"Avoid characterizing it as anything but racism"

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Paul Farhi, "‘Racist’ tweets? News media grapple with how to label Trump’s latest attacks", Washington Post 7/15/2019:

When is it time to call a statement “racist,” and when is it time to let others characterize it that way?

News organizations wrestled with that question Sunday and Monday after President Trump tweeted a series of statements aimed at four members of Congress, all women of color. […]

Arizona State journalism professor Dan Gillmor said news organizations are guilty of “weasel wording” when they avoid characterizing the president’s tweets as anything but racism.

Two wordings that work:

News organizations are guilty of "weasel wording" when they avoid characterizing the president's tweets as racism.

News organizations are guilty of "weasel wording" when they characterize the president's tweets as anything but racism.

Merging them, as the Post article does, seems to mean the opposite of what the author intended. And this seems to be simply a case of multiplex negatio ferblondiat, rather than negative concord, odd corners of modal logic, or whatever else: sometimes our "poor monkey brains" just lose the thread in a tangle of negatives and hypotheticals.

The obligatory screen shot:

[h/t Julian Hook]


  1. john burke said,

    July 16, 2019 @ 11:08 am

    Hmm… Ferblondio, ferblondire, ferblondavi, ferblondzhet? (Irregular past participle)

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 16, 2019 @ 12:02 pm

    It would be interesting to know if the Washington Post stylebook provides guidance about how to avoid this problem or is instead too busy trying to get writers to standardize things that don't necessarily need standardization to deal with it.

    [(myl) "This problem" is diverse, so what would the stylebook say? "Avoid misnegation"? I guess you could give a list of illustrative examples. But the guidance risks being like "Avoid needless words".]

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 16, 2019 @ 12:35 pm

    I agree that the manifestations of the problem are diverse. The guidance would need to go beyond "avoid misnegation" and give a sort of checklist of particular wordings or sentence structures that are unusually prone to the problem. Maybe it's a copy-editing skill that should reside somewhere other than a stylebook as such. But take a simpler example. Let's say you have a stylebook rule that says refer to individuals such-and-such way on first reference in the story and such-and-such other way on subsequent reference. A good editor who is moving paragraphs around in order to accomplish some other goal should be sensitive to the risk that what had been the first reference in the earlier draft may end up no longer being the first reference, and, so sensitized, will hopefully have a high rate of success at actually noticing when that risk has manifested itself and two offsetting edits now need to be made to clean up the revised draft. I don't know that the stylebook is the right place to help writers and editors develop that particular instinct, but whether formally or informally it ought to go somewhere in their training.

    So the question here would be whether there are particular pathways (either in initial drafting or in editing) that predictably lead to heightened ferblondiat risk that editors could be sensitized to (and thus be more likely to catch the sort of misnegations we often overlook in a quick casual read, because of our cognitive tendency to "fix" the error and get to the likely intended meaning w/o being conscious we are doing so). But maybe there are so many potential pathways to ferblondiat, each with a low percentage share of the total universe of ferblondiat instances, that there aren't any cost-effective safeguards like that to add?

  4. The Other Mark P said,

    July 16, 2019 @ 6:18 pm

    So apparently nothing can be borderline racist to Mr Gillmor. If there is a hint of it, then it has to be outright? How else to work through his "visibly timid".

    I'm the exact opposite. To me Trumps tweets in this instance are, indeed, racially tinged. They aren't outright racism, because he'd say the same thing to a Russian origin opponent. (Are they sexist, because all the targets are women? If not, then they need not be racist because all the targets are not white — not to say they aren't, just that they need not be.)

    The world needs more grey and less extremists of this sort. Not every sin has to be a mortal one.

  5. D.O. said,

    July 16, 2019 @ 11:32 pm

    How about "try not to pile up negations" or "if you use a negative check twice for the correct meaning, multiply by 2 for each extra negative".

    This example cannot be a "ferblondiat", it has two or at most three negations. At best, it is a "confundit".

  6. Keith said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 3:09 am

    Prof. Dan Gillmor is "an internationally recognized author and leader in new media and citizen-based journalism, teaches digital media literacy". I would expect him to get his negations and affirmations correct.

    I am more tempted to think that the misnegation is the result of a journalist paraphrasing Prof Gillmor's words to fit into fewer column inches.

  7. Rose Eneri said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 8:35 am

    Here's a thought – how about just read what you wrote, start to finish, BEFORE you publish it. Media are in such a hurry to publish that they do not take the time to ensure accuracy.

    Why do the media have to "characterize" anything? Print the quote (of course, with some context) and let the reader decide. Is not any characterization a commentary and not news?

  8. Jonathan said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 11:02 am

    Eschew litotes.

  9. Seth F said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 4:08 pm

    @ The Other Mark P – Just for discussion, I think the idea is the state is like "pregnant". There's no such thing as "borderline pregnant" or "hint of pregnant" or "dogwhistles of pregnant". Though to be sure, there's phrases such as "very pregnant" or "extremely pregnant", which mean a status of being far advanced along the length of a pregnancy. When you say "Not every sin has to be a mortal one", doesn't that presuppose they are all sins?

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 4:39 pm

    @Rose Eneri. I think part of the issue here is that as discussed in prior threads on the topic, certain sorts of misnegation of the e.g. "No Head Injury Is Too Trivial To Ignore" variety often go unnoticed even on the sort of re-reading-before-publication that would be likely detect other sorts of errors and thus enable them to be fixed — the misnegation will sometimes only be seen if someone prompts the reader/re-reader with a fairly explicit diagnosis or at least focused hint. Which is part of the basis for my suggestion above that there might be techniques to make copy-editors more sensitive to this sort of error and thus able to circumvent the cognitive blind spot that often keep them from being noticed before publication. (To be fair, to the extent the cognitive blind spot results from an ability to figure out the likely intended meaning at a subconscious level so effectively that the unintended error present in a literal reading is simply ignored at the conscious level, that's on balance a feature rather than a bug of our ability to understand language.)

  11. Jonathan D said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 5:55 pm

    Seth F, while you have a point, it's worth noting that Gillmor didn't at all suggest that there's no such thing as "borderline racist". That's just Mark P's strawman extrapolation from the fact that Gillmor considers these tweets clearly racist. It serves to distract us from the questioning the significance of Mark's other arguments, like the idea that xenophobia which could be equally be addressed to Russians is not "outright racism".

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 7:40 pm

    Rose Eneri: Why do the media have to "characterize" anything? Print the quote (of course, with some context) and let the reader decide. Is not any characterization a commentary and not news?

    I imagine it's so they can say, "Senator X responded today to President Trump's racist tweets." That's shorter than other ways they could refer to them.

  13. Seth F said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 8:26 pm

    @ Jonathan D – I didn't address Mark P's other arguments because that's simply the debate over whether racism requires intent versus being grounded in received reaction, and going 100% in either direction (intent-absolute or reaction-absolute) leads to hypothetical cases which seem to give a wrong result. But it should be obvious that the exact same sequences of words said to an opponent of Russian origin can be different than when addressed to people of color, depending on a multitude of context factors. That is, an insult can be only xenophobic in one situation, and both xenophobic and racist in another situation (intersectionality!).

  14. Elonkareon said,

    July 18, 2019 @ 11:02 am

    Jerry Friedman: "recent" has as many characters as "racist"

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 18, 2019 @ 2:37 pm

    Elonkareon: But Trump tweets a lot in a day, so "recent tweets" covers many more than the ones in question.

  16. Jonathan D said,

    July 18, 2019 @ 7:36 pm

    Seth F, I agree that there may be situations where it's worth drawing a distinction between racism in a colour sense and other forms of xenophobia. I don't see much reason to think that's the most important issue in this situation.

  17. Ray said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 5:00 am

    remember when, right after the election of 2016 (and even before that), everybody on social media was saying how they were gonna move to canada? because of trump's winnings? and it was trending? and google searches for ‘how to move to Canada’ skyrocketed? how awesome was that? but people WEREN'T saying how they were gonna move to somalia. or mexico. or honduras, venezuela, or guatemala or puerto rico or palestine or the north side of chicago or the bronx. how awesome was that? NOT saying where you'd move to, thereby saying where you'd NOT move to. misnegation, racism, xenophobia operating on such fascinating, unexamined, and socially-mediated finger-pointing levels — it boggles the mind, it does!

  18. Steve Bacher said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 8:55 am

    On WGBH-TV's "Beat the Press" program in Boston, Lylah Alphonse of US News & World Report stated that racism and xenophobia are synonymous. She didn't get any pushback on that, either.


  19. John Carr said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 3:54 pm

    To touch on the linguistic aspect, I recommend John McWhorter's essay published in the Boston Globe shortly after Trump's election. He points out how the meaning of "racism"/"racist" is shifting from objective to subjective.


    Many words get diluted over time. One of McWhorter's examples is "awesome" which used to mean literally awe-inspiring but now just means good. Much has been written about the sad fate of "literally". Racist is another of them. I wonder if we'll find a replacement word for the original meaning, or if we can get by with showing instead of telling.

    As a statement of opinion in current usage, racist belongs in opinion pieces rather than news.

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