How to (not) call your opponent a liar

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Credibility gap. Propaganda. Prevaricating. Dissembling. Rhetoric. Half-truths. False. Misleading. When you are a candidate, or a surrogate, the euphemism is your best friend when you just need to call your opponent a liar but do not want the potential backlash from resorting to the word. So in this election’s four debates one of the more entertaining games to play has been to look for the ways the candidates have tried to impugn one another’s honesty without having to resort to actually saying, “lie,” “lying” or “liar.” No matter whom you support in 2012 you have to admit the blue ribbon in this contest goes to Vice President Joe Biden for calling Rep. Paul Ryan’s statements on foreign policy “a bunch of malarkey.” Malarkey is not inherently dishonest, but Biden followed it by saying, “not a single thing he said is accurate,” giving the impression of an honesty problem in the malarkey. The problem with calling something a “lie” is the definition. Sissela Bok, in her seminal book “Lying” defines it as “an intentionally deceptive message in the form of a statement.” So to call someone a “liar” requires an insight into his or her thought process and knowledge of their intent, which is quite difficult to achieve. The candidates probably have this in mind when they use phrases like “misleading,” “inaccurate,” “not true” or “false.”   A few dishonesty euphemisms from the other candidates stand out in particular. First, in his closing statement of the V.P. debate Rep. Ryan said, “What you need are people who, when they say they're going to do something, they go do it.” The not so subtle implication of this being that President Obama has failed to do something he said he was going to do. More than that, the problem was not that he was unable to do it; it is that he said it but apparently had no intention of doing it. There is implied dishonesty. A more overt, but still euphemistic example, came when Obama said in response to accusations that he has not been bipartisan “Governor Romney says … ‘Well Obama didn't try.’ That's not true.” Similarly, Romney said, “The president's characterization of my tax plan … is completely false.” In both instances the candidates are looking for ways to say “liar” without saying “liar.” This trend continued into the final debate on Monday night when Obama referred to Romney’s “apology tour” talking point as “the biggest whopper of the campaign.” If Biden had the silliest euphemism then Obama had the gentlest. For those who say campaigns are becoming more vitriolic I say, at least we still have euphemisms.

Robert Spicer is a doctoral candidate in media studies in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University and an assistant professor of communication at DeSales University. He tweets at @rspicer.


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