Say one thing to say something else: Frame a debate by implying some point is so obvious that it can be taken as given


May 12, 2014 4:05 pm

Say one thing to say something else

By Sam Leith

Frame a debate by implying some point is so obvious that it can be taken as given

Lord Myners, a former financial services minister, was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme last Wednesday morning. He was talking as his report into the – ahem – suboptimal governance of the Co-operative Group was about to be published, and setting out what he thought should happen.

“It needs a board of competent people with business experience able to provide the leadership for the [Co-op] group to work alongside the management team,” he told the interviewer.

The implication, I think we can agree, is that the board in place does not precisely answer that description. Towards the end of the interview he added: “The people who made the strategic errors that have cost the Co-op so much money over the last four years are still sitting around the board table.”

Did he tell the interviewer, in so many words, that persons X, Y and Z should be given the boot? Not quite. Far more effective (and, probably, legally prudent) not to. The point is that talking round the point does the trick just as well.

“Should X resign?”, someone might ask you. “That is not for me to say. I only invite them to reflect on their role in the unfolding catastrophe and make their own conclusion,” you reply. You get your message across clearly enough. In fact, you reinforce it: a show of restraint makes you look dispassionate, morally fastidious and careful not to exceed your remit. Here is not the court martial and the firing squad; rather, the half-open door leading to the room with the revolver and the glass of whisky.

Richard Nixon furnished another fine example of the genre. In a speech concerned with questionable uses of public money, he said his own conscience forbade him from employing his wife as a secretary at public expense. “Let me say, incidentally, my opponent . . . does have his wife on the payroll, and has had her on his payroll for the past 10 years. That’s his business and I’m not critical of him for doing that. You will have to pass judgment on that particular point.”

Saying something while appearing not to say it, in formal rhetoric, is called occultatio. Sometimes, thanks to a long-ago scribal error, it is called occupatio; but legitimate synonyms include paralipsis and praeteritio. And apophasis. All those names are testament to its popularity: it’s a handy device to have in your toolkit.

Occultatio can allow you to frame a debate by implying some point is so obvious that it can be taken as given: “I’m not even going to discuss the mess you made of the starter. Not to mention the main course. Let’s try to figure out what went wrong with pudding,” you might say. “Hang on a minute! You cooked the main course,” may come the reply. “Let’s just concentrate on the issues,” you resume.

When you are using occultatio to imply a course of action without actually urging that action, it allows you to, as it were, partly remove yourself from a position of responsibility. You get what you want but the decision, at least apparently, is someone else’s. An extreme version is conjured up in Peter Cook’sspoof of a biased judge’s instructions to the jury: “You may choose, if you wish, to believe the transparent tissue of odious lies which streamed on and on from his disgusting, greedy, slavering lips. That is entirely a matter for you.”

Finally, of course, an audience will always find an idea more attractive if it is under the impression it came up with it itself. Is occultatio a sneaky but useful rhetorical device? You may very well say that. I couldn’t possibly comment.

The writer is the author of ‘You Talkin’ to Me?’ Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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