Translation of “Replace the rhetoricians with philosophers” from DN Debatt-betyg

This is a translation of my blog post “Replace the rhetoricians with philosophers”. See here for a description of the project as a whole.

Replace the rhetoricians with philosophers

Both in Sweden and in other countries political debates are often reviewed from a rhetorical point of view in TV channels and newspapers – usually by professional rhetoricians (see, for instance, these examples from this year’s election campaign). In this post I argue against this practice, claiming that media should instead let the debates be reviewed from the point of view of logic and content, e.g. by philosophers. In other words, the analyses should focus on what the politicians are saying rather than on how they say it, what body language they use, etc. Likewise, important political texts such as opinion pieces (including DN Debatt-articles, of course), manifestos, etc, should be analyzed from a logical point of view in the media.

This strikes me as fairly uncontroversial and obvious (although one can discuss how extensive these analyzes should be), and I believe and hope that many readers will agree with me. Even so, I want to give a detailed argument for why rhetoricians should be replaced by experts on the logical aspect of argumentation.

My argument is as follows:

Premise 1) The media should help voters to make informed political decisions.

Premise 2) To make informed political decisions, you must understand the arguments that politicians put forward.

Premise 3) To make informed political decisions, you do not need to know which politicians are the most rhetorically skilled.

Conclusion: The media should help voters understand the arguments that politicians put forward, but they do not need to help them to understand who is the most rhetorically skilled.

If premises 1-3 are seen as reasonable, it seems reasonable to accept the conclusion (even if the argument is not logically valid in the technical sense, but is a so-called enthymeme – thanks to Linus Broström and Mats Johansson for that observation). But should we accept the premises? Well, the first premise is widely accepted, especially by journalists themselves. Regarding the second and the third premise, a common claim is that the rhetoric and various other emotional factors play a significant role in politics. That assertion has, in my opinion, pretty good evidence.

This descriptive claim – about how people actually make their political decisions – should, however, be strictly distinguished from the normative claim that we should make political decisions on the basis of rhetoric and other emotional factors. My guess is that most voters would say that the latter claim is false, and that one rather should make decisions based on who has the best policy. It seems obvious really. To find out which side has the best policy one must, furthermore, understand the politicians in question’s arguments.

We thus have reason to accept the three premises, and can therefore conclude that the media should help voters understand politicians’ arguments, but that they can, on the whole, disregard the rhetoric. More specifically, my claim is that the media should provide us with analyses where logical fallacies, false claims, lack of evidence, and other violations of the co-operative principle are pointed out. The precise details of these analyses can be discussed, but I conceive of them as roughly resembling those that are given on this blog. (An important difference is, though, that they should be carried out either by, or in close collaboration with, experts with specialist knowledge on the topic the debate in question treats, something I lack when it comes to some DN Debatt-articles).

It is true, however, that media already today provide this sort of analyses of political debates, speeches and texts to some extent. The best examples are perhaps factchecks, which I have mentioned before, but well-informed political commentators may also be mentioned here. However, these types of analysis have rather limited ambitions – factchecks focuses solely on purely factual errors, and do not address other kinds of errors of argumentation, while the political commentators’ analyses often are quite general and imprecise. To make it clear to the readers/listeners/viewers whether political arguments are coherent or not, you must, as I see it, go through them more or less line by line – as I do on this blog. (I will return to the importance of the analysis being detailed in later posts).

As I see it, the existence of this blog shows that there is no principled reason to believe that it would be impossible to carry out these sorts of analyses. They are not overly difficult to perform, but what is needed is rather persistence, accuracy and objectivity. TV channels and newspapers could engage philosophers and other experts on rational argument to implement them. They should in turn be able to draw on the knowledge of various topic specialists (e.g. economists, if the debate in question applies to economic policy) when required.

However, another possibility is more independent blogs or web journals of this kind. If you are interested in providing argument analyses of other media than DN Debatt, then go for it (please contact me if you have any questions regarding this).

This type of analysis can have both an information-disseminating and a socializing function: they can inform voters about the argumentation errors made in the political debate, and they can make participants in the debate avoid committing them (i.e. socialize them). In order to fulfill these functions, it is, however, paramount that the readers trust the analyses, which they will not do if the analyst is not seen as competent and objective. Therefore, politicized analyses would presumably not have the same effect on the political debate as objective analyses.

Finally, it could be argued that the choice between rhetorical and logical analyses of speeches, debates and texts is a “false dilemma”: that you can have both. However, I believe that it is not. Readers’/listeners’/viewers’ attention is limited, which means that rhetorical analyses would occur at the expense of logic-based ones. Moreover, rhetorical analysis makes us focus more on rhetoric than we should. Occasionally, there may be room for analysis of body language, etc., but such analyses should be much more limited than they are today. Instead we should have much more careful analyses of what is actually being said in political speeches, debates and texts.

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