An oxymoron is a rhetorical device. Writers use it on purpose. It is an ostensible self-contradiction to illustrate a point or reveal a paradox. Think of it as a contradiction in terms, on purpose. Here are classics we’ve all seen: fine mess; love-hate relationship; deafening silence; seriously funny; clearly confused; the living dead; original copies; genuine imitation; jumbo shrimp; pretty ugly; minor crisis; same difference; working holiday. What are the ethics of writing oxymorons?
We often write oxymoronically by accident. When we use it rhetorically on purpose, we should take care not to be wrong ethically (oxymoron intended). That’s the first ethical norm in writing oxymoronically: don’t use unless you mean to and then only when it will be taken rhetorically. Otherwise, you’re misleading your reader. That’s ethical norm number two.
Politicians are problematic when it comes to using oxymorons. Let’s start with their academic underpinning—political science. It is an oxymoron because it mixes the dark art of politics with the bright shining light of science. Our president was excoriated from the right for the oxymoron of “Leading From Behind.” Governor Sarah Palin took a rough-ride from the left when she said she argued for “Conservative Feminism.” Those two political oxymorons express the need for fair descriptions that should not mislead while they entice.
Oxymorons can be verbal delights: “sweet and sour,” “act naturally,” “small crowd,” “quite incredible,” and “never ever.” While they serve as grins, they risk credulity, which is another ethical norm that seems rare in political writing.
They tamper with established meanings without meaning to. Samuel Goldwyn wrote, “Modern dancing is so old fashioned.” Andy Warhol said, “I am a deeply superficial person.” Winston Churchill quipped, “A joke is an extremely serious issue.” In each case, the oxymoron clashed with common understandings of the two words that made the phrase oxymoronic. The ethical construct here is seriousness. When writing an oxymoron, writers should make sure the reader isn’t taking them seriously.
When using oxymorons, writers should remain aware of a similar bit of rhetorical writing known as “antithesis.” It is a figure of speech in which irreconcilable opposites or strongly contrasting ideas are placed in sharp juxtaposition and sustained tension, as in the saying, “Art is Long and Time is Fleeting.” It is powerful because it uses opposing clauses and phrases balanced in contiguous grammatical structures. President Abraham Lincoln was a master writer at every level and especially good at antithetical writing. His famous line from his Gettysburg Address is priceless: “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” It is an ethical norm easily remembered. When in ethical doubt, write like Abe did.
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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