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While We’re (Not) Speaking of Libya

April 8, 2011

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has me thinking about silence.  Its rhetorical dimensions, that is.  Counterintuitive?  Quite the contrary.  Persuasion comes in all language of all forms—silence is one of them.  Classical rhetoric actually enumerates multiple types. There’s the not talking flat out kind—praecisio; the breaking off mid-speech kind—aposiopesis; and most to my point, there’s aporia.  Aporia attracts a lot of commentary, but for now I’ll stick to rhetorical-figures-of-speech extraordinaire Arthur Quinn’s definition: “to talk about not being able to talk or decide.”

Graham turned to aporia in the recent Senate hearing on the US Libyan intervention.  The widely circulating sound bite version reads like this:

The idea that the AC-130s and the A-10s and American air power is grounded unless the place goes to hell is just so unnerving that I can’t express it adequately.  The only thing I would ask is, please reconsider that.

It’s the “I can’t express it adequately” that marks aporia.  Graham can’t find words to explain how unnerved he is about US fighter jets cluttering up their parking spaces rather than Libyan air.

With this use of aporia, Graham makes several persuasive moves.

  1. He emphasizes imagination. What we don’t see is always scariest; what we don’t put into language has the biggest chance to inspire fear.  Graham’s assertion of indefinable “unease” can grow in the audience’s mind without limitation.
  2. He emphasizes sincerity.  We tend to interpret a lack of words as someone being *really, sincerely* [whatever emotion].  Typically we are too happy or too angry or too upset to speak, but unnerved works as well.  Graham can thus suggest a high level of emotional response without actually speaking hysterically or hyperbolicly.
  3. He emphasizes consubstantiality.  Or if you don’t speak Burkean, emphasizes our “shared identity”.  By not quantifying his emotional reaction, Graham allows the audience to fill in the blank.  Your opinion of Graham will likely affect the charity of your interpretation, still Graham avoids alienating any of his supporters and creates the opportunity for undecided audience members to read him as a kindred soul.

Useful as aporia can be as a persuasive tool, I have to question its place in this particular context.

Congressional hearings are, in theory, deliberations among experts and elected officials. Deliberations depend on interaction between participants.  To refuse to speak is to deny interaction.  If we had read Graham “sat in stony silence”  during the hearing, we might have ascribed that action to a political stance, but it’s likely we’d also have interpreted it as a failure to do his job, to participate in deliberation and come to good decisions.

Then again, Graham could be using this unease as a call for deliberation—do others feel the same? If so, can they better articulate it?  Locate its source and determine its value?  If the committee could answer those questions, then they could also debate about how to mitigate a now defined, shared, reasonable concern.

That’s not what I see happening here, however.  What I see is a rhetorical figure, aporia, used to shut down deliberation rather than expand it.  Whether this is intentional misuse or merely a missed opportunity I leave up to the world’s many politicos and to you, dear reader.   For me, the rest is

well, you know.

If you want to know more:

  • Am I making too much of a minute phrase? Focusing on a mere snippet from an over two-hour-long hearing might seem unwise or unkind, but Graham’s quote was featured in the AP write-up and so became a widely circulated sound bite.  I’m willing to bet a house I don’t own more people heard or read the press coverage than watched the entire committee hearing, so decontextualized as the bite might be, this is the part of Graham’s speech in circulation and so the part likely to persuade.
  • My definitions of the above rhetorical figures come out of Quinn’s Figures of Speech: Sixty Ways to Turn a Phrase.  Other handbooks and articles will quibble with Quinn, since, as Quinn himself explains, these delineations are at some level arbitrary.  The point is to draw lines that clarify rather than clutter, and here I find it useful to distinguish between choosing to remain silent, describing the sense of being speechless, and enacting a moment of speechlessness.  The first and last are dramatic gestures; the middle (aporia) is more subtle.  It’s that subtlety, however, that might make aporia the most concerning kind of rhetorical silence.  Since it is the hardest to notice, it is also the most likely to change debate in important but unrecognized ways.
  • Though definitions will differ, the general concept of talking-about-not-talking is much fun to study and proliferates in canonical texts from rhetoric and literature.  One needs only turn to Shakespeare (although that’s my solution for many things) to find lovely examples of aporia. “Silence is the perfectest herald of joy: I were but little happy, if I could say how much” says Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing. Troilus declares “You have bereft me of all words, lady” as does Merchant of Venice’s Bassino: “Madam, you have bereft me of all words” though he goes on for another ten lines.   Claudio also keeps talking.  Of course, it’s hard to have a performance where people stop performing; how many John Cage numbers can you endure?  Then again, all those heroes go on to promise one thing yet perform the opposite, so perhaps Shakespeare is emphasizing how these characters fail to connect what they say with what they do.
  • Interest piqued?  Cheryl Glenn has recent, well-received book on the topic, Unspoken: a Rhetoric of Silence.
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