Don’t you sometimes wish you could say something without saying it? Make a point without being accused of making it? Disguising it as something everybody knows so you don’t have to go into details… That kind of thing? It’s called paralipsis, and yes I’d like to be able to do that.
Think of the power that would give me -I’d be able to swat down my foes like unlanded-mosquitoes while they buzzed around me with helpless smirks on their faces. I could pretend innocence while actually crossing my fingers behind my back to absolve me of any guilt if my deception were ever questioned.
But I suspect in this age of instant social mediafication, I’d have to be very careful about how –and at whom- I threw my innuendo. If it was particularly juicy, I’d probably see it a few hours later on Facebook, stripped of context. “Of course, I’m not saying you’re a liar” might be a clever rhetorical device to use in a political debate to cast unproven aspersions on the opposition, but it would not be wise in a pub –even if it never got posted online.
I would welcome the power of a good paralipsis, to be sure, and yet loose lips sink ships as they used to say. But I think that it might be like arming a little kid with matches. I suppose you have to practice these things, though, eh –work on the word order and attributions. Figure out the reason for attacking the person. Stuff like that.
I’m just not very good at straight-facing. Things give me away -like stammering, or staring intently at the ground while I’m talking. My mother once wanted me to go into theology, but then realized that I’d probably never even pass the entrance exams when she found a copy of Playboy hidden under my socks in a drawer. The incident did encourage me to wash my own socks, however.
Anyway, I’m more of the loose-cannon genre. I just accidentally say things without thinking them through and then have to lie my way out of the consequences. I suspect the art of innuendo was lost on me –at least until I saw an article in the Conversation: https://theconversation.com/ 55615 It’s where I buried myself in the intricacies of paralipsis.
‘Paralipsis (para, “side” and leipein, “to leave”) is a Greek term that translates to “leave to the side” strangely enough. It’s thought to be an ironic way for a speaker to say two things at once.
‘For example, say you wanted to imply that your coworker takes too many coffee breaks without actually accusing him wasting time at work. You might say something like, “I’m not saying that he drinks more coffee than anyone else in the office, but every time I go to the break room, he’s in there.”’
As I read that, it suddenly occurred to me that the whole thing seemed rather straightforward –well, in a misleading sort of way. As the author, Jennifer Mercieca (Associate Professor of Communication and Director of the Aggie Agora, Texas A&M University) noted, ‘Paralipsis is a powerful rhetorical device because it can also allow someone to make a false accusation – or spread a false rumor – while skirting consequences.’ I mean, I would never want to do that, or anything, but it’s always a good idea to carry one of them in your pocket… just in case. And, of course, even if I used it -only in extremis, you understand- I could always issue the standard warning that I was merely quoting the opinion of an expert in the field.
I could also say –if grilled by the recipient- that I missed the caveatory paragraph in the article that dealt with the collateral damage: ‘[…] there’s danger in circulating accusations and rumors, even if the purpose is to “start dialogue.” Research shows that once an accusation or a rumor begins to circulate, it’s very difficult to retract. Often, a retraction or clarification doesn’t receive as much attention as the initial accusation. Meanwhile, the mere act of retracting misinformation can reaffirm the defective assertions as facts, even after the clarification.’ Still, there seem to be a lot of conditional descriptions there that stray suspiciously far from certainty –and it’s too long to quote, anyway.
But I have to say, despite the dangers, I figure it could get me out of a lot of awkward situations. Even bank robbers need a getaway car… Uhmm, okay perhaps not the best example. Nonetheless, I was itching to try it in public, but anonymously, and in the safe domain of strangers. Who knows, maybe I might even be quoted as a reliable but prefer-not-to-name source.
Sometimes, though, you shouldn’t go looking for opportunities. You can’t just plonk yourself down in Starbucks, or walk up to somebody in a mall and start paralipsing –people will move away. I would. And anyway, people have to show some interest in your opinion, care what you think; that’s sometimes difficult with strangers.
I was involved in small modicum of success while waiting for the bus the other day, though. It was snowing, so a group of shivering, betoqued elders, mittens akimbo, were stomping their collective feet inside a bus shelter and muttering about how it was even worse on the prairies when they were kids. They all seemed to hail from somewhere east of the Rocky Mountains, but west of Toronto, where the wind was wild, the temperatures always 40 below, and snow blew into drifts that towered above their heads. The fact that they were describing barely remembered scenes from their early childhoods when everything was above eye-level was barely mentioned. But they seemed to enjoy trying to out-reminisce each other, nonetheless.
In fact, I must have appeared so fascinated, that one of them –an old lady sporting a sturdy cane and a heavy blue coat that reached past her ankles to the tops of her galoshes- smiled at me after a particularly detailed discussion of how she used to walk down an unploughed road from her farm to the one room school house in her little Saskatchewan town.
“Are you from around here?” she asked, barely taking a breath after describing her epic journey to the others in the group.
I was flattered that she was trying to include me, but a little distressed that she figured I was of a similar age. I thought I’d pretty well covered scarfed up everything but my nose and eyes, but I suppose the years were not particularly kind to what she could see. “Actually, I grew up in Winnipeg, “ I said, my voice muffled through the scarf.
“Ooh,” she squealed like a schoolgirl, “I’ll bet you had some terrible winters out there, eh?”
I managed a shrug through my parka, although I had to take my hands out of my pockets to do it justice. “I remember my friends used to try to bury kids they didn’t like in forts in the snowdrifts when I was a kid… I’m not saying I ever agreed to it, of course.” I rolled my eyes and italicized the ‘I’ to show I was actually paralipsing. I thought that might trigger a few memories in the shivering crowd.
“I learned to smoke in one of those,” said a man with a cherry-red nose who’d been silent before.
Silence followed for a moment, and then the cane woman spoke up again. “I got my first kiss in a snowbank when I was five years old,” she said, glancing at a tall, thin man in a dark blue greatcoat busy shuffling beside her. “George kind of pushed me into it and pecked at my cheek…” I could see him begin to blush, but the woman continued on, delighted at his embarrassment. “Now, I’m not saying I was a cutey, or anything, or that I didn’t enjoy it, but I remember I punched him in the stomach!”
Everybody laughed, of course, and I guffawed politely, but I realized I had been scooped by a woman with a cane who looked like my mother. I considered asking her if she’d ever heard of paralipsis, but it was too late -they all started describing their own snow pranks handing denials around like they were candies.
You know, sometimes I wonder whether new words are just old ones wearing toques.