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.
... 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.