Show concessions or show concessions? Good question. Probably both. Anyway, that is the title of an article that appeared in the first issue of the first volume of ‘Discourse Studies’. It is by Charles Antaki and Margaret Wetherell. This is tied to my prior essays on pragmatics as this time I’m taking a closer look at what kind of moves or tactics a speaker can employ to gain ground in speech (or writing). I used the insight of this article in my MA thesis, so it’ll be interesting go through it again. In short, what I remember, I appreciated the way it focuses on argumentation, with specific emphasis on how people not only provide an argument, assert something, but also simultaneously engage in certain tactics that undermine possible counter-arguments. The highlight for me was how a speaker (or a writer) can undermine others by conceding to them, the core thing discussed in this article.
Antaki and Wetherell (7) kick off by arguing that we are in the habit of thinking of ‘concessions’ as something that has to do with agreement over this or that, following a prior disagreement. Sure, fair enough, that sounds about right. If you concede to or on something, you give in, hence it follows that there has to be some prior disagreement or contention. Their (7) argument is that this ignores certain senses of conceding. In my words, as I’m putting a bit of an antagonistic spin on this, perhaps more than Antaki and Wetherell, concessions are typically seen as rather rational, weighing options and then coming to a decision on the issue, thus conceding if one changes one’s position over to someone else’s position on the issue. However, there is more to this.
Antaki and Wetherell (7) … I was going to write concede … differentiate between a concession or making concessions and a show concession or “making a show of conceding”. They (8) elaborate that the former is about yielding, coming to the conclusion that one was wrong and thus conceding that one was wrong. In contrast, they (8) add, show concessions, to use the moniker from the article title, are about making it appear as if one is conceding, as if one is aware of the situation in general and takes different viewpoints into account. Later on, to add emphasis on this point, they (11) reiterate that it isn’t about reaching an agreement after disagreeing.
They (8-9) present show concession as typically having a tripartite structure. It consists of a proposition, followed by a concession and a reprise. You could, of course, pluralize those, but let’s keep it simple here. The proposition is an argument, something that can be challenged or disputed, at least to some extent. The concession functions as presenting possible counter-arguments, those bits that could challenge the proposition, the presented argument. Reprise is, as the word suggests, about repeating the argument.
Throughout the article they note certain markers that tend to crop up in this tripartite structure. They (13) focus on these markers which indicate the concessions and the reprises. For example, they (13-14) state that concessions are typically marked by expressions, such as ‘ok(ay)’, ‘alright’, ‘obviously’, ‘of course’, ‘sure’, ‘you know’, ‘fair enough’, ‘granted’ and ‘I agree’, and that reprises are typically marked by contrastive conjunctions, such as ‘but’, ‘nevertheless’, ‘whereas’ and ‘anyway’. They (13) add that the concession markers function to signal that one’s own proposition is retrospectively disputable (as it refers back to the proposition) but also prospective in the sense that it introduces what follows, another proposition that functions as the counter-argument to the initial proposition. It sort of operates in between, as a double hinge as they (13) call the coupling of concession and reprise. They (14) note that when it comes to reprise, it must connect back to the original proposition in order to function. They (15) add that it does not require that what is stated as the reprise to match the form of the proposition. They (15) clarify that it may well be the case that it is, that it is more or less a reiteration of the proposition, perhaps with only very minor changes, but resemblance is not a key factor here. That said, they (15) note that it’s a fine line, that “too much deviation from closeness in form and in time … risks the reprise not being heard, and the structure misfiring.” Simply put, this move fails if people fail to hear it as they can’t connect it to the original proposition, either because they can’t recognize it in the reprise or they’ve already forgotten what the proposition actually was (although, as a side note, I reckon that can also be beneficial, if your argument is, for example, just poor, as you’d probably want them to forget about your proposal).
To make more sense of this, in case this comes across as too obscure or abstract, I’ll provide some examples. Going back to the work I did as an undergraduate, I’ll cover some examples that I used in my MA Thesis years ago. I focused on persuasion and dissuasion in the 2008 US presidential election debates. In those debates Barack Obama made good use of show concessions. I was going to bold the parts that indicate the markers (not in CQ / The New York Times transcripts used here), but, well, the platform does not allow it in a satisfactory way. They are not always clearly there but I reckon the formulations still function even in their absence. During the first debate, held on September 26, 2008, Obama made a proposition:
“But we’re also going to have to look at, how is it that we shredded so many regulations? We did not set up a 21st-century regulatory framework to deal with these problems. And that in part has to do with an economic philosophy that says that regulation is always bad.”
To which his opponent, John McCain, replies:
“Somehow we’ve lost that accountability. I’ve been heavily criticized because I called for the resignation of the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. We’ve got to start also holding people accountable, and we’ve got to reward people who succeed.”
To which then Obama replied with a show concession after being prompted to address McCain’s views:
“Well, I think Senator McCain’s absolutely right that we need more responsibility, but we need it not just when there’s a crisis.”
Only to immediately lean into to it and follow it up with a reprise:
“I mean, we’ve had years in which the reigning economic ideology has been what’s good for Wall Street, but not what’s good for Main Street. And there are folks out there who’ve been struggling before this crisis took place. And that’s why it’s so important, as we solve this short-term problem, that we look at some of the underlying issues that have led to wages and incomes for ordinary Americans to go down, the – a health care system that is broken, energy policies that are not working, because, you know, 10 days ago, John said that the fundamentals of the economy are sound.”
You can look this up yourself if you think I’m being dishonest on this. In short, the context involves a moderator and the turns are a bit longer. I cut to these bits as a I did in my thesis as these are the key bits. There’s a bit off going on a tangent by the candidates, here and there, in this context, so I went with this approach, condensing this part of the debate to the key points. Anyway, as you can see, Obama proposes regulation. McCain jumps on this, but rather than addressing the issue head on, on its own, he goes on (and on, I cut these bits out) about his own record on being a responsible politician. Obama acknowledges what his opponent just said and briefly concedes that McCain is right on this one, only to immediately shift to reprise his own argument. Sure, he probably does respect McCain for the work he has done, but as this is the presidential debate, he has only one goal, to become the president. So, instead merely tipping his hat, conceding a point, he makes a show concession, which is meant to undermine McCain. I reckon he cleverly works this point to his advantage, turning it on to its head in the reprise, to make mockery of it. At the same time, it still, sort of, seems like he is being respectful to his opponent, showing class, if you will.
Antaki and Wetherell (17) call this type of a move a Trojan Horse as it involves “smuggling in a caricature description of the other side’s case, by casting it in extreme-case formulation”. Note how Obama concedes by stating that not only that McCain is right, that, fair play to him, he makes a good point, but stating that McCain is “absolutely right”. In other words, McCain is extremely correct on this one. It doesn’t take long for Obama to reverse this. It basically happens mid-sentence as he notes that McCain is on to something here with regards to responsibility … but that we should behave responsible at all times, not only when it happens to be in our interests. Ouch! Ouch, ouch, ouch! He then continues to elaborate the reversal, that is to say reprise his own proposition after propping it up by using McCain’s remarks as a foil. What was particularly interesting for me with this example, as I was going through it, is that Obama was able to mobilize this move on the spot, not as something that he had planned ahead. He made such a good use of the opponents remarks as they were uttered.
This could also be labeled as what Antaki and Wetherell (17) call a Sting in the Tail, “which amplif[ies] the combative force of the concession by reprising the or[i]ginal proposition as a specific reversal of the conceded material.” Obama does this quite well. He has his own proposition, a negative portrayal of the economic situation, marked by the lack of regulation. He concedes that McCain is correct, no, sorry, absolutely correct that it needs to be addressed, only to turn the tables, reversing his concession by arguing that McCain was and thus is part of the problem.
Obama does this also in the third debate, held on October 15, 2008. The moderator of the debate prompts Obama to assess whether Sarah Palin is “qualified to be president?”, to which he answers:
“You know, I think it’s – that’s going to be up to the American people. I think that, obviously, she’s a capable politician who has, I think, excited the – a base in the Republican Party. And I think it’s very commendable the work she’s done on behalf of special needs. I agree with that, John.”
Again, notice how he starts with a proposition, that her qualifications should be assessed by the people, only to point out that she is not only a capable politician but that it’s obvious. That’s an extreme-case formulation. He then moves to the reprise:
“I do want to just point out that autism, for example, or other special needs will require some additional funding, if we’re going to get serious in terms of research. That is something that every family that advocates on behalf of disabled children talk about. And if we have an across-the-board spending freeze, we’re not going to be able to do it. That’s an example of, I think, the kind of use of the scalpel that we want to make sure that we’re funding some of those programs.”
The reprise here, utilizing a Trojan Horse, albeit also classifiable as a Sting in the Tail, as well as what Antaki and Wetherell (22) refer to as a Cheapener, in which mentioning something positive, only to be used in a dismissive fashion, is not clear unless you know the context. What Obama does here is to demean the opposition by seemingly conceding that the McCain campaign has its merits in this regard, only to indicate that the opposition is actually campaigning in favor of cuts that would also affect special needs education. Again, ouch! As you can see, the concession is only seemingly sincere. It’s there just to amp up his own proposition, that it’s up to the people to decide what kind of president they want, someone who will make cuts in education because the budget needs balancing or someone who is going to make cuts but only here and there, proportionally and only after first assessing the situation. In the debate McCain actually refers to using a hatchet and scalpel, which Obama then turns against McCain, stating that only a scalpel is needed but McCain wants to go at it with a hatchet.
Now, of course (haha, only fitting here), McCain does make use of only seemingly conceding a point. For example, in the second debate, held on October 7, 2008, he addresses military strategy abroad. He starts with a proposition:
“General Petraeus has just taken over a position of responsibility, where he has the command and will really set the tone for the strategy and tactics that are used. And I’ve had conversations with him. It is the same overall strategy.”
Followed by a concession:
“Of course, we have to do some things tactically, some of which Senator Obama is correct on. We have to double the size of the Afghan army. We have to have a streamlined NATO command structure. We have to do a lot of things. We have to work much more closely with the Pakistanis.”
And the reprise of the proposition:
“But most importantly, we have to have the same strategy, which Senator Obama said wouldn’t work, couldn’t work, still fails to admit that he was wrong about Iraq.”
As a context background here, Obama had questioned this in the first debate. Here McCain makes note of this after his proposition. He concedes that his opponent is right. Note the initial extreme-case marker ‘of course’. He then flips this on its head, noting that while there is some merits to the claims of his opponent, he is nonetheless right about this issue on military strategy. This qualifies as a slipping in a Trojan Horse.
These are just some examples that I plucked from my work done years ago. It doesn’t take much creativity to come with examples of your own. All it really takes is a proposition, an argument, which you want to propose. You then concede that those who oppose your proposition, your argument, may indeed have a point, fair play to them. This necessitates that you are aware of potential opposing views in advance. It doesn’t work well for you if you encounter opposing views on the spot, unless your opposition gives you the time and space to do just that (which they shouldn’t, if they are looking after their interests). You need to be able to present their case before they get to present it themselves in order to demean their proposition. In other words, you need to be aware of potential counter-arguments if you wish to sandwich them inside your own arguments. This is not about fair play. This is not about one party being in favor of something, presenting the case as this, and then another party being against something, in opposition of the first party, presenting the case as against that. This is about being in favor of something, presenting it as this, while simultaneously presenting the proposal of your opponent, formulating it in a way that will weaken it and reinforce your own proposal. This is weasel 101.
Is it fair to make use of this kind of tactics? Well, I don’t know about others but in my view language isn’t neutral, nor a mere medium, an afterthought of thinking used for communicating information. As I elaborated in my essays on pragmatics, you can position others through language. You can effectuate surface effects, what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari call incorporeal transformations in ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’. So, relevant to the tactics discussed in this essay, it only makes sense to force others, your opponents, to have to address an issue from the position that you put them into, as noted in the previous essays in reference to an argument made by Jean-Jacques Lecercle. You’d a bit thick not to include that in your repertoire. No, it is not fair to do that but it is effective. Instead of presenting the case on their own terms, as they’d obviously prefer, the opposition has to start from the premise you gave them, the position you placed them into.
Right, this was refreshing to write, something short and not as heavy a topic as last time. Anyway, if pragmatics is something that you are into, and I think you should be, even if you aren’t in politics, media, marketing or advertising, because it helps you grasp why it is and how it is that people in those sectors operate. I reckon I’ll keep writing a bit more on those areas, but I’ll leave that to another time, just so that, for once, sorry, for a change, I’ll keep it brief and to the point.
As the penultimate note, as I did note in my thesis back then, this is just one way of wooing your audience, so none of this should be taken as indicating that Obama won the elections because he made some swank moves during his turns to speak. McCain had his own way of doing things which worked for him, as well as for a large member of the voters, so I won’t go claiming that Obama > McCain.
As the ultimate note, it may seem odd, considering that I have no connection to the man, nor really did I keep up with his work in US politics, it was a bit sad to read of his death, probably because I spent countless hours going through the debates, watching them, over and over again. Also, while I pointed out that Obama maneuvers in ways that undermines his opponent, that could be taken as disrespect, I’m sure that Obama did actually respect McCain, despite any differences they had, just as McCain did the other way around. I know I’m whimsically stating this, basing it on, well, nothing, really, but I reckon showing respect is something you rarely come across these days. I guess it’s just way easier, not to mention practical or effective, to rely on judgment than it is to be combative. It’s harder for you to challenge others and work on issues than it is to simply disagree and bulldoze people, for the win, because, you know, you and your clique are, as far as you can tell, for sure, right.
- Antaki, C., and M. Wetherell (1999). Show Concessions. Discourse Studies, 1 (1), 7–27.
- Deleuze, G., and F. Guattari ( 1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
- Lecercle, J-J. (1987). The Misprision of Pragmatics: Conceptions of Language in Contemporary French Philosophy. Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures, 21, 21–40.
- The New York Times (2008). The First Presidential Debate. https://www.nytimes.com/elections/2008/president/debates/transcripts/first-presidential-debate.html
- The New York Times (2008). The Second Presidential Debate. https://www.nytimes.com/elections/2008/president/debates/second-presidential-debate.html
- The New York Times (2008). The Third Presidential Debate. https://www.nytimes.com/elections/2008/president/debates/transcripts/third-presidential-debate.html