Mulhall column: Out-pigging swine is where we are
February 7, 2019
My dad sent me an email the other day; a link to a word-of-the-day sort of tweet by a guy named Bryan A. Garner.
"Apophasis," Garner tweeted. "The less said about it the better!"
I'd heard the term before, yet despite a familiarity with many rhetorical terms, I admit I had to look "apophasis" up.
In speech and composition, apophasis is a rhetorical construct in which you raise a controversial subject by disclaiming it.
You've heard it before. Often. Usually when you're reading about politics.
Any time someone prefaces a statement with a phrase like, "It goes without saying," or "needless to say," it's a good bet you're in for a dose of apophasis.
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Sometimes, however, apophasis is something a bit more than a simple turn of phrase.
"I politely decline" someone might say, "to comment on the rumor that my opponent is a drunk." Substitute any critical characteristic for the term "drunk" and you get a sense of apophasis' versatility: The declination itself acknowledges the un-comely.
Among many uses, apophasis is a way to couch a good old-fashion ad hominem attack within an air of propriety, which makes it ideal in political discourse.
The use of apophasis goes back a long way, too. Cicero used it in his Pro Caelio speech, which means it's been around for at least 20 centuries, predating even the birth of Christ.
With such a long history, apophasis' continued use underscores how little human discourse has evolved. Apophasis remains a go-to way to volley a smear, and it isn't the exclusive domain of either political stripe, which if nothing else puts the lie to the idea we are, discourse-wise, more socially, culturally and politically enlightened now than at any time in the past.
Nowhere is apophasis, and rhetorical devices like it, more apparent than on Twitter, where the goal seems to be to make a lasting point in 280 characters or less, spaces and punctuation marks included.
A kind of rhetorical Petri dish, Twitter has a lot to offer — mostly bad. This is true of other social media platforms as well, but Twitter's character limit forces tweeters to crawl out on a limb. And crawl they do.
Twitter's only been around for about a dozen years, which measured in human years means it's entering adolescence.
The extent of Twitter's staying power is unclear to me, as is the sort of media platform that may one day supplant it. For now, however, Twitter is and will continue to be a force in forming public opinion.
What is clear to me is that the principles of rhetoric have adapted to the advents of new media platforms like Twitter without so much as an un-dotted "i" or an uncrossed "t," and they remain the fundamental building blocks of public opinion.
Media may have changed yesterday, is changing today, and will no doubt change tomorrow. The principles of persuasion haven't.
Yes, among the many lessons Twitter has provided is that the principles of speech and writing set down centuries ago remain as vital today as they ever have been — maybe even more so if you go by the frequency of rhetorical devices like apophasis.
Media advents like Twitter herald significant technological advancement, but those advancements are mostly quantitative — information speed, volume and reach.
The kind of substantive change most people associate with enlightened thought — changes in message that most would agree matter more — are static if not worse.
When I envision how an enlightened stance in today's political landscape might look, changes to the message side of the rhetorical equation come to mind. But we're presently so heavily involved in the media side that such changes seem far off.
I don't know whether such changes will someday come about, but it doesn't hurt to hope — not that someone might wrestle the White House away from President Trump in 2020, something that may or may not happen, but that President Trump has figured out a way to out-pig swine.
It may not be a laudable trait, but it is where we are.
Mitch Mulhall is a husband, father and longtime Roaring Fork Valley resident. His column appears monthly in the Post Independent and at postindependent.com
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