Rhetorical techniques & monkeys

I read this piece from CNN about rhetorical techniques a couple of weeks ago and I immediately slapped it in my file for blog posts. But it’s a hard subject for me to focus on, so I haven’t written about it. Now I’m on a cleaning jag—decluttering my closets, my storage space, and—yes—even my browser tabs. So here we go.

If you clicked on the link, by now you know that the article in question deals with how the current GOP nominee “uses” rhetorical techniques.

Now, I don’t pretend that he uses rhetoric as deliberately as, say, he uses women. But enough monkeys given enough typewriteeven a monkey at a typewriter can stumble on rhetorical techniquesrs will eventually reproduce Shakespeare. And occasionally this yellow-haired beast strings together an idea that an ancient Greek philosopher might recognize. Although if said philosopher were alive to witness the circus that passes for politics in this election cycle, he would promptly kill himself. And curse the forces that reanimated him, lest they do it again.

So when Trump says something like, “I could talk about X, but I’m not going to,” he is employing a rhetorical device. CNN identifies it as:

“‘paralipsis’ (‘to leave to the side’), a tool employed by the great Roman debater Cicero and Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift that allows a speaker to effectively say two things at once.”

A brief lesson in rhetorical techniques

CNN found a linguist, Dr. Jennifer Mercieca, “an expert on political discourse at Texas A&M University,” to analyze Trump’s rhetorical flourishes. Here’s some of what she said:

“‘Donald Trump uses paralipsis, repeatedly, and he does it in combination with another rhetorical figure, which is called argumentum ad baculum — or threats of force….I’ve never seen anyone in public life use paralipsis the way he does,’ Mercieca said. ‘It’s a clearly demagogic move. It allows him to recirculate information without being held accountable for it.'”

Last March, The Washington Post published an op-ed Mercieca wrote about this very issue. She observes that his retweets represent a more modern form of paralipsis. When George Stephanopolous pressed him about having said Ted Cruz wasn’t fit to be president [oh! how young and foolish we were back then]…

“Trump dismissed Stephanopoulos’s question with ‘it was a retweet’ — as if to say that retweeting someone else’s claim meant that he wasn’t responsible for the content.”

Or, as Mercieca puts it,

It’s a response that can be reduced to I’m not saying it, I’m just saying it.

Look, I don’t want to give rhetoric a bad name here. Ethical speakers communicate honestly. And they use rhetorical devices that allow them to amplify that honesty. But, like most things, rhetoric can be used for good…or for—well, I’m not saying “evil,” but…


Use your words courageously. Join me for my free webinar “The Courage to Communicate: Write Right to Lead”—Saturday October 29th at 12 noon Eastern, 9 a.m. Pacific.

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