The Art of Persuasion

May 12, 2014 4:05 pm

You might say that: the art of sneaky rhetoric

  • Share
  • Print
  • Clip
  • Gift Article
  • Comments
Saying one thing to say something else
Kevin Spacey in 'House of Cards'

Kevin Spacey in 'House of Cards'

Lord Myners, a former financial services minister, was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme last Wednesday morning. He was talking as his report into the – ahem – suboptimal governance of the Co-operative Group was about to be published, and setting out what he thought should happen.

“It needs a board of competent people with business experience able to provide the leadership for the [Co-op] group to work alongside the management team,” he told the interviewer.

The implication, I think we can agree, is that the board in place does not precisely answer that description. Towards the end of the interview he added: “The people who made the strategic errors that have cost the Co-op so much money over the last four years are still sitting around the board table.”

Did he tell the interviewer, in so many words, that persons X, Y and Z should be given the boot? Not quite. Far more effective (and, probably, legally prudent) not to. The point is that talking round the point does the trick just as well.

“Should X resign?”, someone might ask you. “That is not for me to say. I only invite them to reflect on their role in the unfolding catastrophe and make their own conclusion,” you reply. You get your message across clearly enough. In fact, you reinforce it: a show of restraint makes you look dispassionate, morally fastidious and careful not to exceed your remit. Here is not the court martial and the firing squad; rather, the half-open door leading to the room with the revolver and the glass of whisky.

Richard Nixon furnished another fine example of the genre. In a speech concerned with questionable uses of public money, he said his own conscience forbade him from employing his wife as a secretary at public expense. “Let me say, incidentally, my opponent . . . does have his wife on the payroll, and has had her on his payroll for the past 10 years. That’s his business and I’m not critical of him for doing that. You will have to pass judgment on that particular point.”

Saying something while appearing not to say it, in formal rhetoric, is called occultatio. Sometimes, thanks to a long-ago scribal error, it is called occupatio; but legitimate synonyms include paralipsis and praeteritio. And apophasis. All those names are testament to its popularity: it’s a handy device to have in your toolkit.

Occultatio can allow you to frame a debate by implying some point is so obvious that it can be taken as given: “I’m not even going to discuss the mess you made of the starter. Not to mention the main course. Let’s try to figure out what went wrong with pudding,” you might say. “Hang on a minute! You cooked the main course,” may come the reply. “Let’s just concentrate on the issues,” you resume.

When you are using occultatio to imply a course of action without actually urging that action, it allows you to, as it were, partly remove yourself from a position of responsibility. You get what you want but the decision, at least apparently, is someone else’s. An extreme version is conjured up in Peter Cook’s spoof of a biased judge’s instructions to the jury: “You may choose, if you wish, to believe the transparent tissue of odious lies which streamed on and on from his disgusting, greedy, slavering lips. That is entirely a matter for you.”

Finally, of course, an audience will always find an idea more attractive if it is under the impression it came up with it itself. Is occultatio a sneaky but useful rhetorical device? You may very well say that. I couldn’t possibly comment.


The writer is the author of ‘You Talkin’ to Me?’ Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama

artofpersuasion@ft.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

  • Share
  • Print
  • Clip
  • Gift Article
  • Comments
SHARE THIS QUOTE