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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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.