Stuff happens: The gaffe as a problem of interpretive labor

“No, it wasn’t a mistake, I said exactly what I said, explain to me what I said wrong.”

Yesterday I was struck by the uncanny familiarity of Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush’s comment, in discussing the horrifying shooting at Umpqua Community College, that “stuff happens.”

“We’re in a difficult time in our country and I don’t think that more government is necessarily the answer to this,” he said. “I think we need to reconnect ourselves with everybody else. It’s just, it’s very sad to see. But I resist the notion — and I did, I had this, this challenge as governor, because we have, look, stuff happens, there’s always a crisis and the impulse is always to do something and it’s not necessarily the right thing to do.” (Washington Post)

It was, predictably, pounced upon by reporters and political opponents, one of uncountable such moments in the era of the permacampaign. Hey, I shared it too—who would say such a thing? And worse, who would say such a thing, and then insist that it was precisely what he meant to say?

When a reporter asked Bush whether the remark was a mistake, he replied: “No, it wasn’t a mistake, I said exactly what I said, explain to me what I said wrong.”

“You said ‘stuff happens,'” the  reporter said.

“Things happen all the time,” Bush said. “Things — is that better?”

But what caught my attention, more than the remark itself, was the tenor of Bush’s reaction to follow-up questions. At least in print, he sounds impatient, peevish or almost angry at being asked to explain himself. And at first he resists, telling the reporter, “explain to me what I said wrong.”

In other words, Bush refused the implication that it was his own responsibility to make himself understood. It’s not his job to imagine someone else’s point of view, to empathize enough with a critical listener that he could even suppose what might have been wrong with his statement.

Drawing on work by critical race theorists and feminist scholars like bell hooks and Nancy Hartsock, David Graeber suggested the term “interpretive labor” to refer to the “continual work of imaginative identification” that those with less power in a relationship, or a society, must do simply to get by, more or less safely, in the world.

An illustration from Graeber:

A constant staple of 1950s American situation comedies, for example, was jokes about the impossibility of understanding women. The jokes (always, of course, told by men) represented women’s logic as fundamentally alien and incomprehensible. One never had the impression the women in question had any trouble understanding men. The reasons are obvious: women had no choice but to understand men; this was the heyday of a certain image of the patriarchal family, and women with no access to their own income or resources had little choice but to spend a great deal of time and energy understanding what their menfolk thought was going on.

Bush’s reaction to the reporter suggests a person who is not in the habit of doing a great deal of interpretive labor, or at least someone who has the privilege of deciding when, where, and for whom he does it.

And indeed, doesn’t that seem likely to be the source of the original gaffe itself? It isn’t precisely that Bush doesn’t care about shootings; never having met the man, I have no reason to believe he is entirely absent of sympathetic emotions. But his statement—”stuff happens”—does seem to me to be the kind of thing said by someone who doesn’t feel a reflexive obligation to think in advance about how his words will be heard.

This, too, is a kind of interpretive labor that many of us spend a great deal of effort on every day: How to phrase that question or comment in order to (not seem like a bitch to the coworker/not seem emotional to the boss/get the landlord to give an extra day or two on rent/keep a family member from getting angry….)

One gets the impression that Bush, perhaps, doesn’t spend much of his day in this kind of preemptive imaginative empathy-work.

Of course these kinds of problems are hardly unique to Bush—I don’t mean to pick on the poor guy (and I’m certainly not making an endorsement of any of the other candidates). But I think this is a very telling example of a general principle I want to propose: that a certain brand of politician’s gaffe is less an example of carelessness or ignorance than an expression of the engrained habit of socially powerful people of outsourcing interpretive labor to those around and beneath them.