Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Role of Rhetoric

I know some intellectuals are put off by Obama's rhetoric, complaining that his campaign represents the victory of "style over substance". But I think this is mistaken. The complaint would only be legitimate if his rhetoric were serving to mask a genuine lack of substance, but closer examination reveals that in fact there is no such lack. Instead, we have a substantial candidate who, when campaigning, plays up style for the sake of motivating and winning over the electorate. Isn't this just good politics?

In an ideal world, of course, the electorate would not be swayed by non-rational influences. Wonkish talk about increasing transparency by RSS-ifying government data should suffice to "uplift" and motivate support. But this is not an ideal world, populated by ideally rational citizens. People are influenced by a nice suit and haircut, personal charisma, and eloquent rhetoric. So an effective politician will play to these biases in order to shore up support. Would it be better if they didn't? I don't see how. They should want to reform the system to make it more responsive to reason, of course. But for as long as the flaws still exist, it would seem imprudent not to take advantage of them. (Their opponents certainly will.)

N.B. This only holds within moral limits. I certainly don't want to excuse deception, for example. But there is a clear and principled distinction here. Rhetoric and such are rationally neutral, making us neither more nor less likely (in general) to reach the truth. Deception, on the other hand, is anti-rational, a positive obstruction to informed decision-making.

So I don't see any grounds for objecting to politicians using all morally permissible (even if non-rational) means to garner support. Granted, this just shifts the question to which methods are morally impermissible. But I doubt that anyone could seriously contend that rhetoric belongs on the blacklist.

13 comments:

  1. HI Richard. I agree with your point. However with an eye to the longer term I think a qualification is needed. You say:

    "...this is not an ideal world, populated by ideally rational citizens. People are influenced by a nice suit and haircut, personal charisma, and eloquent rhetoric. So an effective politician will play to these biases in order to shore up support. Would it be better if they didn't? I don't see how."

    I have read far too much Rousseau and Marx not to have some residue of hope that however things may be now, and in particular whatever normative and institutionalised constraints must be taken for granted in the short term, at least some of those constraints are susceptible to improvement in the longer term. It doesnt strike me as impossible that some time in the future the average citizen will think less (which is still not to say: not at all) about the importance of a good haircut in a politician. (Perhaps awkwardly Gordon Brown here stands as a beacon of hope.)

    This granted, it remains an open question how the transition is to be effected. Plausibly we should hold constant that 'politician[s] play up to..biases' while changing other things, perhaps education. But it seems likely to me that qua responsible citizens politicians will have an obligation to lead such a change. And since the change concerns attitudes to politics it is plausible that politicians are precisely the people whose attitudes should change first.

    Even all that granted, in the short term more has to be taken as given. Of course politics is about pragmatism as well as idealism. But given the amount of time Obama spends talking about long-term meta-political change, at least it seems to me to be an open question whether he "*should* use all morally permissible means to garner support."

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  2. I agree, from a slightly different point of view.

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  3. huh? "it seems likely to me that qua responsible citizens politicians will have an obligation to lead such a change"-->change in unbiased issues and not biased ones?

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  4. Thanks for the link, Jared!

    (P.S. I think the 'change' Barry refers to there is the transition to less bias.)

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  5. I'm put off by the way Obama supporters seem to think of him as the second coming.

    (I like the rhetoric.)

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  6. This is the first time I have ever heard Richard Chappell NOT condemn the existence of non-rational influences on behavior. The Richard I know would be condemning Obama just to compensate for any possible non-rational influences on his attitude due to Obama's rhetorical skills. He must be possessed.

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  7. Hi. Some additional considerations:

    The point of campaigning is partly to convince and partly to motivate; you need to make an emotional connection in order to do what he is apparently doing and get people off their sofas and voting.

    Politics is often sufficiently complicated that, beyond a certain point, a rational assessment of preference is unfeasible.

    The role of president is somewhat rhetorical. Not having many official powers, they work by persuasion - by whatever means. Also I get the idea people remember great presidents as much in terms of what they inspired as what they did.

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  8. Does not the effective use of rhetoric (or rather people like us supporting a person because of it) encourage the other side to do the same?

    Does not the existence of rhetoric displace actual policy from media and from the minds of individuals?

    and due to rhetoric do people not end up voting for people who they THINK have the same opinion as them when in fact they don't.

    Are such procedural things like that really no longer an issue just as long as it doesn't cause the wrong election result?

    > Would it be better if they didn't? I don't see how.

    Richard? Do you really think it doesn't matter if elections were based on - lets say race or the size of a person's nose? If they were would e not have an obligation to vigorously point out that that is stupid?

    > Rhetoric and such are rationally neutral... making us neither more nor less likely (in general) to reach the truth.

    As I see it, perfect use of rhetoric would result in voting being totally random in relation to policy - do you really have such a dim view of democracy with limited rhetoric?

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  9. Genius - what a lot of rhetorical questions! I wouldn't say that I support rhetoric -- at least, I thought I was pretty clear that it's non-ideal, and that we should try to transition towards a more rational politics, as Barry says. But given that people are swayed by non-rational factors, it isn't clear to me that it does any good for one side to tie their own hands and refrain from appealing to those factors. (If I thought the other side would follow suit, it would be another matter.)

    Another example: some women support Hillary Clinton just because of her gender. This is silly. But I don't think Clinton has any "obligation" to point out how silly it is, and in fact I think it'd be silly for us to complain about her failure to do so. Sometimes people get inspired by silly things, but as Lyndon points out, motivating the public (however you manage it) is a crucial part of the democratic system as it is currently set up. Again, I think it'd be better if people were inspired on rational grounds. But given how people actually are, perhaps non-rational motivation is better than none at all?

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  10. "...some women support Hillary Clinton just because of her gender. This is silly."

    Really? Here's a few considerations which strike me as being in favour of women supporting Hillary just because she is a woman. If any of them is sensible then surely the support isn't silly.

    First there is Gilligan's question of whether women *think* differently from men. This is not as silly as it sounds. Prominent epistemologists these days are taking seriously the idea that Chinese people think fundamentally differently from American people (i.e. normative relativism about norms of practical reason). Of course in the gender case it is tempting to explain much of the 'personal-impersonal thought' distinction away by pointing to historical circumstance. But it seems to me to remain an open question whether this can explain everything. If not, it makes sense for women to want someone who thinks like them representing them.

    Secondly: symbolic importance. The president isn't all that powerful anyway - as you know the founding fathers envisioned it as a part time position. Even if gender inequality - or racial inequality come to that - had been extirpated still there would be retrospective reason to have such a minority head of state. Since these are prevailing problems the reason is all the stronger. This argument at least holds other things equal. But it will have some utility to offset other shortcomings.

    Third, there is the pragmatic point that there are such things as 'women's issues,' although I'm not sure I want to commit on the quesiton of what they may be. (At least contingently, women are more concerned than men with issues of childcare, maternity leave, etc.) A female president will be more sensitive to these than a male one. Again - this is an other things equal, and perhaps some things unequal, advantage.

    I'm sorry if this takes us away from our theme.

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  11. [I guess there's something to the symbolic point, insofar as people generally are silly and give gender a prominent place in their thinking and sense of identity. But your other two points are just that gender may correlate with other qualities; but there are always exceptions, so we would do better to assess the latter directly.]

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  12. Genius - what a lot of rhetorical questions!

    heh - you got me - I'll try to reform.

    And again I highlight that I would probably vote for Obama. I guess I'm not so prone towards the idea that a person might have a good thing that they don't have an 'obligation' to do or a bad thing they don't have an 'obligation' to avoid. (I put them in quotes because I don't mean that I hate people for not being perfect just that they have failed to meat a set of 'obligations' whist probably meeting a huge number of others.)

    Now the law might be a different issue - there we would need to simplify the moral code to be more easily understood.

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