Originally published in the Australian Financial Review, December 2012 after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which killed 27, including 20 children.
Following the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, there have been lengthy screeds arguing for more gun control legislation in the United States.
In response, the comment feeds and Twitter streams parrot one idea above all others: “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.”
When I first saw this phrase, it rocked me back on my heels. It’s a strong argument, immediately powerful. It took me a long time to see it for what it is. Flourish.
It invites one to think of a world where the law-abiding are defenceless. It suggests that arming the law-abiding inhibits crime. There is little or no evidence this is true.
The reason it is so hard to see the emptiness of this phrase at first blush is, I reckon,
its structure. It’s what’s called an “antimetabole” – a symmetrical phrase that has been a rhetorical device since humans first began to write. The second clause is a mirror image of the first.
It has a peculiar effect on the human brain, short-circuiting reason and going straight to deep reserves of feeling.
Antimetabole is the device of choice for some of the best-known leaders of all time.
“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
– John F. Kennedy, 1961.
“It is not even the beginning of the end but is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
– Winston Churchill, 1942.
“People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.”
– Bill Clinton, 2008.
“The first will be last and the last will be first.”
– Jesus of Nazareth, circa 0 AD.
But if they pay speechwriters well, the device is also available to lesser lights.
“In politics there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers, and then there are those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change.”
– Sarah Palin, 2008.
An antimetabole is an example of a chiasmus – a broader grouping of phrases that have “symmetry”.
These go back to ancient Greek writings: the word chiasmus comes from the Greek word for the letter X. Imagine two arrows crossing as they depict the structure of the second clause reversing the order of the first.
“In peace sons bury their fathers, but in war fathers bury their sons,”
– Croesus, circa 600 BC.
Australian politicians, operating in an environment deeply suspicious of rhetorical flourish, aren’t big users of the chiasmus, but there are Aussies deploying the antimetabole structure for their own ends.
Christos Tsiolkas, author of the best-selling novel The Slap, cites his authenticity using antimetabole: “You can take the boy out of the suburbs but you can’t necessarily take the suburbs out of the boy.”
What does this really mean? It doesn’t matter. In the work of persuasion, little lifting is done by logic. In fact, logic needs a little lifting. (See what I did there?).
Like an MC Escher painting, an antimetabole can join up concepts we wouldn’t normally be open to connecting.
Psychology professor James Williams in his 2002 book Visions and Revisions argues that antimetaboles fit right into the grooves of our thought patterns.
“Given what we know about the mind, it would be weird in the extreme if antimetabole were not legion,” he argues.
The human mind is apt to conflate beauty with truth. When Watson and Crick finally lit upon the idea of the double helix structure for DNA in 1953, Watson knew they had the answer to their riddle. The double helix was too beautiful not to be true, he argued.
Pop culture loves the antimetabole. It can be found on internet fan sites about washed up martial artists: “Chuck Norris doesn’t dodge bullets, bullets dodge Chuck Norris.”
Football coaches rev up an inferior team with it: “A champion team will always beat a team of champions.”
Schmucks use it making small talk in the lift “Working hard, or hardly working?”
But as fun as antimetabole might be in everyday life, we ought to be suspicious of it as part of persuasion. Fair is foul and foul is fair, when it comes to political communication. Antimetabole is part of the fog and filthy air.