Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

No denying it

The UC Berkeley administration’s absurd overreaction to the Occupy movement on its campus (well documented on YouTube and elsewhere) has, perhaps unsurprisingly, produced a Nixonian, doth-protest-too-much linguistic blunder to go along with it. Here are the chancellor, provost, and vice chancellor for student affairs, as quoted in the Daily Cal last week:

It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience.

Setting aside the problematic (to put it mildly) nature of the second sentence’s semantic content, there is a basic pragmatic, rhetorical difficulty here: denial names its object, and calling something by name makes it discursively and cognitively salient. To deny that an action constitutes non-violent civil disobedience is to make your listener start thinking about non-violent civil disobedience. As an argumentation strategy, this is about as weak and self-defeating as it gets. As Nixon could attest, declaring that you’re not a crook simply makes people associate you with the word crook. Likewise, declaring that linking arms is not non-violent civil disobedience just makes people associate linking arms with non-violent civil disobedience (an association that doesn’t require much of a mental leap to begin with).

This is pretty elementary Don’t Think of an Elephant territory: if only Birgeneau et al. had bothered to stop by one of George Lakoff’s classes (on their own campus!), they might have learned this very basic linguistic lesson. Maybe after their refresher on the free speech movement…

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