The language of lying – how to spot it

Lying has always been with us—ever since Eve said, “Oh, nothing much…” when the Lord asked what she and Adam had been eating in the Garden of Eden. But it seems to be making a comeback in what used to be known as civil society, so we need to get better at identifying and handling it.

In yesterday’s blog, master hostage negotiator Chris Voss taught us how to engage in dialogue with people who would rather be spouting a monologue. Today, he’s back with some tips on how to spot a liar.

How hard is that? you may be wondering. And you’re right; often it’s not. Some liars are just straight out of a Meghan Trainor song: “I know you lie, ’cause your lips are movin’…”

But everyone talks; we can’t assume that everyone lies. (I hope that’s still true.) So how can we sort out the information from the lies?

In his book Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It, Voss cites a Harvard Business School study that attempts to differentiate between “lies, deception by omission, and truths.”

“…professor Deepak Malhotra and his coauthors found that, on average, liars use more words than truth tellers and use far more third-person pronouns. They start talking about him, her, it, one, they, and their rather than I, in order to put some distance between themselves and the lie.”

Lying and misdirection

Lying? I don't know. Are his lips moving?

People who lie on Twitter have a 140-character check on their loquaciousness. But they can easily employ the distancing effect of the third-person. It’s a classic misdirection technique: Look at them, not at me.

The Harvard study also identifies another misdirection technique used in lying. Voss tells us

“that liars tend to speak in more complex sentences in an attempt to win over their suspicious counterparts. It’s what W.C. Fields meant when he talked about baffling someone with bullshit.”

The researchers dubbed this phenomenon “The Pinocchio Effect”—after the story of the puppet-turned-“real boy” whose nose grew longer when he was lying. Speaking of puppets, this sentence makes James Joyce look like a piker.

The sentence so long it requires its own subhead

“Look, having nuclear—my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart —you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world—it’s true!—but when you’re a conservative Republican they try—oh, do they do a number—that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune—you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged—but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me—it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what’s going to happen and he was right—who would have thought?), but when you look at what’s going on with the four prisoners—now it used to be three, now it’s four—but when it was three and even now, I would have said it’s all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don’t, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years—but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians  are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us.”

Lying can confuse your SEO program.
My SEO program asks an unanswerable question

If all those words make your eyes glaze over, just go to the videotape. There may be truth in there, but who can find it? Who can find anything coherent in this mass of sound—with little fury, this time, but still signifying nothing.

You must meet George Lakoff

If that seems like “word salad” to you, then you are not George Lakoff. (If you are George Lakoff, I think I may faint.)

I’ve been following the indispensable political linguist George Lakoff ever since I read his 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know your values and frame the debate. I see there’s a 2014 edition; it’s high time to revisit this classic.

In his August 2016 blog post, “Understanding Trump’s Use of Language,” Lakoff makes the disturbing (to me) argument that Trump’s word salad is actually a carefully plated main dish. I cannot do justice here to Lakoff’s long, detailed, analysis. But here’s a sample of his argument, with my emphasis to give you an idea of why I find it so disturbing:

“So far as I can discern, he always on topic, but you have to understand what his topic is. As I observed in my Understanding Trump paper, Trump is deeply, personally committed to his version of Strict Father Morality. He wants it to dominate the country and the world, and he wants to be the ultimate authority in this authoritarian model of the family that is applied in conservative politics in virtually every issue area.

Every particular issue, from building the wall, to using our nukes, to getting rid of inheritance taxes (on those making $10.9 million or more), to eliminating the minimum wage — every issue is an instance of his version of Strict Father Morality over all areas of life, with him as ultimately in charge.

As he shifts from particular issue to particular issue, each of them activates his version of Strict Father Morality and strengthens it in the brains of his audience. So far as I can tell, he is always on topic — where this is the topic.”

Understanding the language our new leaders speak will be key to understanding what they may or may not be planning to do.

All of us who value language—writers and readers alike—need to fight to keep words married to their original, objective meanings. And to keep leaders accountable to the meaning of the words they speak.

I wish us all luck.

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Satire or News? When reality becomes absurd

What’s a humorist to do when reality becomes absurd? So absurd that even intelligent, well-read people mistake it for truth?

During the campaign, I saw many articles by The New Yorker‘s resident satirist, Andy Borowitz, shared by people who mistook them for actual journalism. With all the “fake news” [proper translation: propaganda] flying around the interwebs, it’s become increasingly hard to tell humor from hyperbole.

And so The New Yorker has added a banner to its Facebook posts of Borowitz’s columns: “The Borowitz Report, Not the News.”

When reality becomes absurd, you need to clearly identify satire

Click on the link and you’ll find this above the headline:

when reality becomes absurd, label satire prominently

This isn’t a case of readers being unable to tell real news from propaganda, a trend this NPR report rightly calls “dismaying.”

It’s not because we’ve cheapened and corrupted the meaning of words to the point that vast numbers of people no longer believe the giant, undifferentiated enemy they call “the media.”

People can’t tell truth from satire these days because the truth has become so unremittingly absurd. This is not normal. None of what we are living through in the United States right now is even close to normal.

Reality becomes absurd: Trump’s first legacy

When reality induces more spit-takes than comedy, we’ve left our satirists precious little room to ply their trade. I mean, President Trump will serve not just as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces but also as Executive Producer of The Apprentice. Eight weeks ago, that might have been a headline on The Onion. This week it was a news story in Variety.

In the opening sketch on the December 4th Saturday Night Live, the actors broke character several times to remind the audience that the behavior they were skewering was not something their writers had dreamed up in a bourbon-soaked trance. One after another looked straight into the camera and said, “He really did that.” Because—guess what?—he really did.

The question is, what will we do?

It’s not just a matter of saving the Republic. Unless we act soon, our satirists will be put out of business completely. Saturday Night Live will become a news show. Andy Borowitz will turn into a journalist. And then who will amuse us?

One day we may be return to a world in which we can laugh at absurdities rather than fear or elect them. I hope I live to see it. I hope you do, too.

The challenge for Boeing’s CEO: Language and money

Donald Trump sent a petulant (and false) tweet this week about the cost of Boeing’s contract to build new presidential airplanes. Boeing’s CEO countered with the facts. But not before the stock took a tumble.

Boeing's CEO responded to Trump's intemperate tweet

I’ve seen a lot of analysis focused on whether or not Trump still owns his Boeing stock; whether or not he and his cronies might have planned to drive the price down for their own financial interest. All important stuff to consider.

But it seems clear that what prompted Trump’s tweet was an interview in which Boeing’s CEO criticized Trump’s proposed trade policy. The CEO offered his opinion. The president-elect’s tweet incited the markets to punish the exercise of free speech.

Trump’s tweet cost Boeing $1.48 billion in market capitalization—only about 1% of the company’s value. But still, to update the old political quip, “A billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”

This is scary stuff. Trump put Corporate America on notice that he will not tolerate criticism. And those that dare to speak critically will risk their jobs—and the financial health of the people who depend on the companies they lead.

Money is the fastest way to get any company’s attention—and of course Donald Trump knows this. So I expect we’ll see more encounters like this…until we stop seeing them altogether, as executives censor themselves. I cannot tell you how sad I am to write those words.

Boeing’s CEO and the Wrath of Trump

CEOs and the boards of directors of publicly traded companies are legally bound to do everything they can to maintain (or, better yet, increase) the stock price. Shareholders have been known to sue executives who make decisions that lower the stock price. That’s why so many companies these days focus on short-term gains rather than long-term investments: the markets only care about this quarter, not four years from now.

But the president-elect’s public displeasure doesn’t just affect the big institutional stockholders—the kinds of people likely to file suit. It also affects the executives who receive stocks, or options to buy stocks, as part of their compensation plans. And the folks on the factory floor who buy discounted shares through their Employee Stock Purchase Plans (most companies have them). And many millions of people unconnected to the company who may own its shares outright or through mutual funds—many linked to retirement savings.

We will need some extraordinarily brave CEOs to risk the combined financial and legal pain that the tweeted Wrath of Trump can unleash. Is free speech worth years of litigation? And maybe even losing your job? Personally, I’m not willing to put a price tag on the First Amendment; I’d like to believe the nation’s CEOs aren’t, either. But I’m not holding my breath.

After initially countering Trump’s tweet with a fact-filled statement, Boeing’s CEO Dennis Muilenberg figuratively kissed the president-elect’s ring in a phone call. Boeing’s second statement informed us:

“Muilenburg congratulated Mr. Trump on his election win and committed to working with the new administration to control costs as they establish requirements for the new Air Force One to keep the program as affordable as possible and deliver the best value to American taxpayers.”

I understand: most executives aren’t used to dealing with schoolyard bullies. That’s not how civilized society has worked to this point; it’s not how the economy has worked. But sadly, it looks like that’s the direction we’re heading.

Now more than ever we need CEOs with a firm grasp of ethics and free speech. We need corporate leaders who aren’t afraid to speak truth to power. We need executives willing to risk short-term difficulties to preserve our nation and our economy for the long-term.

Will we find them? Stay tuned.

More from the PR Thesaurus: Cars and politics

I ran into another entry from the PR thesaurus today. And I didn’t even recognize it. That’s how powerful the PR thesaurus is—even someone who pays close attention to words can get tripped up by it.

“You qualify for the accelerated [something-or-other] program!” The lady from my car insurance agency sounded positively pleased. Yesterday my little car met a pickup truck under very unfortunate circumstances. The lady taking my claim made “qualifying” for this program sound like quite the honor. I was almost pleased. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be “accelerated”?

Still, my spidey-sense for euphemism started tingling: “Accelerated program? Is that something we’ve paid for in our insurance package?”

“Oh, no!” The lady on the phone still sounded perky. “It’s just a service we provide to save on storage fees. We’ll tow your car to our lot, where our claims specialist can look at it, and then we’ll get it fixed at the body shop of your choice.”

I bought it—hook, line, and accelerator. Even when she explained that I would have to go retrieve my personal belongings and license plates before they accelerated my car into their lot.


my car got hit by a truck; I got hit by the PR thesaurusIt wasn’t until I saw the car in person that I realized she’d been using the PR thesaurus.

The perky insurance lady knew before we’d even finished our call that I’d totaled the poor thing. Or rather that the pickup that T-boned me had totaled the poor thing. The “accelerated” program will accelerate my car right into the car-smushing machine.  Great car, though, that Honda Fit. The only damage in the passenger cabin was a broken armrest. Requiescat in pacem.

I’m not sure why the insurance company employed its PR thesaurus on me. Why couldn’t the rep just say, “Hon, it sure sounds like your car is totaled. We’ll be sending you a check; start picking out your next car”?

It’s a benign euphemism. Still, I don’t like thinking my car insurance company is taking me for a ride.

Politicians & the PR thesaurus: “Bordering on madness”

This past weekend, Donald Trump’s surrogates fanned out on all the political talk shows to defend his tweeted claim that he won the popular vote, “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

Well, “defend” is not quite the right word. Because how can you defend a flat-out lie?

not from the PR thesaurus
Refresher course: the Merriam-Webster definition of “lie.”

So the Trumpkins danced around it, they obfuscated, they changed the subject. Or, as MSNBC put it, they

“embraced a post-modern debate about the inherent value and meaning of truth.”

Excuse me? I guess that translates as, “Yes, we’re lying. But why are you so hung up on this ‘truth’ thing, anyway.”

This is one of the scariest things I’ve read—and Lord knows there are a lot of scary things being written about these days.

If we allow words to be corrupted to the point where they lose their meaning, if we allow ethical behavior like truth-telling to become subject to debate—what will we have left? How will we convey information? Why should anyone believe what we say? It is indeed, as MSNBC put it,

“…bordering on madness.”

Here’s more from the article. You can’t make this stuff up, folks:

“Pence’s mind-numbing appearance yesterday was practically Orwellian. Reminded that Trump made a false statement about factual evidence, Pence characterized it as an ‘opinion’ – which doesn’t make any sense since there’s nothing subjective about Trump lying about the scope of voter fraud. Urged to defend Trump’s falsehood with facts, Pence tried to characterize lying as ‘refreshing.’

“Forget politics for a moment. There’s simply nothing sane about approaching reality this way.”

This goes way beyond spin. This is how gaslighting begins. Keep your wits about you, folks. And beware the PR thesaurus and its evil twin, the political one.

“Look at each other”— Gloria Steinem on the present

Everyone in the room—well, not quite everyone, as it turned out—hoped Gloria Steinem would save us. She’d done it before, though she demurred when one of the audience members said that. She chuckled self-deprecatingly and replied, “It’s called a ‘movement’ because there are lots of people in it.”

Okay, so Gloria Steinem hadn’t taken the entire mass of womanhood on her fine-boned shoulders and carried us to the Land of Equality. And when another audience member implied that that’s where we’ve landed (“My sister is 11 years younger than I am and she’s got a great job in finance and doesn’t understand what my generation went through to get her there”), Steinem demurred again.

“Of course we haven’t ‘gotten there.’ Women are still not paid the same as men…” and she reeled off a number of other points that didn’t make it into my notes. But anyone who lived through the Demonization of Hillary Clinton knows women aren’t on a level playing field.

My evening with Gloria

I should pause here and explain what brought me into the same room as Gloria Steinem. I had the privilege of attending a private showing of Annie Leibovitz’s photography exhibit, Women: New Portraits. The show has been traveling the world all year and you can see it in New York until December 11th, at a former women’s prison. Steinem helped Leibovitz line up portrait subjects, and they’ve apparently made this kind of joint presentation frequently.

Gloria Steinem & Annie Leibovitz at an earlier gallery talk
Steinem & Leibovitz at an earlier event. Photograph: George Chinsee for WWD

This particular gathering brought together people from my high school’s community—students, teachers, alumnae, parents; anyone fortunate enough to have clicked quickly enough on the email the school sent at 8:00 the night after the election. They alerted us that it would be coming, but in my post-election haze, I’d forgotten. By pure chance, I decided to check my email before turning off my computer for the day. I looked at the clock—8:01—and experienced my first moment of happiness since the election. [Note: still waiting for the second.]

And so a few days ago I trekked to the westernmost reaches of Chelsea to attend my first large-scale gathering since the world changed in November.

Over and over, I heard women greet each other: “How are you? Well, you know—other than…” But of course it’s hard to separate the rest of our lives from the “other than.” And even being in a roomful of extraordinary women—the ones lining the wall in Leibovitz’s compelling photographs and the ones standing around nibbling lemon squares—even that didn’t lift the feeling of impending doom.

Gloria Steinem says “Don’t look up”

How can we get through this? We all wanted to know.

“Look at each other,” Steinem advised us. “Don’t look up.” Because when we look up—”at the boy in the bully pulpit,” as she put it—we feel alone. But when we look at each other, we can see the power and potential we have. We’ve always had it, and now that we’ve been shocked out of complacency, we need to put it to good use.

“Look at each other; don’t look up.”—Gloria Steinem

Someone asked why so many women voted for Trump. Steinem reminded us that many segments of women voted overwhelmingly for Clinton, including African American women and single women. Only married women voted in the majority for Trump. She suggested this might be a case of internalized oppression.

In case you’re not familiar with the term, here’s Wikipedia’s definition:

Internalized oppression is the manner in sociology and psychology in which an oppressed group comes to use against itself the methods of the oppressor.

For example, sometimes members of marginalized groups hold an oppressive view toward their own populations, or they start to believe in negative stereotypes of themselves.”

So perhaps you’re a post-menopausal woman who’s noticed how tired you get these days. If you generalize your feelings across your entire gender, it’s easy to believe people saying that Clinton lacks the “stamina” to be president. Voilà! Internalized oppression.

A brave question—and an answer to model

But it was the very next question that made me want to tell you all about this event. A woman asked—not timidly or aggressively, just genuinely wondering:

“Is it possible to be a thoughtful woman and vote for Trump?”

Steinem answered the question with integrity, grace, and complete respect for the questioner—behavior we should all emulate.

She acknowledged that some people feel stuck and abandoned. Some feel confused to find themselves living in a country where descendants of white Europeans will soon become a minority. And for those people, Trump may have seemed like the most logical choice.

If the election proved anything [this is Elaine again, not paraphrasing Steinem], it’s that we’re not going to get anywhere by labeling each other—not “racists” (though certainly some are); not “idiots” (though ditto, or at least easily misled).

We need to listen to and try to understand the people on the other side, try to arrive at a shared truth. Even if it’s only a tiny slice of the truth, if we can share it and reconnect at the level of our common humanity, we can broaden the conversation. And then we have hope.

Gloria Steinem suggests that real, lasting change happens when we “look at each other,” connect to each other. And how do we do that? My answer won’t surprise regular readers: we tell our stories, authentically and often.

We share our pain, one person at a time. We remind each other that the masses of people the PEOTUS and his not-so-merry men are trying to make us hate or fear are composed of individuals like you and me. People with the same needs, the same hopes and dreams for respect and security, for peace and understanding.

Demonizing any group only leads to more hatred—whether it’s Trump demonizing immigrants or Clinton’s voters demonizing Trump’s. “Look at each other,” as Steinem said. And tell your stories. One story at a time, one connection at a time, perhaps we truly can change the world.

Name Those Euphemisms!: Not a game

Yesterday I wrote about the public relations thesaurus, an imaginary repository of euphemisms. If you want to use a euphemism to sell your company’s cheap airline seats, go right ahead; in the end, the only thing you’ll damage is your company’s reputation.

But as someone—maybe Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes—said, “Your right to free speech ends at my nose.” Or something like that. (Okay, I paraphrased—the real quote is much clunkier, but have a look if you like.)

In the political realm, euphemisms can be dangerous. In the 1990s, the Serbs in the multicultural former Yugoslavia got tired of fighting their Croat neighbors. So they started killing them instead. Genocide? Oh no, no—nothing like that. “Ethnic cleansing.”

Beware the clunky two-word term that replaces a perfectly serviceable single word. But politicians—er, “elected officials”—don’t like people to think they’re genocidal. And because they called their policy “ethnic cleansing,” journalists and others followed suit. And everyone slept snugly in their beds (except the Croats).

Euphemisms like "ethnic cleansing" kill people. The guy with the pot belly inspired it.
Head of the Serbian Radical Party leads a rally in Belgrade, August 2016. Photo: Getty Images

Fun fact!—the guy who came up with the idea of “ethnic cleansing” held a Trump rally in Belgrade this summer. See how diverse the crowd was?

We’ll be seeing more euphemisms in the U.S.A.—the “Euphemism-S.A.”—under the Trump administration. Like “alt-right,” a new term in most of our vocabularies.

One journalist friend of mine wrote that alt-right “sounds like an indie music festival.” She suggested we call those folks “right supremacists” instead.

I’d go for “white supremacists.” On the plus side, it’s immediately recognizable; no one will wonder what it really means. On the minus side, it’s sadly not inclusive enough. Some of the people these partisans feel superior to—LGBT and Jewish people leap to mind—also come in white-skinned versions.

And Steve Bannon, primary mouthpiece of the alt-right white supremacists, is not a dangerous racist, misogynist, homophobic anti-Semite. Nope. He’s “controversial.” Good to know, CBS. Very enlightening. For significantly more accurate descriptions, see the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “A Field Guide to Identifying a White Nationalist.”

Join the euphemism police

If you care about language, and justice, and, um, not killing people just because they’re different than you, then join me in the Euphemism Police. Help people understand the power of euphemisms to normalize the unthinkable: It’s not homicidal hatred, it’s an “alternative” view. It’s not genocide, it’s “cleansing.” Doesn’t that sound cozy? I mean, who doesn’t want a cleaner home?

Wherever you stand on the genuine, important issues facing our country, please do not let our language become another victim of politics. Call out euphemisms wherever you find them. Translate them into honest English. And let’s have an open discussion about facts.

Discover how to say what you mean and mean what you say. Register for my free webinar “The Courage to Communicate”—Wednesday November 30th, 8pm Eastern, 5pm Pacific.

Making points, subtly: Story Safari

We most often find political candidates making points blatantly at political rallies or debates. But telling stories allows a speaker to make points much more subtly and powerfully.

The night after the final debate found the two major party presidential candidates sharing a stage once more. The Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner, an annual fund-raiser for the Catholic Archdiocese of New York’s children’s programs is a roast, of sorts, but with a really spiffy audience: the dress code is white tie and tails, except for the clergy, who break out their finest robes. The emcee, Alfred E. Smith IV, told Trump that even though the man next to him—Cardinal Timothy Dolan—was wearing a robe, he should remember he wasn’t in a locker room.

The politicians who speak—and in a presidential election year, it’s always the two presidential candidates—usually engage in gentle partisan ribbing. But of course, behavioral norms disappear when Trump takes the stage.

He started out with self-aggrandizing humor (comparing himself to “a carpenter’s son” the Catholics hold in high regard) and rapidly devolved into thinly veiled ad hominem (ad feminem?) attacks on Clinton as he veered closer to the points he makes in his stump speech. He got booed—so loudly and so often that even Fox News had to noticeMaking points as subtly as a bull in a china shop, Trump got booed.. And, honestly, he deserved every second of it.

Clinton landed some good jokes and then took a more political turn, as well. She talked about the discrimination Al Smith faced as the first Catholic to run for president. She talked about the many immigrants—Catholic and otherwise—who make great contributions to this country. And she talked about the Christian values that she, a Methodist, shares with the Catholic Church.

In another venue, Clinton might have contrasted her positions with Trump’s. She might have said, “Smith faced the same kind of discrimination Trump wants us to apply to Muslims.” She might have said, “Many of your parents were immigrants; Trump wants to keep people like them out of the country.” She might have said—well, just about anything about how Trump’s life and actions contradict just about everything Christianity stands for.

But she didn’t. She didn’t need to.

Making points with the perfect story

Clinton’s classy approach wasn’t the only thing I loved about her Alfred E. Smith Dinner performance. I also loved the story safari aspect.

Another politician might have just name-checked Al Smith and moved on. After all, the guy’s been dead for more than 70 years; it’s not like he’d notice.

But Clinton and her speechwriters found the perfect stories—true stories—to build the back half of her speech around. That allowed her to connect with her audience by honoring the person they named their fund-raiser after. And to showcase the issues she cares about and her fundamental human decency. (Amazing that that’s a distinguishing characteristic in this election. Remember when it was table stakes?)

True stories are always the best, richest sources of material. They’re not always easy to find. But half the fun of the hunt lies in finally bagging the prize. Congratulations to Clinton and her speechwriters.

Rhetorical techniques & monkeys

I read this piece from CNN about rhetorical techniques a couple of weeks ago and I immediately slapped it in my file for blog posts. But it’s a hard subject for me to focus on, so I haven’t written about it. Now I’m on a cleaning jag—decluttering my closets, my storage space, and—yes—even my browser tabs. So here we go.

If you clicked on the link, by now you know that the article in question deals with how the current GOP nominee “uses” rhetorical techniques.

Now, I don’t pretend that he uses rhetoric as deliberately as, say, he uses women. But enough monkeys given enough typewriteeven a monkey at a typewriter can stumble on rhetorical techniquesrs will eventually reproduce Shakespeare. And occasionally this yellow-haired beast strings together an idea that an ancient Greek philosopher might recognize. Although if said philosopher were alive to witness the circus that passes for politics in this election cycle, he would promptly kill himself. And curse the forces that reanimated him, lest they do it again.

So when Trump says something like, “I could talk about X, but I’m not going to,” he is employing a rhetorical device. CNN identifies it as:

“‘paralipsis’ (‘to leave to the side’), a tool employed by the great Roman debater Cicero and Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift that allows a speaker to effectively say two things at once.”

A brief lesson in rhetorical techniques

CNN found a linguist, Dr. Jennifer Mercieca, “an expert on political discourse at Texas A&M University,” to analyze Trump’s rhetorical flourishes. Here’s some of what she said:

“‘Donald Trump uses paralipsis, repeatedly, and he does it in combination with another rhetorical figure, which is called argumentum ad baculum — or threats of force….I’ve never seen anyone in public life use paralipsis the way he does,’ Mercieca said. ‘It’s a clearly demagogic move. It allows him to recirculate information without being held accountable for it.'”

Last March, The Washington Post published an op-ed Mercieca wrote about this very issue. She observes that his retweets represent a more modern form of paralipsis. When George Stephanopolous pressed him about having said Ted Cruz wasn’t fit to be president [oh! how young and foolish we were back then]…

“Trump dismissed Stephanopoulos’s question with ‘it was a retweet’ — as if to say that retweeting someone else’s claim meant that he wasn’t responsible for the content.”

Or, as Mercieca puts it,

It’s a response that can be reduced to I’m not saying it, I’m just saying it.

Look, I don’t want to give rhetoric a bad name here. Ethical speakers communicate honestly. And they use rhetorical devices that allow them to amplify that honesty. But, like most things, rhetoric can be used for good…or for—well, I’m not saying “evil,” but…

Use your words courageously. Join me for my free webinar “The Courage to Communicate: Write Right to Lead”—Saturday October 29th at 12 noon Eastern, 9 a.m. Pacific.

Truth or consequences – the shrinking power of words

Words have consequences. And those of us who use words—whether we write them or speak them—must take responsibility for what we say.

Language only remains meaningful if we use it in integrity, but that has become increasingly rare, across the political spectrum. The orange-faced politician tells his supporters to monitor polling places “in certain areas”—and everyone understands that to mean areas that aren’t likely to vote Orange. And twenty years ago, a Democrat taught us to distrust even the simplest words. The truth, he famously said—under oath!—”depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.”

Once upon a time, facts could stop an argument. Now a muttered “Not true” will neutralize any issue—even if there’s documentary evidence. Yes, you did say that, sir, and here’s the videotape. We’ve been playing games with language for too long; the linguistic chickens are coming home to roost.

A few months ago, The Guardian published an article that asked:

“What happens when political language fails?”

The writer, former BBC director general Mark Thompson, offered an answer that gives me chills:

“From the fall of Athens to the rise of totalitarianism, observers from Thucydides to George Orwell have associated a breakdown in public language – or rhetoric, to give it a more traditional name – with the failure of democracy, loss of freedom, civil strife and, ultimately, tyranny and murder.”

Words have always had consequences; perverting the language makes those consequences quite dire.The headline on Thompson’s piece promises to examine how the breakdown of rhetoric contributed to the Brexit vote in the U.K. and to the rise of Donald Trump (thusfar) in the U.S. But English is not the only language in which “rhetoric” has gotten a bad name. Thompson notes that politicians routinely

“…deny that they were in the rhetoric business at all. If they mention the word, it is only in the context of the detested public language of the establishment. ‘If there’s one thing I can’t abide it’s rhetoric,’ that Trump-before-the-fact Silvio Berlusconi once remarked. ‘I’m only interested in what needs to get done.’

Italians actually elected Berlusconi—he served nine years as prime minister despite having significant ongoing legal problems, and possibly even ties to the Mafia. He also has an eye for the ladies, but—hey!—at least he’s honest about his hair: no comb-over. Read more about this political paragon here.

The consequences of rhetoric abuse

But back to rhetoric. Thompson writes,

“One of the advantages of noisily rejecting any notion of rhetoric is that, once listeners are convinced you’re not trying to deceive them in the manner of regular politicians, they may switch off the critical faculties they usually apply to political speech and forgive you any amount of exaggeration, contradiction or offensiveness. And, if rivals or the establishment media then point this out, your supporters may dismiss it as spin.”

The passage I boldfaced just horrifies me. The consequences of abusing rhetoric appear to be that there are no consequences to abusing rhetoric. The more people candidates lie or ignore facts, the less people come to care. But don’t take my word for it; listen to an actual voter:

“Here is Florida voter Yolanda Esquivel, quoted by the BBC in November 2015, rejecting criticism of Trump for his outspokenness: ‘I’m looking at what candidates can do, not the picky little things they say that people want to make a big deal of.'”

Like the lady says, it’s about what candidates do, not what they say. But by definition non-incumbent candidates can only talk; the doing can’t begin until after the election.

We can’t talk our way out of this

If they can’t use words, how can candidates convey specifics about what they have not yet done, but want to do? I ask as a citizen, not as someone who creates the dreaded Rhetoric for a living.

If speeches don’t work, what will? Because we need something that does. I mean, assuming we want to avoid the fate Thompson says awaits us. Remember? I quoted it at the beginning of the article—”failure of democracy, loss of freedom, civil strife and, ultimately, tyranny and murder.”

People who believe words mean nothing close themselves off to new sources of information. How do we then change their perceptions of the world? How can we right the sinking ship of state and find the civility we need to make democracy work?

Words got us into this mess. What in the world can get us out of it?

Afraid of ghosts

I gotta say one more thing about the Melania Trump plagiarism kerfuffle. Why is everyone so afraid of ghosts? (The writing kind, that is.)

There’s nothing wrong with hiring a ghostwriter. Lots of people do it. Even Ronald Reagan, “the Great Communicator,” had writers on staff. We don’t criticize President Obama for having speechwriters—and he has allowed his to be very public about their contributions. People expect the president to be doing more important things—saving us from disaster, leading negotiations, pardoning turkeys, meeting with the winning World Series team (shoulda been my Mets). They don’t expect him to be hunched over a laptop at 3am, sweating out welcoming remarks for the next State Dinner.

Hiring a speechwriter doesn’t mean you’re incompetent. It means you’re smart about how you use your time. People hire ghostwriters for the same reason I hire house painters:

  1. It’s not their core competency
  2. They’d rather spend their time doing other things
  3. They’re afraid of ladders (okay, that one may be unique to my house painter list)

And even people who might make the effort to write their own book or magazine article are smart enough to recognize that a speech is a very different animal indeed. So bring in an expert, talk to the writer about your ideas, and after you get that first draft go back to the writer and adjust. That’s how the process works.

Of course you want to “speak from the heart”—I may need to find a new phrase for authenticity; that one seems to be turning into a euphemism for Donald Trump’s loose cannon oratory. Okay, you want to express your ideas in your own way. Especially if you’re not a practiced speaker, you want to make sure you don’t sound stilted. So you think, Who knows me better than me? And you do it yourself.

Big mistake.

I painted my last house by myself—climbing ladders and everything. Between spackling, sanding, taping, and painting it took me months and for what I spent on post-painting massage and chiropractic I could have hired Michelangelo to do the work. I was in a world of hurt. I suspect Melania Trump feels a similar non-buyer’s remorse.

And it all could have been avoided so easily if they’d just found a writer Melania trusted to work with her. But for some reason, the idea that someone whose previous core competency had been walking and pouting at the same time would need help to write a speech—oh, no, we can’t have people thinking that. I mean, the woman has posed wearing nothing more than a thong and a gun and they think working with a ghostwriter would damage her reputation?

I’m sad to think that the lesson people will take from this is “You can’t hire a ghostwriter if you want to appear sincere.” A good ghost can help concentrate and focus your thoughts so your message resonates more effectively while your true personality shines through. Assuming, that is, that you have thoughts and a personality to begin with. If you don’t…well, that’s scary.