Column: Going negative on P-Noy

From intuitive processes to systematic errors. Published on November 5, 2013.

Inquirer colleague and top business journalist Dax Lucas raised an interesting point on Facebook a few days ago. Linking to an image of the Inquirer’s Oct. 31 front page, which carried the headline “P-Noy: I am not a thief,” he wrote: “A key tenet in psychology and communications: the mind edits out words like ‘not’. So avoid stating in the negative.”

I thought it was interesting advice, because the President did not in fact say those exact words. I phrased my comment as a question: “Curious: Does this tenet work in languages other than English, such as the Filipino Noynoy used?”

Dax acknowledged my response, and graciously said he needed to study the matter, but others following the conversation immediately volunteered that, yes, the communications axiom worked in non-English languages too.

Peerless PR professional Charlie Agatep, a friend for whom I worked for some four months, some time in the late 1990s, gave a succinct answer. “Yes, the tenet works in any language. When you say you are not THIS or THAT, the message decoder automatically thinks YOU ARE what you profess NOT TO BE. When you post a sign: ‘Bili na Kayo, HINDI PEKE Itong Louis Vuitton bags namin!’ This sign will make the buyer think the merchandise is fake!”

I see what Charlie means—but despite his use of a Filipino example, he was still thinking in English. Surely there must be other languages that do not follow the logic of English grammar, that do not coin a word’s opposite meaning by adding a negative to the mix. (And that LV sign maker in his example needs an urgent course in basic marketing!)

The notion that, because Charlie and Dax and I write in English, the way we write must apply to other languages too seems to be a good example of what the Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman (and his deceased partner Amos Tversky) called the availability heuristic. It is one of those intuitive processes that allow us to navigate our way through life, but often lead to systematic errors. The “tenets” of effective rhetoric in English are the most available to us—and because they are, we think that they must explain effective rhetoric in other languages too.

Another commenter suggested that a reading of George Lakoff’s framing theory would be helpful. I’ve done my share of reading Lakoff, and he can be illuminating indeed. He isn’t the answer to my question, though, because his work is not only in English, it is limited to the American political experience. (This is not to say that his work does not apply in the Philippine setting; only that his work, or at least the part of it that I’ve read, does not answer the question I raised.)

Let’s see if we can begin to find an answer through a thought experiment. If the teenaged daughter of a businessman, or the twentysomething mistress of a politician, were to say, “I am not pregnant,” would the businessman-father or the politician-philanderer focus on the word “pregnant”? I think that they would probably and immediately feel a sense of relief, because the “message decoder” in their brains correctly processed the information it had just received in its natural context.

I think it works in Filipino too. “Hindi ako buntis” would probably elicit the same relieved reaction, because the “key tenet of psychology and communications” is not in fact a rule, but only a rule of thumb. Context is still determinative. (I would appreciate other examples, even contrary ones; please send them my way at

Does this mean that, contrary to what some in the comment thread suggested, President Aquino did not make a message-framing mistake when he asserted that he was not a thief?

To answer that second question, I think it is vital that we go beyond the English-language headline (which by its nature is a summary) and consider the President’s actual words. There are two central passages; the first reads as follows: “Hindi tayo pareho. Hindi kami nagnakaw, at hindi kami magnanakaw; kami ang umuusig sa mga magnanakaw.” I think it is evident that this is no mere I-am-not-a-thief assertion. There are many nuances of meaning layered in that first passage. “We are not the same. We did not steal, and we are not thieves; we are the ones prosecuting the thieves.” Those nuances would include: an assertion of difference; the use of an action word (steal) that shades into a definition (not thieves); not least, a forward movement, in the idea of prosecution.
The second central passage shows the same kind of multiple meanings simultaneously at work. “Uulitin ko po: Pagnanakaw ang isyu dito. Hindi ako nagnakaw.” The three clauses only seem simple. “Let me repeat: Thievery is the issue here. I did not steal.” This is nothing like what the tenet proscribes: [negative indicator] + [negative value]. The closest Mr. Aquino comes to the Inquirer’s necessarily condensed headline is in that last clause, but is I-did-not-do-x necessarily the same as I-am-not-y?

I belabor the point because I think the President has been criticized for saying something he did not say, exactly. In the matter of “psychology and communications,” I found the President’s unusual primetime speech to have in fact followed many of the rules of effective rhetoric.

But all this worrying is secondary (albeit necessary in my view.) Despite effective rhetoric, the President still came up seriously short. I like fellow columnist Randy David’s take best. He has become the preeminent analyst of the pork barrel scandal and its consequences in part because he sees Mr. Aquino whole. Last Sunday, he gave the speech its due, before pointing to its shortcomings. “This way of talking might serve the ends of rhetoric, but it hardly serves to clarify issues.”

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