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Caveat audiens ("let the listener beware").

The Romans had a word for it. In fact, classical critics coined many terms to identify the logical errors and verbal evasions that sullied public debate. Consider: argumentum ad hominem ("argument against the person"), attacking an opponent's character instead of addressing the issue under discussion; petitio principii ("begging the question"), asking a question which assumes an unproven point; and post hoc, ergo propter hoc ("after this, therefore because of this") asserting that, simply because one event followed, another, the former caused the latter.

Public discourse in our own day would seem to invite the creation of a few more terms like these to point out hybrids of the traditional logical errors and subversions lurking in current political and journalistic speech. I offer the following suggestions.

Si anas est, tetrinnit ("if it's a duck, expect it to quack"): this is when politicians use any question at all asked by an interviewer to recite a self-serving prepared statement on some issue. Even though the lack of connection between the question and the answer can sometimes be quite striking, this tactic is nevertheless exceedingly common. Defenders of this verbal groundshifting might say that the interviewees are only "reframing" bad questions (to correct, perhaps, for cases of petitio principii). Politicians, however, almost never take overt issue with even the most biased questions (by saying, for example, "I think that's a misleading or unfair question because . . ."). In fact, they frequently say, "That's a very good question," and then go on to deliver their unrelated responses.

Ludicra exercitatio facilis est;. res civilis, difficilis ("athletics is simple; politics, complex"): this is when journalists cover political events as "sports," focusing almost exclusively on daily public-opinion pous and speculating on one side or another's constantly shifting chances of "victory." Because poll statistics are "facts" in a very shallow kind of way, they are offered as easily understood "news" of daily winners and losers. Does this kind of political handicapping help, the public" Yes, if people literally are betting on election or legislative results, no, if people want any informative analyses of politicians, platforms, positions, or political track records to assist them in choosing for whom to vote.

Homo in speculo interrogat ("the person in the mirror has a question") this is when news interviewers attribute to the public a preoccupation with something that the media themselves are keen on because they hope it will generate a marketable amount of public interest. When reporters declare to politicians or other celebrities that "many people" are saying something provocative or asking some embarrassing personal question about them, what they really mean is "we are saying or asking those provocative things because it's our job to think up hot-button questions," I can't figure out why celebrities don't regularly respond to such queries with, "I haven't heard anyone except you guys say or ask that. Exactly who are you quoting, anyway?"

Verbum unum mille argumentationibus aequiparat ("one word is worth a thousand arguments"): this is when public, speakers mine their speeches, arguments, or remarks with one emotionally charged or coded word or phrase, timed to explode at frequent intervals. The purpose, is to regularly return to such words and reduce the audience's potentially complicated feelings about a controversial subject (presumably under rational discussion) to an irrational gut response. That term could be socialist or fascist or liberal or welfare mother or stormtrooper or ACLU or Rush. Maximum use of the term is the point - not cogent argument, which is much harder to do.

The prevalence of such rhetorical dumbness and manipulation in political and journalistic speech suggests a cynical, that the public is either too stupid to see through these lazy or evasive tactics or, even worse, too apathetic to care. What, ever their reasoning, however, we would probably do well to bone up on all the traditional terms for rhetorical "smoke" and "spin" that we already have and coin as many new ones as necessary to defend ourselves against dishonesty and irrational, public blather. As the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer pointed out over a century ago, "It would be a very, good thing if every trick could receive some short and obviously appropriate name, so that when a man used this or that particular trick, he could at once be reproved for it."

Steven Doloff is an associate professor in the Department of English and the Humanities at the Pratt Institute of Brooklyn, New York. He has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times.
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Title Annotation:public communication
Author:Doloff, Steven
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 1, 1997
Words:743
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