I’ve decided to start a new series of blog posts talking about my favorite thing: rhetoric!
Why do I love rhetoric? In short, because an awareness of rhetorical figures makes you a better speaker, a better writer, a better reader, and a better listener. It engages critical thinking skills that are supremely important in modern society. For a writer, it helps you to craft characters’ individual voices — different people are prone to different rhetorical tics and tactics. There are many fascinating things about language, but for me, rhetoric is the be-all and the end-all of them. Rhetoric is about structuring your words to achieve a desired effect — and what could be more important for a writer?
I was initially going to start this series with one of my favorite rhetorical figures, like chiasmus or anthimeria. I’m putting those on the backburner, though, to address something that’s become politically significant: figures of omission.
Take this example from Othello:
Ha? I like not that.
What dost thou say?
Nothing, my lord, or if – I know not what.
Was not that Cassio that parted from my wife?
Cassio, my lord? No, sure, I cannot think it,
That he would steal away so guilty-like,
Seeing you coming.
Iago’s doing a couple of really rhetorically clever things here. First off, ellipsis — simple omission of words or phrases. Generally, ellipsis ought to be easily understood in context. Our brains are really good at filling those in. Another example from Shakespeare is in Love’s Labour’s Lost: “You this way; we that way.” I bet your brain had no trouble supplying the missing verb. If someone spoke those words to you, you probably wouldn’t even consciously realize that it was missing. Iago puts a twist on this form of omission, though, by creating gaps that can’t be filled in so quickly and easily. By saying “I like not that”, Iago makes the listener wonder what the antecedent of “that” is. By leaving out his explanation in the next line, he makes the listener try to come up with one.
We’ve also got something called paralipsis, the act of calling attention to something by pretending you’re not going to call attention to it. “I cannot think it, that he would steal away so guilty-like” is a denial that that’s what Cassio was doing — but it’s meant to plant exactly that idea in Othello’s brain.
And then there’s the ennoia, which Silva Rhetoricae (one of my favorite rhetorical references) defines as:”a kind of purposeful holding back of information that nevertheless hints at what is meant; a kind of circuitous speaking.” I see this in “Nothing, my lord, or if — I know not what.” That “or if –” is a sentence with no end. Iago intends no ending to it. But he does intend that Othello’s brain try to come up with an ending, and the rest of what he says clarifies what he intends that ending to be.
Now take this example from a couple of days ago:
“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks. Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”
If you don’t know where that’s from, I envy you the rock you’ve been living under.
Donald Trump is employing ennoia in the same way that Iago did. He left a deliberate gap. His delivery showed that he trailed off intentionally, and then, like Iago, shrugs off the omission. He leaves it to the listener to find the end of that sentence, and both delivery and context indicated what he intended his listeners to fill in the missing information with. “Maybe there is, I don’t know” is a near-perfect analog for “Or if — I know not what.” And just as Iago meant it to be the dog-whistle of infidelity for Othello’s ears, Trump meant it to be the dog-whistle of violence to an audience that he knew would be receptive to such.
Ennoia is not a rhetorical device that one deploys accidentally. It has a purpose. Its entire function is to hint, to wink, to nudge, to draw the listener along to the conclusion that, for whatever reason, the speaker does not want to say outright.
Trump is also fond, as many politicians are, of paralipsis. It’s a convenient way to make an ad hominenm attack but wiggle out of getting criticized for doing so. This blog post chronicles some great examples across history, from Cicero straight up to the present day, and both The Washington Post and Huffington Post have commented on Trump’s use of the device.
Here’s the other thing about these devices of omission, particularly when used in a political context: they’re cowardly. They are the resort of someone who wants to mislead and misguide. They allow a speaker to claim, “I never said that.” “What I meant was…” “If people interpreted it that way…” They’re a way of avoiding agency and responsibility. They may be effective, but they are not devices that inspire confidence in a leader.
Words matter. So does the structure that those words come in — that’s what rhetoric is. Not just your choice of words, but the way you choose to present them. So does your delivery — that trailing off for ennoia points an audience towards how the speaker wants their brains to fill in the missing information.
Words having meaning. And so, it turns out, does the absence of words.