The Washington Post published an interview with anti-gun activist David Hogg yesterday, and other news outlets are picking up on the fact that he claims he has had seven assassination attempts on his life. As in, seven times people have tried to kill him. While the WaPo reporter doesn’t explore that or ask for any details, we can deduce much from Hogg’s language itself.

The pertinent section of the interview is included below, with the WaPo reporter’s questions in bold.

You’ve been the lightning rod of the group — and have gotten a lot of hate, and death threats.

In the past year, there have been seven assassination attempts.

Oh, God. So how do you process something like that? And how do you see other people as a result?

Well, I see people as misguided and misinformed of what we’re actually here to talk about. But I also realize, if they kill me, that’s probably the stupidest thing they could do to try to end the movement. Because that would make it even more successful in the end. Because it would invigorate us and create f—ing change.

Honestly, I realize that it’s horrible that I have to live through this, and it is traumatizing. But you eventually become desensitized to it. Like, oh, your house got SWAT-ted. You got a call from the police saying someone said that everyone in your family had been killed and that you are being held hostage for $100,000. Right? That becomes part of daily life. It’s just something that you have to get through. But I mean, what am I going to do? Stop?

Let’s break this down: Is Hogg being deceptive?

First, WaPo mentions “hate, and death threats.” Threats are words of stated and/or perceived intent. They are not actions in this context. Hogg, however, ups the ante and takes it to an action point.

In the past year, there have been seven assassination attempts.

Hogg begins his answer with a timeframe, but then goes into passive language with “there have been.” Passive language can be used when someone intends to deceive, but is still wishing to minimize the stress of telling an outright lie. He does not say, “I have received seven death threats in the past year,” which could be an expected response to the WaPo reporter. He does not say, “I have been the target of seven assassination attempts in the past year,” which would also be an appropriate response if true.

In fact, Hogg doesn’t say that he was the target of any of the “assassination attempts,” only that “there have been seven” of them. One of the biggest principles in Statement Analysis is that if the subject does not say something, we cannot say it for them. If they do say something, we cannot pretend they did not say it. In this sentence, David Hogg is not saying that he was the target of any assassination attempts. He does not place himself in the sentence with any linguistic ownership, as the lack of the pronoun “I” shows.

Linguistically speaking, David Hogg is nowhere in this sentence, as a target or anything else. We cannot assume that David Hogg was the target of seven assassination attempts because he does not tell us that he was; he only says that “there have been seven assassination attempts,” which is not the same thing. This is an example of someone using language in the hopes that the reader/listener will ‘jump the gap’ themselves and essentially draw the conclusion that the subject wants, without the subject having to lie. The WaPo reporter does exactly that, with the response, “Oh, God. So how do you process something like that?” This is why we must take the subject’s words exactly as given, without interpreting or adding our own meanings to them.

The phrase “assassination attempts” is also not the same thing as “hate, and death threats.” Hogg is specifically introducing language regarding action in response to a statement about words, and specifically referencing assassination. The word “assassination” is defined by Merriam-Webster as being “murder (a usually prominent person) by sudden or secret attack often for political reasons.” In other words, assassination is seen in language as a different thing than a typical murder. Ted Bundy murdered his victims; JFK, however, was assassinated.

Hogg’s use of the word “assassination” tells us that 1) he is aware of his ‘status’ as a “prominent person,” and 2) has a positive disposition to that assessment of himself. He is, in his own mind, a prominent person who has attained a level that warrants the use of a term typically reserved for those who are considered famous in a political arena. (Note that it’s not enough to just be famous; the victim must also have a political presence. Actress Rebecca Schaefer was murdered at her own front door, but Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.) Hogg appears to think quite highly of himself.

The WaPo reporter asks two questions back to back, and Hogg demonstrates why that’s a poor practice because he answers the second one first, as it’s the freshest in his mind.

So how do you process something like that?

And how do you see other people as a result?

Hogg’s answer to the second question gives a great deal of insight as to his mindset.

Well, I see people as misguided and misinformed of what we’re actually here to talk about.

“People” are not defined by the reporter or by Hogg to be anything but the general public—anyone “other” than Hogg himself, his supporters, and the reporter. Hogg’s response is that he sees “people” (the “other people” specified by the reporter) as misguided and misinformed of what “we’re (he and another party or parties who are in a cooperative and unified positive relationship) actually here to talk about.” Hogg’s perception, again, appears to be that he is guided and informed, and others besides him and those involved in his “we” are MISguided and MISinformed.

Hogg goes on:

But I also realize, if they kill me, that’s probably the stupidest thing they could do to try to end the movement. Because that would make it even more successful in the end. Because it would invigorate us and create f—ing change.

He “also realizes,” in addition to realizing that everyone but him and his “we” are misguided and misinformed, that if “they” kill him, it is the stupidest thing “they” could do to try to end the “movement.” Hogg does not specify who “they” are. This allows the reader to fill in the blank with anyone or any group. The vagueness may be intentional and designed for an emotional appeal without having to lock himself in to a statement that can be proven factually incorrect later.

In deception detection, sensitivity is extremely high when someone answers a question they were not asked and is often used to conceal information. Hogg states that it would be “stupid” if “they” killed him, and then proceeds to offer not one, but TWO reasons why—even though he was not asked. This doubles the already high sensitivity.

Hogg’s reasoning as to why it would be stupid to kill him is:

  1. That would make it [the movement] even more successful in the end.
  2. It would invigorate us [Hogg and his supporters] and create f—- change.

Hogg believes that his own death would create a martyr effect for his cause. His self-perception appears to be that he is the foco, the central figure leading a group of revolutionaries—much like Che Guevara, a Socialist hero—in the cause of gun control. If any of the “assassination attempts” were to be successful, it would “invigorate” the cause, and result in the “change” that he seeks; e.g., gun control.

It’s interesting to point out that he himself is also present in the invigoration resulting from his death. He uses the word “us,” including himself, even though this invigoration would occur after and as a result of his own physical demise. Does Hogg see himself as a martyr-in-waiting? Is he actually hoping to be assassinated? Does he truly believe that he is prominent enough to have his death “invigorate” an entire political cause?

Human beings are all the same at their core; they are motivated by validation (which manifests in a thousand different ways, to be fair), and they can be influenced by those they see as more knowledgeable, powerful, or able to give us something. Robert Cialdini talked about influence principles in his 1984 book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

Once of the reasons that elite sports programs, military units, and other things are so sought after is precisely because they are difficult to get. People train for years just for the chance to compete to be on the Olympic team. If they make it, they continue training just to go to the Olympics and spend a few seconds in a race or match, all in the hopes that they can take home a gold medal.

Hogg seems to be using this principle to his advantage. So far, he has told us:

  • There have been seven assassination attempts. (He wants us to believe that seven times, people have tried to kill him.)
  • All seven of the attempts were unsuccessful. Is it important for Hogg to portray himself as a worthy adversary, an elite target that seven people have tried to kill and failed? Why is this important?

Hogg goes on:

Honestly, I realize that it’s horrible that I have to live through this, and it is traumatizing. But you eventually become desensitized to it. Like, oh, your house got SWAT-ted. You got a call from the police saying someone said that everyone in your family had been killed and that you are being held hostage for $100,000. Right? That becomes part of daily life. It’s just something that you have to get through. But I mean, what am I going to do? Stop?

Use of the word “honestly” is a signal of change, almost like a warning. There are several things that can cause someone to use the word. They may be signaling that they’ve been deceptive up to this point but now they are being truthful, or they could be telling us that they are not routinely truthful in general and need to preface times when they are honest. It can also mean that they’re being deceptive right now, and think that adding the word will strengthen their statement and make it appear more truthful. It’s important that we note the word, note the context and timing of the word, and parse out why it’s appearing here.

In this case, it appears in the context of Hogg saying that “I realize that it’s horrible that I have to live through this, and it is traumatizing.” It’s important to note that “Honestly, I realize” is unnecessary additional wording, and not the same as saying “It’s horrible that I have to live through this” on its own.

We should also note that he uses the phrase “I have to,” which linguistically means he does not have a choice. Why does he believe he doesn’t have a choice but to “live through this”? He calls it “traumatizing” but what is the “it” he is referring to? He has already been unable to say with any ownership that he, himself, has had people physically trying to kill him. What is he referring to that is traumatizing? He did not validate “hate, and death threats” as mentioned by the reporter; he mentioned “seven assassination attempts” that he does not say were directed at him. He is not talking about Parkland itself, since the context being discussed are the “assassination attempts.” In short, he is referring to a situation that he has not said actually occurred, as being traumatizing to him.

It’s important to point out that for the entire rest of the paragraph, he does not appear until the very last sentence. Instead, “you” is used for the examples. We know that his house was, in fact, SWAT-ted in 2018, but he does not say that. He says, “oh, your house got SWAT-ted.” He does not even own something that was reported in the media to have happened to him. Why? Does he know something more about that than was reported? Could he have been the one who called in the SWAT call himself? He also did not mention the incident on Twitter or other social media, even during the initial media firestorm about it. Why would someone who spends a large amount of time trying to be in front of a camera not mention his harrowing experience on Twitter? Was it actually not harrowing for him at all? Or was it something else?

Let’s step back, recap a bit, and look at the big picture we have so far:

  1. There have been seven assassination attempts. (He wants us to believe that seven times, people have physically tried to kill him.)
  2. All seven of the attempts were unsuccessful. Is it important for Hogg to portray himself as a worthy adversary, an elite target that seven people have tried to kill and failed?
  3. His death at the hands of a shadowy and vague “They” would create a martyr, invigorate the cause, and ultimately lead to its victory.
  4. Even in his death, he would still be “in” the movement, “invigorated” along with his fellow activists who would now be fighting in his name.

Now ask yourself why someone with this type of personality would not mention on Twitter that someone had called SWAT to his house.

We return to the original question: Is David Hogg being deceptive about his “assassination attempts”? His own language tells us that he is, but it also tells us much more about Hogg himself and what his priorities are.

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