Category Archives: Rhetoric

Dark arts of rhetoric illustrated

In my post on the dark arts of rhetoric, I proposed the following rule:

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.

Today I ran across a perfect example of this technique (from a student essay, quoted with permission).

Psalmanazar was a complicated character. There was a sense in which he was a sort of 18th-century Ward Churchill, basing his entire life around fraudulently posing as a member of an exotic race. Yet there was more to him than that; Samuel Johnson — no mean judge of character — once called him the best man he had ever known.

Secret: The point here is to slam Churchill, not to say anything in particular about Psalmanazar. The reader sees “nuanced assessment” (of GP) when actually it’s an extreme assessment of WC.


Footnote for those not in the know: George Psalamanazar was an 18th-century European, probably a Frenchman, whose whole life was an elaborate hoax in which he posed as a native of Formosa. (Wikipedia sums him up best. “Occupation: memoirist. Known for: being an outrageous impostor.”) Ward Churchill is a professional jackass and former professor of ethnic studies whose greatest accomplishment to date has been getting tenure via affirmative action by pretending to be an American Indian.

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The strange double-euphemization of abortion

One of the TV channels in Taiwan recently broadcast a program introducing the two main candidates in the upcoming U.S. presidential election, and I watched it with my wife.

One of the points it dealt with was Mr. Romney’s changing positions on the issue of abortion — and it managed to discuss the issue for some time without ever actually using the word abortion. It was all “a woman’s right to choose” and “Mr. Romney’s opinion on the subject of life” and other such evasions. Whoever was responsible for doing the Chinese subtitles didn’t bother to gloss these euphemisms, either, but rendered them literally. When, several minutes into the discussion, someone finally let the a-word slip, my wife said, “Oh, so that’s what they were talking about!”


Euphemism is of course rampant in the world of politics, but it’s unusual for both sides on an issue to feel the need to euphemize themselves. As I mentioned in this post, insistence on euphemisms for one’s own group is an expression of weakness or an admission of deviance, an acknowledgment that one needs euphemizing. The prissier a given group is about how they are referred to, the lower you can infer their social standing to be. And unilaterally deciding to euphemize a group which has not asked to be euphemized (as in “a gentleman of the Hebrew persuasion”) is an act of aggression, an assertion of social dominance. As such, euphemisms tend to be one-sided; the subordinate group euphemizes itself but the dominant group does not. In the case of the abortion debate, though, both sides prefer Orwellian crap about “life” and “choice” over straight talk.


Of the two euphemisms, pro-choice is the easier to understand, since no more direct option is really available. Pro-abortion is unacceptable because it implies that one is actually in favor of abortion itself, as opposed to believing merely that abortion should be legal. A person who thinks abortion should be legal isn’t necessarily “pro-abortion” any more than a person who opposes Prohibition is “pro-alcohol.” In the latter case, the convenient term anti-Prohibition is available, but nothing similar suggests itself in the case of abortion.

However, that logic applies only when a convenient one-word designation is needed. “Pro-choice candidates” is a more convenient phrase than “candidates who believe abortion should be legal” — but no comparable excuse can be made for locutions like “I support a woman’s right to choose,” no less wordy than the synonymous “a woman’s right to abortion.” Such expressions really can’t be seen as anything other than euphemisms — as tacit admissions that one is ashamed of one’s own position.

But still it makes sense for “pro-choice” people to euphemize their position. Abortion is an ugly word for an ugly act (something which even “pro-choice” people can recognize, precisely because they are not really “pro-abortion”), and it makes good political sense for its champions to avoid mentioning it directly.


Pro-life is harder to explain. Anti-abortion would be perfectly accurate (unlike pro-abortion for the other side), and it would seem to make good rhetorical sense to use raw, direct, un-euphemized terms for bad things which one is against. Anti-war activists chant “Stop the killing!” — not “Stop the defense!” — so what accounts for the “pro-life” camp’s reluctance to call a spade a spade?

One possibility is that what the pro-lifers want to euphemize away is not abortion, but anti-. Given our current culture’s aversion to anything that smacks of “negativity,” it may be that it’s always rhetorically better to define oneself as pro- something rather than anti-something. I don’t think that’s an adequate explanation, though, since no one seems to feel the need to euphemize anti-war or anti-rape movements.

A better explanation, I think is that both abortion and opposition to abortion need to be euphemized, but for different reasons. Abortion is euphemized because it is intrinsically unpleasant to consider, and opposition to abortion is euphemized because it is the culturally weaker of the two camps.

If this is the correct explanation, we should expect double-euphemization in cases where the culturally dominant (i.e., liberal) side of the controversy is also the more intrinsically unpleasant (bad or disgusting) one — and that rule does indeed seem to hold. Same-sex marriage is another controversy in which both sides prefer euphemisms like “marriage equality” and “defense of marriage” (or even just plain “marriage”, which, confusingly, can be used as a euphemism for either side!), and as with abortion it’s a controversy in which the “yucky” side is culturally dominant. The anti-war and anti-rape movements, on the other hand, are culturally dominant movements against “yucky” things and thus do not need to be euphemized.


Filed under Language, Politics, Rhetoric

When the existence of the message is the message

From Ronald Wintrobe’s The Political Economy of Dictatorship, pp. 66-67:

An even more subtle point is that the party’s totalitarian ideology and propaganda may have succeeded in building its reputation, irrespective of whether the party line is believed or not, in the same way that, according to Klein and Leffler (1981), advertising promotes the reputation of and brand loyalty to a capitalist firm. In their model it is not the content of advertising but its volume (the accumulated stock) that provides information. Because better products are advertised more — or, more precisely, because producers have a greater incentive to accumulate a larger stock of advertising capital for higher quality products — advertising can signal quality: The buyer who knows nothing about two products except that one has been advertised more than the other can still correctly infer that it is indeed of higher quality. However, that repetitive quality is surely characteristic of totalitarian ideology and propaganda. That is, it is not the content of a message but the number of times it is repeated (the magnitude of the party’s investment in its promises) that contributes to reputation and promotes loyalty.

Of course, words are cheap — hence the typical resort to exaggeration, hyperbole, and repetition, in part, as a way of compensating for this truth. Why would Pravda devote two-thirds of its space for nine months to the publication of greetings to Stalin on the occasion of his seventieth birthday? As in the case of advertising, one cannot discover the meaning of ideology by looking solely at its content (“Happy Birthday, Stalin!”). One important aspect of the communication is not its content, but the frequency with which the message is repeated.

This reminds me of Václav Havel’s comments (quoted here) about a greengrocer who puts a “Workers of the world, unite!” sign in his window. According to Havel, the real message of the sign is “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” — or, more bluntly, “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient.”

Sometimes the real message isn’t the message itself but rather the fact that the message exists and is being communicated by such-and-such a person (group, newspaper, etc.) in such-and-such a manner.

This kind of thing isn’t limited to totalitarian ideology. As Wintrobe mentions, advertising is another obvious example — celebrity endorsements in particular. The real message of an ad is not, “A famous football player likes it, so it must be good”; it’s, “This company is so successful that they can pay famous football players to endorse their products.”

The same goes for most forms of protest and political demonstration. Someone once told me about some protesters he saw wearing “All Homos in HELL!” T-shirts at a gay pride parade and wondered what on earth they thought they were going to accomplish. Obviously, if someone thinks homosexuality is okay, those T-shirts aren’t going to convince him otherwise. But the real message here isn’t the content of the slogan being displayed; it’s the fact that the slogan is being displayed. Exactly the same thing is true of the gay pride parade itself; no one who doesn’t already agree with them is going to be convinced by their slogans, either. The real message both groups want to send is simply, “There are a lot more of us than you think, and we’re organized.”

Name-dropping is another example. The content of anecdotes about celebrities is mostly irrelevant; the important message is, “I know famous people! I call them by their first names!”

Even most ordinary small talk probably falls into this category. The point is not to convey or elicit any particular information about the weather or my day at work or whatever, but to send the message, “We’re friends. We share things with each other.”

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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