Rhetorical questions aren’t really questions. They are statements in question form. And while they serve a purpose in dramatic literature, when invoked in matters of fact they signal a closed mind.
Shakespeare used the rhetorical question well when he penned for Juliet, ”What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Note that the bard didn’t follow up by having an etymologist, a botanist, a cognitive psychologist, and a taxonomist walk onstage and set her straight. His aim was to express Juliet’s inner turmoil.
But in argumentation, the rhetorical question can be a dishonest device. I can think of no better example than the widely-invoked, would-be refutation of the Theory of Evolution: “If we come from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” To be sure, some who pose that question really are interested in an answer, and good for them. But those who “ask” with the intent of dismissing the matter might as well say, “I reject evolution, and I’m not interested in being disabused of my ignorance.” If you don’t believe me, watch them tune out or simply await their turn to jump in with “yeah, but ...” as you attempt to explain ancestry, geographic separation, and geologic time.
Some people try to frame a dishonest rhetorical question with, “It’s okay to ask questions, right?” That, too, is rhetorical—and dishonest—in that its goal is justification, not enlightenment. Nevertheless, the answer to “It’s okay to ask questions, right?” is: Not if you have already resolved to reject any answer.
“I’m not interested in being disabused of my ignorance” is intellectually irresponsible, but at least it’s honest.
There is no shortage of armchair experts—and the “facts” they spread are not always harmless. That’s the subject of my new piece for The Salt Lake Tribune, which ran yesterday. Click the image at right to enlarge, or open it a new window by clicking here.
We call that kind of consideration manners and common decency. Were it not for the negative connotation, we might equally call it political correctness. But the negative connotation exists and, as connotations go, this one is powerful. It is not a little ironic that in some circles political correctness is treated as politically incorrect.
The negative connotation is not terribly hard to understand. For one thing, none of us likes to be corrected. The less kind the correction, the less we like it. For another, while the offense of “that person is fat” is universally understood, it’s not so easy to understand why a word with a history of acceptability in our own culture is suddenly to be avoided the moment another culture says, “We don’t like that.” Nor is it easy to understand the need to abandon a once-acceptable term when it begins to take on a new, unacceptable meaning.*
Yet attention to the effect of words on people coming from a different frame of reference tends to move society, albeit sometimes kicking and screaming, in a positive direction. Empathy, the art of identifying with what’s going on in someone else’s head, is a worthy talent to acquire and grow.
To be sure, sometimes PC speech is carried too far. Sometimes it is used to bully. Sometimes it is ambiguous, deceptive, excessively euphemistic. These are not arguments against PC speech. They are arguments against carrying it too far, against using it to bully, and against ambiguity, deception, and excessive euphemism.
The usual objections to PC speech do not hold up well. Take the fellow I know who frowned and lamented, “It’s getting to the point where you can’t disparage any group anymore.” That’s a bad thing? Or another who told me he resented having to “think so much” before opening his mouth. That, too, is a bad thing? Take my friends who, when I pointed out that a certain phrase was in fact a racial slur, apologized and pledged never again to use it. Ha, ha, just kidding. They launched into a diatribe on how “They” shouldn’t be so sensitive. Why not “We” shouldn’t be so insensitive? Or take those who reply, “lighten up,” “it was just a joke,” or “you don’t have to get so upset about it.” These knee-jerk defenses born of wounded pride are understandable, but they need to go. The more constructive reaction is to pause, think, and, where needed, apologize and make a mental note to do better.
I recall being corrected, not kindly, upon using what I theretofore did not know was a sexist term. To add to my humiliation, the colleague doing the correcting disliked me (which went both ways) and sought at every turn to sabotage my career (which did not). Trouble is, her correcting me was called for, and I have avoided the term ever since. I contented myself with finding other reasons not to like her, which abounded.
* It’s important not to fall prey to the Genetic Fallacy, that of holding to what a word once meant but no longer means. These days it’s not a good idea to refer to laymen as idiots. On the other hand, the former racial slur Samaritan has become quite the compliment.
It troubles me that much of western literature tends to bring up race only when a character is non-white.
That’s race in the sense of geographically correlated appearance traits, not in the socially harmful and biologically irrelevant sense.
Most of the time, western authors treat white as the default. Yet I can think of no reason, other than lazy writing, that there should be one.
I wondered what would happen if, assuming it was important for readers to know any character’s race, the author identified every character’s. And, if it wasn’t important, identified none at all.
It can be done. I have read contemporary authors who pull it off. Kudos to them.
I’m trying to do it with my current project. Know what? It takes a lot of work not to let it get ridiculous or, worse, patronizing. I’m not above putting in the work. We are finally coming around to not calling an individual from a mixed gender group “he.” If we can avoid default sexism, maybe we can take a stab at avoiding default racism.
Sure sign of an amateur writer: thinking that good writing requires lots of big words.
Exhibit A: When I was in college, the local newspaper retained a friend of mine to review concerts. He was chasing a masters in music, so that much made sense. But he wasn’t a writer, as evidenced by his remark to me: “I need a thesaurus so I can load my review with lots of impressive words.”
Exhibit B: Years later, as I set out to write an account of an acquaintance’s encounter, the acquaintance said, “Be sure to put in all those big, fancy words you know.”
Both times, I shared a gem of advice from Harry Walker, my 10th grade Honors English teacher at Reno [Nevada] High School. For weeks, Walker had been passing out vocabulary words for us to learn. But upon giving us our first writing assignment, he said, “If any of you use so much as one vocabulary word, you will receive an automatic F.” Write to communicate, he said, not to impress. The first three rules of my pretentiously titled Cuno’s Tips for Stronger Writing come directly from Walker’s advice:
I can see why people would think they need big words and lots of them. Just look at the classics. Dickens, Conrad, Melville, Hawthorne and the lot were not known for getting promptly to the point. But it was not good writing that required them to drone on; it was economics. Authors of their day were paid by the word. That alone provided plenty of motivation for, say, Victor Hugo to burn up some 3,000 words introducing a priest whose sole act was to give away candlesticks. Hugo burned up thousands more introducing other characters who, after committing a single, brief act, disappeared for good. As a result, you know more about every minor character than you need to know, and you won’t miss a thing if you read the abridged version.
Another motivator for droning on is that literary works were often serialized before appearing in book form. The more words, the more chapters; the more chapters, the more issues over which periodical publishers could spread them; and, the more issues, the more readers periodicals could attract and hold. Publications could get away with that sort of thing when they didn’t have to compete with radio, TV, film, and Netflix.
It’s shame, for it has made plowing through great literature as much a chore as a discovery. I don’t blame anyone who gives up on, skims through parts of, or turns to an abridged version of the classics.
Nowadays, magazines pay for articles with a lump sum, and book publishers pay a lump-sum advance plus royalties. It’s a better system. It frees authors to hook you within a few pages. And competition for readers all but demands they do.
SOMETIMES MY MARKETING BLOG overlaps with this one. I just posted a rant in the former about South Dakota’s woeful new anti-meth slogan. Check it out by clicking here.
... where I share thoughts about writing. I don’t consider myself a writing authority, but that doesn’t keep me from presuming to blog like one. Oh, and I reserve the right to digress when I feel like it.