Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

Care and feeding of obstructionism

Salon’s Steve Kornacki today ponders the success of Republican Congressional obstructionism. He writes, “since the economy is miserable, swing voters are now inclined to embrace views that blame Obama.” In order to justify the blocking of presidential initiatives—even ones with broad popular support—Republicans thus need only to point out those initiatives’ association with Obama.

In this, they are aided by the conflict- and horserace-obsessed political media. Consider the two headlines Kornacki cites:

“Senate GOP kills Obama’s plan to subsidize hiring of teachers, first responders” (AP)

“Republicans block popular piece of Obama jobs bill” (Reuters)

While the Reuters headline notes the popularity of the relevant portion of the plan, they both make explicit reference to the fact that the plan is Obama’s. Any criticism the GOP might court by blocking a popular piece of legislation (“why would they do that?”) is thus nullified by the mention of that legislation’s connection to Obama (“same old, same old: they can’t work together”). These headlines are steeped in the logic of political conflict. The economic merits of the plan, such as they may be, belong to a completely different rhetorical universe and are not even contemplated here.

I thus do not share Kornacki’s strained attempt at a sanguine conclusion: “It seems conceivable that a drumbeat of these sorts of headlines could, over time, penetrate the consciousness of some of the swing voters who are instinctively inclined to blame Obama over the GOP.” On the contrary, with the mainstream media doing the GOP’s rhetorical work for it, the drumbeat of such headlines only further entrenches the political cynicism and apathy that allow obstructionism to flourish in the first place.

When more is less (but even more is more than less)

In the New York Times reporting on Citigroup’s $285 million settlement of fraud charges with the SEC this week, we find the following quote from the defense attorney for one former Citigroup employee:

“He was not responsible for any alleged wrongdoing – he did not control or trade the position, did not prepare the disclosures and did not select the assets.”

A defense attorney can probably be forgiven for reflexively inserting the adjective alleged before the word wrongdoing. In negative environments like the one above, however, this tactic may have the opposite of its intended effect, weakening the assertion of the client’s innocence rather than strengthening it. If the goal is to rule out as much as possible—as suggested by the speaker’s use of the negative polarity item any—then one wants a maximally simple and general term to follow any. Any modification of that term restricts the set of things being ruled out, thereby weakening the negative assertion’s overall force. Moreover, in the case of an intensional adjective like alleged, the modification might yield a set of things totally disjoint from actual wrongdoing; under negation, this leaves open the possibility that the client was in fact responsible for actual wrongdoing. In the simplest case, then, it would be far stronger to drop alleged and say He was not responsible for any wrongdoing.

Of course, things are rarely so simple. The use of alleged in this case may be necessitated in part by a desire to frame the reference to the immediately following list of activities for which the defendant denies responsibility. That is, the attorney rightly wants to avoid referring to controlling and trading the position, etc., as wrongdoing. This reveals the interesting semantic nature of alleged in this example. In phrases like alleged murderer, we withhold judgment as to whether a particular person is a murderer, but we typically presume that the label murderer properly applies to someone (given the facts at hand). The label is uncontroversial; only its object is unknown. In the Citigroup case, the attorney seeks to deny that a set of known events and activities can appropriately be called wrongdoing. Here, the label itself is controversial; its object is known to all.

If the enumeration of these activities is to stand in apposition to a noun phrase headed by wrongdoing, then what one really wants is a definite/partitive noun phrase: any of the alleged wrongdoing. Then, the claim is that the client was not responsible for any of those things that are alleged to constitute wrongdoing. Instead, in the quote above the claim seems to be that the client was not responsible for anything that qualifies as alleged wrongdoing. Denying the particular in this case is, remarkably, stronger than denying the qualified general.

Stage-level rights?

Wisconsin Attorney General J. B. Van Hollen, quoted in today’s Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on the state’s soon-to-be-implemented concealed-carry law:

“One of the oldest arguments out there is that the criminals – the ones who aren’t entitled to have firearms – are carrying concealed already. They’re the ones we’re worried about, not the ones who are going to be abiding by the law.


“I’m a proponent of concealed carry for law-abiding citizens… because there’s just not this pile of anecdotal cases where law-abiding citizens are abusing firearms to the detriment of the public.”

Of interest here is Van Hollen’s use of the adjective law-abiding and the noun criminals. Both of these terms are typically used to denote stable, unchanging properties. They differ in this respect from adjectives like hungry or asleep, which denote changeable properties that last a comparatively short time. In linguistic parlance, the former are individual-level properties, the latter stage-level properties.

A handy linguistic test for diagnosing the individual- vs. stage-level distinction is the whenever test. Stage-level adjectives like hungry can happily occur in a whenever clause: Whenever I’m hungry, I eat a hamburger. Individual-level adjectives like tall cannot: consider the awkwardness of Whenever I’m tall, I eat a hamburger. By this test, law-abiding clearly qualifies as an individual-level adjective: it is highly awkward to say, e.g., Whenever I’m law-abiding, I leave my gun at home.

By behaving grammatically as an individual-level adjective, law-abiding enjoys some prototypical individual-level connotations that it does not properly denote. Individual-level adjectives typically denote properties that are stable through time and over which the subject has little or no control: tall, smart, brown-eyed, Swiss, etc. Inherent properties of individuals (if such properties exist) are individual-level properties. In literal terms, law-abiding can at best denote a tendency or propensity toward obeying the law; far from being an inherent property of an individual, it is one that requires continual acts of compliance in order to apply to someone. Put more simply, unlike with tall, you’re law-abiding until you’re not. This is, of course, to say nothing of the complications arising from one’s possibly variable degree of adherence to the plethora of laws in our society: is a habitual jaywalker who steals his neighbors’ wifi, but also pays his taxes and gets the requisite concealed-carry training, a law-abiding person?

In literal terms, then, Van Hollen is saying something close to a tautology: a law-abiding citizen, by definition, cannot be abusing firearms to the detriment of the public. By way of inference from its individual-level status, however, the term law-abiding (like criminals) unhelpfully encourages us to partition the set of citizens into two non-overlapping classes: the law-abiding and the criminals. Instead of addressing the real complexity of the situation, this usage deliberately blurs it, leaving little conceptual space for the changeable, often unstable nature of abiding by the law and the dire consequences that can ensue when an armed citizen suddenly exits a law-abiding stage.