Some notes on the dark arts of rhetoric

The most effective put-down is one that employs — and deftly eviscerates — the very same terms which would ordinarily be used for praise. This is roughly a million times more effective than name-calling. Witness Byron’s masterful deflation of pretensions of immortality:

Pride! bend thine eye from heaven to thine estate;
See how the Mighty shrink into a song!

The power of these lines hinges at least in part on the choice of the word “song” — put at the end of a line for extra punch. This is the same word usually used to refer to fame as a kind of apotheosis (as in “to be immortalized in song”), but Byron makes it sound rather paltry — not by actually saying it is paltry, but by casting his verse in such a way that the reader is forced to presuppose it is paltry. The addition of that little word “a” is also a slick touch. How much less glorious it sounds to be immortalized in a song!

Another good example of this is in the film The Aviator, when Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) says to Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), “Don’t you ever talk down to me! You are a movie star — nothing more.” By simply using the (usually positive) term “movie star” as an insult, he presupposes that both he and Hepburn already know that movie stars are contemptible — and presupposing your point can be much more effective than making it directly.


Walter Winchell mocked Nazis by calling them “Ratzis” (Rational Socialists?) and “swastinkers”. Now “Nazi” itself is enough of an insult. Likewise for liberals, feminists, and fundamentalists. If you can ridicule or denounce something whilst using the very same name that its supporters use, it’s far more effective than making up some derogatory term.

Likewise, it’s usually better to embrace the common—even if hostile—terminology for what you support rather than insisting on something else. Groups that insist on politically correct euphemisms for themselves imply that they need euphemizing.

Insisting on special terminology for oneself or for one’s enemies is a sign of weakness. The best way is to use common neutral language, pushing it very slightly in the direction of sarcastically imitating the terminology used by your enemies—but not too much, or you’ll sound like you have a chip on your shoulder.


When you compare the president to a Nazi, your scorn for the president sounds shrill, but your scorn for Nazis sounds reasonable. Again, this is because your comparison takes it for granted that everyone knows Nazis are bad. If X is the real target of your scorn, don’t compare X to something worse; instead, find excuses to compare other things to X in a way that presupposes a negative opinion of X.

I once saw this comment on a blog: “You sound like a goddamn Christian with all that ‘People hate me because I’m awesome’ bullshit.” This may have been an effective put-down of its ostensible target (an atheist who would presumably object to being compared to a Christian), but it’s a far more effective put-down of Christians. (Corollary: Pro-religion commentators who compare outspoken atheists to religious fundamentalists are shooting themselves in the foot.)


These techniques are forms of sarcasm, which Studies Have Shown is more effective than direct criticism.

The psychologist Ellen Winner and her colleagues have shown that people have a better impression of speakers who express a criticism with sarcasm (“What a great game you just played!”) than with direct language (“What a lousy game you just played!”). The sarcastic speakers, compared with the blunt ones, are seen as less angry, less critical, and more in control. This may be cold comfort to the target of the sarcasm, of course, since criticism is more damaging when it is seen to come from a judicious critic than from a dyspeptic one (Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought, pp. 380-81).

Part of the power of sarcasm is that, to some extent, it only works if you’re right. “What a great game you just played!” will be understood as a sarcastic put down only if the listener already knows that he didn’t just play a great game, or at least has some doubts.

Sarcasm disarms its target. There is no safe reply. If you say, “What a great game you just played!” and I respond defensively (“Come on, it wasn’t so bad!”), I’m implicitly admitting that you are right. I understand your comment to be sarcasm, which means I know you couldn’t have meant it sincerely, which means I know I played badly. If, on the other hand, I don’t get the sarcasm (or pretend not to get it) and respond with “Thanks!”, you can answer with a withering “I was being sarcastic.”


Filed under Psychology, Rhetoric

5 responses to “Some notes on the dark arts of rhetoric

  1. Bruce Charlton

    Some good points here. I made a similar argument that when – and only when – the secular ‘common sense’ Right calls itself Fascist (which is what they get called by the dominant politically correct Left) then we will know that the secualr common sense Right means business.

    Euphemism is itself a euphemism for dishonesty. It will be easy to see if our cultural elite has learned anything because they will start *trying* to be honest, and this will initially be very shocking indeed since it will mean completely avoiding euphemisms. I don’t see this happening, but if it does happen there will be no mistaking the fact. It will not requires the reading of subtle signals…

    I did see it happen once in real life – more than 30 years ago – when Margaret Thatcher started talking honestly about the British Economy without euphemisms. The shock experienced by the Left has not yet subsided (I was firmly on the Left at that time, and can recall what it was like!). And, of course, it did enable a significant remedial economic recovery in Britain (especially England) which we have lived-off since (or rather we lived of it until about the mid/ late 1990s since when we have been sustaining the standard of living by borrowing and fraudulent Ponzi schemes). Until I hear similarly shocking honesty, I know there will be no economic recovery but a continuation of decline.

    (Not that I personally think that economic recovery ought to be our priority, but it does seem to be what most people say they want.)


    I don’t see sarcasm as such a powerful weapon as you do: “respond with “Thanks!”, you can answer with a withering “I was being sarcastic.””

    To which is replied – “Yes, I know.” But sarcasm is best either ignored completely – as if the person has said nothing at all; or (from parents, for example) simply punished without any further discussion or debate.


    Your usage of shooting oneself in the foot is in line with current usage to mean an accidentally self-inflicted injury; but is the opposite of the original usage: which comes from the fact that shooting oneself in the foot was originally a *deliberately faked accident* done to get a ‘Blighty wound’ – not life-threatening, but severe enough to get a front-line solider in imminent danger of death sent back home to ‘Blighty’ – i.e. England – for prolonged convalescence, and perhaps discharge from the military.

  2. Lovely post! I would amend that a principal problem with saying an earnest “Thank you” to sarcastic praise is not that it is the only option to sarcasm, but that being more literal than another is seen as intellectual simplicity. Nonsense, derision, and condescension are usually safer recourse.

    “What a great game you played!”
    “Like angels in a bank vault.” or “Huh. I’m surprised you noticed.”
    “I was being sarcastic.”
    Nose-snort-laugh, “You what? Did you even watch the game?”

    At which point you are back the land of literal conversation, but with the accuser on the defensive.

  3. i seem to recall this segment from The Life & Times of Judge Roy Bean with greater favor;
    But i believe that it remains a classic of cinematographic dialog.
    – –
    l understand you’ve taken exception…
    to my calling you whores.
    I’m sorry. I apologize.
    I ask you to note… that I did not call you callous-ass strumpets,
    fornicatresses, or low-born gutter sluts.
    But I did say whores. No escaping that.
    And for that slip of the tongue…
    I apologize.
    – – – Judge Roy Bean ( Paul Newman )

  4. Pingback: The strange double-euphemization of abortion « Bugs to fearen babes withall

  5. Pingback: Dark arts of rhetoric illustrated « Bugs to fearen babes withall

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