Monday, March 10, 2008

Rhetoric: "Struck a Nerve"

Often times, when a politician vigorously denies some accusation that has been made against him or her, the vigor of their denial is taken as evidence that the accusation is true.

"Aha! We've struck a nerve! Why would they react with such hostility to this accusation if it weren't true?" it is said.

Now, it may be true that some people vigorously deny accusations of wrongdoing because the accusations are true and they want to convince people that they're innocent.

But, of course, some people vigorously deny accusations of wrongdoing because the accusations are false, and they really are innocent. The vigor of the denial, by itself, doesn't give us a reliable indication of whether it is motivated by guilt or innocence. As such, the "struck a nerve" argument is an example of bad reasoning.

"I know Donald hates it when anyone points out how hollow his sales pitch really is. And I guess my speech yesterday must have gotten under his skin because right away he lashed out on Twitter with outlandish lies and conspiracy theories and he did the same in his speech today. Now think about it. He's going after me personally because he has no answers on the substance. In fact, he doubled down on being the king of debt, so all he can do is try to distract us. That's even why he's attacking my faith. Sigh. And, of course, attacking a philanthropic foundation that saves and improves lives around the world. It's no surprise that he doesn't understand these things. The Clinton Foundation helps poor people around the world get access to life-saving AIDS medicine. Donald Trump uses poor people around the world to produce his line of suits and ties. "
-- Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, June 22, 2016, referring to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Comment: The fact that Clinton may have "struck a nerve" (i.e., got under his skin) in what she said about Trump in no way proves that he has "no answers on substance"; that's a point she has to prove by other means. It may be unfair when Trump says, for instance, that "there's nothing out there" when it comes to Clinton's religious affiliation, but that doesn't prove his policy positions are baseless. Do we get to conclude the same thing about Clinton whenever she says something false or otherwise out-of-bounds? That she has no sound arguments to defend her policies? Second, Clinton is using "distractions" rhetoric. Last, Clinton is deriding Trump, suggesting that he doesn't understand philanthropy, or that he is somehow exploiting or abusing foreign workers.

"Politicians, especially those elected as president, are very adept at creating straw men. Taking something that they feel rhetorically works to their advantage and using it. That’s exactly what the president did. My question did not suggest he was content with the captivity of those four Americans. My question was about the contentment, or the satisfaction, or the realization that it was necessary within the context of this deal to leave them unaccounted for. That was the essence of the question. Clearly it struck an serve. That was my intention. Because everyone who works for the president and the families of those four Americans have heard the president say he's not content, and they will work overtime to win their eventual release. That does not appear to me to be a sidelight issue in the whole context of the conversation about this Iran nuclear deal. Was it provocative? Yes. Was it intended to be as such? Absolutely."
-- Major Garrett of CBS News, July 15, 2015, remarking on President Barack Obama's objection to a question Garrett asked earlier that day. The question by Major Garrett of CBS News concerned Saeed Abedini, Amir Hekmati, Robert Levinson, and Jason Rezaian, all being held by Iran.

Comment: This is "struck a nerve" rhetoric. If Garrett was intending to be provocative, was he also demonizing Obama as not caring about the detained Americans? If not, how was he being provocative? Also, Garrett is accusing Obama of knocking down a straw man.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus phoned Donald Trump on Wednesday afternoon, urging him to tone down his controversial comments on immigration.

The Washington Post reported that Priebus spent about an hour speaking to the GOP presidential candidate, a move that was motivated by concerns from party leaders.

Trump campaign spokesman Corey Lewandowski described the call as nothing “unusual” for “the leading candidate for the GOP nomination.”

The business mogul has since challenged reports about the phone conversation, writing on Twitter Thursday morning, “Totally false reporting on my call with @Reince Priebus. He called me, ten minutes, said I hit a ‘nerve,’ doing well, end!”
-- From a story in the Washington Free Beacon posted July 9, 2015. The phone call concerned remarks made by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on June 16, 2015.

Comment: This is “struck a nerve” rhetoric.

“I’m glad they see us as a threat,” Mr. Rubio said in an interview. “They should.”

He added that it made sense that the Castro government was closely following a presidential candidate whose election would not, to put it mildly, be welcomed. “If that’s the line the Cuban government has taken against me and is trying to indoctrinate their people in that way, it shows that we’re on to something,” he said.

Cuban government officials claim disinterest when asked about American presidential candidates, but Mr. Rubio clearly strikes a nerve, prompting eye rolling, dramatic rocking-chair rocking and unkind comments.
-- Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), from a July 6, 2015, article in The New York Times.

Comment: This is "struck a nerve" rhetoric.

"If you're over the target, you draw flak."
-- Sen. Rand Paul, April 10, 2015, on the 3rd hour of the Glenn Beck radio program. He was referring to criticism he had received for his political positions.

Comment: This is "struck a nerve" rhetoric.


Examples from 2014.


Examples from 2013.


Examples from 2012.

The administration of President George W. Bush criticized a political ad that ran August 14, 2007, in Iowa by the presidential campaign of Senator Hillary Clinton (NY). The ad accused Bush of treating struggling American families, as well as American soldiers, as if they were "invisible." Bush's administration rebuked the accusations, calling them "absurd," "outrageous" and "unconscionable." Clinton responded by saying, "Apparently I've struck a nerve."
Comment: Maybe so, but merely knowing that you have struck a nerve says nothing about whether you have struck it fairly or unfairly. Moreover, saying that President Bush doesn't even see people in need is caricature and/or name-calling.

The sting of any rebuke is the truth.
-- Commonly attributed to Benjamin Franklin (though I can't find any documentation of him saying it).

Comment: This statement is false. The uncomfortable consequences -- i.e., the "sting" -- of some remarks is that they are true. However, the sting of some other remarks is that they aren't true, but that people might think that they are, and give someone a reputation they don't deserve as a result.

(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)

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