Affirming by Negating
A front-page article in today’s Wall Street Journal reports, “the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, a group of Mormon academics who defend the faith, will wrestle with the challenges presented by the two presidential candidates [Mitt Romney and John Huntsman, both Mormons].” The church intends to counter anti-Mormon arguments and misunderstandings.
That’s all well and good. Who wants their faith–or anything they cherish, for that matter–misrepresented?
But then I came upon a line in the article that made me believe the apologists have their work cut out for them: “Otterson [the church director for public affairs] used a blog post to challenge opponents who label the church a ‘cult’…”
Over the years I’ve had many opinions of the Mormon Church, but until someone said it wasn’t a cult, I never thought it was one.
That’s the risk you run when you deny something. By saying you’re not something, you immediately make people think of the very thing you’re denying.
Remember President Richard Nixon’s most (in)famous line? In a televised question-and-answer session during the height of the Watergate scandal, the President defended his reputation. He claimed “I’m not a crook.”
Up until that moment, his opponents had been calling him many names–none of them kind. But from then on, the only name that stuck was “crook.”
By negating something (not “x”), you risk affirming it. I suggest, instead, stating the positive. The church’s public affairs guy should have said what the church is, avoiding the word “cult” altogether. The President should have claimed that he was an honest man.
Of course, you may want to use this technique–affirming by denying–to your opponent’s disadvantage. It’s a sneaky thing to do. It’s not always ethical. And it can backfire on you, when people see through your intentions. But here’s how it works. Think of something bad about your opponent or your opponent’s position, and then say that you do not believe it or you’re not saying it or it is not true.
If you say, for example, “My opponent is not evil, he’s just incompetent,” you implant the idea in your listeners’ minds that he is both evil and incompetent.
If you say “I’m not saying her idea is risky and foolish…”, that’s exactly what you are saying. And it’s what people hear.
So be careful when you assert that something or someone is not something.
Do you have any examples to add to my own? (Please do not post anything negative about the Mormon church.)