Paralipsis: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Timothy Inman

Tim has taught college English and has a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing and poetics.

This lesson covers paralipsis. Learn what paralipsis is and how to identify it with the help of examples. Then take a quiz to test your understanding.

Introduction

You may have never heard of paralipsis, but it's actually a very common rhetorical device used by poets, preachers, and politicians alike. Barack Obama frequently turns to paralipsis to drive his point home. In a speech on racial tensions in America, Obama declared, 'We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country.' He went on to say, 'We do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist between the African-American community and the larger American community today can be traced directly to the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.'

What gives? President Obama just told us that it's unnecessary to go into the history of racial injustice in the U.S., and then he proceeds to do just that. Is he being dishonest? Or is he using words in a seemingly contradictory manner for rhetorical effect?

Definition

Rhetoric can be defined as the art of persuasion, using words that you know will have a certain effect on your audience in order to get them to come around to your point of view or way of thinking. Paralipsis, also known as apophasis, is a specific way of using words for persuasive purposes, so it's known as a rhetorical device.

Paralipsis is a tongue-in-cheek approach to making your position on a given idea or issue known to your audience. Basically, you deny saying what you are, in fact, saying. The denial acts as a 'hook' to grab the attention of your intended audience, drawing them into the 'meat' of the statement, or the actual message you are trying to get across. In the example above, President Obama denies that he is going to address the history of racial injustice in America, even though that's exactly what he goes on to do. Obviously, he knew what he was going to talk about all along, but in introducing his topic this way, he captures the attention of everyone in the room.

Paralipsis and Irony

Paralipsis is considered a form of irony. It's a lot easier to give examples of irony than it is to define it. You are being ironic when you look out the window to see a torrential downpour and remark to a friend or family member, 'Beautiful day, huh?' In ironic statements, the words used are in direct contrast to the reality of the situation. The intended effect is comical, so irony is often used by comedians to point out discrepancies we encounter in everyday life, as in the popular one-liner, 'Everyone knows marriage is the leading cause of divorce.'

In the examples above, the ironic statement about marriage is more subtle than the one about the bad weather.

Catch the irony?
ironic Tshirt

Anyone can see you are being ironic if you say it's nice out when it obviously isn't. In the second example, though, your audience has to 'work' a little. Divorce is what happens when a marriage falls apart, so the relationship between the two concepts, as it exists in reality, stands in contrast with the words of the joke. What makes the joke successful is the fact that you can't get a divorce without first being married, a subtle observation that is nonetheless readily apparent upon further reflection.

Unlike most forms of irony, the effectiveness of paralipsis depends not on the subtlety of delivery; it's often most effective when used in a blatantly obvious way. In the quote from President Obama above, it's a given that the history of racial injustice is important to him. His denial is so obviously staged that it only adds to the power of the second part of the statement describing how slavery and discrimination continue to exert an influence over racial tensions today.

Examples and Analysis

As mentioned above, politicians often paralipsis for rhetorical effect. This includes members of the right side of the aisle as well as those on the left. Michele Bachmann, a Republican congressional representative, once quipped about a recent outbreak of swine flu:

I find it interesting that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out … under another Democrat president, Jimmy Carter. And I'm not blaming this on President Obama. I just think it's an interesting coincidence.

Why mention this apparent coincidence if not to cast blame on the sitting president for the outbreak? Bachmann is here using paralipsis to implicate Mr. Obama by denying the fact that she is doing so, all for rhetorical effect.

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