Wrenching from context

Last night's Daily Show had a nice discussion of the "you didn't build that line" that Obama didn't utter (i.e., in the way suggested).  For those unfamiliar with this, the President gave a speech, talked about infrastructure (such as roads) necessary (but not sufficient) for success in business.  I can't have much success with my highway adult video store unless there's a freeway next to which to place it.  An obvious point, of course.  Sadly, many conservative media types cut out key lines in the President's speech to make it look like he was saying that no one built her own business, thus,  "you didn't build that".  That would be a stupid thing to say, unless of course you inherited your business (which many people probably do–so in their case it's true!).

So here's what the President actually said:

OBAMA: [L]ook, if you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own. You didn't get there on your own. I'm always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business — you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don't do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That's how we funded the GI Bill. That's how we created the middle class. That's how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That's how we invented the Internet. That's how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that's the reason I'm running for President — because I still believe in that idea. You're not on your own, we're in this together.

Here's how it was reported by Fox et alia (for a brief history of the distortion, see here and here)

OBAMA: If you've got a business, you didn't build that, somebody else made that happen.


The point is that, when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

Jon Stewart pretty much said all there is to say about what's going on: it's a case of straw manning by depriving of context.  The only thing that's true about what the President said is that those words came out of his mouth. 

All that aside, there is a theoretical point here.  In a recent article, Douglas Walton and Fabrizio Macagno ("Wrenching from Context: the Manipulation of Commitments") allege that straw manning of this variety (wrenching from context) are really "manipulations of commitments."  There are limitations to this view, namely that it gives too much credit to the straw manner, as it allows them to claim their representing commitments a person may actually hold (but for which they don't have evidence).  In addition, it doesn't capture the crucial aim of the context-wrencher: to close out an argument with someone by dishonest means.  But their notion of commitment does capture the method of the wrencher: though the wrencher may know his quotation to be inaccurate, he knows it represents the person's real views.  I think we saw something like this at work in Mitt Romney's "I like to fire people line" of a while back. 

What this means is that the wrencher is playing a rather different game from the one his audience is playing.  Even if his audience agrees with him, he's thinking that an argument (with evidence and all of that) is being offered by the wrencher.  But it isn't.  The wrencher is telling a story, a fiction, to a person who thinks he's listening to an argument.  Cross purposes, I think. 

14 thoughts on “Wrenching from context”

  1. Hey John, nice job integrating the cutting-edge research on informal logic into the discussion.  Walton and Macagno do a good resource. The context line is an important one, and it's instructive also to see how it's misused in cases of someone having said something terrible, but claiming that the statement was taken 'out of context'. 

  2. John,
    As much as that was a straw-man, I think you're guilty of iron-manning. Did Obama say that success in business is to be credited completely to others? No. And I think that's the straw-man. However, did Obama mean simply that other helped with one's success? I don't think so. And that's the iron-manning. At best, Obama wasn't cleared about it if he meant that.
    To use his example, did google.com build their success together with the US government? I think that's at best a stretch. Does that mean that aol.com build their failure together with the US government?
    Anyway, way too much was made of this statement. But that's to be expected moving forward. This election season it's going to be nasty.

  3. Sorry BN, but Obama made a rather innocuous statement, and your interpretation of it smells of second tier FOX news.

    He clearly argued that you start a business against a backdrop of infrastructure, which includes the education of your workforce, the system of commerce, law, roads, etc.  You may have built your business, but you didn't build those things.  Those things are critical to your success, and they need to be paid for.  Google, by the way, relied on all of those things to create their business. 

  4. John,
    I don't watch major propaganda (aka MSN and FOX); I might be wrong, but to me his examples were seriously lacking. What's the difference between the small business that succeeded and the ones that failed? Both successful and unsuccessful business have access to the same "roads" and "internets". So,  what does Obama mean by saying he's struck that people attribute their success to hard work and good ideas? To me it's very reasonable to believe those are major keys to a successful business.

  5. BN,

    I fail to see the point about bringing up businesses which fail.  Obama is NOT denying that people need hard work and good ideas, he's merely pointing out the simple fact that they also require other things: a system of commerce, laws, roads, the Navy, the Army, the Police, and all sorts of other things that make business possible in the first place.  It's really not that difficult to understand.  Even Romney agrees, when he's not lying about what Obama said.

  6. John,
    I do not have any issue with your interpretation of the president's quote. To me, however, his message was not as clear as you make it. Anyway, like I previously mentioned, this quote does not deserve the attention it received. There are other much more important things to discuss when it comes to the future of this country.

  7. http://factcheck.org/2012/07/you-didnt-build-that-uncut-and-unedited/
    Factcheck.org spelled it out better than I did: president Obama wasn't clear.
    Update, July 24: After we posted this item, the Obama campaign said the president was referring to the construction of roads and bridges when he said “you didn’t build that.” (Again, the president said: “Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.”) The campaign also posted a new Web video in which the narrator says, “Actually, he was talking about building ‘infrastructure and education’ … ‘not that individuals don’t build their businesses.’ ” We don’t know what the president had in mind when he uttered those words, and his intent is not clear. Regardless, our conclusion is the same: Taking snippets of his speech ignores the larger context of the president’s meaning that a business owner does not become successful “on your own.”

  8. Hey BN,

    They seem in their own tortured way to be making the point I was making, that it was clear from the context what the President meant.

  9. The reason there has been such a fuss over what President Obama has said is the fact that it solidifies a viewpoint many have already had about the president.
    This statement, in conjunction with others, paint the President as someone who ideologically believes most good in this country comes from government involvement while others belief it mainly comes from individualism. So be it.

    It's not disingenuous to criticize the President over his comments. You can extrapolate that he downplays the hard work of entrepreneurs in his speech by saying flippant things such as "You didn't build that" after mentioning government infrastructure. Which honestly, most businesses and wealthy people funded that infrastructure through their taxes regardless because they pay the vast majority of it.
    Also, if not for businesses and entrepreneurs, that infrastructure wouldn't be necessary nor would it likely have a purpose to exist. (Why create paved roads? Because people invented automobiles) So yes, they kinda did build it.

  10. Ian,
    Many have this view about the President precisely because of childish distortions such as this one. But you make the point very nicely about taxes–no you didn’t build that, taxes did (and lower income people pay a greater share of their income in taxes).

  11. John,
    That's fine. Though, I wouldn't say my view of the President is distorted. I do believe he has a distaste for the private sector. He even wrote in "Dreams of My Father" how he felt,"Like a spy behind enemy lines, I arrived every day at my mid-Manhattan office. …" and he wrote, "I had my own office, my own secretary, money in the bank. Sometimes, coming out of an interview with Japanese financiers or German bond traders, I would catch my reflection in the elevator doors — see myself in a suit and tie, a briefcase in hand — and for a split second I would imagine myself as a captain of industry, barking out orders, closing the deal, before I remembered who it was that I had told myself I wanted to be and felt pangs of guilt for my lack of resolve."

    This in no way directly states him as being an individual who dislikes private enterprise. I could merely be adding up out of context quotes and organizing them together to match the narrative I want played out for him. Or he could just be a leftist individual. That's his prerogative.
    As for taxes, I don't see your point. Yes, low income people pay a lot more in terms of their income in taxes through regressive taxes like property taxes and sales taxes, but many actually receive more in benefits than they pay out in taxes. Also, low income people do not pay nearly as much, in total, as the wealthy. So those with low income pay much less in the total pot to spend on infrastructure projects compared to those with high incomes. The idea that the poor "sacrifice" more of their income in taxes than the rich is irrelevant as the poor could "sacrifice" all of their income and it wouldn't do as much as the wealthy giving only a part of their income.

  12. Ian,

    You say:  "I could merely be adding up out of context quotes and organizing them together to match the narrative I want played out for him".  This is pretty much correct, I think. 

    This post was about wrenching words from their context in order to make the president look like he's saying something he isn't saying.  There is no question he was not saying what Mitt Romney, Fox, et alia alleged.  Even the people Romney used to refute the "You didn't build that" line had all sorts of government loan guarntees, public money, etc. in their history. 

    Sadly, you tried to defend this out of context distorting (which is childish in my opinion) by saying that anyway it accords with something you think the President is.  Then as evidence for that you pull up another quotation, but claim that you can't determine whether that quotation is evidence of your view or not.  My guess is that it's not.  Even if it were, that's not the point.  You can't lie about someone even if the lie accords with something you think is true.

    One last point.  Your insistence that the rich pay more taxes is irrelevant here.  But it also hilariously makes Obama's point.  Obama's point was that those taxes paid by someone else (before you came along) built the roads, the schools, the police stations, the internet (it's true!), the army, and so on.  These conditions help produce success and wealth.  We need those things to have businesses.  So the rich have paid more total taxes (and hey taxes used to be a lot higher), nonetheless, those taxes weren't paid by you.  Even if they were, they'd hardly be sufficient on their own to continue to secure all of the conditions for your success.

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