Saying the unsayable. Again and again.

Pandemonium, in its original sense

Saying the unsayable can be a devastating rhetorical tactic — and that goes twice for saying that you’re not going to say something while, in fact, going right ahead and saying it. Here’s an example of the art in action, as highlighted by the excellent Language Log blog in late July:

“I was gonna say that De Blasio’s the worst mayor in the history of our city but I couldn’t say it, oh he’s a terrible mayor, probably won’t be there too long cuz he’s got problems like you wouldn’t believe, but he’s a terrible mayor. But I was gonna say that but now I won’t say it…”

It doesn’t take a genius to guess who was speaking: a certain presidential candidate whose name I’m not going to mention, Donald Trump (do you see what I did there?). As a rhetorical device, Trump’s approach has a name going back to Late Latin: apophasis, meaning “to say no.” But there’s something violently contemporary about its impact in a digital age, and that’s the degree to which the component parts of a speech are free to fly their separate ways, building an audience regardless of context.

Granting yourself permission to say whatever will capture maximum attention — while simultaneously disavowing the fact that you’re saying it — is a recipe for impact without accountability. It’s trolling plus deniability. Trump is far from its only practitioner, but he has proved mesmerizingly adept at making unsayable things all that anyone wants to talk about. Once a minute, another Trump tale bounces up my social media feeds; and because social media is nothing if not tribal, it sounds like a unanimous howl of disgust.

What am I missing? One person’s unsayable slur is another’s rallying cry, but what’s most striking is the contentless cocktail of anger and strength that this defiance projects. In a reversal of traditional rhetorical trickery, it’s the phrase “I was gonna say that but now I won’t say it” that matters, not the actual claim being disavowed. The detail is immaterial, at least so far as its speaker is concerned. What matters is the unyielding posture of frankness — and its ferocious appeal in an arena of information circulating far too fast for rational assessment. Has he now jumped the shark? Maybe. Whatever happens, he has changed the rules of the game. As I’ve written elsewhere, the artistry of deceit is more influential today than ever.

I’m reminded — bear with me on this — of a peculiarly literary precedent, in the form of poetry’s greatest antihero: Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. The devout Milton wrote with divine purpose, to “justify the ways of God to men”. But the poet and rhetorician in him had a problem, giving all the best lines to Satan: a fallen angel who declares, with superhuman resolve, to battle on through eternity from hell itself:

All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield…

Satan is — as he should be — a seductive figure. Unencumbered by facts or conscience, anger is his engine. And humanity is duly duped.

At the other end of the scales, here’s a more modern rhetorical trope that has also come of age through social media: “I can’t even…” The opposite of saying the unsayable, it leaves the sayable unsaid. The ancient world has a label for this kind of thing too — an enthymeme, meaning something held only in the speaker’s mind and thus omitted from speech — but its current three-word incarnation is more meme than act of persuasion. It’s both a shorthand for “I can’t even begin to express what I feel” and a wry gesture towards countless similar gestures. It’s also, for me, a strangely hopeful antithesis to the rhetoric of trolling and bombast.

Saying that you don’t know what to say, while indicating that you’re not alone in this, is one of the more charming features of a culture of constant shared articulacy. “I can’t even…” can be self-effacing, passive-aggressive, ironical, cooly enraged, shocked, silly, or a straight indication that you’re lost for words. Or several of these things at once. What it doesn’t do is enact a lie in the name of impact, or tell others what they are supposed to feel. It’s a phrase that submits to silence — the only known antidote to any troll.

Tom Chatfield’s book on language and technology, “Netymology: a linguistic celebration of the digital world” was published by Quercus US on 2nd August.