The best (or worst?) of political doublespeak
March 31, 2009 1:37 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for examples of statements -- probably but not necessarily political -- that can be taken two very different ways.

Here are two examples. If I could find any more, I wouldn't be posting this question:

Regarding the Vietnam war, Reagan said: "Young Americans must never again be sent to fight and die unless we are prepared to let them win."

If you were against the war, this sounds like an acknowledgment that the war was a mistake, and that young Americans died for nothing. If you were for the war, Reagan is saying that we could have won, but the government and/or the people lacked the will to see it through. Thus, the line pleases everyone and offends no one. Quite an achievement.

Recently, when car company executives were appearing before Congress, one of them said something like, "We let the unions force us into making promises we couldn't keep." I'm afraid I can't find the exact quote.

If you're pro-union, the exec is admitting that the company can't honor its union contract. If you're anti-union, the exec is saying that the unions "forced" his company into making bad decisions.

I'm not saying these statements are good or bad, but they're certainly very clever. Can anyone think of any other examples? I'm not just looking for contradictory quotes a la Yogi Berra or something like Oscar Wilde's quip that "Americans and British are divided by a common language." Those are close, but somehow not right.
posted by Flying Saucer to Law & Government (33 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
"If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?"
posted by yerfatma at 1:55 PM on March 31, 2009

On a reference: "You'd be lucky to have this person work for you"

On the surface it means an ideal candidate for the job. Between the lines, someone so lazy, that any work done is considered a win.
posted by b33j at 1:56 PM on March 31, 2009

"We stand on guard for thee"

Either it's a pledge to look after the country, or it's a claim to keep track of the country's attack.
posted by Lemurrhea at 2:01 PM on March 31, 2009

I always thought this line in Elvis Costello's Alison worked very well that way:

"You used to hold him right in your hand, ah but he took all he could take."

If you're a man, you probably hear that as, "he took your crap 'til he couldn't take it anymore."

If you're a woman, you probably hear it as, "he took and took until there was nothing left to take."

(Assuming that you are in the fat part of the bell curve with respect to the casualties in the war between the sexes, of course. YMMV. And this is probably where someone tells me I've been mis-hearing that line all these years.)
posted by bricoleur at 2:05 PM on March 31, 2009

Donald Rumsfeld is a master of this type of communication. Here's a classic, which has as many meanings as you, the listener can interpret:

There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.

Google searching Rumsfeld quotes will probably get you some more keepers.
posted by Simon Barclay at 2:09 PM on March 31, 2009

Here's the wikipedia entry for Doublespeak. I'm not sure the speakers in your two examples were being deliberately ambiguous. The two examples you gave look more like taking thing out of context, imo.
posted by metastability at 2:11 PM on March 31, 2009

Ed Asner's SNL skit back in the eighties was a play on this. Comment #1 on this page describes it pretty well.
posted by chairface at 2:13 PM on March 31, 2009

"An Address For All Occasions."
posted by Floydd at 2:16 PM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

"I love what you're going for."
posted by Aquaman at 2:19 PM on March 31, 2009

Response by poster: I'm not sure the speakers in your two examples were being deliberately ambiguous.

We disagree there. Reagan was talking about the Vietnam War, which almost tore this country apart. You think he wanted to piss off 50% of the country? Even at the very end of his presidency?

Auto executives have a similar balancing act -- apologizing without apologizing, and blaming everyone while looking like they're taking the blame. Unions are still controversial, and speaking to a majority Democratic committee, whose members are backed by unions, made this a particularly delicate situation for the CEO's.

I've looked up doublespeak on Wikipedia, metastability, and it lists terms instead of entire sentences. I'm looking for statements. Surely politicians, in every country, have done this before? Perhaps someone recently said something about immigration or abortion that's meant to please both sides?
posted by Flying Saucer at 2:24 PM on March 31, 2009

b33j's comment comes from the very funny LIAR (Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations) - the conceit being you can be sued for badmouthing a candidate, so these cleverly-phrased sentences offer you an out. You can find several more here.
posted by O9scar at 2:24 PM on March 31, 2009

My favorite bit of Southern innuendo: "How nice for you!" (Translation: "Go f*** yourself!")

My favorite response to bad advice: "I'll certainly give that the consideration it deserves."

These phrases must be delivered with sincerity; plausible deniability is everything.
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:26 PM on March 31, 2009

In the early years of World War II, conscription ("the draft") was contentious in Canada, with English speakers strongly in favour, and French speakers strongly against. Prime Minister Mackenzie King's stated policy was famously vague since it was intended to placate both sides. Interestingly, I'm not sure exactly what he said, since the nets seem to disagree. It was either:

"Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription." (710 hits)
"Not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary." (363 hits). Wikipedia favours the former.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:27 PM on March 31, 2009

Best answer: Also, current Canadian Liberal Party leader riffed on that quote when describing his feelings about the possibility of forming a coalition with other opposition parties to toss the Conservative Party out of power: "Coalition if necessary, but not necessarily coalition".
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:45 PM on March 31, 2009

"Two can play at that game."
posted by lottie at 3:28 PM on March 31, 2009

"I cannot recommend this candidate highly enough."

"No one could do a better job than this candidate."
posted by musofire at 3:50 PM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

There is a whole political subsection of these from the recent US elections, from memory often referred to as coded messages - where support for a divisive policy is obfuscated to be recognized as such only by single-issue voters, and not by others, and so sound agreeable to all.

When a politician says "State's rights", for example, they are often making a coded reference to something unpopular - a State would not often need to struggle to for the right to do something if the country has no problem with it.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:54 PM on March 31, 2009

Schlitz Beer used to have the slogan, "When you're out of Schlitz, you're out of beer."

They intended it to mean that when you've drunk all the Schlitz, nothing else you have is worth drinking.

Unfortunately, it is more often interpreted to mean that you've drank all the good beer first.
posted by cali59 at 4:01 PM on March 31, 2009 [2 favorites]

Nothing sucks like an Electrolux
posted by Tapioca at 4:32 PM on March 31, 2009

There's two threads here: one is for doublespeak (although it doesn't precisely align with Orwell's imagination of it as a means to control thought by language, i.e. Ministry of Truth = making shit up); the other is just back-handed compliments.
posted by trotter at 4:50 PM on March 31, 2009

Also, this might be related to the "deceptively X" problem.
posted by trotter at 4:53 PM on March 31, 2009

I recently heard on This American Life of someone's political slogan that was taken as a racial insult but was supposedly about the economic conditions. I seem to remember it being the man who ran against Chicago's first Mayor Daley but a quick googling isn't bringing anything up. Maybe someone else out there knows who and what exactly it was.
posted by thewestinggame at 5:22 PM on March 31, 2009

If By Whiskey:

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:

If when you say whiskey you mean the devil's brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.

But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life's great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.

This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.

posted by pseudostrabismus at 5:29 PM on March 31, 2009

I recently heard on This American Life of someone's political slogan that was taken as a racial insult but was supposedly about the economic conditions. I seem to remember it being the man who ran against Chicago's first Mayor Daley but a quick googling isn't bringing anything up. Maybe someone else out there knows who and what exactly it was.

Bernard Epton -- his slogan was something like "Before It's Too Late". The controversy was that he was running against Harold Washington, who was in the front running to be the first black mayor of Chicago.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 5:30 PM on March 31, 2009

You'll want to look up amphibology or amphiboly. Classic political example is from Marlowe's Edward II (via Holinshead). The cunnng Mortimer wants done with the monarch but wants plausible deniability if it all goes wrong. Thank God for the comma....

Mortimer speaks:

The king must die, or Mortimer goes down
The commons now begin to pity him.
Yet he that is the cause of Edward's death,
Is sure to pay for it when his son's of age;
And therefore will I do it cunningly.
This letter, written by a friend of ours,
Contains his death, yet bids them save his life.
Edwardum occidere nolite timere, bonum est
"Fear not to kill the king, t'is good he die."
But read it thus, and that's another sense;
Edwardum occidere nolite, timere bonum est
"Kill not the king, t'is good to fear the worst."

Unpointed as it is, thus shall it go,
That, being dead, if it chance to be found,
Matrevis and the rest may bear the blame,
And we be quit that caused it to be done.
Within this room is locked the messenger,
That shall convey it, and perform the rest;
And by a secret token that he bears,
Shall he be murdered when the deed is done.—
posted by IndigoJones at 6:03 PM on March 31, 2009

Another Daley-ism which isn't a phrase at all, but fits in this vein: Daley refused to either confirm or deny any involvement he might have had in the 1919 race riots. That way, whites could believe he valiantly defended his neighborhood from black encroachment, while blacks could believe he was a decent man who stayed home and took no part in it.
posted by gueneverey at 6:06 PM on March 31, 2009

I remember William Gibson crediting this to Eisenhower, to be used when he needed to be diplomatically vague: "Things are more the same now than they have ever been."
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:23 PM on March 31, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, trotter, for pointing out how this thread has somewhat unraveled.

I know I said these statements didn't have to be political, but Schlitz, Electrolux, and "two can play at the game" just don't quite reach the subtlety and mastery of language that Reagan's coded remarks did. I don't mean any offense by that -- perhaps my OP wasn't clear enough.

Or perhaps no political statements match what I'm looking for, with the exception of the Canadian conscription line and "Before it's too late." I heard that same radio piece about the '83 Chicago election and that slogan was taken differently by both sides, though Epton's people swore they were referring to the city's financial crisis.

Unless anyone else has any other thoughts, we may have to table the matter. This would be my first post that wouldn't be marked "resolved," but even Ask Metafilter isn't perfect. :-)
posted by Flying Saucer at 6:57 PM on March 31, 2009

what, no check mark for my conscription line? Canada doesn't count, huh?:)
posted by PercussivePaul at 7:32 PM on March 31, 2009

The brand name "Red Bull" has two hearings: one, the drink makes you powerful, like a bull, maybe even an angry "red" bull, and then there is the sense in which the product is "bull" and also happens to be red. I tend to hear the latter sense.

Then there is the brand name of beef jerky called "Old Trapper" which features a drawing of a "mountain man" fur-trapper type. I had some that was pretty bad, and I started to wonder if the product was accurately labeled, that is, the product was old and I had been "trapped" into paying for it.
posted by telstar at 9:49 PM on March 31, 2009

Benjamin Disraeli famously replied to authors who sent unsolicited manuscripts by saying, "Dear Sir: I thank you for sending me a copy of your book, which I shall waste no time in reading."
posted by tomwheeler at 10:08 PM on March 31, 2009

I recently wrote in a MetaTalk discussion of "should I eat this" questions that I was always tempted to reply "It almost certainly won't kill you." Which, intentionally, could be read either as "eat it, because the probability of it killing you is so small as to be much less than the other risks we take every day, and any unpleasant but non-lethal outcomes really aren't that bad in the grand scheme of things" or "don't eat it, because there is a small but non-zero chance that it will kill you."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 4:48 AM on April 1, 2009

GWB was a master of this, for instance, dropping in certain words that would indicate a mildly religious overtone to ordinary folk but be absolute red meat to the religious right.

This article takes some of that style of speech apart, making the case that many of GWB's statements lack any real logical content at all, but are simply a series of positive code words strung together in the most efficient possible way.

The result is statements that mean not just two different things but almost an infinite number of different things--everyone who hears them can fill in the blanks to their own satisfaction.

Example from the article:
A great Bushism is a work of art—neither an accurate representation of reality nor an appeal to logic, but a series of impressions that bring Bush closer to the group he wants to appeal to.

What Bush says: I believe we are called to do the hard work to make our communities and quality of life a better place.

What sticks in people’s minds: … believe … called … hard work … communities … quality of life … better place.
And FWIW "believe" and "called" are particular dogwhistle words that appeal the Christian right while still having positive connotations for everyone else.
posted by flug at 6:15 AM on April 1, 2009

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