The Rhetoric of Whining
Attack as necessary but don’t whine
As a professor of persuasion and political rhetoric, I have long been fascinated by the use of the term “whining,” especially as it applies to political candidates criticizing their opponents.
This used to be more the province of Republicans, who would accuse liberal opponents of being insufficiently tough when attacked — “Get over it, this is the big leagues.” But the charge is relevant and can apply to any politician who doesn’t like being criticized — by which I mean all politicians, naturally.
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Let’s look at the current “whining” debate and see what it tells us about the rhetoric of whining.
Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign has, in my mind, correctly criticized the unfairness of the Barack Obama campaign’s suggestion that Romney misrepresented what his duties were at Bain Capital after 1999. Some in the Obama campaign have implied that Gov. Romney committed a felony by such a distortion.
But in addition to the criticism, Romney has demanded an apology, and it’s not the first time. He has on other occasions demanded that Obama apologize for campaign aides who say that Romney has lied, or, worse, committed a serious crime.
Democrats, including the felony attack author, Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter, and Chicago Mayor and former Obama White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, have responded that Gov. Romney should stop “whining” and respond to the charges. Cutter even pointed out that Romney had criticized fellow Republicans for doing as much during the GOP primaries.
What, exactly, is whining? According to the “American Heritage College Dictionary” whining is: “To complain or protest in a childish fashion.” In practice, for each candidate, it means all of his opponents complaints — whereas his own complaints, of course, represent legitimate discourse.
It is difficult to consistently and validly distinguish justifiable complaints from whining, but let’s at least draw this line: On the one side is accurate criticism of an opponent’s public policy, argument or behavior. On the other side — the “whining” side — is a declaration of what he or she must do in order to be absolved.
In other words it is perfectly appropriate to substantively condemn a political adversary, but it is unseemly for a candidate to prescribe a penance for his opponent, as if the two were quarreling lovers and one owes it to the other to kiss and make up. That is irrelevant in political discourse.
Gov. Romney’s response last week to the criticism that he was whining was to say that when the opposition says he has committed a felony, “you have a reason to go after them pretty hard.”
Absolutely. Call them “dishonest.” Say that it is “beneath the dignity of the presidency.” But don’t say they need to “apologize.” That is weak, nonsubstantive, changing of the point-at-issue. And it is whining.
Professor Richard E. Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University and is author of The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion (Kendall Hunt, 2012, 2013)