On Putting One's Foot in One's Mouth
What Do Bayer's CEO's Recent Faux Pas And Other High Profile Gaffes Really Tell Us?
One of the enduring moments of the 2012 American presidential campaign was Mitt Romney's "47%" remark, which came to public attention after a video of the private fundraiser where Romney gave the speech containing the infamous comment was released by Mother Jones magazine. In the speech, Romney famously claimed that "47% of Americans" would vote for President Obama no matter what, as this "47%" did not pay income taxes and were dependent on federal entitlement programs like TANF (better known as "welfare".) The remark turned out to be a huge gaffe for the Romney campaign; even conservative political commentators were highly critical of his comments. (Peggy Noonan, in a Wall Street Journal Blog post, said of the remark: "This is not how big leaders talk, its how shallow campaign operatives talk".) The issue here, of course, was not that Mitt Romney said something stupid; its that the remark was, for millions of people, evidence of what they had always suspected: Mitt Romney was the candidate of the rich, and no matter what he said in public, in his heart (and behind closed doors, when he was talking to his "real" constituents) he didn't care about those who were struggling.
This past week brought another gaffe, less famous than Romney's yet potentially no less consequential. Marijn Dekkers, the CEO of Bayer, remarked during the Financial Times Global Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology Conference that Bayer did not develop its cancer drug Nexavar "for Indians", but rather "for Western patients who could afford it". (You can watch the panel here; the full quote is: "We [Bayer] did not develop this medicine [Nexavar] for Indians; we developed it for Western patients who could afford it.") Dekkers tried to explain himself, saying that it was a "quick response" (translation: his mouth was moving but he wasn't thinking), and that it was motivated in part out of frustration with the decision of an Indian regulator to issue a license for the patent on Nexavar to an Indian drugs manufacturer against Bayer's wishes. The damage, however, is already done; in a statement on Dekkers' remarks, Medecins Sans Frontieres' (MSF) Access Campaign said Dekkers' comment "sums up everything that is wrong with the multinational pharmaceutical industry", and the German ambassador to India denounced the remarks, saying he believes "medicine must have no frontiers" (Bayer is a German company.) Granted that this is far less noteworthy for the public at large than Romney's infamous comments, but for those (like yours truly) who closely follow global pharmaceutical policy news (and yes, I understand how weird that is) this was big news.
High profile gaffes like the above are commonplace topics for public discussion. The narrative around such gaffes is usually the same: the remarks about x made by so-and-so show what so-and-so "really believes" about x, and no matter what excuses they offer they've shown their true colors and there's no going back. But there's a big question here: what do such foot-in-mouth moments really tell us about public figures' beliefs about various ethical and policy issues? And how should we take these remarks, when making various decisions (such as who to vote for)?
The sober answer to both questions should be "it depends". We can all admit that everyone occasionally says something stupid, something they don't mean, and that we all sometimes "play to the crowd" by telling people what we feel they want to hear. A pattern of behavior is a far better indicator of someone's true position than is a one-off stupid remark. A single statement, considered in isolation, is not sufficient evidence for much of anything; this is especially true when we weigh such statements against others made behind the scenes. For instance, many of the things Mitt Romney says about poverty and jobs in the recently released behind the scenes documentary about his campaign (Mitt) are inconsistent with his "47%" remark; which statements show the "real" Romney? (Side note: if you are at all interested in politics, regardless of your personal political persusasion, I highly reccomend Mitt; it's a very revealing look at the personal side to a modern presidential campaign. At the very least, it will give you something to watch until House of Cards Season 2 is released.)
The better question, though, is not what such gaffes tell us about others, but what our reaction tells us about ourselves, and our public culture. Public reaction to such gaffes is a very vivid demonstration of confirmation bias - which is a fancy way of saying, because you want something to be true, you treat insufficient and inherently ambiguous evidence as confirmation of the thing you want to be true. For instance, many in the activist community (see the statement from MSF linked to above) are treating the remarks by Bayer's CEO as confirmation of what they've always believed about pharmaceutical companies: they are greedy corporations that don't care much about global public health. But of course one remark at one conference taken out of context is not enough evidence for that, and can't take the place of a careful assessment of the issues and the behavior of the relevant stakeholders. (Of course you might think that there is already a plethora of evidence to support such a claim independent of Dekker's statement; on that, in the words of the immortal Francis Urquhart...)
Given that most political commentary takes the form of Joan Calamezzo-style "Gotcha!" journalism, the next high profile gaffe from an aspiring Presidential candidate or the like is right around the corner. When it does inevitably happen, its worth asking not whether this person believes what they say, but what it means about us and our public culture that we are treating the incident as worthy of serious discussion.