Monday, April 30, 2012

Random Thought of the Day: Misbehavior is the offspring of the negative interrogative

Doesn't that just sound peculiar?

And so the dilemma begins. Either you agree with me that the above heading sounds peculiar, or you don't. A seemingly innocuous situation, but one which can lead to, admittedly unfounded yet entirely plausible, conclusions. Couldn't it be that our responses to such questions are less about how we truly react to the topic than as to how we react to the manner in which it's asked?

See, I did it again. The manner being presented here is one that almost begs compliance, as if there could be no other alternative. It verily challenges the listener to disagree with the speaker, and it never fails in breeding a sense of conformity. To agree is to instantly be on the same wave length as the speaker, while to disagree only serves to draw a deeper line in the sand. Either you're in or you're out.

Here are some contextual scenarios to help bring this into focus.

How might Cain have behaved if Eve hadn't posed the question this way…?
"Lo, now, dearest Cain, can't thee at least consider pig farming or keeping a pheasantry as a suitable pastime?"

Or one of his many lovers to Alexander the Great…
"Dearest Lex, can't we just settle down somewhere and adopt ourselves a nice little brood of rugrats?"

Or Anne Boleyn to Henry VII?
"Come now, dear, won't you reconsider?"

Or one of his many advisors to Napoleon…
"Pardon my liege, but shouldn't we postpone the advance into Russia until after winter breaks?"

Or one of his many advisors to Hitler…
"Pardon mein f├╝hrer, but shouldn't we postpone the blitzkrieg into Russia until after winter breaks?"

But this sort of distinction is detected less in writing than it is in actual speech. The same thing exists in Japanese dialogue with the use of the interrogative tag marker pronounced, "…ne?" In Japanese, the negation's sense of uniform conformity of ideas is more implied and conversational than hard and demanding, but the way in which it's emphasized can really have an effect on the listener. Perhaps it's not the negative interrogative so much as it is the emphasis placed on certain words when speaking in a such a manner. Read the following lines aloud, placing stress on the italics, and observe.

Don't you think a glass of arsenic is good for building strong bones?

Haven't you ever played dodge-the-automobile before?

Don't these jeans make me look porcine?

In every case the danger is obvious. Even if you replaced certain key words with the more standard "milk," "football," or "fat" (in the latter case, gentlemen, the danger is two-fold), you get the same result. Where do you stand? Are you someone with whom the questioner would care to hang out with, or sooner leave dead in the gutter? There's also that tendency when someone tells us what or what not to do, we do the exact opposite. Subversively divisive and pricking us right at our prideful centers, these linguistic devices are gateways into misbehavior, and closely related to that most fiendish of argumentative styles: devil's advocate.

Don't believe me. Why don't you go find out for yourself? (I already know you won't.)