On being … a statement

By Ingrid Sapona

I was driving home when I first heard about Melania Trump’s visit to Texas to tour a shelter housing children the U.S. government has separated from their parents at the border. I’ll admit, my first thought was that sending the First Lady to see the children was a clever PR move. I thought that until I heard about the jacket she wore as she left the White House.

Though I figured there must have been some truth to the story, a number of things about it seemed unlikely. The first was that Melania would wear a $39 jacket from Zara, a Spanish retailer known for its low-cost imitations of others’ designs. I just can’t picture her shopping at Zara. I also wondered how anyone would immediately recognize it was a Zara jacket. (Of course, just because I don’t pay attention to fashion doesn’t mean others don’t.)

The other part of the story that seemed truly unreal was that there was writing on the jacket that read: “I really don’t’ care, do you?” I imagined the only reason we knew that was because some paparazzi with a super zoom lens must have noticed writing on the jacket. But surely they misread it, I thought. Later, when I saw the pictures of the large white lettering on the back, it was clear that no zoom lens was required – all but the visually impaired could read it. 

In the 24 hours that followed, there was a lot said about Melania’s jacket choice. Her communications director insisted it’s just a jacket and there was no hidden message. But even her husband took issue with that explanation, tweeting that the message on the jacket was an expression of Melania’s views about the “Fake News”.

Where do you stand on the matter? Do you think it was just an innocent clothing choice? Something grabbed in haste as she was heading out the door? I’m in the camp that thinks the jacket was a statement. I just don’t see how it couldn’t be. First off, as others have noted, as a former fashion model she must have a heightened sense about what clothes represent. Furthermore, even if she didn’t realize when she moved into the White House that her clothing choices were newsworthy, by now she must. The buzz about her high heels as she boarded Air Force One en route to Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria surely was a teachable moment for her.

As for what statement she was making, as a plain language specialist, given the clarity of the words and the simplicity of the sentence structure, I’d say the message is pretty clear. Of course, you can argue that precisely what she doesn’t care about isn’t clear. Those who believe actions speak louder than words say the message she was sending by heading to Texas was of compassion – regardless of the words on the jacket. After all, she was going to visit innocent children – victims of the cruelty inflicted by her husband and his administration – clearly, she went because she cares about them. Interestingly, those who argue her actions speak louder than words ignore the fact that her wearing a coat with that commentary emblazoned across the back was an action too.  So, which of her actions speak louder, err, clearer?

Another way to try to understand someone’s meaning is to consider their intent. Of course, we don’t know what Melania’s intent was when she wore that jacket. But, if you want someone to know your intent, it’s up to you to express it clearly. And, if you feel your intent’s been misconstrued, it’s within your power to clarify what you meant. Keeping silent when controversy is swirling around about something you said – or did – is a statement too.

I can certainly imagine mindlessly pulling a jacket from a full closet as I head out on an errand. (Can you say autopilot?) But I can’t see myself buying something with that message on the back and not thinking about what others might think if they read it. And, I’d certainly think about it if I was wearing it when I was going out on business.

I think there’s a lesson in this for all of us: everything we say and do is a statement about who we are and our beliefs. Indeed, it seems it’s a lesson Sarah Sanders might have picked up on this week if she hadn’t been busy feeling virtuous about how politely she exited a restaurant when the owner asked her to leave. Sanders’ subsequent tweet about the restaurant owner’s actions saying more about the owner than about Sanders makes it clear that Sarah doesn’t get it. She doesn’t see how her standing up and lying for Trump speaks volumes about her own values and standards.

© 2018 Ingrid Sapona


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