Seriously but not literally

A while back a writer at the Atlantic introduced the Trumpian heuristic, “take him seriously but not literally.” This was then quickly adopted by Trump surrogates as a way of responding the  Trump’s frequent exaggerations and errors of fact (this Jonah Goldberg piece covers that end of it–never thought I’d cite him approvingly, by the way).

Let’s try to understand this thought. We can start by going back to the original piece. Here’s the money quote:

The best way, he says, is to provide good education and good jobs in these areas. “Fifty-eight percent of black youth cannot get a job, cannot work,” he says. “Fifty-eight percent. If you are not going to bring jobs back, it is just going to continue to get worse and worse.”

It’s a claim that drives fact-checkers to distraction. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the unemployment rate for blacks between the ages of 16 and 24 at 20.6 percent. Trump prefers to use its employment-population ratio, a figure that shows only 41.5 percent of blacks in that age bracket are working. But that means he includes full time high-school and college students among the jobless.

It’s a familiar split. When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.

When I presented that thought to him, he paused again, “Now that’s interesting.”

I wonder by the way  what the etiquette is for including self-congratulatory lines in the course of your own writing–“now that’s an interesting thought,” you might think. Anyway, it’s probably clear by now that Trump takes himself literally and seriously, and so do his supporters. If this weren’t the case, they wouldn’t work so hard and constructing an alternative set of facts to match Trump’s assertions (watch the video linked above).

It’s a curious thought nonetheless, one that cuts right to the heart of dialectical argument. If I’m going to engage you, I have to have a representation of your view. Usually, the question is whether my representation of your view is accurate, or, if not accurate, charitable.

It is true, however, that we pepper our arguments with all sorts of things not-to-be-taken literally. I’d venture to guess that if we really thought hard, we’d find that we’d think this about many of our arguments themselves. Think how often in a casual conversation you might make some kind of hasty generalization. You don’t mean the argument to be taken literally.

But you’re not President of the United States. And there’s a difference between casual conversation and semi-formal argument. So, let’s take the Atlantic writer seriously and literally. How do we take someone seriously, but not literally? Do we simply substitute our own version of the correct factual assertion? “Sure, Trump said 50 percent unemployment, but he’s not wrong because there’s lots of unemployment.” Would that I got iron-manned like this!

One last question. What’s the clue that we need to interpret someone seriously but not literally? Is it when they’re very often wildly wrong?

3 thoughts on “Seriously but not literally”

  1. I’d expect to be taken seriously rather than literally in an obvious rhetorical context or statement. Thus when I tell someone on the phone that I’ll join them at a restaurant “in a second,” I would hope the person would understand I meant “soon” rather than 1/60th of a minute.

    In any discussion of substance, if I find myself uncertain of my facts, I’ll say as much up front and then provide my best answer (if I actually have one.) Having offered a caveat, I still hope to be taken seriously, though my literal statement might prove to be of the mark by some measure. If it is off the mark by a large measure, then I’m obliged to admit that I was mistaken.

    These are the only two contexts which leap to my mind in which the distinction might be a valid one.

  2. Hi John, Nice post, and one at the core of the dialectical notion of argument – how do we have a representation of what our interlocutor’s view and argument is?
    Taking a run at an iron man here. I wonder if ‘being taken seriously’ is more a version of being interpreted as being sincere about a significant problem. So it’s a kind of expressivist interpretation. I would think that the cues would be (i) not making inferences dependent on the particular details of a details, and (ii) expressing frustration (or some psych-affective state) over the fact. The problem, then, is that the case looks more like using big statistical numbers is akin to raising one’s voice.

  3. I like the comparison to “raising one’s voice,” though in that case it’s easy to distinguish the content from the form. Writing down what someone says when they raise their voice washes away the volume. In this case, you’re not really able to do that, because you’re in the same logical territory (facts). But perhaps this might work: whenever Trump says anything specific, replace it with an indeterminate quantity: 50 percent unemployment! = a greater than average unemployment. This works, somewhat, but we’re still just iron-manning (because having precise facts or relatively precise facts is a desideratum in a President.

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