Caveat Audiens ("Let the Listener Beware")

By Doloff, Steven | The Humanist, January-February 1997 | Go to article overview

Caveat Audiens ("Let the Listener Beware")


Doloff, Steven, The Humanist


The Romans had a word for it. In fact, classical critics coined many terms to identify the logical errors and verbal evasions that sullied public debate. Consider: argumentum ad hominem ("argument against the person"), attacking an opponent's character instead of addressing the issue under discussion; petitio principii ("begging the question"), asking a question which assumes an unproven point; and post hoc, ergo propter hoc ("after this, therefore because of this") asserting that, simply because one event followed, another, the former caused the latter.

Public discourse in our own day would seem to invite the creation of a few more terms like these to point out hybrids of the traditional logical errors and subversions lurking in current political and journalistic speech. I offer the following suggestions.

Si anas est, tetrinnit ("if it's a duck, expect it to quack"): this is when politicians use any question at all asked by an interviewer to recite a self-serving prepared statement on some issue. Even though the lack of connection between the question and the answer can sometimes be quite striking, this tactic is nevertheless exceedingly common. Defenders of this verbal groundshifting might say that the interviewees are only "reframing" bad questions (to correct, perhaps, for cases of petitio principii). Politicians, however, almost never take overt issue with even the most biased questions (by saying, for example, "I think that's a misleading or unfair question because . . ."). In fact, they frequently say, "That's a very good question," and then go on to deliver their unrelated responses.

Ludicra exercitatio facilis est;. res civilis, difficilis ("athletics is simple; politics, complex"): this is when journalists cover political events as "sports," focusing almost exclusively on daily public-opinion pous and speculating on one side or another's constantly shifting chances of "victory." Because poll statistics are "facts" in a very shallow kind of way, they are offered as easily understood "news" of daily winners and losers. Does this kind of political handicapping help, the public" Yes, if people literally are betting on election or legislative results, no, if people want any informative analyses of politicians, platforms, positions, or political track records to assist them in choosing for whom to vote.

Homo in speculo interrogat ("the person in the mirror has a question") this is when news interviewers attribute to the public a preoccupation with something that the media themselves are keen on because they hope it will generate a marketable amount of public interest.

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Caveat Audiens ("Let the Listener Beware")
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