Courage, Semantics, Personal Knowledge, and “He Knew What He Signed Up For”

by John W Rodat on October 20, 2017

This comment is well outside the scope of what I usually write about here. But the recent controversy about President Trump’s call to the family of a serviceman killed in Niger began while I was with a group of friends with whom I served in the Air Force.

I’m limiting my comments here to the phrasing Trump used, “He knew what he signed up for.”

Imagine four cases:

Case 1: “I know what I signed up for.”

Case 2: A family member or someone close to the killed or injured says, “She (or he) knew what they signed up for.”

Case 3: A person who did not know personally the person killed or injured says “She (or he) knew what they signed up for.”

Case 4 is a variant of Case 3, in that the speaker is someone with a political stake in how the death or injury is perceived.

The phrasing is identical in each case except the first, when the speaker is referring to him or herself, but they may have different meanings and certainly may be perceived differently.

In each case, we can consider not only military deaths and injuries, but also police, fire, and other similar occupations that carry more than common risks, and which are on behalf of the public. (Imagine, for example, that President Obama had used the same phrasing regarding a policewoman, killed in the line of duty.)

Whether the speaker personally knows the person killed or injured, and has direct knowledge of their motivation, is central to how the phrasing is perceived. At a minimum, presuming one knows about an individual when one has no direct knowledge carries extra risk of being misperceived. That is especially so in matters both personally and politically sensitive.

Case 1 has a unique perspective, in that the speaker is acknowledging the extra risks entailed in their own work and is perhaps being modest about their own character in accepting those risks.

In Case 2, the speaker very likely knows that the person killed or injured knew the extra risks and accepted them. Generally, this case is close but certainly not identical to Case 1.

In Case 3, the speaker knows nothing directly about the person killed or injured, but is presuming they do. Thus, in Case 3, the spirit behind the speaker’s comment is unclear or ambiguous. It can be taken as acknowledging courage, or it can be shrugging off the loss of or injury to someone the speaker does not know personally. This is quite different, even from Case 2.

And, in Case 4, the speaker is not only presuming something, they may have an interest in discounting the loss, making it more likely to be taken as shrugging it off. But, even if not, the comment is presumptuous. The burden of clarity, especially in Cases 3 and 4 is on the speaker.

And a history of carelessness with language or with the fate of others reduces or eliminates whatever benefit of the doubt might usually be given to the speaker in Cases 3 and 4. Thus, there should be no surprise that this call initiated another controversy.

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