Friday, January 26, 2007

Comment Management (continued)

Dick, Why was Congressmen Sweeney attacked for his incident? When no one said a word about the Chewens Drunk Fest and Cover Up? Or Vinneys high housing development water main caper with stolen piping from a major industry? Talk about abuse of power and special priviliges!

The foregoing verbiage was offered, anonymously, forposting as a comment on the “Year in Review” installment of Seeing Greene. Because it makes serious accusations without backing them up or taking personal responsibility for them, it does not qualify for posting. It does qualify, however, as food for thought about sophistry, or specious argument, in everyday discourse. Let us proceed.

“WHY?” AS ‘THAT’ Any declarative statement about the when, where, how, or why of a putative event conveys a historical claim, namely, that the event took place. The same is true of any question about when, where, how or why. It prods the respondent in the direction of believing that the supposed event really occurred. To put it another way, it deters doubt about occurrence. In this case, accordingly, the commentator prods readers to believe that an “incident” pertaining to Congressman Sweeney occurred, that he was attacked for same, that a Chewens Drunk Fest and Cover Up occurred, that no one said a word about it, that a Vinney-related “caper with stolen piping” occurred, and that no one said a word about that.

RHETORICAL QUESTIONS The quoted comment consists most immediately, and preponderantly, of rhetorical questions. These are utterances whose form is interrogatory but whose discursive function is not to solicit information but rather to urge a conclusion. In this case the suggested conclusion is voiced in a closing exclamation, namely, that the cited putative incidents exemplify abuse of power and/or of special privilege. Respondents accordingly are prodded to accept two propositions: that certain “incidents” did occur, and that they are, in an important way, equivalent. The claim about equivalence serves to reinforce the claim about occurrence.

LEADING QUESTION In some respects the cited passage resembles the classic question “When did you stop beating your wife?” That utterance is formally interrogatory, or information-soliciting, and the interrogator may hope to trick the immediate addressee into giving a direct answer. But in context (prosecutor to defendant in court) the question also is rhetorical and accusatory, and its prime target is not the defendant but rather the audience and, most particularly, the jurors. These auditors are invited to believe that information has been conveyed; it is that the defendant has been a wife-beater. In the present case, a compound question is addressed to “Dick” while being offered as a blog comment that would go out to the community-at-large. The passage differs from the wife-beating query, however, in that the immediate addressee is not the immediate target of accusation-in-the-form-of-question. Instead, Dick is treated as a kind of confederate who might help to confirm accusations and, perhaps, provide the ostensibly solicited explanation(s).

COMMON KNOWLEDGE PLOY Vital to the rhetorical force of the quoted message is a tacit claim of comprehensibility. The sender prods receivers to believe that his words make sense and so do his references. We are prodded to believe that the Sweeney “incident,” the “Chewens Drunk Fest” and the “caper” are matters of common knowledge. That suggestion is conveyed partly by the absence of elaboration. The fact that the putative episodes are cited without elaboration ‘means’ that—for decently informed citizens, at any rate--elaboration is superfluous. Reinforcing the Common Knowledge nudge, along with the absence of elaboration, is the use of special labels. These labels, often capitalized, convey an impression of being part of common discourse. They seem to be shorthand references to event clusters whose details are generally known and are recorded in readily accessible sources. Thus we have cryptic references to “Watergate,” “Enron scandal,” “Teapot Dome” and “9/11”—references whose persistent use imparts an aura of authenticity. Anybody who does not immediately recognize “Watergate” as the name of a scandalous episode (as well as an apartment complex) can learn all about it on Google. An unscrupulous communicator can exploit this usage by devising his own set of labels for putative past events. Thus, by citing “Chewens Drunk Fest” in capital letters and without elaboration, a communicator seems to be alluding to a matter of common local knowledge. Such is the case, too, with a message whose author (a would-be contributor to Seeing Greene), arguing that Catskill is rife with “cover-ups,” recites a string of catchy labels: “the $450,000.00 Rescue Truck Bid Rigging Cover Up,” “the police cadet money caper,” “the Grapplers hire for Less Contest,” “the ETA 3-11 scam,” “the Liberty Street Racial Profiling Case,” “the tax monie [sic.] laundering scam” (“just to name a few thast [sic.]come to mind!”). The author seems to be tapping standard shorthand labels for locally known events. He deters suspicion that those cryptic labels are his own creations, designating events whose occurrence has not been confirmed.

DUPLICITY In this case the Common Knowledge ploy is quite a club. To challenge the sender’s claims effectively, a respondent needs to be self-confident about his grasp of the relevant facts as well as about sound reasoning. I shall now assume the guise of the confident analyst and critic.

>>The question “Why was Congressman Sweeney attacked for his incident?” is phony. It expresses a counter-factual proposition. Judging from what appeared in the news media, Mr Sweeney was the beneficiary for many months of suppression of a State Police report of an emergency (911) telephone call wherein Mrs Sweeney complained of being mauled by her husband. At a late stage in the Congressional election race last year, after months of being stonewalled officially, news people got copies of the report and published them. Mr Sweeney was not attacked; a domestic incident in which he was involved was exposed. He responded with an attack on the ethics of his opponent, along with spurious promises to produce the “authentic” report. The question of whether Mr Sweeney used political leverage to get the report suppressed for most of 2006 has not been answered. If he did so, he used special privilege illegitimately.

>>The occurrence of a “Chewens Drunk Fest” is not a matter of record or of common knowledge. Accordingly, respondents who don’t know what event our commentator is talking about are not abnormally ill-informed citizens. As it happens, a few anonymous commentators on two local blog sites have alluded persistently in the past year or so to the supposed event. Their unsubstantiated references do not give it historical authenticity.

>>If the “Drunk Fest” did occur and “no one said a word about it,” it remains to be seen whether the absence of “word” betokens abuse of power (by, presumably, Chewens or Chewenites). Other explanations come readily to mind: participants and spectators chose silence on the subject; police authorities did not know about it, so no report eventuated….. In alluding to a “Cover Up” our commentator implies that (i) there was an event that can properly be called a Chewens Drunk Fest, and (ii) its occurrence was reported officially, but (iii) the report was suppressed, and (iv) the suppression has not been disclosed. Moreover, by way of his closing exclamation the commentator also claims (v) that the lack of publicity can be traced to illicit use of special privilege. Those claims, however, are not self-evident. In point of fact, no police report of anything like that event exists. The absence of such a report COULD be due to the exertion of special influence, but there are other eminently plausible explanations. It behooves our commentator to dispose of them (as distinct from repeating his version of reality, ad nauseum, without substantiation, on two blog sites).

>>Similarly, the stolen piping “caper” seems to be our commentator’s invention. It “exists” only in the form of reiterations, by him and perhaps others, in anonymous blogs, without substantiation, and without attention to what Mr Seeley has said on the subject. Our commentator COULD buttress his Cover-Up thesis by establishing either that (a) the “caper” (stolen pipe) was duly noted in a police or other credible report, but the report was suppressed at the behest of a privileged power wielder such as Mr Seeley; or that (b) the “caper” occurred but was never reported, and in that way was effectively covered up, thanks to the use of special influence. The commentator does not make, let alone substantiating, either claim. He simply indulges in irresponsible, anonymous, cowardly defamation.

UKASE Anonymous comments will no longer be posted on Seeing Greene. Would-be contributors must accompany proposed comments with verifiable personal identifications (name plus telephone number or e-mail address). However, we will consider submissions in which contributors identify themselves clearly to the Greenekeeper and request anonymous postings. We will either heed those requests or not publish.

P.S. If this were a scholarly paper, it would be sprinkled with references to rhetorical analysis, discourse analysis, the Principle of Charity, the Principle of Relevance, conversational implicatures, pragmatic (vs. logical) implication, and invited inference.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


The case study at hand is both an example of the sometimes complicated menu of facts, pseudo-facts and speculation that any journalist has to sort through on a regular basis, and an example of the "blame the media" frenzy we see everytime one faction sees an account that does not match their agenda 110%.

Your examination is thoughtful, accurate and a well-needed lesson on the civics of a community news source - and ideally, the civics of any community forum.

Well done.