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    When Do We Want It? Never!

    From Ask Figaro:

    Dear Figaro,

    As an academic rhetorician—the type of guy who calls demonstrative rhetoric what it is, epideictic rhetoric—I am increasingly, year by year, aggravated by various public figures engaging in excessive hypophora. Whether it’s a political figure or a coach in college sports, people overuse rhetorical questions. The rhetorical question followed by the quick answer seems rhetorically schizophrenic to me since people use it so much.

    Any thoughts on why rhetorical questions are being overused?

    Quintilian B. Nasty

    Dear Quint,

    You’re right that the hypophora (hy-PAH-phor-a)— the figure that asks a rhetorical question and then answers it — is getting a workout these days.  You know why that is? I’ll tell you why that is. Our society has become increasingly demonstrative, as your question implies. (“What do we want? Groupthink! When do we want it? Now!”)

    In a demonstrative society, deliberation goes out the figurative window. Any opinion or fact that’s contrary to the received wisdom smacks of disloyalty. And what’s the best way to deliver received wisdom? By immediate answers to rhetorical questions.

    Demonstrative rhetoric — or epideictic, as you Greek-talking Romans insist on calling it — brings the tribe together through talk of shared values. It can inspire patriotism and self-sacrifice, but too much of it results in  tribalism.  And tribalism is democracy’s kryptonite.

    The American founders knew that tribalism inevitably leads to dictatorship. It was the one thing they feared the most. And who is Figaro to argue?

    Nobody, that’s who.


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    Reader Comments (15)

    As Mitch Hedberg put it, "My friend said to me, ‘You know what I like? Mashed potatoes.’ I was like, ‘Dude, you have to give me time to guess. If you're going to quiz me you have to insert a pause.’" It's the same with rhetorical questions. Give a person time to at least make a stab at it!
    January 16, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterrapunzel210
    Know what? (Pause pause pause.) I love that quote.

    January 16, 2008 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    what keeps me going everyday?

    my daily Figaro!
    January 16, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterrich goldblatt
    Why do I read Figaro?
    Rhetoric about rhetoric, that's why.
    January 16, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterterre
    The rhetorical use of questions is important and common. However, I must strongly disagree with Quint and you.
    First of all, rhetorical questions cannot ever be overused; they're just too fundamental. Look at some basic categories:
    (a) pysma: the asking of multiple questions successively, which would together require a complex reply.
    (b) anthypophora: the immediately answering of ones own question.
    (c) anteisagoge: The answering of a question with a question.

    There are, of course, others, forming the entire area of erotesis. Your lament is that the common rhetorical usages of questions in daily life is due to 'group think' and tribalism. These ideas are completely unfounded. If asked, most people using these figures would simply say they were just trying to make a point. Sometimes experts can become such sticklers, they become unreasonable.
    The most important thing about questions is that they direct the minds of the listeners. For example if I ask you, "What color are your mother's eyes?", I've gotten to think about your mother and her eyes, whether you want to or not. What if I say,"You know doctors say french fries are bad for you?" That question begs the questions: 1) which doctors? 2) where is this information? 3) are french fries really bad for you? being asked several consecutive questions is an inquisition, while being asked the same questions repeatedly is a baggering. This all part of the psycholgy of questions. Understanding how to use questions properly is underappreciated science and art. I wish people handled the entire area better, but I'd never accuse anyone of being tribal due to their lack of sophistication.
    January 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSt. Davey
    I appreciate St Davey's point; he's quite right. But perhaps that IS the point - and the peril. One uses rhetorical questions under certain circumstances precisely to direct attention (listener is defined as passive) rather than to request introspection (listener takes charge of own life). It trains rather than educates. It creates a shortcut to a conclusion - and so it's a learning strategy for a listener sanctified by the listener's own fear or unwillingness to disbelieve. They keep handing out Nobel's in economics for demonstrating this again and again. Just when somebody else might think the listener should be attentive to her own moral obligation to test the world as presented, the listener fails the "should" test. (And so, outrage; not just a "huh?" from the Fig, but dismay and even despair - a planetwide lament usually reserved for the loss of a civilization. We know "the center will not hold", like Yeats said about Krypton, when WE'RE the damn center.) OK: you really can tell more about people from their language and their eating habits (hard to deliberate at the drive-up window) than anything else (even with Tantric manuals). Thus, the political meal where you can spread a lot more genetic material than in the back of a '56 Plymouth, even. Given that, how do you change the tense of the discourse short of stopping in mid-rhetoric and saying, "Hold on, hold on - I was just playing and showing you what could happen in this situation if you don't listen to how I'm leading you. Now, what might we do?" If rhetoricians know better, should they leave the stumbling block in the path of the blind man?
    January 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Block
    Very well said, St. Dave, and your recital of the erotesistic panoply makes Figaro hot.

    But Quintilian's question was not about the phenomenon but the trend of the hypophora; it was about the figure's growing use. The hypophora's employment in demonstrative rhetoric is the symptom of the larger, when- I- want- your- opinion- I'll- give- it- to- you phenomenon. that's where the tribalism comes in.

    January 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    David, your point about the passive listener is excellent. "Audience" used to mean a privileged hearing with an authority -- the original connotation remains in an audience with the Pope. How far we audiences have fallen.

    January 16, 2008 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    The WGA strike seems to have fallen into tribalism. If anyone posts anything contrary to their ideas they call that person a troll.
    January 16, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermadammina
    "Tribalism is Democracy's Kryptonite" provides me with a much-needed new email signature. Thanks.
    January 17, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKris S.
    Only writers would call their enemies trolls. It reminds me of Dylan Thomas's "A Child's Christmas in Wales": "'Perhaps it was trolls,' Dan said, who was always reading."

    January 17, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    Kris, I'm actually thinking of noodling up a speech titled "Democracy's Kryptonite," but the superhero analogy seems rather undemocratic. What do y'all think?

    January 17, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    At the end of the day (another overused phrase), I would say "Democracy's Kryptonite" would make a great name for either an edgy young band or a race horse. The speech sounds worth pondering too. Whichever happens first (band, horse or speech), I'd like to be among the spectators.
    January 17, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKris S.
    "Democracy's Kryptonite" doesn't span quite as nicely as "Kryptonite for Democracy".

    The former is better in print, but the later is a bit better when spoken.

    David Brock - you could have worked the term "happy meal" into your discourse above. It would have meshed well.
    January 19, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterHoward
    February 5, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterash somers

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