from the world's big
Did Trump demand a quid pro quo? Harvard cognitive psychologist weighs in.
Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker reminds us that innuendo and euphemism yield better quid pro quo results than an "or else" ultimatum.
- Lawmakers and pundits disagree over whether President Trump proposed a quid pro quo arrangement with Ukrainian President Zelensky.
- In a recent op-ed, Steven Pinker reminds us that even simple requests often beat around the euphemistic bush.
- But accepting the common sense reading is only the beginning of its legal analysis.
The 2019 federal budget earmarks $400 million of military aid to support Ukraine. The Trump administration bypasses Congress and orders a freeze on Ukraine's foreign aid, with $391 million yet to be paid out. Days later, during a phone call with Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump asks for a favor.
But does this timeline of events properly connect a quid with its associate quo? Yes, said House Democrats when they kicked off their impeachment inquiry. "The quid pro quo is in the President's words," Representative Jon Garamendi (D-Calif.) told CNN.
But Trump's defenders in the GOP have a different read. As Representative Doug Collins (R-Ga.) told reporters: "We read it. There was a discussion among members about it. From the way the speaker made it out to be yesterday, I was expected something there. And when you look at it… there's nothing there."
And Senator David Perdue (R-Ga.): "I just am embarrassed almost that the speaker would take this document, having not seen it, and take this to an impeachment conversation. There's nothing in this document that backs up the whistleblower report. [The media] talked about eight quid pros in there. I can't find one."
If Collins and Perdue were hunting for or-else statements, then their math is on point. There's not one to be found in the reconstructed transcript. But as cognitive scientist Steven Pinker reminds us, language seldom drifts so neatly on the surface.
Language dressed in innuendo
In a New York Times op-ed, Pinker breaks down the reconstructed transcript to show that an overt if-then statement is not necessary to prove a quid pro quo. Removed from partisan squabbling and analyzed as we would most any other conversation, the request becomes clear.
"But to most readers, Mr. Trump's claim that he was merely musing about his druthers does not pass the giggle test," Pinker writes. "That is because people in a social relationship rarely hammer out a deal in so many words but veil their offers in politeness and innuendo, counting on their hearers to listen between the lines."
In fact, such innuendos and euphemisms are part of our everyday language toolkit.
As Pinker writes, we often ask dinner guests, "I was wondering if you could pass the salt." Taken literally, the request makes you sound dim. Your guest holds down a job, drives a car, and can perform any number of complex tasks. Why should you question her ability to lift a tiny container and deliver it all of two feet?
But by couching your request in this non sequitur, you add an extra slathering of politeness to the proceeding "without seeming to treat her like a flunky." In turn, the guest fills in the mental blanks, understands your request, accepts your politeness, and passes the salt with a "Sure thing!"
Allusive remarks are so pervasive in our use of language that they've become foundational to art and storytelling.
When Don Corleone says, "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse," not even a rube believes he's referencing his limitless generosity. Everyone realizes that studio executive won't be able to refuse because the Godfather won't be asking. Without an ear for such dramatic innuendo, film and literature would feel simply alien to us.
The emperor's new quos
U.S. President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shake hands.
"The Trump-Zelensky dialogue could be used in the chapter of a linguistic textbook on conversational analysis," Pinker writes. He then proceeds to outline that chapter.
The summarized portion of the call opens with Trump congratulating Zelensky on his victory, and Zelensky praising Trump for the skills and knowledge he derived from Trump's election. Trump then steers into the prerequisites of the call.
"A lot of the European countries are the same way so I think it's something you want to look at but the United States has been very very good to Ukraine. I wouldn't say that it's reciprocal necessarily because things are happening that are not good but the United States has been very very good to Ukraine."
Pinker notes that announcing an undesirable state is a strategy to avoid demands while still priming someone to fix the situation. Again, this isn't a strategy employed by politicians and mobsters alone. Pinker offers the classic example of someone saying, "It's cold in here," to prime their cozy spouse to close the window.
Clued into Trump's underlying intention, Zelensky replies with the due diligence of a cozy spouse. Falling over himself to agree that the U.S. supports the Ukraine better than the EU, he states, "We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes."
His goal is to show that Ukraine is reimbursing the U.S. with reciprocity. He points out that Ukraine is ready to "continue" cooperating and they plan to purchase Javelin missiles from the United States. While the foreign aid is never outright mentioned, it sneaks in between the lines here since Ukraine uses those funds to purchase the missiles from U.S. arms makers.
Trump isn't satisfied: "I would like you to do us a favor though, because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it."
For Pinker, that "though" is the quid-pro-quo glue. He writes that the word signals that Zelensky's previous cooperation has not met the requirements for true reciprocity. Another favor is needed, and only Ukraine can help.
Trump then immediately details what that favor is: He wants Zelensky to investigate Crowdstrike, a debunked right-wing conspiracy theory, and assist Attorney General Barr with an investigation into the Bidens. Quid meet quo.
As Pinker concludes: "His supporters insist he should be taken 'seriously but not literally.' Yet this time it may be the nonliteral meaning of his words that proves his undoing. The common-sense interpretation of his conversation makes it impossible for him to maintain, 'I did not have quid pro quo relations with that man, Mr. Zelensky.'"
The emperor is naked, but is that a crime?
As the President of the United States, I have an absolute right, perhaps even a duty, to investigate, or have inves… https://t.co/X8NmXJ5ey7— Donald J. Trump (@Donald J. Trump)1570151078.0
Of course, Pinker's op-ed is a linguistic analysis, and much like the Clinton impeachment, the linguistic linchpin—what is "is" anyway?—is only part of a broad argument centering on the appropriate use of the powers of the president.
Today, the question is whether the quid pro quo was for national security—the kind of quid pro quo supporters rightly point out has been demonstrated by past presidents—or whether Trump used his office for private gains in the 2020 election. And even if the quid pro quo is not found to be criminal, it may still be an impeachable offense if an abuse of power.
President Trump's own defense has evolved from "no quid pro quo" to "quid pro quo is fine." As he tweeted: "As the President of the United States, I have an absolute right, perhaps even a duty, to investigate, or have investigated, CORRUPTION, and that would include asking, or suggesting, other Countries to help us out!"
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
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