X Marks the Spot

Identifying Chiasmus in the 2019 Government Shutdown Discourse

This past weekend, Citizen Critics Editor in Chief Jennifer Mercieca tweeted about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s use of the rhetorical strategy chiasmus. Our inaugural Kairotics post breaks down chiasmus and analyzes Pelosi’s use of the strategy as she retakes the House gavel in time to navigate the longest government shutdown in US history.

Chiasmus is from Greek origin meaning “to shape like the letter X.” Chiasmus, as a rhetorical strategy, is the X figure of speech. It is seen in a reversal of successive phrases or clauses. Here’s an example: Never let a fool kiss you or a kiss fool you.

Chiasmus, as a rhetorical device, shows up in both ancient Greek literature and oration. Aeschylus in 5th century BCE said, “It’s not the oath that makes us believe the man, but the man the oath.” Around the same time, Socrates said, “Bad men live that they may eat and drink, whereas good men eat and drink that they may live.”

Mercieca pointed to Speaker Pelosi’s use of chiasmus. Pelosi, referring to President Trump’s most recent proposal about the government shutdown, tweeted, “What is original in the President’s proposal is not good. What is good in the proposal is not original.”

As Mercieca pointed out, Pelosi appears to employ an imperfect chiasmus by using the “President’s proposal” in the front of the claim and not the back, as a chiasmus X form would seem to demand. Yet, as Mercieca argues, Pelosi does this because the proposal is not the President’s, and as Pelosi notes in the second half of the chiasmus, “it’s not original.”

In other words, the chiasmus is rendered this way by Pelosi, effectively and on purpose, to support the claim she is making about Trump’s argumentative approach. As Mercieca argues, this is noteworthy and shows us the ways in which Pelosi is formidable as a rhetorical force.

Readers should follow Speaker Pelosi’s argumentative approaches to watch for more chiasmus as 2019 unfolds. And, stay tuned for future Kairotics posts from the Citizens Critics collective as we continue to trace current events and rhetorical strategies in public life!