*This post was first published on May 11, 2020
English has one distinct advantage over Italian. The distinction between an assertive and interrogative is embedded in the construction of the sentence. In writing Italians have to rely on the question mark, and in speaking they have to rely on inflection. Nevertheless the rhetorical is available in both languages. Whether I ask it as, “Is the Pope Catholic?” or “The Pope is Catholic?” what’s intended is not a question, but rather a yes to whatever was the previous question.
Would that it were that simple. Politicians are particularly adept at pretending to interpret a straightforward question as a rhetorical one. When a reporter asks, “Mr. President, how do you reconcile what you’ve just said with what you said yesterday?”, she intends it a question. But what he pretends to hear is, “Mr. President, you’re contradicting yourself.” Once this pattern is allowed to set in, there’s no way to ask any question the answer to which the politician would prefer not to answer. One might just as well acknowledge that a briefing isn’t a briefing about anything. It’s a prompt for him to pivot to just another stump speech, in which case why bother with the pretense of asking questions?
That was a rhetorical question, by the way, to which the answer is clear. We should do away with these prompts from these journalists-in-name-only unless they’re going to press the speaker, and keep pressing him, his pivoting notwithstanding, to either answer the question that was asked or be explicit in his refusal to do so.
Why won’t these journalists-in-name-only do that? Because they know that if they did there’d be no more press briefings. But they need these pseudo-briefings to provoke some off-the-cuff sound bite they can sell to their editor as ‘breaking news’.
Was there ever a time when …? Or has it always been thus? I’m not sure. Has the art of the pivot always been this ubiquitous or am I just becoming more impatient and intolerant of it? In either case, why doesn’t there seem to be any pushback against this pretence at journalism?
That’s not a rhetorical question, by the way. I’d keep pressing for an answer, but such is the irrelevance of philosophers to the real world that only at my peril would I be holding my breath.