June 22, 2004

Overstating understatement

In a Slate review entitled Unfairenheit 9/11, Christopher Hitchens makes it clear that he doesn't like Michael Moore or Moore's new documentary:

To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability. To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental. To describe it as an exercise in facile crowd-pleasing would be too obvious. Fahrenheit 9/11 is a sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness. It is also a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of "dissenting" bravery.

It's obvious that this paragraph is not part of a positive review. I got a similar impression of Fahrenheit 9/11 from a journalist acquaintance, who saw it last weekend, and said "I hate Bush, but the movie was so unfair that it made me want to defend him". However, my concern here is not with the politics of Moore's documentary, but with the semantics of the first two sentences of Hitchens' paragraph quoted above.

The rhetorical trope in play is a routine one: "To describe X as P is an understatement", where P is some scalar evaluative predicate. P can be something negative:

(link) To describe this split as acrimonious would be an understatement.
(link) To describe this book as patently ridiculous would be an understatement.

or P can be something positive:

(link) To describe this report as timely is an understatement.
(link) So to describe this machine as portable is an understatement.
(link) To describe this room as simply a venue is to understate its place as a truly unique experience.

In either case, the point is that X has property P to an extreme degree, perhaps even to the point where some other description, on beyond P on the same scale, should be used instead. The point is emphasized by making it metalinguistically, stepping outside the descriptive flow to comment explicitly on the terminology to be used, thus suggesting that the author is choosing words with special care.

There are lots of different ways to say "is an understatement", some of them simple:

(link) To describe this book as “a gold mine” or as “monumental” does not do it justice.
(link) to call this "a reach" is being kind.
(link) To call this a mistranslation is too euphemistic, we should call this just what it is; another Christian falsification of their Bible translations...

and some of them more elaborate:

(link) To describe this lot as Limousine Liberals is to slander liberals.
(link) To describe this film as the worst movie that I've seen at the Cannes Film Festival so far is to do a disservice to all other movies that actually attempted to put together a narrative that makes sense on an actual cinematic level.
(link) To describe this maneuver as a tackle would be to make it sound far more polite than it is.
(link) The eponymous Carrie has a mother, of course, and to describe this woman as a clichéd and one-dimensional stereotype would be to pay a compliment to the characterization.

So it's pretty clear that when Hitchens writes

To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability.

he means that "dishonest" and "demagogic" are not strong enough terms to describe Fahrenheit 9/11, which is much worse than that. But how does his sentence actually deliver that meaning? Let's stipulate that descriptive contact with this film might make the terms "dishonest" and "demogogic" respectable -- how do we get from there to the idea that the film is significantly beyond "dishonest" and "demogogic" on the scale of partisan propaganda?

The line of argument seems to be something like "X is so much beyond simple criminality that in comparison, a criminal is like an honest person"; but that doesn't imply that calling X a criminal would "promote" the term criminal to honesty. On the contrary, it seems to mean that if we use the term criminal to describe X, then we would have to call regular criminals honest folk. This would degrade the term honest, not promote the term criminal, which in fact has been made to mean something even worse than before.

Likewise, when Hitchens writes

To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental.

he clearly wants to say that F. 9/11 is worse than crap. It's somehow so much worse than crap that to call it crap would mean that we could never call anything else non-crap again. I'm getting a glimmer here: does he mean that F. 9/11 shifts the scale of crap so far towards turpitude that all the terms appropriate for all normal objects of disdain just kind of slide off the far end? But when I try to set up a numerical model of the evaluative process that would have this result, I keep getting the opposite outcome, namely that in comparison to something as bad as Hitchens judges F. 9/11 to be, everything else seems good.

Can someone help me out here, with a bit of formal semantics that works the way Hitchens wants it too? Otherwise I'm going to have to conclude that this is a sort of disguised overnegation, a rhetorical thunderbolt that blows back semantically the wrong way.

Be careful, when you do the analysis, not to be fooled by the fact that there is a common rhetorical trope parallel but opposite to the one we've been talking about, of the form "to describe X as P is an overstatement":

(link) To call this a bid is an exaggeration.
(link) To call this a rapids is stretching things a bit, but it made nice subject for the shot.
(link) To call this a consultation is really stretching the definition of the word.
(link) To call this a mall is being very generous.
(link) To call this a comedy is a sign of optimism; to call it a comeback for Murphy is a sign of blind faith.
(link) To call this a 'farm' is perhaps, a little misleading.
(link) To call this a memorial is nuttier than squirrel poop.
(link) For them to call this a crime is an insult to victims of real crimes.
(link) ...to call this a war is an insult to those who fought in wars
(link) To call this a madhouse is an insult to (psychiatric patients)...

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 22, 2004 07:17 PM