By Tom Lamia
In one of my early columns for WestView News, I critiqued the practice of using talking points as crib notes in political speech. The essence of the critique was that distilling communications to their supposed essence was an injustice to both communication and truth in messaging. I now have a new bone to pick with those who aspire to guide me in my thinking about preserving what is left of our democracy.
My target is what I see as a growing trend to massage the message by making language opaque. The apparent objective is to obscure rather than to enlighten. An example of one such growing usage is, “not necessarily” as a qualifier to a plain statement of fact. One often hears that a fact is not necessarily the case as a hedge against some possibility, however remote, that this fact is either not a fact or that someone the speaker does not wish to confront may disagree.
My recollection is that I began to hear this particular hedge within the last five to ten years. My first thought at the time was that this was just another device for the weak and defensive to avoid confrontation, that it was both wrong and ineffective and would soon disappear from the public sphere. Clearly I was wrong. The “not necessarily” trope is still with us; it has become an unthinking reflex among the chattering class, several of whom should know that as a hedge it is taking on fatuous dimensions. On MSNBC, Peter Baker of the New York Times and Princeton professor Eddie Glaude, Jr., use it liberally, in neither case with any explanation of what “necessary” factors might be missing from the statement that they are declaring not to be necessarily so. These two commentators, both knowledgeable and generally neutral in their public observations, are but a sample among many others who use this phrase that has become shorthand for: “this factual statement is clearly true, but some might dispute it so I am not going on the record as making the point unequivocally.” This is a cop-out; suggesting that something meaningful is being said when only a vague and ambiguous statement is being made.
A somewhat parallel construction in public discourse is the “allegedly” qualifier in discussions of pending or potential civil or criminal proceedings. This too is a hedge, but one that makes some sense. A public statement of bad conduct, even when made in a news report and not as an accusation, is defamatory if untrue. The financial consequences to the reporter and the publisher could be severe. Having been a practicing lawyer in my professional career, I am sure that I often used “allegedly” or one of its variants in my written and oral communications with courts, clients and adversaries. It is a hedge with good purpose, though annoying to the reader or listener who wants clarity, not legalese. I can live with “allegedly,” but I draw the line at “not necessarily,” and other hedges that have crept into news reporting and political messaging.
Here are a few examples from memory of recent efforts to hedge responses to reporters:
“90% of our teachers have been vaccinated,” from a teachers’ union representative when asked whether she supports a requirement that teachers be vaccinated. She could have said that 10% of her teachers were unvaccinated, but that would have triggered the follow-up question of where those unvaccinated teachers were doing their teaching to vulnerable children, so a hedge is imposed by turning the question around. And, of course, the question was not what percentage was or was not vaccinated; it was whether the union rep supported a requirement for it.
“We have provided hundreds of thousand of documents to the committee,” in response to the question of whether the committee’s document request has been met. It is irrelevant how many documents have been provided; the issue is whether the documents requested were provided.
“More people voted for our candidate than for any candidate in history,” in response to the question of who won the election. It is only this election, not all those held throughout history, that is responsive to the question, but the answer was given with a straight face, despite the speaker’s candidate having lost the election by 7 million votes.
“We lead in the polls,” a typical response to the question of how a candidate is doing in the race. There is no mention of what polls show this lead. If asked the answer might likely be only the candidate’s paid private polls.
Examples abound, of course, but why are these practices so common in the public arena when specifics, relevance and truth would seem critically important to bridge differences between partisan positions? Well, precisely because they are critically important. No money is raised by agreeing with your opponent or by failing to note the clear advantage that your supporters want to hear that you have on an issue or two or three.
A favorite technique of candidates in interviews, debates or town halls is not to answer the question asked, but to use the opportunity to address a related or unrelated issue. In former president Obama’s A Promised Land memoir, the former president relates his problem in early debates with being cut off by the moderator before finishing his response. Campaign guru David Axelrod advised, “Your problem is you keep trying to answer the question.” Obama: “Isn’t that the point?” Axelrod: “No, Barak, that is not the point. The point is to get your message across. Take whatever question they give you, give ‘em a quick line to make it seem like you answered it . . . and then talk about what you want to talk about.” Obama: “That’s bullshit.” Axelrod: “Exactly.”
There is a difference between obfuscation and an unresponsive self-serving statement. Neither meets the test of utter frankness, but the unresponsive statement will do less harm, but not necessarily.