The Presupposition: Name calling without calling names.

The most primitive kind of verbal attack occurs in preschool–name-calling. Because adults on the attack rarely wish to appear childish, the skilful ones learn to disguise their insults by hiding them in a presupposition.

We’ve had a nice example of a presupposition in the news lately; from our good Mexican friend, Mr. Fox.  “They take jobs even a Black person wouldn’t take.”  

Now just why is that sentence so annoying? ….
Elgin’s definition: “A presupposition is something that a native speaker knows is part of the meaning of a language sequence, even if it is not overtly present in the sequence.”

You might say it’s the hole in the doughnut.

There are two presuppositions hidden in Fox’s sentence:
1) Black people have low standards and 2) those are pretty crappy jobs.

The part that has people upset, of course is #1.

Is there something we can do about attacks like this?  Besides whine?

Elgin offers a basic beginner’s 4-step response to this kind of attack.

  1. Identify the Satir mode being used.
  2. Identify the presupposition(s)
  3. Respond in Computer mode with a neutral question or response TO THE PRESUPPOSITION ONLY (my emphasis)
  4. Stay in Computer mode.

Which leaves us with a problem: how do we become fully aware of when a presupposition is biting our tail?

Elgin’s approach was to gather together a group of language patterns that typically carry presuppositions as part of a verbal ambush.  In her later books, she calls them Verbal Attack Patterns.  

Elgin’s first book picks up on 8 different patterns of English speech in which a user can bury a presupposition–a hidden attack.  I’ve been trying to figure out how to transfer her ideas into diary form. In the book she begins with an overview of 8 patterns.  Then she goes into each of the 8 in its own chapter.

But me being abstract sequential, I couldn’t make sense of why she had chosen that arrangement.  I finally decided that she has chosen her sequence on the basis of difficulty.  Like any good jedi master, she’s started with the easiest pattern to learn, and offers practice in it before adding another one.

So I’m going to skip the detailed overview.  (If you want that, go get her book!) Instead I’m going to highlight what seem to be common features of these attacks, and jump into the first two. Since this diary is aimed more at political than personal verbal abuse, I’m going to use political examples if I can think of good ones, rather than Elgin’s originals.

Look for the following features when you suspect a Verbal attack:

  • Unusual stresses within a sentence.
  • Absolutes: never/ever/always/everybody/nobody
  • The word “even”. (Unless you are leveling concrete or pinning a hem, the word “even” almost always is carrying some sort of emotional freight.)
Again–the process

  1. Identify the mode
  2. Identify the presupposition(s)
  3. Respond in NEUTRAL Computer mode TO THE PRESUPPOSITION ONLY
  4. Stay in Computer mode.

Pattern # 1: “If you REALLY X, you’d Y.”  

“If you REALLY loved your country, you’d support your president.”
    mode: Blamer.  
    presuppositions: you don’t love your country; supporting the president = love of country
    Blamer response-to-avoid: “You always accuse me….”
    Placater response-to-avoid: “I supported the president when he….”
    Computer response 1): “You know, it’s interesting that so many Republicans have the idea that Democrats cannot love their country.”
    Computer response 2): “I wonder why people so often confuse loving the country with loving the leader…”
        Notice that both effective responses zero directly in on a presupposition. And neither of them uses “I” or “you”.

Pattern # 2: “If you really A, you wouldn’t WANT to B.

“If you really supported your President in this time of war, you wouldn’t WANT to oppose his tax cuts.”
    mode: Blamer
    presuppositions: You don’t support the president; opposition = non-support; your beliefs are so unimportant that you can change them at the president’s whim.
The new twist here is the assumption that deeply held feelings are unimportant and voluntary.

If the Blamer wanted to turn the heat up further, the sentence might look like this:
“If you really supported your President in this time of war, you wouldn’t even THINK of opposing his tax cuts.”
    (Yup, you can not think of an Elephant!)

    Placater response-to-avoid: “I supported the president when he….”
    Computer response 1): “Do you think he’d feel supported if I changed my party affiliation?”
    This kind of response would be great to a fellow Dem–you need to be sure that the other person will a) recognize it as a real gesture of support, and b) refuse it.
    Computer response 2): “I wonder why people seem to think that a senator needs to support a tax cut for Bill Gates in order to support our troops in Afghanistan.”
    Computer response 3): “Some people feel Democrats should change their values the way they would change a tie.”   

Since this is politics and not personal, perhaps you might want to get in a few subtle digs of your own.  I kinda like this one:
    Computer response 2a): “I wonder where people get the idea that doormats can support anything.”  You’ve snuck in a presupposition of your own– anyone who does support the tax cut is a doormat.  It’s particularly sweet if are talking to a fence-sitter about something Hannity just said, rather than responding directly to the blamer.

OK.  You now have two related but easily recognizable attack patterns.  

Your homework–

  1. Listen and look for verbal attacks in political conversation.
  2. Identify mode and presupposition(s)
  3. If you have a knee-jerk response, identify its mode.  (Do you have a pattern?)
  4. Think out several computer mode responses to the original presuppositions.
  5. If you have paper handy, try to imagine how the other party would reply. Will the attack escalate, or damp down?
  6. If the attack is made by public person A on public person B, and you are talking with bystander C, how can you reframe the attack so person C becomes suspicious of either the motives or the intelligence of person A.?  

Knee-jerk name-calling on your part is not allowed; you are not in nursery school anymore.

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