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[Begin video clip]"The Earth is flat. You can walk from here to there and you never start tilting." [End video clip] "So it might have appeared to people at one time..." [Discard rest of hour-long lecture on how we know the Earth is round.]

It is an increasingly common political tactic to find statements that, when removed from context, say the very opposite of what the speaker clearly intends to communicate. But "out of context" is not forceful enough to describe the situation, since the need for more context generally arises from some need for nuance or equivocation.

"Strawman" is not the word, since a strawman argument is weak or off-point. The "in context, the opposite of what is ultimately argued" statement may be perfectly valid.

The best I've come up with is "counter-propositional" but at that point, you might as well say "In context, [s]he said the opposite..."

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This sounds awfully like a rhetorical figure of speech... –  Mitch May 15 '11 at 17:52
    
@Mitch But the proposition is not a "figure of speech." Perhaps "rhetorical statement" works since "rhetorical question" is widely understood? –  Larry OBrien May 15 '11 at 18:01
    
So you're looking for a word to describe the initial statement that will then be refuted? I.e. in a argument like reductio ad absurdum, you want the initial...um..."counter-hypothesis"? (I don't think that's the word you're looking for but maybe...) –  Mitch May 15 '11 at 18:27

8 Answers 8

up vote 2 down vote accepted

I would simply describe this as an extended version of the rhetorical device known as antithesis.

Antithesis establishes a clear, contrasting relationship between two ideas by joining them together or juxtaposing them, often in parallel structure.

Usually antithesis is restricted to clauses or phrases, but there is no reason why it may not be ascribed to sentences or even longer arguments.

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Apophasis or paralipsis is a figure of speech of "affirmation by negation": discussing the negative qualities to emphasize the positive or even mentioning in passing that one is not discussing a subject (purely in order to bring it to mind).

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This is not quite right. Also known as praeteritio, apophasis involves the speaker "saying what he will not say" (Farnsworth) and thus admitting the statement into evidence, as it were, in a possibly disingenuous manner. What the OP describes is making a statement and then proceeding to refute it. That is not apophasis. –  Robusto May 15 '11 at 18:11
    
@Robusto: I see that, but I felt there were aspects of apophasis that apply to this situation that the OP would recognize. –  Mitch May 15 '11 at 18:22
    
I hear what you're saying, and I was initially tempted to suggest it myself; but after reviewing the definition and examplesgiven in Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric I concluded that the figure really does involve the declaration of a negative — paradoxically saying what you are not going to say — not a positive assertion which may then be followed by its refutation. –  Robusto May 15 '11 at 18:28

As mentioned in @MT_Head's link, the phrase I've heard for this practice is quote mining. It's very common in the creation vs. evolution debate.

Here's a definition from the evolutionists:

Quote mining is the deceitful tactic art of taking quotes out of context in an effort to show that the author is saying the opposite of what he is in fact saying. It's a way of lying. This tactic is widely used among Young Earth Creationists to attempt to discredit evolution.

And one from the creationists:

Quote mining is the practice of using the words of partisans against them to undermine support for the viewpoint held by the partisans. Quote mining does not refer simply to taking a quote out of context, as there is already a well-understood phrase for that. Rather, the charge of "quote mining" reflects an objection to quoting someone for criticizing his own belief system, on the theory that if he still believes in the system then it is somehow unfair to quote his criticism of it.

I'm sure an excerpt identified as such could be called a quote mine.

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I don't think that's what the OP is asking. As far as I can tell, the practice described is not intended to deceive. –  Robusto May 15 '11 at 19:02
    
@Robusto: I got this sense from the "political tactic" part. –  Callithumpian May 15 '11 at 19:26

Wikipedia is the only source I can find, but (according to Wikipedia) this practice is called "contextomy" (nice little pseudo-surgical formation there — "excision of context"!)

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Sorry to resurrect an old question but isn't this some derivative of playing devil's advocate?

In common parlance, a devil's advocate is someone who, given a certain argument, takes a position he or she does not necessarily agree with, just for the sake of argument. In taking such position, the individual taking on the devil's advocate role seeks to engage others in an argumentative discussion process.

It's not exactly that because that is a mechanism used to put your argument in sharp relief whereas you seem to de describing something that is merely opposite. Or perhaps I am wrong.

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Well, it's the same general idea, but I don't think it's purpose is "to engage others in an argument..." I think it's a rhetorical device to establish the contrast with the real opinion. Revisiting the question, I've accepted "antithesis." –  Larry OBrien Dec 17 '11 at 20:13

apagogic proposition seems like it would work, especially if you'd like to imply the other party took the statement out of context because they are too uneducated to understand the argument.

Didn't you realize that was an apagogic proposition?

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I think "quoting out of context" exactly describes what you are referring to.

If I quote you accurately and fairly, it is still very likely true that reading the full context from which the quote was taken would give additional information, nuance, etc. But any excerpt is, by definition, not the complete text, and unless the rest of the text was meaningless jabber, presumably it adds additional information or clarification.

Like many idioms, the phrase "out of context" has a more specific meaning than the sum of its parts. Any quote that does not include everything that the person ever said is "out of context" in the literal sense of the individual words. But that's not what we mean when we say that. We use the phrase to mean that by failing to include larger context in the quote, you have altered the meaning of the words.

I saw a news story a couple of years ago where a political candidate made a campaign commercial that included a video clip of his opponent saying -- and I don't want to get into the specific politics and distract from the point, so let me just say that candidate A showed a clip of candidate B saying "X". A reporter interviewed A, and showed a slightly longer version of the lecture that that clip was taken from, in which we saw that what B actually said was, "Don't say, X." So A clipped off the "don't say" to make it look like B was saying exactly the opposite of what he actually said. The reporter (rather rhetorically) asked whether this was not taking B out of context. A defended himself by saying that the reporter was taking A out of context by concentrating on this one campaign ad.

I think this pretty neatly illustrates the point. A took B "out of context" by clipping off the rather critical words "don't say" from the qoute. But the reporter was not taking A "out of context" by failing to mention everything else that A had ever said in his campaign. The issue about B was whether he was for or against X. By chopping out the "don't say", A was spreading a lie. The issue about A was not what his positions were on a hundred other issues: it was whether or not he lied about B. Even if A showed that he had criticized B 100 other times with statements that were absolutely fair and accurate, that would not change the fact that at least this one time he lied. Unless A could show that by taking some larger context, you would see that in fact he did NOT misrepresent B's position on this issue, then he was not quoted out of context.

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Some other possibilities:

  • gross distortion
  • disingenuous or spurious or counterfeit reinterpretation or attributions
  • cherry-picking the data/speeches/statements of one's opponents
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