The “Today” show used an out-of-context clip spread by the Trump campaign to raise questions about Joe Biden’s mental capabilities. While the show has since issued a correction, it reminded me of the schoolyard taunts I used to endure:
“He’s too dumb to talk.”
That’s always been the underlying reaction many people have had to those who stutter, that there must be something wrong with our ability to think, to process information, to not be in a state of perpetual dementia. In Biden’s case, his stutter is being used to suggest he’s supposedly too old to think clearly anymore.
The Trump campaign used an edited clip of Biden speaking during a Zoom event with the comedian George Lopez to suggest Biden is so demented he believed his opponent in next week’s election is George W. Bush rather than Donald Trump. Fox News and many in the conservative media went along with the ruse, often leaving out the context that Biden was speaking to George Lopez and never said George W. Bush.
That’s to be expected, given what we’ve seen from the Trump campaign. It has repeatedly used distorted videos and information during the final stretch of this election cycle. It became disturbing when the “Today” show and Kristen Welker, the NBC News White House correspondent who was rightly praised for how she moderated the final presidential debate, followed suit. It’s good that they’ve issued a correction, but it’s hard to put that genie back in the bottle.
Because of that, I thought it a good idea to help people understand what that clip really showed.
Biden is a lifelong stutterer like I’m a lifelong stutterer. Our backgrounds, experiences, and personalities mean that, though each of us stutters, we stutter in unique ways. That’s true of every stutterer. Think of 10 wheelchair-bound people. One of them will likely start a wheelchair basketball league, another will be isolated in a dilapidated home and rarely experience fresh air, yet another will be outfitted with the most technologically advanced wheelchair as she teaches at a private college or heads up a large corporation. The others will be somewhere in between.
But no matter their circumstances, each of them will have to navigate the world in a wheelchair — and the rest of us won’t. It means each of them is both a unique individual and member of a particularly challenged group. Biden is facing the same circumstances as a stutterer.
For those reasons, I try not to speak with certainty about what any other stutterer is thinking in a particular moment. We are not a monolith. However, I can play out a scenario about what might have been happening in that Biden clip.
Biden might have been in mid-stutter. In a moment like that, stutterers have to rethink things on the fly.
Should I push through the block and stutter as long as it takes to get the word out, knowing it could result in a long, mouth-agape pause with no sound coming out of my mouth?
It might lead to pursed lips, facial tics, or a series of filler words that sound like gobbledygook.
Or should I start over mid-sentence even if it means listeners will have a more difficult time following what I’m saying?
Those decisions are made within a split second of the block beginning or even as we anticipate the block developing. And they must be made even as we are trying to stay focused on making our point as clearly as possible, to say everything we believe needs to be said. It’s a perpetual juggling act, as if someone offstage is relentlessly throwing more balls our way.
In my younger years, I often did a kind of a jig to try and rock my words free or tapped the side of my head while silently counting, even if it made me feel (if not look) like a buffoon. Now, I often go for restarting or restructuring sentences.
If you are forced to do that enough over several years, your vocabulary expands, and your writing becomes crisper because you understand better than many the unique power of rhythm that can be shaped by word order as much as word choice. It’s one of the benefits of having to deal with a severe stutter. It helps you understand the language better than diagraming sentences or knowing what a gerund is ever could.
I’ve also used fillers and bridge words to get me through blocks. Fillers are the “ums” and “ahs” or repetition of sounds. I’ve sometimes said “Excuse me” in the middle of sentences, not because I was apologizing, but because those words are easy to produce and help establish a rhythm I can use to get through the more difficult words and sounds. But my audience didn’t know that’s why I was saying “Excuse me” and sometimes seemed perplexed.
That’s what I see in that Biden clip; “George … George” could simply be his bridge words. I can’t say with certainty that’s what he was doing. But I feel comfortable saying it makes a heck of a lot more sense than claiming it is evidence of dementia.
Including context in our coverage to help audiences understand the complexities of the issues we are reporting is crucial. The “Today” show’s misstep was a result of not being able to even imagine the stutterer’s point-of-view. Those kinds of missteps will continue occurring if journalists don’t commit themselves to finding a way to see beyond what they already know.