The Tacky Business of ‘Affirmation by Denial’

Roman masks commons
Roman masks                          commons

All of us have probably engaged in some form of the dark gambit of ‘affirmation by denial.’ But it’s a long way from the more honest style of expressing only those accusations  that we are prepared to own.   

Sometimes we try to produce a rhetorical sleight of hand when we pretend to not notice the effects of what we’ve said.  We can do this with a “stage whisper” that everyone can overhear. Or we may throw out a “marker”—an added verbal modifier—that puts a certain spin on everything else that follows, as with “the Mexican-American judge” or “the Jewish banker.”  The source may pretend not to notice the obvious and intended effect created by the unnecessary word.  But that feigned innocence makes as much sense as a child who tries to disappear by covering their eyes.

So it is with the simple rhetorical maneuver of “affirmation by denial.”  This is usually a statement in which a questionable claim is repeated, but then innocently disavowed. The wily speaker thinks he has been able to have it both ways: repeating a slander or untruth as an innocent piece of information, then stepping out of the way and feigning a degree of neutrality.  The rhetorical advantage is that the idea has been put in play.

Listen to some samples from Donald Trump and you find a variation on this.  He often starts a comment in a speech with some form of the expression, “A lot of people think. . .”  Then a dubious “fact” is inserted, creating just the kind of indirect assertion that wounds but leaves no fingerprints.  For example, “A lot of people are think that . . .

  • President Obama is not even an American
  • Hilary Clinton in not well
  • the Clintons killed a former law partner
  • Ted Cruz is not an American citizen
  • Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination.”

This kind of rhetoric of innuendo is never pretty.

Sometimes he goes on to suggest that he’s not sure.  Or the prior statement isn’t necessarily his view.  It’s a maneuver that allows deniability.  But it’s intellectually dishonest, and downright scary in a potential leader who needs to measure the effects of words carefully.  This kind of rhetoric of innuendo is never pretty, especially in a president.

To be sure, all of us have probably all engaged in some form of affirmation by denial.  Sometimes we want to put more cards on the table than we can play.  But it’s a long way from the far more laudable style of expressing only those accusations  that we are prepared to own.