Begging Off The Question By Changing It

red concrete blocky question mark sculpture sitting in grassy pathIt seems at times that people will do anything they can to avoid engaging in an extended back-and-forth conversation. Obviously we all would like to frame our positions in the most favorable light, but when we go beyond framing to actively distorting other positions civic discourse suffers.

Today’s press conference by House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan provides a prime example. Of course, people from all along the political spectrum avoid direct questions from time to time. Ryan’s example is just the most recent to come to hand. When asked whether losing the presidential election should have an effect on his proposed budget, Ryan said per The Huffington Post:

“The election didn’t go our way. Believe me, I know what that feels like,” he said. “That means we surrender our principles? That means we stop believing what we believe in? Look, whether the country intended it or not, we have divided government. We have the second largest House majority we’ve had since World War II. And what we believe in this divided government era, we need to put up our vision.”

Ryan’s “so the question is” deftly changes the question asked, and it violates discourse norms that require interlocutors to converge on a common question or issue. These norms can be understood in terms of Paul Grice’s maxims, the pragma-dialectical approach of Frans van Eemeren and Robert Grootendorst. or classical stasis theory. Whichever theoretical approach used, however, it is clear that dodging questions by inaccurately restating them frustrates substanstive, productive discussion.

Despite his first response, the question is not about how Ryan feels about having lost. The question most certainly is not whether he should “surrender [his] principles.” The question was how he thought losing the election should affect the budget he proposed and includes an implicit question about potential compromise between the Democratic and Republican positions.

If Ryan’s position is that the election should have no effect, then he should say so. Such an answer wouldn’t address the implicit question about compromise, but at least it would address the question as asked. His ultimate answer, that the proposed budget is the “vision” of the Republicans, is a perfectly reasonable response to why he wouldn’t let the outcome of the presidential election affect the content of his proposed budget. After all, proposals begin the process of negotiation that compromises transforms into policy that can win majority support.

So why doesn’t Ryan answer the question directly, especially when he has a direct answer at hand? What rhetorical function does his alteration of the question serve? By creating a new question in the form of “Should Republicans abandon their principles,” Ryan casts his position in an admirable light that portrays his side as dedicated to what they believe. He also makes the questioner look foolish. No serious journalist or commentator would suggest that after losing an election a political party should cast aside their principles.

If Ryan had merely avoided the question, I wouldn’t find his discursive behavior as troubling as I do. Rather, in avoid the question by crafting a straw-question, he degrades civic discourse in a pernicious fashion that gives the appearance of dialogue while suppressing the views of his interlocutor.

Image Credit: Alexander Henning Drachmann | CC CC BY-SA 2.0


About Todd Battistelli

Rhetorician and writing teacher. Keeping an eye on the state of civic discourse.
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