in the know, here’s Wikipedia on “Baby Got Back”:

“Baby Got Back” is a song written and recorded by American artist Sir Mix-a-Lot, from his album Mack Daddy.

… At the time of its original release, the song caused controversy with its outspoken and blatantly sexual lyrics about women, as well as specific references to the female buttocks which some people found objectionable. … “Baby Got Back” has remained popular and even anthemic since it was originally featured on the album Mack Daddy in 1992.

… The first verse begins with “I like big butts and I cannot lie”, and most of the song is about the rapper’s attraction to large buttocks.

(Pun on butts / bundts. But the justice would never quote I like big butts in a tweet — way too unjudicial.)

4 Responses to “Saying but disavowing”

  1. John Baker Says:

    I’m not sure I see this as “saying . . . but disavowing the substance of what he’s saying.” I think the substance is that he likes Bundt cakes, not that he likes big butts. Of course, he is alluding to something that he chooses not to repeat, but that’s essentially what “allude” means.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      John, I think you’re being naive here. My reading is that the justice wanted to tell a wink-wink off-color story and used the large bundt cake pun to provide, as we say, plausible deniability (which, of course, he can maintain no matter what I say). Why should he want to tell dirty jokes in his tweets? Because they establish him as a “regular guy”, a man of the people — and where he comes from, judges are elected.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        I might have misjudged John, who might have been posting tongue-in-cheek. Tone is often hard to read.

      • John Baker Says:

        Perhaps I misunderstood your words, “disavowing the substance of what he’s saying.” I distinguish among the following possible actions by the judge:

        1. Agreeing with the sentiment expressed by Sir Mix-a-Lot, without necessarily spelling it out. So he could have said: “When it comes to women, I concur with the view stated in ‘Baby Got Back,’ and when it comes to cakes, I have a similar view.”

        2. Spelling out what Sir Mix-a-Lot said, without necessarily agreeing with it. “Sir Mix-a-Lot said, ‘I like big butts and I cannot lie.’ While that is offensive objectification of women that I do not agree with or support, I do like big Bundts.”

        3. Referring to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s song in a way that assumes reader familiarity with it, while neither agreeing with it nor spelling it out. This, of course, is what he did.

        The first two of these would likely have offended some people. The third (an “allusion”) apparently did not. Should it have? I don’t see why.

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