2.2.1 Odd Couple: When Objective and Subjective Collide

Look at this excerpt from Mitt Romney’s infamous 2009 “47%” speech:

Romney: There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it…. And the government should give it to them. 
These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax.

Wow! I never realized Mr. Romney had such access to my inner thoughts! The last sentence: Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. An objective, verifiable statement of fact, and at the time of the speech (2009) it was true. (The percentage has fallen since then, and is presently estimated to be 45.3%.)

Look at the first sentence: There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president (Obama) no matter what. It’s a statement of fact, but is it objective? How could you go check to verify whether it is true or not? Well, you could review the results of the 2010 election I suppose, but Romney made this remark beforehand. Was it inevitable that the people Romney was referring to were bound to vote for Obama? How could he know?

This statement fails the verifiability test; we must conclude it is an opinion or belief rather than a fact. Now, all the statements in between are plainly subjective: he lists a string of beliefs and attributes them uniformly to a large sector of the population. Did he check with everyone? Not likely. I know he didn’t interview me.

Coupling a strong, objective statement of fact with a string of subjective statements of fact (also known as opinions or beliefs) is a very common rhetorical element. By doing this, a speaker lends solidity and credibility to statements that are otherwise no more substantial than the speaker’s choice of salad dressing at lunch that day. Look! I just did it in this paragraph!

We all do this. Here are common examples:

“They lost the last six out of eight games; what a worthless team.”

“The team is 43 for 8, and despite a recent losing streak remains in second place. What an awesome team!” (And that’s an example of Mostly Dead is Slightly Alive.)

“You are late again; you are useless.”

“The blacks in this neighborhood live in poverty. Their lives are worthless.”

“I love that band/movie/actor/pizza joint. They/it/he is terrific.”

“I hate that teacher/politician/vegetable/city. She/it sucks.”

We frequently make a statement of fact and immediately follow it up with our personal interpretation of the fact. That’s just fine, but be aware that’s how the other guy is speaking to you as well. Before swallowing his interpretation of the facts, stop to recognize they are only that — his interpretations. Listen! Think! Form your own opinion as you bring your own personal values to bear on the facts at hand.

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