The Slippery Style in American Rhetoric

Lincoln Gagged

My first career was in politics.  My jobs involved a lot of writing: memoranda, speeches, whitepapers, presentations, letters, reports, talking points, even monographs.  I’d studied classical rhetoric in college and had a lot of preconceptions about effective political communication; these quickly fell by the wayside as I was forced by bosses, clients, and circumstances—that is, reality—to adapt myself to an entirely different philosophy of communication.

No one ever said, “write like this.” I simply noticed what did and didn’t get handed back for rewrites and adjusted my style accordingly.

I learned it and became adept at it—adept enough to please my bosses and clients—but I never became comfortable with it.  (Sort of like my experience with Danish.)

It was a careful and lawyerly style of communication, a language of flexibility, elasticity, and plausible deniability, lubricated with modifiers and conditionals, full of escape hatches. It relied heavily on the passive voice. It was slippery.

It was used by the left and the right. My mentors in this style included Democrats and Republicans, finance people and grassroots people, campaign managers and big political mucky-mucks. I don’t mean to imply there was anything dirty or bad about it: there are a lot of sound and practical reasons for speaking and writing very carefully in the realm of politics and public affairs. Nor am I suggesting this was the only mode of political communication in play, just that it was very, very common, a kind of default.

There was no name for this language—or, if you prefer, this style.

I left politics in the early 1990s and moved on to other careers in other fields, where this style I’d worked so hard to master wasn’t used.  Business communication wasn’t the same as political writing, even in marketing.  Not back then.  I had to drop the slippery style of politics and public affairs and adapt to other ways of communicating.

But at some point in the late 1990s I began to notice a change: the slippery style was popping up more and more frequently in fields outside of politics. It was happening in business, marketing, journalism, tech, entertainment, sports.  This was partly a function of the surge in political correctness, the battlefield of which had always been language, but there were clearly other factors driving it. 

It dawned on me last week, in writing about the passive form used by Berlingske’s Mikkel Danielsen to describe Biden’s reign of error, that an awful lot of mainstream journalism is now written in that slippery style.

That made me realize I’d misunderstood what happened in the 1990s, or at least mischaracterized it.  I thought I’d seen a political style of discourse leaking out into other fields; what I had actually seen was politics itself infecting other fields. The language just came along as an accessory.

The politicization of everything has obviously only been accelerating since the turn of the century.

The “culture wars” are over. The far left won. They now control the terms of our public discourse and debate.  Take it from former New York Times editor and journalist Bari Weiss:

In this revolution, skeptics of any part of this radical ideology are recast as heretics. Those who do not abide by every single aspect of its creed are tarnished as bigots, subjected to boycotts and their work to political litmus tests. The Enlightenment, as the critic Edward Rothstein has put it, has been replaced by the exorcism. 

What we call “cancel culture” is really the justice system of this revolution. And the goal of the cancellations is not merely to punish the person being cancelled. The goal is to send a message to everyone else: Step out of line and you are next. 

It has worked. A recent CATO study found that 62 percent of Americans are afraid to voice their true views. Nearly a quarter of American academics endorse ousting a colleague for having a wrong opinion about hot-button issues such as immigration or gender differences. And nearly 70 percent of students favor reporting professors if the professor says something that students find offensive, according to a Challey Institute for Global Innovation survey.

The CATO study she’s citing found that only one group of Americans was not afraid to voice their opinions: those that CATO identifies as “staunch liberals.”

Go figure.

(And by the way, Bari Weiss’s piece is worth reading in full.)

I suspect the “slippery style” of political communication has spread into other fields because it’s basically the language of covering your ass.  It’s how we have to speak and write to avoid provoking the deranged wrath of all those “staunch liberals.”  It’s why formerly reasonable people outside of politics are tying their prose into knots while the “staunch liberals” are letting their freak flags fly without giving it a second thought.

It’s a sad and stupid state of affairs and, as Weiss makes clear, it’s entirely a function of cowardice.

Does any mentally sound human being really believe we ought to call women “birthing people?”  That there’s anything wrong with the phrase “breast-feeding?” That we ought to refer to Latinos as “Latinx?” (Or that anyone who doesn’t—including about 95% of the American Latino population—is bad?)  That the purpose of the American revolution was to preserve the institution of slavery?  That a mass movement of white supremacists is ascendant throughout the western world?  That impoverished, high-crime neighborhoods will be well served by the removal of law enforcement?  That punctuality, rationalism, and empirical reasoning are inherently racist?  That between 3 and 30 unarmed black Americans were shot dead by police every single day of 2019?

Only an idiot or a lunatic could believe such things, because they’re not just nonsense but obvious nonsense to anyone willing to give them a moment’s sober thought. 

Why have we allowed idiots and lunatics the power to police us?

Think what we’ve done to ourselves to have reached a point where saying “only women can give birth” can get you censored or even thrown off of social media; where a professor having said a word that sounded like another word can force a groveling apology from a university president; where you can get fired for saying that you support black lives but don’t support the Black Lives Matter organization. 

Would it not make more sense for people who say that men can give birth to be mocked? For people who get upset about a word sounding like another word to be referred to counseling?  For anyone who fires someone for not supporting a political organization to be fired themselves, and sued for wrongful termination?

Can we not get the keys to the asylum back from the inmates?

Or should we just keep honing our slippery style, finding bold new ways to say things without actually saying them—to hint and infer and suggest things rather than simply state them?

It was a subtle segue from the slippery style of American rhetoric to Americans’ cowardice in not speaking up in defense of reason, and the connection may not have been clear to the kids in the back row, so let me just connect those dots explicitly for their benefit.

When I said the culture wars are over and the far left won, I meant it.

The far left is now the establishment, so anyone who wants to be part of the establishment has to play by their rules. Their rules include strict adherence to the party hymnal. Not everyone who wants to be part of the establishment buys into every line of every hymn, however, and even people who don’t want to be part of the establishment often wish to avoid being crushed by it. Hence the reversion to the slippery style: the use of phrasing that allows one to be true to oneself without inviting the wrath of the Jacobins.

That’s an understandable reaction, but as Weiss points out it only emboldens the Jacobins.

Don’t let’s embolden those assholes.

As she puts it:

When you’re told that traits such as industriousness and punctuality are the legacy of white supremacy, don’t hesitate to reject it. When you’re told that statues of figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass are offensive, explain that they are national heroes. When you’re told that “nothing has changed” in this country for minorities, don’t dishonor the memory of civil-rights pioneers by agreeing. And when you’re told that America was founded in order to perpetuate slavery, don’t take part in rewriting the country’s history.

Every day I hear from people who are living in fear in the freest society humankind has ever known. Dissidents in a democracy, practicing doublespeak. That is what is happening right now. What happens five, 10, 20 years from now if we don’t speak up and defend the ideas that have made all of our lives possible?


Look, I know there are assholes on the right, and there are super assholes on the far right. (The real far right, not the grandmothers waving American flags that Joe Biden wants the FBI to round up and throw into solitary confinement.) But they’re not the ones controlling what you can and can’t say in public right now. They’re not the ones trying to get you fired for something you said in a thoughtless moment when you were young and stupid. They’re not the ones banning videos on YouTube or posts on Facebook that question the government’s infallibility. They’re not the ones trying to rewrite history.

It’s the far left. The Jacobin left. They’re the problem.

And they’re the ones in charge of just about everything.

We did this to ourselves, and we’re the only ones that can undo it.

Either that, or we all need to get really good at the slippery style…