For instance, politicians say that "they" -- usually meaning an unnamed opponent -- have done this or said that, and what they've said or done is unacceptable.
But, without specifying who, exactly, has said or done the thing in question (maybe they mean Lord Voldemort?), you can't fact check the accusation to see whether it's true and problematic.
This can result in further problems, too.
For example, it can result in hasty generalizations.
If one member of a party supports a position -- call it X -- then the remark that "they support X" implies that all members of that party support X, which isn't necessarily true.
Instead of making the mistake of generalizing about a group from an individual (or a few individuals), it's better to name specifically who has said or done what.
Allegations of Hypocrisy
Another danger with this rhetoric is unfounded allegations of hypocrisy.
Suppose, for instance, somebody makes the accusation:
Members of the other party supported X, and now they oppose X. They're hypocrites!This only amounts to a legitimate accusation of hypocrisy if it's the same members who have taken contradictory positions. If it's some members who support X, but different members who oppose X, then there's no hypocrisy, it's just different people taking different positions.
(And, even if it is the same members changing positions, not all hypocrisy and flip-flopping is bad: when someone stops doing what's bad and rejects it in favor of the good, that's to be praised.)
Rather than unnamed antagonists, we should refer to actual people and their actual deeds and words.
Otherwise, we risk distorting the facts about who says, does, or believes what.
EXAMPLES AND ANALYSIS
"When Donald Trump says he'll make America great he means make it even greater for rich guys just like Donald Trump. Great for the guys who don't care how much they've already squeezed from everyone else. Great for the guys who always want more. Because that's who Donald Trump is: the guy who wants it all for himself. And watch out, because he will crush you into the dirt to get whatever he wants. That's who he is."-- Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), June 27, 2016.
Comment: Warren is demonizing Trump – as well as other unnamed "rich guys" – saying they don't care about other people and will "crush you into the dirt" – presumably metaphorical violent rhetoric meaning that they'll do anything – in order to satisfy their selfishness.
"Now we have to overcome some big challenges, I will admit that. First, too many of our representatives in Washington are in the grips of a failed economic theory called trickle down economics. Now, I do not doubt their sincerity. But it has been proven wrong again and again. But there still are people in Congress who insist on cutting taxes for the wealthy instead of investing in our future. They careen from one self- inflicted crisis to another. Shutting down the government, threatening to default on our national debt, refusing to make the common-sense investments that used to have broad bipartisan support, like rebuilding our roads and our bridges, our tunnels, our highways, our airports. Or investing in better education from zero through high school and college. … And if the evidence were there to support this ideology, I would have to acknowledge that. But we have seen the results. Twice now in the past 30 years, a Republican president has caused an economic mess and a Democratic president has had to come in and clean it up."-- Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, June 22, 2016.
Comment: There are lots of things going on here. Where has it been proven that so-called "trickle-down economics" is a failed policy? Where has this policy been tested rigorously – that is, against an otherwise-identical control group? Such experiments are difficult to craft, and almost never occur on a large scale. It may be true that there have been cases where trickle-down economics has been implemented and bad economic news has followed, but it's propter hoc reasoning to jump to the conclusion that the former caused the latter. Correlation isn't necessarily causation. (Perhaps the bad economic news would have been even worse without the trickle-down policies, it's impossible to know unless you set up a control group for comparison.) Also, who has proposed not investing in our future? Perhaps people have proposed tax cuts for the wealthy along with spending less on investment than Clinton supports, but is there anyone who has said we shouldn't spend any money on education or infrastructure? This sounds like a straw man she's setting up to knock over. Finally, Clinton also resorts to "common sense" rhetoric, as well as "bipartisan" rhetoric (if the Republicans aren't supporting common-sense investments, then how can they have bipartisan support?).
"For a while now, the main contribution of some of my friends on the other side of the aisle – have made in the fight against ISIL, is to criticize this administration and me for not using the phrase “radical Islam”. That’s the key, they tell us. We can’t beat ISIL unless we call them “radical Islamists”. What exactly would using this label accomplish? What exactly would it change? Would it make ISIL less committed to trying to kill Americans? Would it bring in more allies? Is there a military strategy that is served by this? The answer is, “none of the above”. Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away. This is a political distraction. Since before I was President, I’ve been clear about how extremist groups have perverted Islam to justify terrorism. As President I have repeatedly called on our Muslim friends and allies at home and around the world to work with us to reject this twisted interpretation of one of the world’s great religions. There’s not been a moment in my seven-and-a-half years as President where we have not been able to pursue a strategy because we didn’t use the label “radical Islam”. Not once has an advisor of mine said, “Man, if we really used that phrase, we’re going to turn this whole thing around.” Not once. … So there’s no magic to the phrase “radical Islam”. It’s a political talking point. It’s not a strategy. And the reason I am careful about how I describe this threat has nothing to do with political correctness, and everything to do with actually defeating extremism. Groups like ISIL and Al-Qaeda want to make this war a war between Islam and America, or between Islam and the West. They want to claim that they are the true leaders of over a billion Muslims around the world who reject their crazy notions. They want us to validate them, by implying that they speak for those billion-plus people, that they speak for Islam. That’s their propaganda, that’s how they recruit? And if we fall into the trap of painting all Muslims with a broad brush and imply that we are at war with an entire religion, then we are doing the terrorists work for them. Up until this point this argument about labels has mostly just been partisan rhetoric. Sadly, we’ve all become accustomed to that kind of partisanship even when it involves the fight against these extremist groups. And that kind of yapping has not prevented folks across government from doing their jobs, from sacrifice and working really hard to protect the American people. But we are now seeing how dangerous this kind of mindset and this kind of thinking can be. We’re starting to see where this kind of rhetoric and loose talk and sloppiness about who exactly we’re fighting, where this can lead us. We now have proposals from the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States to bar all Muslims from emigrating to America. You hear language that singles out immigrants and suggests entire religious communities are complicit in violence. Where does this stop? … Do Republican officials actually agree with this? Because that’s not the America we want. … We’ve gone through moments in our history before when we acted out of fear and we came to regret it. We’ve seen our government mistreat our fellow citizens, and it has been a shameful part of our history."-- President Barack Obama, June 14, 2016, referring to (among other people) Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Comment: There is a lot going on here, including "distractions", "talking points", "appealing to fear" and "Americans want" rhetoric. But the bigger issue is distortion. It's not clear who has ever said that using the term "radical Islam" is a necessary or a sufficient condition for defeating ISIS (i.e., that we can't defeat ISIS without using that term, or that using the term is all we need – a "silver bullet" – to defeat ISIS). Maybe some people have taken one or both of these positions – though, has it been their "main" contribution to the issue? – but they certainly haven't been adopted by Republicans in general. Obama needs to name who has advocated these positions, and when and where did so; otherwise it seems like he's knocking over a straw man (a position no one holds). More, if there is no "magic" in using the term "radical Islam", then why avoid it? Obama says that we shouldn't brand all Muslims as terrorists or radicals – and he's correct – but it's not at all clear that using the term does that. Lots of people refer to "Islamic terrorism" while at the same time acknowledging that not all terrorism is done by Muslims and that the vast majority of Muslims aren't terrorists. As I've argued before, you can call someone a "white supremacist" without saying all whites are supremacists, just like you can say Josef Stalin was an "violent socialist" without saying all socialists are violent. Why doesn't the same apply to "radical Islam"? If we support all of Obama's policies and actions on terrorism, but also use the term "Islamic terrorism", are we suddenly validating terrorists and helping them recruit members? Does the term have that much "magic"?
"But unfortunately, graduates, despite the lessons of our history and the truth of your experience here at City College, some folks out there today seem to have a very different perspective. They seem to view our diversity as a threat to be contained rather than as a resource to be tapped. They tell us to be afraid of those who are different, to be suspicious of those with whom we disagree. They act as if name-calling is an acceptable substitute for thoughtful debate, as if anger and intolerance should be our default state rather than the optimism and openness that have always been the engine of our progress."-- First Lady Michelle Obama, June 3, 2016, speaking at City College of New York Commencement.
Comment: Obama is accusing some people – she does not name who – of being opposed to diversity, of inciting fear and suspicion, and resorting to name-calling. It’s impossible to know if these accusations are true until she identifies who they are about (Republicans are the likely target). This seems like the “only my opponent” caricature, as Obama’s fellow Democrats often behave in many of the same ways.
"Right now, when we’re hearing so much disturbing and hateful rhetoric, it is so important to remember that our diversity has been -– and will always be -– our greatest source of strength and pride here in the United States."-- First Lady Michelle Obama, April 6, 2016.
Comment: Obama doesn't mention who is uttering this inappropriate rhetoric. Why not? Is she criticizing both Democrats and Republicans, or does she believe it's only Republicans who resort to invective?
"[Former Gov. Deval Patrick (D-Mass.)] said, ‘Insist from us and from each other a modicum of civility as the condition for serving you.’ … Our children are watching what we do. … If we lie about each other, they learn it’s okay to lie. … If they see us insulting each other like school kids, then they think, well, I guess that’s how people are supposed to behave. … We should insist on a higher form of discourse in our common life, one based on empathy and respect … We have to stand up and insist, no, reason matters, facts matter … When folks just make stuff up, they can’t go unchallenged. And that’s true for Democrats if you hear a Democratic make something up, and that’s true for a Republican if you see a Republican cross that line."-- President Barack Obama, February 10, 2016.
Comment: Obama is calling for us to set a higher standard of debate. He is also claiming that someone – he does not say who – is acting as if facts don't matter. He is also failing to point out the various ways that he himself has failed to support civil discourse, which amounts to the "only my opponent" caricature.
"Did you ever notice that a global warming catastrophe is never predicted for next year or next month? Have you noticed that ever since Hurricane Katrina, they've been hoping for more of them, so that they can use that to prove it, and there haven't been any more? We haven't had a major hurricane strike the country in 10 years, and yet they claim that Katrina was evidence galore of global warming? I go through all of these things that you've heard for years, just the common-sensical ways of rejecting this premise."-- Pundit Rush Limbaugh, November 3, 2015.
Comment: Limbaugh seems to be accusing people who believe in global warming – though he doesn’t name anyone in particular – of rooting for failure. He's also claiming that it's common sense to disbelieve global warming.
"Overall, though, we’re making enormous progress, and it does make you wonder, why is it that Republican politicians are so down on America. Have you noticed that? I mean, they are gloomy. They’re like Grumpy Cat. Everything is terrible according to them. We’re doomed. I mean, I know it’s political season, but you listen to them and they’ve constructed this entire separate reality. It’s like the Twilight Zone. And according to their story, their narrative, everything was terrific back in 2008 when unemployment was skyrocketing and uninsured rates were rising and folks were losing their homes and their jobs, we were engaged in two wars, bin Laden was still at large. If you were listening to them, those were like the good old days. The golden years. And then I came in and the Democrats came in, but according to them that’s when everything all went to heck. Which is strange. I mean, it’s a hard argument to make. There was an article, I think, in The New York Times today, or maybe it was yesterday, where they pointed out that it’s very hard for them to make the arguments they make about tax cuts for the wealthy and doing the same stuff that they’ve been promoting, and trying to eliminate regulations on the big banks and all that, when the empirical evidence shows that when Democrats control the White House and we’ve got a Democratic Congress the economy does better and when they’re in charge, it does worse. Just look at the facts. Don’t take my word for it, go back, take a look at – all right, here’s Bill Clinton’s presidency, and then there’s Bush presidency and then there’s my presidency and, take a look. And you’ve gotta feel bad for the fact-checkers, for the Republicans, because they’ve gotta spend hours trying to keep up with some of the crazy stuff that their candidates are claiming. And the reason they have to make up stuff is because they don’t have a record to run on. They’re offering the same policies that caused so many problems in the first place. They ran on them in 2008, they ran on them in 2012, they’re running on them now. … And it's a shame when politicians spend all their time trying to make people feel bad, or more typically, trying to make them feel scared. Talking down the country all the time because it serves your politics. … We [Democrats] have got an optimistic vision about where this country can go if the politics of obstruction and fear-mongering are set aside and we start working together as a country."-- President Barack Obama, October 23, 2015.
Comment: First, Obama seems to be accusing Republicans of rooting for failure, obstruction, divisiveness and fear-mongering, and saying they are doing so for "political" motives. This is unfair. Obama, when he ran for office in 2004 and 2008, was frequently critical of the country's state of affairs; does this mean he was "down on America"? Second, Obama is distorting Republicans' position: what Republican has ever said that everything was terrific back in 2008? Third, Obama is making a "correlation is causation" argument when it comes to the economy and Democrats, which is additionally flawed because Democrats and Republicans aren't monolithic when it comes to policies (some Republicans have raised taxes, like Ronald Reagan, and some Democrats have lowered them, like JFK), and because Republicans were in control of Congress during the boom years of Clinton's presidency, Democrats were in control of Congress when the Great Recession happened, and Congress is in control of Republicans now that we're making "enormous progress". Of course, sometimes good or bad things happen when a party is in power that were set in motion earlier by a different party, or that are out of anyone's political control altogether.
"There’s still those shrill voices in the national political arena, trying to undo what has already been done. But they’re not going to succeed. Don’t worry about it – no really. The American people have moved so far beyond them, and their appeals to prejudice and fear and homophobia. And because of how far you’ve moved the American people, the remainder of the work, and much work has to be done, I promise you, will come much more quickly and more surely. It will increase in its rapidity the change that we need. … The American people are already with you. There’s homophobes still left. Most of them are running for President, I think."-- Vice President Joe Biden, October 3, 2015, speaking at the Human Rights Campaign National Dinner.
Comment: Biden is (perhaps in the spirit of comedy) accusing someone – he doesn't say who, but likely means Republicans – of bigotry. Isn't this demonizing?
"Even as our economy is growing and our troops have largely returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, we see in our debates about America’s role in the world a notion of strength that is defined by opposition to old enemies, perceived adversaries, a rising China, or a resurgent Russia; a revolutionary Iran, or an Islam that is incompatible with peace. We see an argument made that the only strength that matters for the United States is bellicose words and shows of military force; that cooperation and diplomacy will not work. … Part of our job, together … must also involve a rejection by non-Muslims of the ignorance that equates Islam with terror."-- President Barack Obama, September 28, 2015, in his address to the United Nations General Assembly.
Comment: Obama doesn't name who (a Republican? Which one?) has expressed these ideas, but it seems like Obama is knocking over straw men.
"And this whole anti-immigrant sentiment that’s out there in our politics right now is contrary to who we are. … But when I hear folks talking as if somehow these kids are different from my kids, or less worthy in the eyes of God, that somehow they are less worthy of our respect and consideration and care -- I think that’s un-American. I do not believe that. I think it is wrong. And I think we should do better. Because that’s how America was made -- by us caring about all our kids."-- President Barack Obama, September 14, 2015.
Comment: Obama is accusing someone of being both bigoted and un-American. But he doesn't name who has said that immigrant children or the children of illegal immigrants are less worthy of respect, so is it a straw man?
Geraldo Rivera made unabashedly racist remarks about Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson — while accusing Republicans of racism.-- Pundit Carmine Sabia of BizPac Review, September 4, 2015, regarding remarks made by pundit Geraldo Rivera on September 3, 2015.
The gist of it: they’re only saying they’ll vote for Carson because he’s black.
On Fox News’ “The Five” on Thursday, Rivera commented on a Monmouth County College poll showing Carson would defeat Donald Trump in a head-to-head match-up. The show’s resident liberal said he was reminded of the 1993 New York City mayoral election, in which African-American incumbent Mayor David Dinkins polled high and looked like he was going to win, only to be defeated by Rudy Giuliani.
“I think a lot of Republicans polled by Monmouth are giving the politically correct answer,” Rivera said. “I think it’s all about being the black neurosurgeon, brilliant guy.”
When co-host Greg Gutfeld asked whether people voted for Obama because he was black, Rivera again gave a racist response, saying, “Obama was the least black guy you could possibly find.”
If Carson were failing in the polls it would be because Republicans are racist, but if he’s winning it’s because Republicans are racist.
Comment: Sabia is accusing Rivera of racism. He is also saying that some people (he doesn't name who) are going to hypocritically accuse Republicans of racism whether Republicans support Carson or not.
"Unfortunately, we’re living through a time in American politics where every foreign policy decision is viewed through a partisan prism, evaluated by headline-grabbing sound bites. And so before the ink was even dry on this deal -- before Congress even read it -- a majority of Republicans declared their virulent opposition. Lobbyists and pundits were suddenly transformed into arm-chair nuclear scientists, disputing the assessments of experts like Secretary Moniz, challenging his findings, offering multiple -- and sometimes contradictory -- arguments about why Congress should reject this deal. But if you repeat these arguments long enough, they can get some traction. So let me address just a few of the arguments that have been made so far in opposition to this deal."-- President Barack Obama, August 5, 2015, speaking on the proposed deal on Iran's nuclear program.
Comment: First, Obama is making it sound as if only opponents of the nuclear deal – and not supporters of it – had made up their minds ahead of time and were viewing the issue through a "partisan prism". That is, Obama is engaging in the "only my opponent" caricature. Second, Obama is making a flawed appeal to authority, dismissing the criticisms of people who aren't nuclear scientists. Just because a person isn't a nuclear expert doesn't mean they have no valid criticisms on nuclear topics. (Some of the criticism of the deal doesn't even rely on nuclear issues, it has to do with diplomatic matters, such as whether Iranian leaders are trustworthy.) Third, Obama says critics are offering "contradictory" arguments, suggesting hypocrisy. But, there's nothing hypocritical about one person offering one criticism, and a different person offering a logically contradictory one. Since Obama doesn't name who the critics are, how do we know they're being hypocritical and self-contradictory? Last, Obama is suggesting something akin to the "big lie" theory is at work with his critics, where repetition of a bad idea will give it credibility.
"The other problem with the argument that folks have been making about, oh, this is a windfall and suddenly Iran is flushed with cash, and they're going to take over the world. And I say that not tongue-in-cheek, because if you look at some of the statements by some of our critics, you would think that Iran is, in fact, going to take over the world as a consequence of this deal -- which I think would be news to the Iranians."-- President Barack Obama, July 15, 2015, during a press conference in which he defended the deal reached on Iran's nuclear program.
Comment: Obama leaves unnamed who is making this objection. Who has said that Iran will literally (Obama insists this is not tongue-in-cheek) take over the world as a result of this deal? If Obama can't name someone, then it looks like he knocking over a straw man.
"On Easter, I do reflect on the fact that as a Christian, I am supposed to love. And I have to say that sometimes when I listen to less than loving expressions by Christians, I get concerned. But that's a topic for another day. Where there is injustice -- I was about to veer off. I'm pulling it back. Where there is injustice we defend the oppressed. Where there is disagreement, we treat each other with compassion and respect. Where there are differences, we find strength in our common humanity, knowing that we are all children of God."-- President Barack Obama, April 7, 2015.
Comment: Obama doesn't say who or which Christians are guilty of making "less than loving" remarks. I think we can safely assume that he is referring to Republicans and conservatives who have resorted to demonizing and other incivilities. However, Obama doesn't cite himself as being guilty of the same misbehavior (and he is certainly guilty of it), so he is resorting to the "only my opponent" caricature.
"We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, that racial division is inherent to America. … Of course, a more common mistake is to suggest that Ferguson is an isolated incident; that racism is banished; that the work that drew men and women to Selma is now complete, and that whatever racial tensions remain are a consequence of those seeking to play the “race card” for their own purposes. We don’t need the Ferguson report to know that’s not true. We just need to open our eyes, and our ears, and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us."-- President Barack Obama, March 7, 2015, during speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery.
Comment: Granted, both claims – that America is irredeemably racist, and that it is completely free of racism – are false, but what evidence is there that the latter one is more commonly believed or espoused than the former? Who has been saying that there is no longer any racism in the United States? Is that a straw man? Is the former claim also a straw man that no one really believes?
"[A] vocal minority on the hard-left continues to argue to the leaders of their party -- from the President on down -- that Democrats in Washington should do absolutely nothing about short-term or long-term spending problems. This is the Thelma and Louise crowd, the ones who dream about higher taxes and the bigger government it will pay for, regardless of the impact on jobs or the economy or America’s standing in the world. These are the ones who recklessly ignore the fact that we can’t keep running trillion dollar deficits every year and throw a tantrum if somebody suggests that maybe the taxpayers shouldn’t keep subsidizing every last program Washington ever dreamed up. Their reckless and ideological approach threatens our future. And anyone who’s serious about solving the problems we face should ignore it, starting with the President. … It’s time for the President to present a plan that rises above these reckless and radical voices on the hard-Left, that goes beyond the talking points of the campaign trail, and that has a realistic chance of passing the Congress. The time for campaigning is over. It’s time for the President to lead."-- Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), November 26, 2012, from the floor of the Senate.
Comment: First, who is saying this? McConnell doesn't name who holds the "Thelma and Louise" position he describes. The danger -- which brings us to the second point -- is that McConnell is creating a straw man, a caricature of his opponents. They really don't care at all about the impact on the U.S. economy? Third, McConnell is engaging in "ideological" rhetoric, as well as "radical" rhetoric, as well as "talking points" rhetoric.
RYAN: "What we should not be doing is saying to the Egyptian people, while Mubarak is cracking down on them, that he’s a good guy and, in the next week, say he ought to go."-- Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), October 11, 2012, during the vice presidential debate in Danville, KY, between Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden.
Comment: Did the Obama administration do this? Did they praise Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak one week and then call for his ouster the next? Or is this a false accusation of a flip-flop?
"I know that campaigns can seem small, and even silly. Trivial things become big distractions. Serious issues become sound bites. And the truth gets buried under an avalanche of money and advertising. If you're sick of hearing me approve this message, believe me -- so am I."-- President Barack Obama, September 6, 2012, addressing the Democratic National Convention.
Comment: Politicians frequently denounce campaign tactics in the abstract, without making any mention of whether they and their own campaign share any guilt. Apart from taking responsibility for being part of an "avalanche of advertising", this is what Obama is doing here. These kinds of denunciations in the abstract could be seen as implicitly making the "only my opponent" caricature: "I know there's a lot of misbehavior out there, but I'm not acknowledging that I'm engaging in any of it", which leaves your opponent as the most likely suspect. This might also be "unnamed antagonist" rhetoric.
"When we're talking about trust, we need to look no farther than the person Mitt Romney wants to -- my friend the Republican Leader wants to be president of the United States. He's refused to release his tax returns, as we know. … So the word's out that he hasn't paid any taxes for ten years. Let him prove that he has paid taxes, because he hasn't."-- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), August 2, 2012.
Comment: First, if Reid knows that Romney hasn't paid taxes, then he should prove it using whatever evidence he has that is the basis for his claim that Romney hasn't paid taxes. The burden of proof is on Reid. Second, Reid says that "the word is out" that Romney hasn't paid taxes, leaving it unspecified who (other than Reid himself) has made the accusation (and, more to the point, based on what evidence), which is unnamed antagonist rhetoric.
(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)