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Beware of Obviosities: Can the Obvious Ever Be a Settled Question?

A long time ago – sometime back in the last millennium, as a I recall – Michael Enright, the C.B.C. host and motorcycle rider – during yet another debate on gun control, said of the bill then before Parliament, “I should think it would be an obviosity.” Besides any other criticism of this neologism, the case for (or against) gun control is anything but obvious. Any legislative proposal that divides the country almost evenly in half does not deserve to be called an “obviosity.” I have not heard this noun used since, and I remain, by and large a keen fan of Michael Enright. However, Stephen Harper, as any close observer of political discourse in Canada can attest, has given such new and diminished meaning to “obvious” that this might be a time for it to fall into greatly reduced usage.

Lest you, dear reader, should think that compared to all the other pressing issues of the day this is mere fluff, let me say a few things about its significance. First, I should say that I have an impression that the Prime Minister so likes the term that it has become a common place of some of his ministers. I have not done a thorough survey of ministerial statements in this regard. I did, however, come across a sustained exchange with a variety of Senators during question period Marjory LeBreton, the Government Leader in the Senate, reportedly used “obvious” in nearly every paragraph in her extended replies: “Obviously, the coroner’s inquest is ongoing.”, “Obviously, the best way to resolve these issues,” “Honourable senators, obviously the government is seized of these issues.”

I selected these three examples from the eight occurrences occurring over the six pages occupied by Question Period primarily because they may be the most useful in helping us to understand the meaning of the term as it has become a Conservative Government commonplace. Sen. LeBreton is certainly not following the variety of meanings of “obvious” in the OED, particularly not “4. a. Plain and open to the eye or mind, clearly perceptible, perfectly evident or manifest; palpable.” It is not obvious that a coroner’s inquiry is continuing unless you have followed its proceedings. It is not obvious that the government’s preferred route for solving an intractable problem is the best (or only) way. It is also not obvious that the government is “seized with” a certain set of issues. Indeed, this last example might tend to evoke the old maxim of writing coaches “Show me, don’t tell me.”

So what is going on when Stephen Harper, Marjorie LeBreton or other Conservative ministers describe something as obvious? My theory is as follows. Almost every time that either S. Harper or M. LeBreton or various other ministers use the term “obvious” they are about to do two things: first, to evade any more informative answer to the question; and, secondly, to avoid offering any evidence in support of their claim.

This is a practice that has been noted and discussed since the time of the Roman Senate of antiquity. It is a particular form of the type of argument known in antiquity as an argumentum ad ignorantiam. (It is likely unnecessary to provide a translation.) What the scholars of rhetoric mean by an argument from ignorance is not that the argument is particularly ignorant; nor does it necessarily mean that the speaker does not know a more substantial argument, though that may certainly be true.

Richard Gaskins, in his book Burdens of Proof in Modern Discourse ((Yale University Press: New Haven, 1992), examines the ways in which both burdens of proof and types of arguments well established in law are borrowed or at least adopted by other academic disciplines. Gaskins are particularly concerned with contemporary styles of argument that shift the burden of proof onto the defendant when the plaintiff chooses not to offer the proof normally expected. He considers that critical theory does a great deal of inappropriate burden shifting. He also offers a selection of major cases in which, he says, that the U.S. Supreme Court accepted a line of argument that was based more on an argument from ignorance than from substantial evidence. 

The most famous argument from ignorance is the type represented by “When did you stop beating you’re …?” The are, however, a variety of other kinds of arguments from ignorance. “Everybody knows that …” a refrain made more famous in recent years by Leonard Cohen’s song of the same name. Of course, if everybody knew that the dice were loaded, or that the medicines were diluted and the food contaminated, at the very least they would not need to be told. In short, much of what seems obvious is not.

I suggest that with great frequency the Harper-LeBreton usage (“the ministerial usage”) of “obvious” signals the speaker’s intention to engage in an argument from ignorance, in the sense that they assert something as fact for which they will offer little, if anything, by way of substantial evidence. The most surprising thing about this conclusion is that it suggests that speakers engaging in this ministerial usage may be more ethical than I had previously thought: they give us warning when they are entering into a line of argument that is devoid of evidence. In parliamentary debate (in either House) a speaker is only considered to be misleading the house if she or he knowingly submits false or misleading evidence. If, on the other hand, one merely offers a misleading response that is devoid of evidence then it is not considered that the speaker has misled the House. I leave it to the distinguished litigators among the SLAW readership to decide whether and how analogous phenomena happen in the courts in which they practice.

Of course, for this ethical warning to be of any use to us we need to listen for the signal with special care. We need to bear in mind that if no evidence is offered it is very likely because there is none available. We do well to remember that the Bush-Rumsfeld adage that “Absence of evidence does not necessarily mean an “evidence of absence” is mischievous nonsense. We may do well to ask whether it makes any more sense to go to war over charges for which there is a complete absence of evidence than it would to go to Court with a corresponding lack of evidence.

If I were teaching a course on political linguistics as my esteemed doctoral dissertation supervisor did I would certainly want to devote a class to the argumentum ad ignorantiam, and perhaps an additional class on the nature of obviosities. In the same memorable year in which I took David Bell’s course on political linguistics I had the further privilege of joining John Borrows’ seminar on First Nations and the Law. When Prof. Borrows returned my essay, one of his marginal comments asked, “Are there any settled questions,” a term I had presumably pilfered from some Court decision. When I have occasion to write to him from time to time, I often include a P.S. “I’m still looking for settled questions.”

I suspect that anything described by a writer or speaker as “obvious” neither requires nor deserves such a sustained effort.

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