## "I don't think you cannot deny someone the right"

Jamison Hensley, "Ravens' John Harbaugh defends Colin Kaepernick's right to protest anthem", ESPN sports 8/29/2016:

Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday that he respects Colin Kaepernick's right to protest the national anthem and cited a French Enlightenment philosopher in doing so.

"Voltaire so eloquently stated, 'I may not agree with what you say, but I'll defend it until death your right to say it,'" Harbaugh said. "That's a principle that our country is founded on. I don't think you cannot deny someone the right to speak out or mock or make fun or belittle anybody else's opinion."

I haven't been able to find a recording of Harbaugh's statement — apparently it was part of an individual interview with Hensley — so as usual, we don't know whether it's what he actually said or what Hensley transcribed or remembered him saying.

But whatever the source, what the phrase in boldface says is logically the opposite of what Harbaugh and Voltaire meant, which was either "I think that you cannot deny someone the right to speak out" or "I don't think that you can deny someone the right to speak out".  (… as long as we interpret can as meaning "should", since everyone knows that there's no practical impediment to denying people the right to speak.)

Except that negative concord remains stubbornly active in modern colloquial English, and sometimes sneaks into more formal precincts.

Whoever composed the phrase and whatever the explanation for the extra negation, it surely belongs in our misnegation file — as post #143 in that over-long list.

But I do need to point out that neither Voltaire nor the founders of our country were at all reluctant to "mock or make fun or belittle anybody else's opinion". Nor does the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution mention mocking or making fun or belittling:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

I suppose that a law that literally mocked someone's views, without imposing any penalties, might still be viewed as abridging the freedom of speech. But has there ever been such a law? There are "sense of" resolutions, but I don't know any sarcastic ones.

[h/t Marc Ettlinger]

1. ### Neal Goldfarb said,

August 30, 2016 @ 7:26 am

The "I don't think" could have been al false start ("I don't think — you cannot deny someone the right to speak out….), in which case I don't think — it wouldn't necessarily count as a misnegation.

[(myl) True enough. But given the general accuracy of journalistic "quotation", the whole thing is probably a paraphrase anyhow.]

2. ### D.O. said,

August 30, 2016 @ 7:53 am

First amendment is understood now very broadly (especially free speech part) and is applied to all branches and levels of government (not only Congress). And I am sure there is plenty of mocking coming out of government in general. An example that immediately comes to mind.

3. ### D.O. said,

August 30, 2016 @ 7:57 am

Or, better yet, famous "We trust that AT&T will not take it personally." from Mr. Chief Justice.

[(myl) Neither of your examples are laws, though.]

4. ### Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

August 30, 2016 @ 8:23 am

Incidentally, Voltaire didn't actually say that. Evelyn Beatrice Hall included Voltaire as a character in the fictionalized Friends of Voltaire, and used that line to describe his attitude.

[(myl) Indeed. And in fact what Mr. Hensley attributes to Mr. Harbaugh attributing to Voltaire, which was "I may not agree with what you say, but I'll defend it until death your right to say it", is a rather loose paraphrase of what Ms. Hall attributed to her fictional Voltaire, which was "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it".]

5. ### D.O. said,

August 30, 2016 @ 9:25 am

Neither of your examples are laws, though.

No. But "Congress shell make no law" in the 1st amendment is routinely understood as "any level of government shall not make any official action". And my examples are official actions. Or, at least, pronouncements.

6. ### Robert Coren said,

August 30, 2016 @ 9:27 am

Tangentially, on a recent episode of the US police procedural "Rizzoli & Isles" that I watched last night, Kent responded to a semi-sarcastic speculation of Jane's by saying "You're not far from wrong", which was almost certainly not what he was supposed to mean.

7. ### Michael Watts said,

August 30, 2016 @ 10:45 am

D.O., "Congress shall make no law" in the 1st amendment is not understood as applying to all levels of all governments. It applies to Congress. The freedoms of the 1st amendment are understood today as binding other levels of other governments through being incorporated in the 14th amendment, not through being implied by reference to "Congress" in the 1st.

8. ### D.O. said,

August 30, 2016 @ 11:09 am

Michael Watts, well, yes. But that incorporation is (part of) what determines the modern reading of the 1st amendment.

9. ### Clément said,

August 30, 2016 @ 12:18 pm

Hmm. Looks like there's more than one mistake here:

> I may not agree with what you say, but I'll defend it until death your right to say it

Having both "it" and "your right to say it" sounds weird; or is it just me?

10. ### Gregory Kusnick said,

August 30, 2016 @ 12:38 pm

Seems to me a plausible reading is that Harbaugh is asserting the right "to speak out or mock or make fun or belittle". I don't think either Voltaire or the First Amendment would have a problem with that.

[(myl) That's a logically plausible reading, if the structure is meant to be

[I don't think you can
[deny someone the right to
[speak out] or
[mock or make fun or belittle anybody else's opinion]
]]

But it doesn't make sense for Harbaugh to have meant that, because Kaepernick wasn't mocking or making fun or belittling anybody else's opinion, so why should his right to do so be defended?]

11. ### J.W. Brewer said,

August 30, 2016 @ 2:51 pm

Surely not everything that seems a misnegation error in standard/prestige English is just an instance of negative concord, because those varieties of English where negative concord is grammatical have patterns accessible to the analytical techniques of descriptive linguistics that show when it's grammatical and when it isn't. ("This is not 'Nam. This is bowling. There are rules.") It's not clear to me that the varieties of English whose syntax is such that e.g. "Don't be VERBing me no OBJECT" is perfectly well-formed would be okay with "I don't think you cannot VERB."

12. ### Ralph Hickok said,

August 30, 2016 @ 3:23 pm

@Robert Coren:
When I first heard the song, "I've Got Spurs that Jingle Jangle Jingle" as a child, probably in the late 1940s, I knew it was wrong and I couldn't understand how someone could record it and have it played it on the radio.
The relevant passage goes:
I've got spurs that jingle jangle jingle,
As I go ridin' merrily along,
They sing, Oh ain't you glad you'er single
And that song ain't so very far from wrong.

13. ### Gregory Kusnick said,

August 30, 2016 @ 3:55 pm

MYL: I grant that it's not entirely clear what Harbaugh meant. Perhaps I'm predisposed to view "speak out, mock, etc." as an indivisible package of rights, but at any rate that reading struck me as marginally more coherent than defending A's right to speak out while simultaneously denying B's right to mock.

14. ### Rodger C said,

August 30, 2016 @ 5:14 pm

@J. W. Brewer: One of the many errors in the late Gregory Rabassa's translation of Cortazar's Rayuela is that he repeatedly interprets constructions like that as examples of negative concord (normal in Spanish), thus reversing the meaning of the subordinate clause.

15. ### Jerry Friedman said,

August 30, 2016 @ 9:41 pm

Kaepernick may not have mocked anyone's opinion or anything else, but he's been accused of mocking the flag: Sarah Palin to Flag-Mocking Quarterback: 'Get the Hell Out'

You can read the quoted as sentence as

I don't think you can[not] deny someone the right to
speak out
or mock
or make fun
or belittle anyone's opinion.

That's actually what I get if I assume it's prescriptive English (apart from the misnegation), since if "anyone's opinion" is the object of "make fun", an "of" is missing. But people have been known to leave out prepositions that way.

The reading that would make the most sense to me is

I don't think you can[not] deny someone the right to speak out—or to mock or make fun or belittle anyone's opinion.

That is, Kaepernick has the right to speak out (silently), and people have the right to mock him and make fun of him and belittle his opinion. But I have no idea whether that's what Harbaugh meant, even if his words were quoted accurately.

16. ### Simon P said,

August 31, 2016 @ 4:41 am

@Jerry Friedman: You've added a "to" in there, that's not part of the original quotation, though. without that "to", I would read it as:

I don't think you can[not]:
deny someone the right to speak out or
mock or make fun or belittle anybody else's opinion

17. ### Simon P said,

August 31, 2016 @ 4:42 am

Nevermind, I see now that you only added it in your clarification. I guess both readings are plausible.

18. ### Jerry Friedman said,

August 31, 2016 @ 9:24 am

Simon P: Thanks for pointing out the "to". I shouldn't have added it in my "clarification".