I Would Never Call My Opponent a Scoundrel

By Sherry Harowitz

The spring issue of Intelligence Report, the Southern Poverty Law Center magazine, has a cover story titled “Rage on the Right” that discusses the threat of domestic violence presented by racist and radical anti-government groups. 

When Security Management linked to the article online, a reader took issue with the way the author lumped the “tea party” movement into the mix of dangerous groups. The reader also objected to calling these groups the radical right.
I, too, was struck by a sentence in the feature where the author wrote: “The ‘tea parties’ and similar groups that have sprung up in recent months cannot fairly be considered extremist groups, [emphasis added] but they are shot through with rich veins of radical ideas, conspiracy theories and racism.”
My concern was with the phrasing “cannot fairly be considered extremist groups.” This wording reminded me of the old joke where the politician says, “I won’t call my opponent a scoundrel.” Of course, he just did. The word for that tactic is apophasis—the artful mention of something by denying that it will be mentioned.
While the article doesn’t quite do that, its phrasing could have the same inferential effect. As noted in a Washington Post article from 2007, social psychologist Norbert Schwarz and others have found that the brain conflates closely tied true and false statements. For example, people given a list of flu facts and myths by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention later remembered even the items labeled myths as true statements. Similarly, the article noted that experiments by cognitive social psychologist Ruth Mayo found that people forget the “negation tag,” so they will recall the statement “he did not harass her,” as its opposite.
Consequently, a statement like “the tea party cannot fairly be considered an extremist group” plants the idea that they are extremist. I don’t say that the authors did this intentionally, but in writing about which groups are or are not a threat, it’s important to choose words carefully.
That said, we must also not shy from stating the case without too much egg-shell walking and political correctness. So, it’s reasonable to call some groups right-wing extremists and some groups, like the Animal Liberation Front, left-wing extremists. It’s not new that radicals get associated with the nearest “normal” political handle—left or right. For example, there was an April 2001 report prepared for a government agency called Left-Wing Extremist: The Current Threat.
Let’s not shrink from using the real words to describe the threat, whether political (left or right) or religious (Muslim jihadist or Christian “Army of God”). And let’s not hesitate to call an act terrorism, regardless of who perpetrated it, when it genuinely fits that definition. If we can’t even talk about these issues straightforwardly, we’ll never be able to work together to minimize the range of risks we face.




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