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Throwing Shade

“Throwing shade” refers to the act of publicly criticizing, demeaning, or subtly mocking a political opponent, often in a clever or nuanced manner.

Unlike more direct forms of attack, throwing shade is typically characterized by its subtlety and wit, making it a favored tactic in settings where overt confrontation may be frowned upon, such as diplomatic meetings or formal debates.

Its appeal lies in its subtlety; it provides a mechanism for expressing dissent or skepticism in a manner that is often layered with irony, wit, or rhetorical finesse.

This allows for a level of plausible deniability, a way to engage in critique while avoiding the explicitness that could lead to backlash or diplomatic complications.

From the Christian Science Monitor:

House Speaker John Boehner won Internet fame – or infamy, depending on your perspective – for appearing to silently throw shade against President Obama during last month’s State of the Union address.

As chronicled in a National Review listicle, the Ohio Republican displayed a range of facial expressions while sitting behind Obama. They included a “sad clap” shade; a “not caring” shade, reflecting the speaker’s dismissal of the president’s policy proposals; and a snarky, “look you up and down” shade/smirk.

Of course, the SOTU shade-throwing went both ways. Toward the end of the speech, Obama responded to Republican jeers by noting he had won two presidential elections and the right to stand at the speaker’s rostrum outlining his vision for the country.

In the highly polarized arena of modern politics, throwing shade serves multiple purposes.

For one, it allows politicians to signal to their base that they are actively confronting the opposition, albeit in a manner more palatable than an outright attack.

For politically engaged observers, detecting and dissecting instances of shade-throwing becomes an intellectual exercise, contributing to the “sport” of politics.

But therein also lies the risk: the subtlety can be lost on a general audience, either diluting the message or causing misunderstandings.

More on “Throwing Shade”

This is one of those hip expressions that didn’t start in politics but increasingly has found a home in punditry and commentary as harsh critical rhetoric flows unabated.

In January 2015, MSNBC host Chris Hayes noted Kentucky GOP senator Rand Paul’s disparaging comments about other potential White House candidates, including Paul’s Florida colleague Marco Rubio, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Paul, Hayes said, “has been throwing shade left and right at some of his potential 2016 rivals.”

From Doubletalk © 2016 Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark.

Use of “throwing shade” in a sentence

  • During the debate, the senator threw shade at her opponent by quipping that experience in governance couldn’t be gained through a Twitter following alone.
  • The ambassador artfully threw shade at the opposing country’s delegation by praising all nations “that respect international law,” a pointed comment given recent events.
  • The political commentator threw shade at the proposed policy, suggesting that it was as well-crafted as a ship made of Swiss cheese, full of holes and bound to sink.