Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Rhetoric: "They" and the Unnamed

Politicians often attribute words or deeds to people they don't name. (I'll provide some examples below, so I'm not guilty of doing the same thing!)

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.

Hasty Generalization

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.

"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.

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.

Got that?
-- Pundit Carmine Sabia of BizPac Review, September 4, 2015, regarding remarks made by pundit Geraldo Rivera on September 3, 2015.

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.)

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Obama, Romney, and the "Apology Tour"

One of the most-discussed topics in the 2012 presidential debate has been the issue of President Barack Obama's so-called "apology tour".

The GOP candidate -- former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) -- and many others have accused Obama of apologizing for the behavior of the United States as he visited other countries during his first year in office in 2009.

The "apology tour" was a topic of discussion in the third presidential debate between Obama and Romney on October 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, FL:
ROMNEY: And then the president began what I've called an apology tour of going to -- to various nations in the Middle East and -- and criticizing America. I think they looked at that and saw weakness.

OBAMA: Bob, let me just respond. Nothing Governor Romney just said is true, starting with this notion of me apologizing. This has been probably the biggest whopper that's been told during the course of this campaign, and every fact-checker and every reporter who's looked at it, Governor, has said this is not true.

ROMNEY: Mr. President, the reason I call it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East and you flew to -- to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to -- to Turkey and Iraq. And -- and by way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region, but you went to the other nations. And by the way, they noticed that you skipped Israel. And then in those nations and on Arabic TV you said that America had been dismissive and derisive. You said that on occasion America had dictated to other nations. Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators.
Again, Romney is not the only person to make this accusation against Obama. The Heritage Foundation (a conservative think tank) provides 10 quotes from Obama and says:
On several occasions, President Obama has sought to apologize for the actions of his own country when addressing a foreign audience … The President has already apologized for his country to nearly 3 billion people across Europe, the Muslim world, and the Americas.
Radio pundit Rush Limbaugh says:
[I]t is true! He did run around the world blaming America; agreeing that America had been the problem here or there. In Cairo he talked about how the American people had imposed their way on people for far too long. Everybody knows he engaged in an apology tour!
Fox News defends the accusation, saying:
[T]he definition of apology is "a written or spoken expression of one's regret, remorse, or sorrow for having insulted, failed, injured, or wronged another."
Others insist the apology tour never happened.

 CNN says:
Obama did indeed mention past U.S. flaws in speeches. But in those addresses, Obama never uttered an apology for the United States.
Columnist Steve Benen says:
[F]or those who still care about facts and reality, Romney really is lying. Obama has never apologized for America.
The fact-checker for the Washington Post, Glenn Kessler, says:
In none of these cases does Obama actually use a word at all similar to "apologize." … nothing akin to the word "apology" is ever used by Obama. … compare what Obama said to what George W. Bush said at Senegal's Goree Island in 2003. Bush called the U.S. constitution flawed and said that America is still troubled by the legacy of slavery. This does not seem like an apology, either -- but it is even more sharply framed than Obama's comments. … The claim that Obama repeatedly has apologized for the United States is not borne out by the facts, especially if his full quotes are viewed in context. Obama often was trying to draw a rhetorical distinction between his policies and that of President Bush, a common practice when the presidency changes parties.
And the fact-checking site Politifact says:
Romney has accused Obama of beginning his presidency "with an apology tour." Our reviews of Obama’s 2009 foreign travels and speeches showed no such thing. While he criticized past U.S. actions, such as torture practices at Guantanamo, he did not offer one  apology. It’s ridiculous to call Obama’s foreign visits and remarks "an apology tour." We rate this statement Pants on Fire!
So, who's correct?

As far as I can see, what's going on here is a problem relating to ambiguity, particularly with respect to the word "apology".

Suppose, for instance, I break something that belongs to you, and that I then come to you and say:
"I broke this. It was wrong for me to break it, I shouldn't have done it, and I won't do it again."
Have I apologized? I haven't used the word "apologize" (or any variation of it) or the phrase, "I'm sorry". But I've clearly admitted wrongdoing to the person (you) who was wronged. So, have I apologized nonetheless?

Fox News mentions the dictionary definition of the word "apology", and Obama's words seem to fit that description (as do Bush's, with respect to the quote regarding slavery that Kessler mentions). But, more correctly, that's a definition of the word "apology", not the one and only definition of the word. Lots of words, after all, have more than one definition; that's where ambiguity comes from.

And, even if we accept this particular definition, it leaves open the question of whether or not regret, remorse, or sorrow can be expressed without using the words "apology" (or some variation of it) or "sorry". Are those particular words necessary to perform an apology?

I'm not sure. It seems to be to be vague.

But the parties in this debate do seem sure. Obama's critics are absolutely sure that an apology doesn't require the use of these words, while Obama's defenders are absolutely sure that an apology does require the use of these words.

But what is the evidence for either of these positions? This more general point about what does (or doesn't) constitute an apology is the issue that each of them need to justify.

One last observation: it could be that Obama's words overseas were intentionally making use of this vagueness and ambiguity.

In diplomacy, people often choose their words carefully in order to placate one party without offending another party. Perhaps Obama expressed regret for wrongdoing without using the words "apology" and "sorry" so that some people would perceive him as apologizing -- and be happy about that, because they believe an apology is merited -- while other people wouldn't perceiving him as apologizing -- which would upset them, because they don't believe an apology is merited.

Perhaps that was the plan. Though, if it was, it doesn't appear to have succeeded on the second front.

Civility Watchdog: October 22nd Presidential Debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in Boca Raton, FL

Following are excerpts from the presidential debate [NPR Transcript, NYTimes Transcript, RCP Video] between President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) in Boca Raton, FL on October 22, 2012, hosted and moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS:
ROMNEY: [T]he key that we're going to have to pursue is a -- is a pathway to -- to get the Muslim world to be able to reject extremism on its own. We don't want another Iraq. We don't want another Afghanistan.
Comment: Romney is indulging in "extremism" rhetoric. What, in particular, does Romney believe that the Muslim world should reject?

OBAMA: Governor Romney, I'm glad that you recognize that al-Qaida's a threat because a few months ago when you were asked, what's the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia -- not al-Qaida, you said Russia.
Comment: Obama is describing Romney's remarks as contradictory when they aren't. There's nothing inconsistent about saying that al-Qaeda is a threat while also saying that Russia is the biggest threat. Romney may be incorrect about which threat is bigger, but his statements aren't contradictory, as Obama asserts.

OBAMA: I know you haven't been in a position to actually execute foreign policy, but every time you've offered an opinion, you've been wrong.
Comment: Really? Every opinion Romney has offered on foreign policy has been wrong? Even on policies where he has agreed with Obama? This is an exaggeration.

ROMNEY: [A]ttacking me is not an agenda. Attacking me is not talking about how we're going to deal with the challenges that exist in the Middle East and take advantage of the opportunity there and stem the tide of this violence. … Again, attacking me is not talking about an agenda for getting more trade and opening up more jobs in this country.
Comment: This is a "negative politics" accusation. There's nothing wrong or unproductive -- in principle, at least -- about Obama criticizing Romney's positions (and vice versa). In fact, that's the point of debate, to show that your positions have fewer flaws than your opponent's positions. If Obama is making unfair criticisms -- employing faulty reasoning or distortions -- then that's another matter, and Romney should protest. But he can't simply complain that it's unfair for Obama to "attack" his positions.

ROMNEY: Syria is Iran's only ally in the Arab world. It's their route to the sea. It's the route for them to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon, which threatens, of course, our ally Israel.
Comment: Strictly speaking, this is false. Iran borders the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean. Given his mention of Lebanon, Romney clearly meant that Syria is Iran's route to the Mediterranean Sea, which is true. Romney's opponents, though, probably won't make this charitable interpretation.

ROMNEY: [O]ur Navy is smaller now than any time since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We're now down to 285. We're headed down to the -- to the low 200s if we go through with sequestration.

OBAMA: [Y]ou mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we're counting ships. It's -- it's what are our capabilities.
Comment: Obama is correct that military capability isn't simply dependent on the number of ships, it's also dependent on the quality and type of ships. But he could have made this point without derisively suggesting that Romney is ignorant of the fact that we now have things like aircraft carriers and submarines. Plus, it's not necessarily playing "a game of Battleship" to count ships, as there is a minimum number of ships needed in order to perform certain functions, which is what the Navy assessment was stating.

OBAMA: The disagreement I have with Governor Romney is that during the course of this campaign he's often talked as if we should take premature military action. I think that would be a mistake because when I've sent young men and women into harm's way, I always understand that that is the last resort, not the first resort.
Comment: Obama is misrepresenting Romney's position on military action. Perhaps Romney is willing to resort to military action sooner than Obama is, but Obama represents Romney as believing that military action should be the first resort. Where has Romney said that?

ROMNEY: And then the president began what I've called an apology tour of going to -- to various nations in the Middle East and -- and criticizing America. I think they looked at that and saw weakness.

OBAMA: Bob, let me just respond. Nothing Governor Romney just said is true, starting with this notion of me apologizing. This has been probably the biggest whopper that's been told during the course of this campaign, and every fact-checker and every reporter who's looked at it, Governor, has said this is not true.

ROMNEY: Mr. President, the reason I call it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East and you flew to -- to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to -- to Turkey and Iraq. And -- and by way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region, but you went to the other nations. And by the way, they noticed that you skipped Israel. And then in those nations and on Arabic TV you said that America had been dismissive and derisive. You said that on occasion America had dictated to other nations. Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators.
Comment: This exchange -- regarding the claim that Obama went on an "apology tour" -- deserves much more detailed treatment. Here, suffice to say that most of the problem comes down to an ambiguity regarding what constitutes an apology, the result being that it's vague as to whether Obama really apologized for anything.

SCHIEFFER: What if -- what if the prime minister of Israel called you on the phone and said: Our bombers are on the way. We're going to bomb Iran. What do you say?
ROMNEY: Bob, let's not go into hypotheticals of that nature. Our relationship with Israel, my relationship with the prime minister of Israel is such that we would not get a call saying our bombers are on the way or their fighters are on the way. This is the kind of thing that would have been discussed and thoroughly evaluated well before that kind of action.
Comment: Romney is refusing to answer a hypothetical question, here. However, he gives a reason why: because the premise of the hypothetical -- that Israel would send bombers to Iran and then alert the United States after the fact, not beforehand -- is implausible. We could argue about whether it really is implausible, but I don't think this is an unfair evasion. Romney wasn't rejecting all hypothetical questions, he gave a plausible reason for rejecting a particular hypothetical.

OBAMA: You know, when I came into office, we were still bogged down in Iraq, and Afghanistan had been drifting for a decade. We ended the war in Iraq, refocused our attention on Afghanistan. And we did deliver a surge of troops. That was facilitated in part because we had ended the war in Iraq.
Comment: It's not clear what Obama means by "bogged down" in Iraq. By December 2008 and January 2009 (the latter month is when Obama was inaugurated into office), Iraqi civilian deaths, US and Iraqi military deaths were among the lowest they had been since the invasion in 2003. Moreover, President George W. Bush by then had signed a status of forces agreement (SOFA) which set a 2011 withdrawal date for US forces from Iraq. In 2011, the Obama administration attempted to extend the presence of US forces in Iraq beyond the SOFA, but could not reach an agreement on a new SOFA, so US forces withdrew as planned. Arguably, Obama is distorting the situation to make his contributing to winding down the Iraq War greater than it really was.

ROMNEY: The secretary of defense called these trillion dollars of cuts to our military devastating. It's not my term. It's the president's own secretary of defense called them devastating.
Comment: Romney is employing faulty "even my opponent agrees" reasoning. He's arguing that, since Obama's own secretary of defense (Leon Panetta, a Democrat) agrees that the cuts to the military are a bad idea, there must be true. But, just because people who typically disagree on things find themselves in agreement on a particular topic doesn't guarantee that their correct.

OBAMA: Well, Governor Romney's right. You are familiar with jobs being shipped overseas, because you invested in companies that were shipping jobs overseas. And, you know, that's your right. I mean, that's how our free market works. But I've made a different bet on American workers. You know, if we had taken your advice, Governor Romney, about our auto industry, we'd be buying cars from China instead of selling cars to China.
Comment: First, Obama is again making a flawed argument about outsourcing: just because Romney outsourced jobs while a member of Bain Capital doesn't mean he'll do that as president, any more than Obama as president organized protests just like he did when he worked as a community organizer. Second, Obama is again questioning the patriotism of those who opposed the bailouts of GM and Chrysler by saying that he was betting on American workers (the implication being that those who opposed the bailouts were betting against American workers). Lastly, even if GM and Chrysler were to go out of business, there would still have been a US auto industry, because Ford, Toyota, Mitsubishi, and other car companies would still have been operating car factories in the US and hiring US auto workers. To say we'd be buying (presumably, all or the bulk of our) cars from China is an exaggeration.

ROMNEY: America's going to come back. And for that to happen, we're going to have to have a president who can work across the aisle. I was in a state where my legislature was 87 percent Democrat. I learned how to get along on the other side of the aisle. We've got to do that in Washington. Washington is broken. I know what it takes to get this country back. And we'll work with good Democrats and good Republicans to do that.
Comment: Romney is indulging in "bipartisan" rhetoric, here, but not in the sense of arguing that bipartisan = good. Rather, he's making the claim that it's difficult to get anything done without bipartisan cooperation, therefore having a record of bipartisanship is a virtue. However, Romney doesn't make any mention of rebuking incivility -- in particular, from his own party and his own campaign -- which would probably be one of the most effective ways to encourage bipartisan behavior.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Rhetoric: Ambiguity

Sometimes a word has two (or more) meanings. This is good in some ways, because it gives language a rich texture which can be used for poetry and humor (for instance, puns rely on ambiguity).

But ambiguity can also create problems. It can cause confusion about what somebody is saying.

In particular, if you put together an argument that uses the same word more than once -- but with different meanings -- it can result in an invalid argument (that is, an argument that doesn't prove the truth of the conclusion).
PREMISE 1: An albino hippopotamus is light.
PREMISE 2: Things that are light don't weigh very much.
CONCLUSION: Therefore, an albino hippo doesn't weigh very much.
The culprit in this flawed argument above is the word "light", which can mean "doesn't weigh much", or "is bright or white in color". An albino hippopotamus would be light in color, but not in weight.

Not all ambiguities are this obvious, but the point remains the same: just because a word is used twice doesn't mean it's used to mean the same thing.

"She always finds a way to make something good happen, to make people feel empowered, to buy people into the process, to make democracy work the way the Framers intended for it to work. Now, if you don’t believe that we can all grow together again, if you don’t believe that we’re ever going to grow again, if you believe it’s more important to relitigate the past, there may be many reasons that you don’t want to support her. But if you believe we can all rise together, if you believe we’ve finally come to the point where we can put the awful legacy of the last eight years behind us and the seven years before that when we were practicing trickle-down economics and no regulation in Washington, which is what caused the crash, then you should vote for her."
-- Former President Bill Clinton, March 21, 2016, referring to his wife, Democratic presidential contender former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton later clarified that the "awful legacy of the last eight years" her husband referred to was the hostility of Republicans to President Barack Obama.

Comment: This is "rehashing the past" rhetoric. Why is it wrong for people to criticize Hillary Clinton's past? Why is it OK for Bill Clinton to criticize – "relitigate"? – the past of the GOP? Plus, President Clinton's remarks about the "awful legacy of the last eight years" were ambiguous in their reference; many thought he was saying that Obama's presidency had been awful.

If the Republican National Committee is worried about the possibility of a contentious contested convention, one of its top officials showed no signs of concern Wednesday, even after the party's front-runner warned of possible riots in Cleveland if he is denied the party's nomination.

“Well first of all, I assume he’s speaking figuratively," Sean Spicer, the RNC's chief strategist and spokesman, told CNN. "I think if we go into a convention, whoever gets 1,237 delegates becomes the nominee. It’s plain and simple.”
-- From a March 16, 2016, story by Nick Gass of Politico, regarding statements by Republican presidential contender Donald Trump.

Comment: Spicer is arguing that Trump's violent rhetoric – "riots" – is to be taken figuratively rather than literally.

The GOP said Tammy Duckworth doesn’t ‘stand up’ for vets. The problem? She lost her legs — in Iraq.
-- Headline from a March 8, 2016, story by Else Viebeck of The Washington Post, referring to comments made about Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), who lost both legs while serving in the U.S. Army.

Comment: "Standing up" is an ambiguous term: it can mean literally getting up on your feet; or, metaphorically, it can mean advocating a cause. Obviously, the Republican Party was using metaphorical language when they said Duckworth was not "standing up". This would be akin to saying, of a blind person, that "they don't see what's wrong with their position". The choice of words may be unfortunate, but need not be intentionally derisive.

AGUILAR: If there’s somebody who is a hard worker when he goes to Washington, it’s Paul Ryan. Not only works with the Republicans but Democrats. You know very well that I work on the immigration issue, trying to get Republicans to support immigration reform. Paul Ryan is somebody who has supported immigration reform, has worked with somebody like Luis Gutierrez. Luis Gutierrez is very respectful, speaks highly of Paul Ryan. This is somebody who’s trying to govern.

HARRIS-PERRY: Alfonso, I feel you, but I just want to pause on one thing because I don’t disagree with you that I actually think Mr. Ryan is a great choice for this role, but I want us to be super careful when we use the language “hard worker,” because I actually keep an image of folks working in cotton fields on my office wall, because it is a reminder about what hard work looks like. So, I feel you that he’s a hard worker. I do, but in the context of relative privilege, and I just want to point out that when you talk about work-life balance and being a hard worker, the moms who don’t have health care who are working —

AGUILAR: I understand that.

HARRIS-PERRY: But, we don’t call them hard workers. We call them failures. We call them people who are sucking off the system.

AGUILAR: No, no, no, no.

HARRIS-PERRY: No, no. Really, ya’ll do. That is really what you guys do as a party.

AGUILAR: That is very unfair. I think we cannot generalize about the Republican Party.

HARRIS-PERRY: That’s true. Not all Republicans. That is certainly true.
-- Pundits Melissa Harris-Perry and Alfonso Aguilar, October 26, 2015, discussing Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and his prospects to become Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Comment: First, Harris-Perry is accusing Republicans of deriding people for leeching off the system (I assume when talking about welfare and related programs). Harris-Perry says she's not generalizing about all Republicans, but she still says that Republicans "as a party" engage in this sort of demonizing – which they don't – and as such Harris-Perry herself is demonizing Republicans. Second, Harris-Perry is pointing out an ambiguity in what counts as being a hard worker: however hard you work, there's probably someone else who works harder, and maybe even a whole segment of the population – past, present, even future – that works much harder than you. So, who are you supposed to compare yourself to in order to determine whether you're a hard worker? To slaves from the 1850s? Or to the other people working in your industry today? It's arguable, but it's unfair for Harris-Perry to suggest there is some sort of bigotry (or even code words?) at work in Aguilar's use of the term to describe Ryan. Who does Harris-Perry believe is a hard worker? Anyone in the U.S.A.? Herself?

RUSH: Bob in Pensacola, Florida, up next on the phones. Hi, Bob. How are you, sir?

CALLER: Hey, Rush. When you had that first segment and you were talking about the news about the events on Mars --

RUSH: Yeah?

CALLER: -- it struck me right off the bat: When a scientist is describing what happened to make the water disappear as "catastrophic," I don't know. To me the word "catastrophic" implies some sort of qualitative judgment, good or bad. In my opinion, in the absence of any human activity or man at all on the planet out in the middle of nowhere, geologic events are neither good nor bad. They just are.

RUSH: That's exactly right. It's a great point. How can something be "catastrophic" when there aren't any people around to feel the catastrophe?

CALLER: Exactly. That tells me that science is corrupted when they're using terms like that about just a purely scientific observation, about something that happened who knows when.

RUSH: Exactly. Not just corrupted, but politicized.

CALLER: Well, it seems that way.
-- Pundit Rush Limbaugh, September 28, 2015.

Comment: This is “politicizing” rhetoric. The caller has a point that the word “catastrophic” often involves a judgment about good or bad, but does it always? Is the term ambiguous in that sense? For instance, couldn’t a supernova – the explosion of a star – be described as catastrophic simply as a way of emphasizing how gigantic the event is, even if it doesn’t affect us negatively?

QUESTIONER [unidentified]: We have a problem in this country. It's called Muslims. We know our current president is one. He's not even an American.

TRUMP: [laughing] We need this question. This is the first question.

QUESTIONER: We have training camps growing where they want to kill us. That's my question. When can we get rid of them?

TRUMP: We are going to be looking at a lot of different things. A lot of people are saying bad things are happening out there. We are going to be looking at that and a lot of different things.
-- Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, September 17, 2015, being questioned at a town hall event. The questioner was referring to President Barack Obama.

Comment: Obama is Christian, not Muslim, and he was born in the U.S., but Trump never corrected the questioner's distortion and demonizing (either about Islam being bad, or about Obama not being American). There is also an ambiguity in the dialogue: when the questioner asks about getting rid of them, does "them" refer to training camps or to Muslims? What is Trump agreeing to look into?

The gay rights movement cannot abide a middle ground and a free exercise of religion for a simple reason — homosexuality is not normal in nature, in historic relationships, or in the sacred texts of almost all religions. The gay rights movement must therefore censor and subjugate dissent. Any who point out the lack of historic or religious acceptance or the lack of its ready existence in nature or, for that matter, the lack of scientific evidence showing homosexuality is a birth trait as opposed to a choice or external factors, must be shut up.
-- Pundit Erick Erickson, March 31, 2015. His remarks concerned the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA, also known as Indiana Senate Bill 101).

Comment: The claim that being gay is not normal suffers from ambiguity: does "normal" in this context mean typical? Or does it mean acceptable? Or does it mean something else? At any rate, it's questionable to reason from the presence or absence of homosexuality in nature and religious scripture to whether homosexuality should be legally or morally acceptable. More, how is it that the entire gay rights movement is opposed to the free exercise of religion related to the RFRA? Nobody supports both gay rights and religious freedom at the same time in this instance? That seems like an exaggeration or a distortion.

"There is a constitutional scholar, if you can call him that. … His name is Cass Sunstein. … He is so offended by the Bill of Rights, he's so troubled by the Bill of Rights, so bothered by it, that he renamed them. He called the Bill of Rights the charter of negative liberties. hen I first heard that, I said, "How in the world is liberty negative?" But I soon found out I was not looking at it the same way Cass Sunstein and practically every other leftist looks at it. … the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments, limit what government can do. Because the Founders knew the only thing government's gonna do is take away rights, limit them, get in the way. And the first 10 amendments were specific in what the government cannot do. … How do you look at that and see it as a negative, as Cass Sunstein and his fellow left-wing constitutional scholars do? I admit when I first came across it, I was baffled. How in the world can something as beautiful, as meaningful, as unique, as brilliant as the Bill of Rights be seen as a negative? Well, if you happen to believe that the government is all-powerful, the government is the center of the universe, the government determines everything, then the Bill of Rights you would hate. You would look at the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments as some of the biggest things in your way, if you believe in big government. If you believe government has the answer to everything, for everybody, then the Constitution is a problem. That's why these people call it a charter of negative liberties, and I'm telling you, this is why Obama is animated and does the things he does. He does not like the limits the Constitution places on him. He doesn't like the limitations in the Bill of Rights on him as president. … So the first 10 amendments is a charter -- the whole Constitution, actually, but the first 10 amendments becomes a charter of negative liberties because, from the standpoint of liberals, it's negative 'cause it tells Democrats and liberals what they can't do to people. That's why they hate it, and that's why they are forever trying to erase them, obscure them, water them down, 'cause they don't like the limitations on them. They don't like the limitations on the size of government, the power of government, the reach of government. They want to have more power than your freedom."
-- Pundit Rush Limbaugh, February 13, 2015, on his radio show.

Comment: Limbaugh is distorting both Sunstein and President Barack Obama's views, effectively demonizing them as being opposed to liberty. The term "negative" is ambiguous in this context. It is common in discussions about moral and political philosophy to make a distinction between negative and positive rights, or negative and positive obligations. That is, to say I have a negative right to freedom of speech is to say that others MUST NOT restrict me in expressing my political views. Similarly, to say I have a positive right to health care is to say that others MUST provide me health care. The positive/negative distinction comes down to whether people are obligated to DO something or NOT DO something. But "negative" also can mean "bad", and Limbaugh is (falsely and derisively) making it sound like Obama and Sunstein are saying that negative rights (such as freedom of speech) are bad things.


Examples from 2012.


Examples from 2008.

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

Rhetoric: "Hostage-Taking" and "Comprehensive Legislation"

Compromise is often a contentious issue in politics, and people tend to describe compromises differently.

Suppose, for instance, that you and I are haggling over legislation, and I offer to give you A -- something you want -- in return for you giving me B -- something that I want.

How should we describe this situation? Is this combining unrelated issues together? Am I holding A hostage for B? (Similarly, if you turn down my offer, are you holding B hostage for A?) Or is this somehow comprehensive legislation that addresses more than one concern?

Technically, it could be described as all these things (though the "hostage-taking" language is indulging in violent metaphors). Probably, we're going to describe the situation differently depending on whether or not we approve of the compromise. One man's "comprehensive legislation" is another man's "holding this hostage for that".

Compromise is one way democracy works. This is not to say that every compromise is one that should be supported. But we need to be careful when it comes to how compromises are described.

"This is a kind of court unpacking. And it`s not just, you know, holding the president and his nominees hostage. It`s holding the country and its highest court hostage."
-- Legal scholar Laurence Tribe, February 15, 2016, referring to Republican resistance to President Barack Obama nominating a successor to replace Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Comment: This is "hostage-taking" rhetoric.

"Last November, President Obama announced a series of sweeping executive actions on immigration. In doing so, he completely reversed his own opinion. Remember that 22 times the president said he didn't have the authority to do what he eventually did. … I just think it's outrageous that Senate Democrats are using homeland security funding for blackmail to protect the actions of the president, where the president himself said he didn't have the authority to do this."
-- Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), February 26, 2015. Boehner's remarks were in response to Senate Democrats blocking passage of a bill that would fund the Department of Homeland Security (as President Barack Obama and others want) but not the portion of the department that would enact Obama's executive actions on immigration.

Comment: "Blackmail" is essentially "hostage-taking" rhetoric.

[Regarding the Supreme Court case King v. Burwell], in the event that the court strikes down the subsidies as illegal, Congress must be prepared to offer immediate, targeted protection to those hurt by this administration’s reckless disregard for the rule of law. ObamaCare took these patients hostage. Conservatives have a duty to save them.
-- Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), February 25, 2015.

Comment: This is "hostage-taking" rhetoric.

"Now, what we did most recently was to expand that so more people would qualify for DACA, and we also said if you are the parent of a U.S. citizen or a legal resident, if you’ve been here for a while, if you're part of our community, then you should be able to come forward, get registered, go through a background check, and if you generally have been contributing to our community, you should be able to stay here legally and not be in fear of deportation. It did not provide citizenship because only Congress can do that, but it was going to help. And I think we saw the reaction in the community and, the truth is, across the country, people recognized this was the right thing and the smart thing to do. Now, unfortunately, a number of Republican governors chose to sue. They found a district court judge who has enjoined -- meaning stopped -- us going forward with this program. … And in the meantime, what we said to Republicans is, instead of trying to hold hostage funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which is so important for our national security, fund that, and let’s get on with actually passing comprehensive immigration reform."
-- President Barack Obama, February 25, 2015, during town hall on immigration.

Comment: First, this sounds like "Americans want" rhetoric: did ALL the people across the country recognize that what Obama did was right, or just some of them? Second, Obama is indulging in "hostage-taking" rhetoric.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is pushing back against the suggestion that Democrats are risking a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security in order to protect illegal immigrants.

Senate Democrats have filibustered a House-passed DHS appropriations bill that would block Obama’s executive amnesty — which provides legal status and work permits for millions of illegal immigrants — three times. And the path forward in the funding fight remains unclear.

According to Pelosi, however, it is up to Republicans to bring up a “clean” DHS spending bill, or one free of riders defunding Obama’s executive orders, to the floor.

“Republicans should stop holding our homeland security hostage and bring forward a clean long-term funding bill immediately,” she said.

Pelosi rejected the idea that a short-term continuing resolution would be an “end” to the stalemate. The “end” must be a clean bill, she argued.

Instead Pelosi accused the House Republicans of endangering the American people with their efforts to defund Obama’s executive actions.

“House Republicans refuse to admit the dangerous collapse of their anti-immigrant grandstanding,” she said.
-- From a Breitbart News story, February 12, 2015.

Comment: Pelosi is demonizing House Republicans by accusing them of being anti-immigrant, when the refusal to fund the DHS is motivated by opposition to President Barack Obama's executive order regarding illegal immigrants. In addition, Pelosi is indulging in "hostage-taking" rhetoric.

At a moment of heightened concern that terrorists in the Middle East might stage or inspire attacks on U.S. soil, the GOP-controlled House and Senate are unable to agree on a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security. If the party's aim is to show Americans it is ready to govern, we are witnessing an epic fail. Rather than ensure the smooth operation of the agency charged with keeping the nation safe, Republicans would rather argue about a separate issue -- immigration -- and struggle over tactics for tilting at windmills. … The problem is that Republican conservatives want to use the Homeland Security funding bill to reverse President Obama's executive actions allowing millions of undocumented immigrants to stay without fear of deportation.
-- Pundit Eugene Robinson, February 6, 2015, responding to Republican proposals to defund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in order to pressure President Barack Obama to undo his recent executive order on immigration reform.

Comment: Robinson is criticizing Republicans for using one matter (i.e., the funding of DHS) to influence another "unrelated" matter (Obama's order on undocumented immigrants). But, are they really unrelated, given that it's the DHS that is implementing the order? More to the point, even if it is an unrelated issue, doesn't compromise in the democratic process routinely involve unrelated issues?

"There have been suggestions that we will not fund the Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for patrolling our borders, as well as keeping our air travel safe, as well as patrolling our coasts -- there’s been talk about not funding that department because of the disagreement around immigration reform. There’s no logic to that position. Particularly for Republicans who claim that they are interested in strong border security, why would you cut off your nose to spite your face by defunding the very operations that are involved in making sure that we’ve got strong border security, particularly at a time when we’ve got real concerns about countering terrorism?"
-- President Barack Obama, February 4, 2015, responding to Republican proposals to defund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in order to pressure Obama to undo his recent executive order on immigration reform.

Comment: Obama is accusing the GOP of being hypocritical in defunding an agency that they support. But Republicans oppose some of the things DHS is doing under Obama's executive order on immigration reform. So they might see it as worth it to defund some of the good DHS does if it helps undo some of the bad they see DHS doing. Couldn't the GOP just as easily argue that there's no point funding an agency that's doing things they strongly disagree with? It might not be the calculation Obama would make, but it hardly amounts to a position that has "no logic". Obama has threatened to veto any budget that funds the government but defunds the Affordable Care Act (AKA, "Obamacare"); is that a position with "no logic" to it, that "cuts off his nose to spite his face" given that Obama values much of that government spending? This really comes down to the issue of compromise, with people having different views on whether a proposed compromise is a worthwhile bargain or not.


Examples from 2014.


Examples from 2013.


Examples from 2012.

"So what’s different this time? Why are we closer than we’ve ever been before? Because there are no cost controls in these proposals. Because this bill’s about coverage. Which is good! Why should we hold 48 million uninsured people hostage to the fact that we don’t yet know how to control costs in a politically acceptable way? Let’s get the people covered and then let’s do cost control."
-- Health care adviser Jonathan Gruber, October 2, 2009, commenting on health care reform legislation being considered for passage by Congress.

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