The politician’s fallacy and the politician’s apology


I learned this from Yes, Minister. They call it the politician's fallacy:

  1. Something must be done.
  2. This is something.
  3. Therefore, we must do it.

As befits its name, you see it most often in politics, where poorly-thought-out solutions are proposed for urgent problems. But be on the lookout for it in other places, too. You might see somebody falling victim to the politician's fallacy at a business meeting, say.

Something else I picked up is what I'm going to call the politician's apology. This is where you apologize for a misdeed not by apologizing for what you did, but rather apologizing that other people were offended. One blogger coined the word "fauxpology" to describe this sort of non-apology. In other words, you're not apologizing at all! It's like the childhood non-apology.

"Apologize to your sister for calling her ugly."

"I'm sorry you're ugly."

In the politician's apology, you apologize not for the offense itself, but for the fact that what you did offended someone. "I'm sorry you're a hypersensitive crybaby."

The president regretted any hurt feelings his statements may have caused.

Another form of non-apology is to state that bad things happened without taking responsibility for causing them:

There should not have been any physical contact in this incident. I am sorry that this misunderstanding happened at all, and I regret its escalation and I apologize.

This particular non-apology even begins with the accusation that the other party was at fault for starting the incident!

What bothers me is that these types of non-apologies are so common that nobody is even offended by their inadequacy. They are accepted as just "the way people apologize in public". (It's become so standard that Slate's William Saletan has broken it down into steps for us.)

Comments (35)
  1. Anonymous says:

    But if we were offended by these fake apologies they have to issue another fake apology for offending us with their original fake apology.  It’s the infinite loop of life.

    In other news, The Daily WTF changed its name to "Worse Than Failure", obviously to be more PC or whatever.  I don’t really like backronyms in general, but this crosses the line.  The REAL WTF is that WTF no longer stands for WTF.  WTF?

  2. Anonymous says:

    The thing that amazes me about those public figures (namechecked in the Saletan article) who blame their behaviour on "prescription medicines" is that they never seem to bring any legal action against the doctor who ruined their lives by such irresponsible prescribing. Surely a medical professional, faced with somebody demanding a repeat prescription for an addictive drug, shouldn’t just write one out, but should first check their medical records, as well as carrying out a full assessment to determine if the treatment is appropriate or not?

    And come to that, why are celebrities prescribed painkillers that are so much more addictive than those used by the rest of us? I’ve never heard of a non-celebrity becoming addicted to painkillers, even after recovering from prolonged illness requiring months or years of medication.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Something must be done with these non-apologies.

  4. Anonymous says:

    When I use this sort of "apology", I am making a point out of it. It’s phrased in that way because indeed I am not sorry for what I did, and the other person is indeed a crybaby (or whatever the case may be). When I actually am sorry I don’t use the "fauxpology".

  5. Anonymous says:

    I say people who cannot go through life without being apologized to everytime they’re offended are pansy crybabies.  Grow up and get over it!

    Besides, the problem isn’t the apology.  You can’t force someone to feel sorry for something they have no remorse over.  The problem is that politicians are career politians and do what they please in office rather than what is right or what the will of the people is–whether Democrat or Republican.  We need men to step up to the plate and really serve our country by holding public offices rather than run around complaining all the time and doing nothing about it.  Get these you-know-what’s out of there!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Microsoft PR can also provide fauxpology, check this posts update at the end: http://blogs.zdnet.com/Bott/?p=150

    (Yes, Raymond, I know that when you post about problems, you don’t like that everybody comments how your company makes those problems too, but this isn’t an attack to you… it’s just what came to my mind after reading your post.)

  7. Anonymous says:

    See http://www.slate.com/id/2067710/ for an example of "something must be done".

  8. Mike Dunn says:

    Shameless plug for a blog that takes the piss out of political BS like fauxpologies:

    http://youaredumb.net

  9. Anonymous says:

    "As befits its name, you see it most often in politics, where poorly-thought-out solutions are proposed for urgent problems."

    Because their constituents demand it. Never mind the problems are often bigger than what the politicans can control, they must appear to be doing something – anything – or else risk being labeled "ineffective."

    Plus, it also calms the public down, giving time to develop a solution rationally (or not)

    It stands to reason, that most people do not recognize poor solutions, because if we had any idea how to solve a problem, we would not need the government to do it for us, now would we?

  10. Anonymous says:

    It’s often called "the Thatcherite Syllogism", but "Thatcherite" is a word with a lot more meaning here in the UK than elsewhere.

    Also, if you capitalise "something" in point 2 it has a lot more rhetorical impact, in my experience.

  11. Anonymous says:

    The second form of apology is a special case of a more general weaseling technique, sometimes known as the cowardly passive (for the use of the passive voice as a way of avoiding admitting responsibility), as in:

    "I was clicking through the settings, and the computer became broken"

  12. Anonymous says:

    Shameless plug for a blog that takes the piss out of political BS like fauxpologies:

    It would be nice if had his facts straight.  I doesn’t understand prime numbers, and he doesn’t know the difference between rotate and revolve.

    But hey, he has readers

  13. Anonymous says:

    Nick Fitzsimons: "I’ve never heard of a non-celebrity becoming addicted to painkillers, even after recovering from prolonged illness requiring months or years of medication."

    Ahhh… But if you’d heard of them, wouldn’t that mean that they were celebrities? :-)

  14. Anonymous says:

    Then there’s the partisan fallacy:

    1. Person X [someone from another party] did Y [fact]

    2. Person X did Y for bad/evil reason Z [assumed to be true without proof, because they’re from another party]

    3. Y couldn’t possibly accomplish Z [true]

    4. Therefore person X is bad, and an idiot, to boot

  15. Anonymous says:

    in addition to raymond’s book, i’m reading another blog-turned-book called from the blog "Language Log".  here’s a posting that’s in the book regarding types of "sorry statements":

    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000327.html

  16. Anonymous says:

    Recently, President Bush frustrated me by saying "The Iraq War is bad. I take full responsibility for it." and then acting as though those weren’t the words of a formal resignation.

  17. Anonymous says:

    KenW: Not necessarily :-)

    Rephrase as "I’ve never heard of any of my family, friends or other acquaintances becoming addicted…"

  18. Anonymous says:

    "In other news, The Daily WTF changed its name to "Worse Than Failure", obviously to be more PC or whatever.  I don’t really like backronyms in general, but this crosses the line.  The REAL WTF is that WTF no longer stands for WTF.  WTF?"

    Here’s an interesting fallacy here: that an acronym cannot have only one meeting. (At the moment, I’m waiting for SMS. Not a message delivered by the mobile text protocol, the Microsoft automated deployment platform.)

    I don’t know why people find it necessary to come to Raymond’s blog to whinge about things.

    (Although I like the name – it’s a lot easier to pronounce, and the acronym of the name is a cunning clue as to the nature of the content. I don’t necessarily mind taking out swears in names if it makes room for a better name.)

  19. Anonymous says:

    If taking offense wasn’t such a popular power play, then these non-apologies wouldn’t be as widespread.

  20. Anonymous says:

    The popularity of fauxpologies proves that Japanese culture can take over the world.

  21. Dean Harding says:

    Merus: A backronym is different to an acronym with two meanings. SMS has two meanings "by accident."  WTF means one thing and one thing only. Trying to make it more "politically correct" is pretty lame.

    Whoever pronounced it "the daily double-you tee eff" anyway?

  22. Anonymous says:

    Don’t forget strategic theater deployment of the passive voice:

    "Mistakes were made."

  23. Anonymous says:

    There’s a fantastic book I’d recommend:

    Bad Thoughts: A Guide to Clear Thinking

    (or the US version: Crimes Against Logic)

    by Jamie Whyte

    which breaks down many categories of poor arguments. Only trouble is, it makes watching the news rather infuriating…

  24. Garry Trinder says:

    First of all, "WTF" is an abbreviation, not an acronym. TO be an acronym, it must be pronounced like a word, like "RADAR" or "NATO".

    And to bring this all back around, one frequently sees The Politician’s Fallacy in coding.

    Often, you see things like this:

    int GetAValue()

    {

       if (pGlobalStruct == NULL)

       {

           LogError("pGlobalStruct == NULL")

           return 0;

       }

       return pGlobalStruct->SomeValue;

    }

    Of course, pGlobalStruct has one correct value and 65000+ (or in this new-fangled 32-bit world, 4 billion) possible wrong values, and were only checking for one of them.

    I worked on one system where every access to a particular pointer was preceeded by a check if if were NULL.  I pointed out that the pointer was set to the correct value at startup, was never changed, and at no time set to NULL. A bad value would require a bad memory chip, and the chances that bad memory chip happening to leave the value set to null were remote.

    }

  25. Anonymous says:

    Off-topic, but an example of clouded thinking, which perhaps actually is on-topic… a friend of mine, who happens to be conservative, and is generally gung-ho Law and Order, Throw ’em In Jail, had an interesting defense of Rush Limbaugh’s addiction to painkillers.

    He said "do you know how much chronic pain hurts, and how easy it must be to become addicted?".  Now, I know for a fact that my friend has never been addicted to painkillers and has no personal experience.  It was just his instinct to defend a fellow politically conservative person.

    In similar situations, when celebrities on the liberal side have gotten into trouble (addictions, etc.) he wants to lock ’em up, and mouths off about the Liberal Commie Pinkos who can’t control themselves…

  26. Anonymous says:

    Ronald Reagan, January 27th, 1987:  "Mistakes Were Made".  As someone else later pointed out, this linguistic formation takes the blame and essentially "casts it into the wind".

    Although, Reagan takes full responsibility in another sentence in the same speech.  

    "…though we’ve made much progress, I have one major regret: I took a risk with regard to our action in Iran. It did not work, and for that I assume full responsibility. The goals were worthy. I do not believe it was wrong to try to establish contacts with a country of strategic importance or to try to save lives.

    And certainly it was not wrong to try to secure freedom for our citizens held in barbaric captivity. But we did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so. We will get to the bottom of this, and I will take whatever action is called for…"

  27. Anonymous says:

    The Politicians’ Fallacy causes the most harm when "Something must be done" isn’t correctly evaluated.

    Too often it’s not true.

  28. Anonymous says:

    Dan Rather pulled the old "mistakes were made" for the falsified national guard memos.  (his producer also called them "fake but accurate", which is an interesting perspective on the craft of journalism)

  29. Anonymous says:

    Here is a quote that embodies the politician’s fallacy:

    “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” — Theodore Roosevelt

  30. Anonymous says:

    Another grand example of this comes from the Tamil Tiger terrorists whom yesterday intentionally fired mortars at the US, Italian and German diplomats and appologised saying…

    "I express our regret at this unfortunate incident," said Rasiah Ilanthirayan, the Tamil Tiger spokesman. "Our people were not informed of the diplomatic movement. … This is a criminal negligence on the part of the Sri Lankan military."

    (http://www.boston.com/news/world/asia/articles/2007/02/27/us_italian_envoys_hurt_in_sri_lanka/)

    I’m sure Al-Queda will follow, saying if they were informed Dick Chaney was intown, they’d have blown anything up.

  31. Anonymous says:

    A good visual example of the Politician’s Apology all the way from Asia (or rather, Malaysia):

    http://www.kennysia.com/archives/2006/10/a_new_way_of_ap.php

  32. Anonymous says:

    James, you don’t pronounce "WTF?"

    It rhymes with "hootf."

    More seriously, when I was a trouble-making teenager in anger-management classes (read: I made people older than me angry), we were taught to use this type of apology, if you were really sorry that someone was offended.

    The point was to *never* apologize for anything that you didn’t actually feel sorry for, because you’d feel cheated/abused.  It’s about being assertive, but considerate.  It can certainly be turned into a snub, but it doesn’t have to be every time it’s used.

    Another variant of this is conditional: "I’m sorry if you were offended by my post," for example.

  33. Garry Trinder says:

    D:

    > [Dan Rather’s] producer also called them "fake but accurate" <<

    Technically, he is correct. The documents presented on the show, while not the same phyisical documents written in the 60’s (which were probably destroyed by now), by all accounts, they do convey the same information.  The documents shown were merely visual aides; None of the reporting was based on them.

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