Questions That Say More Than They Ask

Ordinarily, high school grammar has majorly taught us that interrogative sentences are those that pose a question, unlike declarative sentences that convey some sort of information. However, with the improvised and largely versatile uses of language, questions have emerged as an indispensable rhetorical tool.

We all know that rhetorical questions are meant to have obviously implied answers that is presumed known. Thus, “Shouldn’t men and women be equal?” is more of an assertion than a question that implies that men and women should be equal. In cases where the concerned question has an acceptably known presumption, it is hardly any deviation from reasoning. However, often people make use of questions in the rhetorical format to imply things that are not so obvious. While the question itself presupposes a certain truth underlying its formulation, the public listening to it does not know it, and thus ends up subliminally agreeing with this buried truth.

For instance, a critic of genetic research once asked, “What are the consequences of reducing the world’s gene pool to patented intellectual property, controlled by a handful of life-science corporations?” This question does not really seek to delve into what consequences the described event is going to have, but rather asserts two presumptions that run in the question- firstly, that the world’s gene pool will be reduced to intellectual property, and secondly that it will be controlled by a handful of life-science corporations. These presumptions are, of course, not an accepted truth, such as the need for gender equality.

This deceitful device employed often by speakers and journalists, is known as the Complex Question, and is manifested through various mainstream media. Take for instance catchy headlines that title articles covering alleged rumours, such as “Alia and Siddharth together?!” or “Is Neha Dhupia a mother-to-be?” Such questions intuitively imply that Alia and Siddharth are together, and that Neha Dhupia is to be a mother, both of which are in actuality nothing but rumours with no confirmed sources. Such questions are one of the most prevalent ways in which we see Yellow Journalism flood the newspapers.

Another arena where this form of loaded questioning is employed is often by political party speakers or representatives. Using a tactfully framed question with complex implications and demanding a simple answer to it is a sure-shot way of holding the members of the rival party speechless. Take for example, an opposition party leader asking something like, “Does BJP think the Indian public is blind that they will be taken by Demonetisation’s apparent aim of removing corruption and be unable to see what a huge scam it is?” While the question consists of two seemingly unrelated assumptions tied together in a convoluted bond, the answer demands a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Except, such a simple answer cannot be given to this question, because in reality, the Indian public being blind is not necessarily related with if they think Demonetisation is a scam. This is just the assumption the leader is running on.

In law, this method of using a Complex Question is often used to prove true a presupposition that previously was not proven, and is known as the negative pregnant. In cases where a question has several presuppositions, they must be denied individually, otherwise the denial of just one implies the assumption of the truth of the other. Take for example, this excerpt from a notorious murder trial:

Q: Lizzie, did you not take an axe and whack your mother forty times, and then whack your father forty-one times when faced with the prospect of cold mutton stew?

A: Not true. We were to eat Brussels sprouts fondue that day.

Here, Lizzie’s answer to only one insignificant part of the question at least implicitly accepts the truth of the other parts that may be sufficient to frame her for her parents’ murder.

So, how do we tackle with such loaded questions? We must be quick to note the various parts that it consists of, and if it runs on any unproven assumption. So, let us take for instance the previous question posed by the opposition leader to BJP. One way to tackle it would be to say that the Indian public’s judgement is not necessarily contingent on seeing Demonetisation as a scam, because as of now, it is not.

Another way to answer it would be by individually tackling its two parts- firstly, that the Indian public is certainly not blind, and that they have no reason to be, because Demonetisation has not been proven a scam.

Rhetorical tools have made the use of language more interesting, but one must be careful with its usage because the witty and the fallacious have a thin line between them.

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