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kottke.org posts about rhetoric

The Ethical Aside

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 07, 2021

parentheses, em dashes, commas

Stylistic tics are often shorthands for forms of thinking, or too often for ways of not thinking through a particular problem or set of circumstances. In “Aside Effects,” Lauren Michele Jackson looks at how the rhetorical aside, whether in commas or parentheses, gives the appearance of covering all bases while actually relegating the cases that matter to the status of a special footnote.

An article on loitering, say, will take care to mention that Black and Brown folks are often penalized by anti-loitering laws, but such an aside leaves out the fact that the Brown loiterer is not one example but the prototype. The ethics of the thing protest too much. It’s “women and people of color.” It’s “women and femmes.” Jules Gill-Peterson, in her essay on trans pessimism, asks after the misty “trans woman of color” whose life in print is only an enhancement for other things, a summoning that suppresses whatever lives happen behind the rumor. An aside to be cast aside. “The trans woman of color whose life is invoked is always putative,” Gill-Peterson writes. “She’s no fact. Who is she? How do you know her? I know why Chase Bank, or Sephora[,] pretends to know her. But you? What’s your excuse?”

The ethical aside is an interruption—the beat before everyone gets on with their lives. Journalists signal that they have done their due diligence in reaching out to all parties with the inclusion of “(X declined to comment for this article)” in reported investigations; the ethical aside, likewise, says that the author has indeed thought of and considered the conditions of those excluded by their primary interests. There’s someone else out there, it acknowledges, even as the story as written depends on their disavowed existence.

This isn’t a hard and fast rule, a proclamation that footnotes, parentheticals, and the like are inherently bad, and Jackson takes time to look through cases (including some splendid literary examples from Frederick Douglass and Vladmir Nabokov) where the aside has the opposite effect. But it does point to a very real problem not just in style but with habits of thinking. What if we valued the actually thoughtful more than the appearance of conscientiousness? I don’t know what that world would look like, but I bet it would be a more interesting one.