There is nothing new under the sun, a revered text tells us. And while the latest inventions from Silicon Valley may seem to refute that proposition, it may well be true of rhetorical devices, those verbal and mental forms with which we construct our arguments and formulate our opinions. First identified by the ancient Greeks and Romans, those devices are still in use today, both in the public arena and in our private, everyday lives. And they can have a profound effect on the ways we experience the world, whether we realize it or not.
I am thinking in particular of procatalepsis, a device much favored by politicians, public officials, columnists, and others in positions of influence. Procatalepsis is a figure of speech in which the writer raises an objection to his or her argument and subsequently refutes it. Often the objection being considered is introduced by “Granted,” “To be sure,” “It may be argued,” or some such phrase. By duly considering that objection, the writer (or speaker) appears reasonable, realistic, and open to others’ points of view. The effect, however, is to rebut or exclude the opposition, while strengthening one’s own line of argument.
As a case in point I would cite a recent column by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. In this column, entitled “Who Needs Reporters?,”* Bruni advances the argument that in the digital era political reporters are becoming irrelevant and obsolete. Enabled by the Internet, politicians are finding “route[s] around the news media,” allowing them to deliver their messages at their own tempos and on their own terms. As his prime example, Bruni adduces Rep. Michelle Bachmann’s recent online video, in which she announced her decision not to seek reelection:
It could easily have been mistaken for a campaign ad, with lighting that flattered her, music to her liking and a script that she read in as many takes as she desired. There was no risk of stammer or flop sweat, no possibility of reporters itching to challenge her self-aggrandizing version of events. Weird, no?
“Well, no,” Bruni answers, rejecting this anticipated response. He then goes on to cite other examples of Bachmann’s strategy, notably those of Anthony Weiner and Hillary Clinton, both of which illustrate “politicians’ ability, in this newly wired world of ours, to go around us and present themselves in packages that we can’t simultaneously unwrap.”
Shortly thereafter, Bruni anticipates another objection: that “you journalists have brought this on yourselves.” And though he gives some credence to that argument, he soon returns to his main point, which is that politicians as otherwise diverse as Bachman, Weiner, and Clinton are using the Internet to “marginalize naysaying reporters” and “neutralize skeptical reporting.” For Bruni this is a disturbing development, because it deprives journalists of their right to question politicians, and it violates the public’s right to see its leaders “in environments that aren’t necessarily tailored to their advantage.”
Bruni’s points are well taken, but one might observe that in his column he is doing something akin to what Bachmann, et.al., are doing in their videos. By employing procatalepsis—four times in a single column—Bruni is himself negating naysayers, neutralizing skeptics, and controlling the discourse. What appears to be a dialogue between writer and reader is in fact a persuasive monologue. Rejoinders are considered only be rejected. The writer remains in firm control.
And what Bruni is doing in the public arena bears a close resemblance to what many of us habitually do in our private, interior monologues. Briefly entertaining ideas that challenge our assumptions and subvert our fixed ideas, we reject those troublesome intruders. Practicing procatalepsis, not as a rhetorical technique but as a habit of mind, we strengthen our convictions and bolster our established points of view. Having briefly opened our minds, we snap them shut again, excluding the possible other case.
To that natural human tendency, the regular practice of meditation can be a potent counterforce. For as Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel, author of The Power of an Open Question, puts it, meditative space “doesn’t do—it allows.” It “allows objects to come into being, to function, to expand, to contract, to move around, and to disappear without interference.”** Those “objects” may well be our familiar notions, prejudices, and cherished self-concepts, but they may also be unwelcome and unfamiliar ideas, which challenge and alter what we have always thought. By allowing all to co-exist, if only for the space of single sitting, we open the possibility of seeing things afresh—and of discovering something truly new under the sun.
* Frank Bruni, “Who Needs Reporters?” New York Times, June 1, 2013.
** Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel, “The Power of an Open Question,” The Best Buddhist Writing 2011, ed. Melvin McLeod (Shambhala, 2011), 139.
Photo of Bowdler’s Passage, Shrewsbury, by ceridwen