Occupatio is a rhetorical figure whereby the speaker or writer draws attention to something by specifically stating that he or she will not mention it. It can be essentially thought of as drawing attention to something in the process of passing over it. For example, somebody wishing to discredit a political opponent could say “I do not wish to dwell on my opponent’s raging alcoholism and amoral womanizing like some reports in the news have done,” to draw attention to the problems and still seem to be retaining the moral high ground. Although occupatio can easily be used in a negative way, as in the example, it can also be used as a more genuine means of passing over a subject while still acknowledging it.
The definition of a rhetorical figure is a method of speaking which differs from the simplest and plainest way to convey information. This means that occupatio and other rhetorical figures are used in a purposeful way because they are deviations from the simplest method of getting a point across. Generally, they are therefore used to achieve a specific effect, which is the reason they are included in the study of rhetoric. The two most common uses of the technique are to acknowledge something without paying it undue attention and to attract attention to something despite not formally discussing it.
Paralipsis is another word commonly used in place of occupatio. The word comes from the Greek for “to leave to one side,” which reflects the term’s accepted meaning if placed into the context of argumentation and discourse. Many other terms can also be used to mean the same thing as occupatio, such as apophasis and occultatio. Proslepsis is very similar to occupatio, but generally discusses the subject being “passed over” in much more detail. This is a much more blatant use of the same technique.
Positive uses of occupatio do exist, although it could be argued that the technique lends itself more efficiently to negative use. For example, an academic discussing a controversial subject might wish to gloss over something which leads to an erroneous conclusion, but ignoring it entirely might make people question his or her objectivity. This can be understood in the context of the debate around abortion. An academic might say, “lengthy discussions of the features of embryos at various stages in pregnancy lead to sentimental discussions and which distract from the real issue,” if they were arguing that abortion is acceptable in the case of rape. This acknowledges that aborted babies can have features, but brushes that aside for the more pressing aspect of the issue.
Negative uses of occupatio are much more common. For example, a politician might say something like “I don’t think it’s necessary to discuss the fact that my opponent used to be a drug user” to raise the issue without looking like he or she is stooping to that level. This is rhetoric because it still maintains the politicians ethos, or appearance of moral superiority, but changes the listener’s opinion of his or her opponent. The speaker says something through the very act of saying they won’t discuss it.