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No Way to Prevent This

October 12, 2015

In a society where mass shootings have become semi-regular occurrences, where impending tragedy seems to stalk the halls of schools across the country, and where a single person’s mental illness (or extreme frustration or crippling loneliness) can radically alter the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals, there doesn’t seem to be room for humor.

And there shouldn’t be, not really. But for a “news outlet” like The Onion, where humor, irony, and sarcasm provide a lens through which to view current events, does that mean they are not allowed to participate in the discussion?

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The knee-jerk reaction is to say an emphatic “NO.” And I agree that murder of any kind, and especially that of youths, is NEVER a laughing matter.

But what if The Onion, in the role of sarcastic agitator, can do something that no other publication can do to shed new light on a horrifying topic, all while remaining true to their ethos?

May I present pieces of evidence A, B, and C.

I encourage you to peek at the three articles if for no other reason than to help yourself understand the value of rhetoric in practice. Let’s break it down:

  • Each is written in response to a different mass shooting (Roseburg, OR, Charleston, SC, and Isla Vista, CA, respectively)
  • Each contains the same title: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens”
  • Each contains the same set of quotes: “This was a terrible tragedy, but sometimes these things just happen and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them” and “It’s a shame, but what can we do? There really wasn’t anything that was going to keep this guy from snapping and killing a lot of people if that’s what he really wanted,” though the attribution is different in each case
  • And each concludes with the same statement: “At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past six years were referring to themselves and their situation as ‘helpless.’”

Rhetorically speaking, what is the value of repetition in these instances?

I would argue that The Onion, through repetition, is able to make best use its ethos—a farcical, irony-based, sarcasm dripping news entity—to do what other news outlets cannot do: perform a perfect reductio ad absurdum argument.

The reductio ad absurdum is based on the concept of a slippery slope, where faulty reasoning (or policy, or position) leads to an absurd position.

If the concept feels familiar to you, it’s because you’ve seen it before, from “lowbraus” like Homer Simpson complaining “Oh! I can’t take his money, I can’t print my own money, I have to work for money. Why don’t I just lie down and die?” to celebrated authors like Jonathon Swift arguing that the solution to Irish poverty was to eat newborn babies.

For their iteration of the reductio ad absurdum, The Onion makes perfect use of it’s own ethos and ability to “invent” quotes and news to succinctly capture the sentiment of many Americans: this is a recurring nightmare.

Through repetition, the articles are able to sharpen reader focus on the fact that no one ever seems to take responsibility or advocate for real change in regards to these atrocities, despite their frequency, publicity, and seeming uniqueness to America and its “gun culture.”

This article, like all my work at the Silver Tongue, is not meant to advocate or admonish, but instead to show examples of interesting rhetorical situations relevant to modern society. However, as a citizen who opens the newspaper or turns on the TV to face these all-too-familiar headlines, I wish the madness would stop. And as a teacher who is responsible for the health and well-being of my students, it says something sad for our culture that I lie awake at night wondering if the next time it will be my school on the news, and how best to barricade the classroom door.

If you want to know more:

  • NPR’s Sam Sanders has an interesting write-up about The Onion and it’s “No Way To Prevent This” articles here
  • Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca deal with “Arguments of Direction” in The New Rhetoric (pp. 281-287) and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy does a thorough treatment of reductio ad absurdum if you want to get more detail on the specifics and deployment of the rhetorical tactic
  • Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” can be found in its entirety here
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3 Comments leave one →
  1. John Giertz permalink
    October 12, 2015 6:44 pm

    I would like to understand your point better, but i feel i need to read the articles. Did you leave links to your exhibits A, B, and C, or did I miss them?

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