“Rambling” in speeches: a scientific challenge

Why are speeches by Middle Eastern leaders invariably described by American journalists as “rambling”?

A reader writes:

I have a question that’s been bothering me about the Ahmadinejad visit press coverage, and actually all coverage of middle-eastern political figures/terrorists, etc. I couldn’t figure out who to ask, so I thought I’d throw it out to you and the reality-based community to solve.

Ahmadinejad’s speech at Columbia was universally described “rambling”. Bin Laden’s last tape was described as “rambling”. Al Sadr’s speeches are invariably described as “rambling” Go back a couple of years and Google Saddam Hussein’s speeches, and THEY’re all described as “rambling”. Why is this?

Possible explanations and ways to test which one is true:

* It’s a subtle stereotype of our political opponents — sort of like talking about what a female politician is wearing or praising the vitality and athleticism of an African-American. Test this by seeing if press claims that political figures from “friendly” middle eastern countries “ramble”.

There is a different cultural norm for public speaking in the middle east that sounds to us like “rambling” Test this by asking middle eastern people if THEY think Ahmadinejad was rambling.

* They all really do ramble. Is there something about being a dictator that discourages you from being concise? No one dares edit your speeches? If so, one would also expect a high incidence of rambling by faculty of Western universities. Oh, wait …

As noted above, there’s a way of testing each of these empirically, but I’m intellectually lazy and thought I’d see if anyone out there knew the answer already.

I have a fourth hypothesis, based on the fact that while the public seemed to like Bill Clinton’s speeches, the press often described them as over-long (I don’t know whether the word “rambling” was used): political reporters suffer from attention deficit disorder and dislike complex exposition. I also suspect that “rambling” is intended as a euphemism for “incoherent,” just as “controversial” is journalo-euphemese for “crooked” or “scandal-prone.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com