“Debate” Versus Persuasion

In defense of political rhetoric…

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A common argument on the left runs as follows: one should not have an excessive confidence in the power of “rational debate” to solve political disagreements. There is, after all, no reasoning with some people. They are beyond argument, and thinking that you can reason with them is delusional. Any attempt to do so is likely to hurt your political fortunes, because it misunderstands how power works. Politics is not a university debating society, in which each side offers its premises and conclusions and the team with the tightest logic wins. It is “war by other means,” a clash of interests that is won by gaining the ability to push your agenda through, not by showing the other side how reasonable you are.

This issue often comes up when someone on the left does something perceived to undermine free speech and open discussion. When a white supremacist gets punched in the face, or a right-wing pundit gets shouted down on a college campus, some moderate and civility-minded person will suggest that the best way to fight right-wing ideas is by debating them, not by shutting down the conversation entirely. Inevitably, the response of those who do believe in shutting down “debate” is roughly as follows:

“It’s ridiculous to suggest ‘debating’ certain ideas, like fascism. You can’t debate such a thing. You can only destroy it. It is laughable to propose that we should sit down and argue about whether white supremacism is a good thing.” 

A version of this argument is made by Richard Seymour. Seymour says that “fact-checking” members of the far right is “beside the point.” You can’t “debate” someone like Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen. That’s because a debate only works if both parties are interested in having one. But people like Trump and Le Pen aren’t interested in debate. They use language as propaganda, rather than in a good faith attempt to find truth. Anyone who has watched a video of Adolf Hitler’s spittle-spraying orations can instantly see the futility of “debate” against certain parties.

Seymour therefore counsels against ideas like, say, inviting Marine Le Pen onto your talk show so that you can grill her. You might think you can “expose” Le Pen this way, but you won’t:

“The basic idea that ‘exposing’ fascists is bad for them, that ‘exposure’ is something that they want to avoid, depends on the totally erroneous idea that they are there to free associate about their ideas, to converse, to logically defend various truth claims. If they were worried about being ‘exposed’ in that way, they wouldn’t come on your television show, or go out of their way to court publicity.”

Discussion about the limits of debate is important. It has implications for questions of both free speech and political tactics: if dialogue is impossible, what’s the point of attempting it? If right-wing speakers are not attempting discussion, but propaganda, why shouldn’t you try to shut them down? And if political power is not built through debate, should we even be trying to convince people?

It’s important, in considering these questions, to clear up what “debate” is to begin with. Many of the criticisms of “debating” people seem to assume a narrow definition of debate: they criticize those who think pure logic can successfully counter right-wing political points. The idea here is that “debate” consists of rational argumentation: I present my points, with evidence, you present counterpoints with evidence, I rebut your counterpoints, you parry my rebuttal with some more evidence, and one of us wins through superior logic. It is this form of debate that is impossible with Donald Trump. With Donald Trump, I present my points, with evidence, and he says I founded ISIS and then brags about having a billion dollars. You can’t really meet this with “fact-checking” or even “logical argumentation,” because facts don’t mean anything to him.

But it’s too simple to say this means you can’t “debate” people like Trump or Le Pen. From the fact that you can’t use a particular kind of debate (throwing facts at someone), we would be concluding that you can’t debate them at all. That’s not necessarily true, however. “Debate” is not strictly a contest of logical argumentation; it is a contest of persuasion, and the strict presentation of factual arguments and conclusions is only one of the ways in which this occurs.

Debates are about argument, but they’re also about rhetoric, the art of discourse. “Rhetoric” has a negative connotation these days, but it shouldn’t. It has a great tradition. Rhetoric is simply the use of spoken and written tactics of persuasion. The rhetorician calculates her words for the effect they will have on the audience. As classically conceived, this is opposed to the dialectician, who uses words in an open-minded truth-seeking inquiry.

Richard Seymour is right. People like Trump and Le Pen aren’t doing anything resembling open-minded truth-seeking inquiry. Instead, they are calculating their words toward a particular end, namely the end of getting people to support them. It’s therefore not so much that you “can’t debate” such people as that you can’t bring logic to a rhetoric fight.

It may sound as if I’m encouraging the left to give up reason and embrace propaganda. But that’s not quite what I mean. I think it’s very important to seek truth, and examine yourself, and figure out what the facts are. I just don’t think that’s necessarily what wins debates. Political debates are won by having the most persuasive messages. All I’m suggesting is thinking about trying to find some words that actually convince people, rather than trying to find the most logically precise words. In a public political contest, being too logical will make you sound lawyerly and difference-splitting. It won’t carry the audience, and the audience are the ones who vote.

In making the decision as to whether to debate someone, and how, it’s that effect on the audience question that should be crucial. It’s all about the audience; you’re never going to persuade your opponent, your job is to persuade the person watching. Yet Democrats often debate as if they’re trying to persuade their opponents, which is one reason they fail. You shouldn’t be trying to prove to Trump that he’s wrong, or somehow grill Marine Le Pen on television until sheer force of reason causes her to abandon her lifelong political convictions. What you should be doing is trying to make these people look callous and foolish, which may or may not involve the use of pure logic.

I don’t like to invoke the authority of the ancient Greeks, but Aristotle really did point out something quite useful in his treatise on rhetoric. He wrote that:

“There are… three means of effecting persuasion. The man who is to be in command of them must, it is clear, be able (1) to reason logically, (2) to understand human character and goodness in their various forms, and (3) to understand the emotions-that is, to name them and describe them, to know their causes and the way in which they are excited.”

Rhetoric consists of logos, ethos, and pathos—logic, emotion, and character. To be a skilled persuader you need all three. Make purely logical arguments and you’ll flounder, because you also need to be able to use language in ways that touch people emotionally and that convince them you’re a person of sound character who ought to be listened to. People come around to your views partially for logical reasons, but partially because they come to trust you, and to see you as reliable.

That’s one key reason why people on the left lose debates. It’s not because “you can’t debate a fascist,” it’s because fascists think about how to actually win the audience. If you’re not thinking about that, of course you’ll lose.

There’s something that sounds faintly dirty about encouraging people to think beyond purely rational forms of persuasion. But it’s that refusal to get one’s hands dirty with rhetoric that is the problem, not the willingness to use language rather than physical force as one’s chief political weapon. The choice is not necessarily between “trying to reason logically with the other side” and “engaging in violent struggle.” It could also be that for progressives, persuasion is usually best effected neither through violence nor formal deductive reasoning, but through effective messaging, telling people things that actually get them to support your politics. In other words, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it and who you are

Bernie Sanders offers a good illustration of what I mean about using language effectively by going beyond reason and incorporating character and emotion. I long thought Sanders would be particularly effective in a debate against Donald Trump, far more so than Hillary Clinton. That was not because Sanders has a more acute command of debater’s logic than Clinton; in fact, she’s far better at this. Rather, it’s because Sanders had those other two appeals: the emotional appeal and the character appeal. Sanders could very effectively describe meeting people without health insurance, and speak with moral conviction about the plight of the underclass, and he could fundamentally get people to trust him by having a kind of personal integrity that many people respected. (Hardly anybody respects the character of either Clinton or Trump.) Democrats need to not just be right on the facts, but to have candidates that can speak to people on an emotional level, and who seem to have the kind of human traits in which people can place their confidence. (This is why, political positions aside, it’s probably a bad idea to run a slippery self-aggrandizing politico like Cory Booker or Andrew Cuomo in 2020.)

Thus I think giving up on argumentation, reason, and language, just because Purely Logical Debate doesn’t work, is a mistake. It’s easy to think that if we can’t convince the right with facts, there’s no hope at all for public discourse. But this might not suggest anything about the possibilities of persuasion and dialogue. Instead, it might suggest that mere facts are rhetorically insufficient to get people excited about your political program. You don’t need to refuse to debate people. You need to stop trying to debating them simply by pointing out that their statistics are erroneous and their syllogisms faulty. 

Again, let me emphasize quite clearly that while I believe in the power of persuasive communication, I do not believe in Trying To Reason With All The Trump Supporters. That would be stupid. For one thing, you’re far less likely to persuade a serious Trump supporter than a person who is instinctively left-leaning but simply doesn’t vote because they find all politics disgusting. And as Michael Kinnucan has pointed out here before, it may also be unwise to focus on appeals to the (largely) mythical “swing voter” who hops back and forth between Republicans and Democrats depending on who makes the best argument in that particular cycle. The vast majority of people who vote are pretty set in their ways, and time may be better spent energizing and politicizing the people who don’t participate (but who have real grievances and would benefit from joining a political movement). Under this theory, activism is better focused on black voters in Detroit than the small number of people in rural Michigan who turned from Obama to Trump. (I say this “may be” better because I am less certain than Kinnucan is that “swing voters” are hopeless, even if they are a small minority, and they can, after all, be a small minority that counts for quite a lot.)

So I don’t share the belief that if we just sat down with people on the far right, and talked about our differences face to face, we would find that we all believe the same things deep down. This was Barack Obama’s perspective, and it was colossally naive. If you sit down with Republicans and try to “meet them in the middle,” they will just sense that you are weak and eat you alive. It turns out that human beings don’t all
“believe the same things deep down.” Some of us believe deep down that the free market should be permitted to work people to death without even a basic guarantee of subsistence. Others of us believe that the government should ensure everyone gets healthcare and housing. These beliefs cannot be reconciled, and most of the people who hold each of them are pretty committed to their perspective, so discussing them does not seem as if it will be especially fruitful.

But it’s also true that you can’t build political power without caring about discussion and communication, because it’s impossible to coordinate human activity without these things. Every successful political movement has built itself in large part using words, because it takes words to convince people to perform acts. And political rhetoric, which incorporates factual reasoning but also goes beyond it, has a noble heritage, from the logical and emotional force of Martin Luther King’s argument against piecemeal civil rights advancements to the rousing words of the Internationale.

Ultimately I worry that, in mocking the idea that you can “debate” fascists, some on the left also end up jettisoning the very idea of having to persuade people of your ideas, and end up thinking that the only way you can “debate” someone is by fact-checking them (and since we know that doesn’t work, language fails us and we must retreat into violence). Yes, it’s true, you can’t just present the facts and evidence and assume people will agree with you and you’ll win. But any good lawyer could tell that you don’t just win a case through the force of the evidence, you also win it through the effectiveness of your presentation.

The other side understands this. Republicans know how to appeal to people’s guts, to their feelings of bitterness, suspicion, and fear. If the left is going to respond, it needs a message of equal power. Not mere facts, though of course we want those. But something that appeals to the nobler emotions: to solidarity, and joy, and the spirit of human kinship. We have effective emotional appeals, we just need to use them.

There’s nothing inherently shameful about political rhetoric. In fact, it’s essential. You should be appealing to the heart as well as the brain. You should have a character people can trust, not just arguments they can agree with. And it’s the only way you’ll win.

Author: Nathan J. Robinson

is the editor of Current Affairs.