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June 27, 2004: Deconstructionist Semantics Used to Explain When a Lie is Not a Lie

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Matthew Yglesias has an interesting column up this week over on The American Prospect that attempts a political application of Paul Grice's theory of "conversational implicature” of all things. 

Really.  That’s here. 

Yglesias is examining all the business in the news these days with our president getting hammered for, perhaps, misleading us about the need for the current war we just had, or really, may still be having. 

The current administration line is this.  No weapons of mass destruction?  Never said there were any, really – just said we and everyone else thought there were lots of them so why take the chance there were none?  The UN inspectors were so very slow and there might be some.  Only protecting America, you see. 

Then the bipartisan commission says, flat out, that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had nothing at all to do with the terrorists flying airplanes into the two towers in New York and into the Pentagon.  No proof at all of that.  And the commission adds that the sporadic lower-level meetings over the years between representatives of al-Qaeda and Hussein’s functionaries show there was no cooperation between the two.  The Iraqi government told the al-Qaeda fellows to take a hike – they ignored al-Qaeda requests for training facilities and the like.  In short, there was no “operational relationship” at all.  And now the administration tells us they never really said there was a direct connection between Hussein and the 9/11 attacks.  Yeah, I suppose.  Bush really did say that, reluctantly.  And now the administration covers the other issue - that there may not have been any “operational relationship” as the commission finds – but says there was a connection, of intent.  And that justified taking out the Hussein government. 

Well, Yglesias took a philosophy course or two in college and remembers Paul Grice's theory of "conversational implicature” – and does a riff on it. 

He points to this summary:


What a speaker implicates is distinct from what he says and from what his words imply.  Saying of an expensive dinner, "It was edible," implicates that it was mediocre at best.  This simple example illustrates a general phenomenon: a speaker can say one thing and manage to mean something else or something more by exploiting the fact that he may be presumed to be cooperative, in particular, to be speaking truthfully, informatively, relevantly, and otherwise appropriately.  The listener relies on this presumption to make a contextually driven inference from what the speaker says to what she means.


The prose is dense so Yglesias unpacks it. 

Here’s his simple version:


For our purposes, the point is that a canny speaker can mislead his audience without necessarily saying anything false.  If I tell you, "they're not all in the meeting yet" when, in fact, no one is in the meeting, I haven't lied to you about anything.  If no one is there, then, indeed, they're not all there.  Nevertheless, any reasonable listener will have understood me to mean that some, but not all, of the expected attendees are then.  Again, if I say, "some people are in the room" when only one person is in the room, I'm not speaking falsely, I'm simply speaking uncooperatively.  You'll infer that more than one person is in the room although, strictly speaking, I said no such thing.


This is, of course, splitting semantic hairs (or some such metaphor). 

But it is useful hair-splitting when defending yourself against charges you’ve lied.  If you’ve been charged with perjury, libel or slander your previous careful wording can be a comfort, and a defense. 

Will this work to refute the critics of Bush and Cheney?  Will the careful wording make people relax and be comfortable with what we’ve done, or will it come back to bite Bush and Cheney in the ass? 


For the purposes of defending oneself against perjury charges in a quasi-criminal proceeding, this sort of argument may suffice.  In Bush's case, however, perjury is not on the table.  Rather, the question is whether or not he has led the American people in a responsible manner.  In this context the important issue is not whether the administration's various claims can, when taken one by one, somehow be defined as factual.  The relevant question is whether or not the picture they sketched enhanced or detracted from the public's understanding of the major issues of the day.  Various assertions about ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda must, therefore, be put into the broader context of what the administration was saying about the war.  This broad picture included the claim that the invasion of Iraq was an act of preemptive self-defense, that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the United States, that the Iraq War was part of the war on terrorism, that the desire to invade was motivated by the sense that the country had waited too long before responding vigorously to al-Qaeda, and that the lessons of 9-11 were an important factor in the president's thought process.


I added the emphases in bold here to show Yglesias is reframing the question.  Bush and Cheney defenders are absolutely right.  These two did not exactly lie.  But the question Yglesias is suggesting everyone ask is this – Were they acting responsibly?  Don’t call them liars.  That’s a dead end.  Ask instead if they were doing the right thing, the responsible thing, in their semantic efforts to get us all excited and ready to go to war. 

They said things and let us draw conclusions.  They gave us rope – and we hanged ourselves with it. 


The point of all this was to lead the American people to believe that the invasion of Iraq was part of the war on terrorism in a rather straightforward sense: Saddam Hussein was likely to give al-Qaeda weapons of mass destruction for use against the United States.  Though many voices put forward many arguments for war in the months before the beginning of the invasion, this was the main case put forward by the administration.  Not that we needed to invade to avenge a meeting that took place years ago in Khartoum, but that the long-past Khartoum meeting was evidence of the continuing likelihood that Iraq would become a WMD supplier for al-Qaeda.


We made the assumption this was all straightforward.  Bush and Cheney, and Powell at the UN, just plopped down items.  We connected them.  Our bad.  Not Bush’s fault. 

I can see that.  But I don’t like it. 

Neither does Yglesias. 


Simply put, there was never any evidence whatsoever to back up the administration's theory on this point.  We know that in the past Saddam has simultaneously sponsored terrorist groups (directed against Israel) and possessed WMD (in the form of chemical weapons), but that he never gave such weapons to terrorists because he didn't trust them.  We also know that in the past Saddam has passed up on the opportunity to use WMD against American forces, out of fear for what the retaliation would mean for his regime.  We know -- as the 9-11 Commission has recently reiterated and the administration has reluctantly admitted -- that Iraq never had an operational relationship with al-Qaeda and never cooperated with them on attacks against the United States or any other country.  Last, but by no means least, we know that Iraq's ties with al-Qaeda were less significant than al-Qaeda's ties with such American allies as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.  None of the scattered data points the administration's defenders now wish to point to -- a few inconclusive meetings, and an ambiguous relationship between Iraq and Abu Zarqawi (whose relationship with al-Qaeda is, likewise, ambiguous) -- even begins to support the assertion that Iraqi WMD and al-Qaeda terrorism constituted any sort of symbiotic threat to the country. 


But we bought the assertion of a threat. 

Well, we were all scared.  Bad things had happened.  We wanted no more of that! 

And the other reason we bought the steaming load of crap? 


That the administration is bothering to pretend they never said any such thing is a testament to how little they respect the intelligence of the American people, and how confident they are that the media will not point out facts that can be found in plain sight.  What, exactly, was the purpose of constant references to Iraqi sponsorship of anti-Israeli terrorism that never came with the qualifier that this was anti-Israeli, rather than anti-American terrorism?  Why note that Qaeda-affiliated groups were operating "in Iraq" without mentioning that they operated in the part of Iraq outside of Saddam's control?  Why call Iraq "the central front in the war on terrorism?" Why cite "September the eleventh" as a motivating factor for war?  The answer is obvious: The administration wished the American people to believe that the government of Iraq was complicit – if not in 9-11 itself -- then in al-Qaeda terrorism in general.  If the war was preemptive, and part of the war on terrorism, then what was it supposed to preempt if not a terrorist attack? 


Yep, they knew we were scared, and easy prey – prime suckers.  And they knew the news media didn’t want to be called unpatriotic for calling them on any of this nonsense.  The press would roll.  They knew that. 

It was all too easy.  A little of Paul Grice's "conversational implicature” goes a long way. 

A final example? 


As the president put it in September 2002, "the danger is, is that they work in concert.  The danger is, is that al-Qaeda becomes an extension of Saddam's madness and his hatred and his capacity to extend weapons of mass destruction around the world."  Technically speaking, the president didn't say he had any evidence that this would happen, so the fact that there was no evidence it was likely to happen doesn't show that he was lying. 


And it does seem no one wanted to see any evidence that this would happen.  We didn’t need to.  We were scared.  We could imagine it might.  And the press did not want to call our leaders on any of this.  The price was far too high. 

Yglesias then adds a frightening alternative.  Bush and Cheney and crew were NOT trying to mislead us.  Regarding Bush’s many pronouncements about all these threats – even if there was scant or no evidence for them and we had to take the dire threats on faith, in him and his team alone, because they were our leaders and we should trust them -


… if he wasn't trying to mislead people, then he and his administration are simply in the grips of a paranoid worldview -- leaping at wholly imagined threats and throwing tens of thousands of soldiers and Marines into battle.  Under the circumstances, I find the theory that the president is a liar relatively comforting.  I'd be more comfortable still if he simply stopped saying things that aren't true. 


Yep, better we assume Bush is irresponsibly misleading us, a lying a bit here and there.  The idea the he and his crew are just plain old paranoid maniacs is unacceptable, something we don’t want to believe. 

I don’t like the two alternatives.  I do not see any third alternative. 


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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