Shoes are for (s)wearing



By now you’ve heard about how, during George Bush’s recent visit to Baghdad an Iraqi journalist named Muntader al-Zaidi winged his shoes at the US President, yelling “This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog!”. Maybe you’ve seen the video. And maybe you heard about how Mr. al-Zaidi is now a folk hero across the muslim world.

But did you know that in Iraq, throwing a shoe at someone is not just rude and possibly dangerous, but the supreme insult? Apparently hitting someone with a shoe means that the target is even lower than the shoe, which is always on the ground and dirty. At least that’s what the NYTimes told me, as did just about every other story I read about the incident.

Now look. I don’t know what the “supreme insult” is here in Canada — (maybe giving the goalie a snow-job?) — but I’m pretty sure launching your shoes at someone is an insult. I don’t know what it means, exactly, to hit someone with a shoe, but it is gross, maybe painful, and definitely not flattering.

But the whole thing has got me wondering. Despite his show of bravado and jocularity, I’m pretty sure Bush wasn’t too pleased about the incident, and I’ll be he was a bit insulted (wouldn’t you be?). But it does raise an important question:

Was he insulted enough?

Put another way:

Was Bush insulted to the degree that his insultor intended him to be insulted? How would we even know? It’s a bit like the philosophical saw about trees falling in forests, as in, if someone insults the US president and he doesn’t realize he is being insulted, has he actually been insulted?

Of course he has been, you might say. That is because we tend to think that a single act of communication is usually a two-place relation on a one-way street. John wants to communicate to Mary that the pizza has arrived, so John says, “Mary, the pizza has arrived.” Mission accomplished.

But there is a strain of research in the philosophy of language, descended from the pioneering work of Paul Grice, that starts with the notion that the point of communication is to deliberately effect another person’s psychological states. And as Grice realized, the way we do this is by getting our audience to realize that that is our intention. That is, an intentional act of communication includes, as part of its content, that the target audience recognize and understand just what it is the communicator is trying to do.

So, a quasi-Gricean analysis of what the shoe-chucker was doing was this: Mr. Zaidi threw his shoe and called Bush a dog intending

  1. that Bush be extremely insulted
  2. that Bush recognize that his being extremely insulted was the reason for Zaidi’s actions
  3. that this recognition be part of Bush’s reason for coming to be extremely insulted

But what if (2) fails? What if Bush just thought that Zaidi wanted to hurt him, and not insult him? What if Bush was only mildly insulted? That is, what if Bush didn’t quite get just how insulted he was supposed to be — has the insult then succeeded?

I say no. I say that while Mr. Zaidi threw his shoes at Bush intending Bush to be very insulted, Bush was nowhere near as insulted as he was supposed (intended) to be. Why is this?

Because recognizing someone’s communicative intentions is highly contextual, shot through with cultural clues and background assumptions about what is insulting and what is not. (Related: A Quebec judge recently ruled that someone who told someone else to fuck off did not actually curse at them, because in Quebec, curses are literally curses — e.g. Tabernac, calisse, etc., unlike in France, say, where they say merde.)

This is important. There was a great deal of palaver, post-9/11, about the dangers of a “clash of civilizations”. I always thought that sort of talk was over-stated. Except what the shoe-incident underscores is just how deep the diplomatic chasm is between us (well, the US) and them. Bush was over there to give a speech highlighting the newly adopted security agreement between the United States and Iraq. That is, 1) he was going to say things, intending that the Iraqis come to believe these things, about security, the US, and Iraq. And 2) the Iraqis needed to understand that them coming to believe these things was Bush’s intention. And 3) that understanding that intention was part of why they should come to believe these things.

I doubt Bush succeeded, for the same reason that I doubt he was very insulted. It’s #2 that is the problem: communication is like sex – it only works if the recipient understands just what it is you are trying to do.

I see the shoe incident, then, as an unhappy symbol of why things have gone so badly for so long in the middle east, and why diplomacy in general is so hard. If we can’t even insult one another for god’s sake, how are we ever going to manage the more serious stuff?

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Shoes are for (s)wearing

  1. Andrew, you really did think this through quite a bit, and have offered up possible intellectual scenarios.

    But, what if it turns out that the reporter in question had simply watched an old Ed Sullivan show re-run, and mistakenly took his opening remarks literally, as an American cultural sign of welcoming your guests?

    “Tonight, we’re going to have a really big shoe”

    Thank you, on behalf of Rich Little, for this opportunity he has been anxiously waiting for at least three diapered days to use, seemingly glued to his seat.

  2. Bush knew it was an insult. Or at least Rove should have told him so long ago, after Iraqis beat their shoes against the fallen statue of Saddam and later objected to the big billboard of Rumsfeld with his feet up, his soles in their faces. But by not acknowledging affront, Bush insults the insulter.

  3. Ah, but with whom was the journalist communicating?

    There is of course the pleasure of damaging someone’s psyche with an insult — I hope we can get to that later on on this comment board — but equally there is the pleasure of insult as performance, in which the person insulted is thereby diminished in the eyes of society. (We can try that too, but it’s not much use if the victim is anonymous.)

    Which is to say: at least half of the insulting journalist’s intent will have been to insult Bush in the eyes of the Arab world. And though Bush’s psyche probably hasn’t been damaged, the social aspect of the insult has been a huge, almost cathartic success.

  4. On a serious note, Potter, you over-analyse.

    To be personally insulted, you have to respect the person offering the offending comments, or they have to have some stature that you perceive as important.

    The shoe thrower was a 27 yr old reporter from an Iraqi non-mainstream newspaper. Who cares? Certainly not Bush.

    As for him understanding the cultural importance of shoes and throwing of them, watch Blackhawk Down. There is commentary in that film that part of the problem of the helicopter trips by the US military over Mogadishu was that marines dangled their feet over the side of the birds, insulting the wider pop. of Muslims down below, escalating to the ambush. If locally based U.S. marines didn’t understand the cultural significance of exposing shoes, there is no way the President of the US could have, especially a non-curious one.

  5. Interesting ideas! If only the Iraqis had understood the whole invading their country ‘communication’ in the first place as an act of friendship and respect.

    But seriously, this reminds me a bit of a hypothesis advanced in the early-mid 1900s by two scholars named Sapir and Whorf. They suggested that language serves as something that not only provides us with a medium of communication, but that it constrains and guides the way we think (“habitual grooves” of thought, if I recall). More precisely, our very perceptions of reality are linguistically framed. (You’ll notice I’m avoiding any notion of absolute control – no one suggests that).

    The Hopi, for example, have no words for yesterday or tomorrow, past or future. Their language has no temporal divisions, such as our own is very reliant upon. Imagine being among the first Europeans to encounter them and even try to learn to speak Hopi, much less discuss and debate ideas of any consequence.

    On the other hand, we have to be cautious of overstating the power of language or culture. It can too easily play into the hands of those who benefit from this being cast an an inevitable clash of civilizations.

    Thanks for the interesting post, AP.

    p.s.: where the hell was the Secret Service? I can understand one shoe being thrown, but it seemed kinda odd that nobody was there to leap in front of Bush and take the second shoe like we always see in the movies….

  6. As to the Secret Service question, I wonder about the investigation as to why this specimen of an unbiased journalist was still breathing at the time a second projectile could be thrown.

    As to the notion, allegedly being portrayed by certain media outlets, that the Arab world is erupting in joyous euphoria now that the Great Satan has been brought to, ah, heel, by the now barefoot reporter: I see two possible conclusions. One: the media is creepily pursuing an agenda to find a dozen nitwits ululating in order to further embarrass Western nations by exposing allegedly widespread hatred of our allegedly evil ways. Two: There really is widespread love, right down to their very, ah, sole, among the Arab world for this moron, which leads me to ask if it is now ok to point out what a backward society they’ve set up for themselves.

  7. sean s
    ‘where the hell was the secret service’
    I think they may have been hampered a little. They were all busy taking off their shoes, to throw at the journalist. Either that or they were pissing theirselves with laughter, like most of the rest of us.

  8. I lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for 2 years.
    We were told back then that we shouldn’t cross our legs – in such a way that the soles of our shoes were exposed towards someone (a saudi) we were meeting with.
    I never really took it seriously at the time!

  9. Had the shoes actually connected with their intended target, I’m sure the message would have transcended all cultural gulfs present. And, might I add, been damn great to see!

  10. I find it hard to accept that Al Zaidi even cared what effect this act would have had on Bush. I don’t think this was an act of communication, but simply one of expression. Or if it were communication, I don’t think Bush was the intended audience. Al Zaidi wasn’t speaking English at the time either.

  11. “Al Zaidi wasn’t speaking English at the time either.”

    We’re always told that music is the universal language. Maybe it’s really shoes.

  12. The shoe throwing incident was very bizarre indeed. I don’t think Bush was insulted, at least while the incident was occurring, because he was smiling/chuckling about it. I know I would feel unsatisfied if I was insulting someone and their response was to laugh.

    Muslim world probably doesn’t see it this way but Bush could be happy that an Iraqi reporter felt his freedom was established enough to do what he did. Would that reporter felt as bold as he did if he was attending a Saddam Hussein event? Probably not, unless he had a death wish.

    I lived in South Korea for two years, which is where I learned that cultures/countries have entirely different ways than others and that it’s extremely difficult to bridge those differences.

  13. at least while the incident was occurring, because he was smiling/chuckling about it

    In The Bush Dyslexicon, Mark Crispin Miller proposed that Bush is only in his element when he’s being nasty; he’s more focused and articulate when he’s being belligerent. I assume this smirk comes from the satisfaction of knowing he’s made someone angry.

    We all know people like this and they’re usually possessed of the most malign personalities.

  14. Hmmm. So some high-falutin’ philosophy of language is used to prove that, in the face of conflict, civilizations must clash and never converse. But presumably this communication difficulty is absent when it comes to members of the same civilization. So how come Potter still believes that the “essence” (his word) of politics is fighting and never conversing? Somehow, things always get rigged so that it’s an entertaining game out there.

  15. May I refer you to John Doyle’s column in the Globe this morning.

  16. Maybe the fact that Bush seems unfazed by the monumental failure of his presidency indicates the gulf that exists between him and reality (not to mention shame).

  17. I fully expect that the shoes were checked for explosives prior to the pressy.

    But apparently the shoes weren’t checked for ……. shoes.

  18. I think the photo you’ve posted at the beginning of the article says it all. Clearly, the message reached its intended audience, was understood, and is now being propagated. Though the initial act likely didn’t impact Bush’s cognitive universe in any sort of meaningful way, beyond the instinct to duck and dodge. But this is part of the intended communication as well: clearly, a part of such an act is intended to represent a physical threat. Dodging the threat implies some degree of appropriate response, though clearly on the level of pure reflex. Yet is it not the case, in debates for example, that words and phrases are used to provoke such reflexes, to undo the composure of one’s opponent? In a way, getting the most powerful man in the known universe to flinch on camera is a form of degradation, in a world where each photo-op is composed, and every set of the jaw is practiced. In this way, Bush played his appropriate part in the intended event. Above all, perhaps, the insult is ultimately a success in a cross-cultural sense as well: rather than highlighting and insurmountable gap in our mutual understanding, this well timed loafer has forever informed the western world that an arabic shoe toss is meaningful, what it means, why it’s done, and why. Quite the opposite of a world of mutually unintelligible signs. No one will be confused by future shoe chuckers: I wonder how long now until an american chucks one too? Will a brand of “Bush Dog” sneakers be far behind?

    This kind of sh*t wouldn’t happen in Japan.

  19. “This kind of sh*t wouldn’t happen in Japan.”

    Yep. They prefer to have the occasional fist fight in parliament.

  20. Bush has clearly been practising [ the dodge, that is].

  21. Hey Sean Stokholm..

    Japan = no shoes indoors .

    Get the bad joke now?

  22. If the intended audience of the shoe-throwing was purely Arabs who understand the cultural context, then it clearly worked. But I think Westerners still don’t get it, even if they don’t agree with Bush’s policies.

    “Today is an act of humour in a sense but it’s also a profound situation and context,” activist and journalist Stephan Christoff told the Montreal crowd.

    They clearly don’t get it. The closest thing in the West that is anywhere near that insulting is the c-word, directed at women. Imagine if you will, a day where dozens of people gathered around an embassy and yelled the c-word in solidarity after it was yelled at an extremely unpopular female president, and said it was funny. Even if that president was really that universally despised, the people doing the yelling still come off as crass and churlish.

  23. It seems like the petty act of a petty man to me. Symbolic or not it’s *small*.

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