June 24, 2011 24 Comments
It’s striking how much more unreasonable you can make someone sound, simply by quoting them in a certain tone of voice. I’ve noticed this when I’m listening to someone describe a fight or other incident in which he felt that someone was being rude to him — he’ll relate a comment that the person made (e.g, “And then she was like, ‘Sure, whatever…'”) And when he quotes the person, he uses a sarcastic or cutting tone of voice, so of course I think, “Wow, that person was being obnoxious!”
But then I wonder: Can I really be confident that he’s accurately representing the tone of her comment? It’s pretty easy for someone to, intentionally or not, distort the tone of a comment they’re recounting, while still accurately quoting the person’s official words. Especially if they’re already annoyed at that person. So to be fair, I try to replay the comment in my head in a more neutral tone to see if that makes it seem less obnoxious. (“Sure, whatever” could be said in a detached, I-don’t-have-a-strong-opinion-about-this way, just as easily as it could be said in a sarcastic or dismissive way.)
And there’s an analogy to this phenomenon in print. Journalists and bloggers can cast a totally different light on someone’s quote just through the word choice they use when they refer to the quote. Compare, for example, “Hillary objected that…” to “Hillary complained that…” The former makes her sound controlled and rational; the latter makes her sound whiny. The writer can exert an impressive amount of influence over your reaction to the quote, without ever being accused of misrepresenting what Hillary said.
One insidious example of a loaded word that I’ve found to be quite common is “admitted.” It’s loaded because it implies that whatever content follows reflects poorly on the speaker, and that he would have preferred to conceal it if he could. Take these recent examples:
“In his blog, Volokh admitted that his argument ‘was a joke’” (Wikipedia)
“Bill O’Reilly Admits That His TV Persona Is Just An Act” (Inquisitr)
“Paul Krugman admitted that the zero bound was not actually a bound” (Free Exchange)
Kennedy admitted that ‘the end result’ under his standard ‘may be the same as that suggested by the dissent…’” (Basman Rose Law)
I investigated the original quotes from the people whom these sentences allude to, and as far as I can tell, they gave no sense that they thought what they were saying was shameful or unflattering. The word “admitted” could just as easily have been replaced by something else. For example:
“In his blog, Volokh clarified that his argument ‘was a joke.’”
“Bill O’Reilly Says That His TV Persona Is Just An Act”
“Paul Krugman explained that the zero bound was not actually a bound”
“Kennedy acknowledged that ‘the end result’ under his standard ‘may be the same as that suggested by the dissent…’”
Suddenly all the speakers sound stronger and more confident, right? This isn’t to say that the word “admitted” is never appropriate. Sometimes it clearly fits, such as when someone is agreeing that some particular point does, in fact, weaken the argument she is trying to advance. But in most cases, reading that someone “admitted” some point can subtly make you think more poorly of him without reason. That’s why I advise being on the lookout for this and other loaded words, and when you notice them, try mentally replacing them with something more neutral so that you can focus on the point itself without your judgment being inadvertently skewed.