Political Debate: How Can We Avoid the Usual “Slugfest?”

For many of us in Western European and in the United States, politics seems to have lost its appeal and hit a new low in terms of trust. Perhaps this isn’t entirely surprising  after watching the leaders TV debates on both sides of the Atlantic and the British debate on Brexit. One commentator last week described the ITV debate as “awful.” He went on to say, “I could have learned more Brexit from watching ‘Love Island’ on ITV2.”  Most of the time they were not debating the EU or even Brexit; but rather trying to score points over each other.

Generally speaking, debating politicians tend to give their conclusions first and then use selected facts to support these conclusions. Of course, all of this is suitably manicured to fit their ideological stance or self-interest. Each politician seeks to win over their adversary by showing their conclusions are right and the others wrong. This approach then can often degenerate into a ‘slugfest’ or a shouting match peppered with personal insults, with each candidate interrupting the other and even not allowing their opponent to finish a sentence. It becomes a personal affair and the topic soon fades into oblivion.

BBC audience frustrated about tone of Brexit debate.

Many politicians appear to enjoy this manner of argument, simply because they have the pleasure both of winning and demolishing their opponents. We are right and others are wrong, so to speak. They think their ability to foist our opinions on others and even humiliate their opponents is some sign of superiority. It encourages an attitude of over self-confidence and a culture of ‘showing off’; and when success knocks it gives personal satisfaction and serves their egos. Cicero was probably one of the greatest ‘show offs’ in history, even by his own account. The prospect of watching Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton over the coming months will probably be the ultimate in this confrontational culture of two super egos.

But is there an alternative? Politicians are usually ambitious people working in a very competitive environment, so is it sensible for us to expect them to behave differently? Is it sensible to demand from our politicians; better listening skills, more empathy with the wider community and long term thinking, when they are working in a short term and media driven environment?

It is our adversarial system that has led to our present confrontational culture in politics, but who is to blame for all of this?  Many commentators have blamed Socrates and his two acolytes, Plato and Aristotle, for laying the basis for this culture. Socrates, for example, put great emphasis on the dialectic and argument. He is renowned for pointing out what is wrong with another person’s argument and use of definitions. Plato pushed this a little further by claiming the ultimate truth was attainable through the dialectic. Aristotle disagreed with Plato’s approach to find the truth by systematizing logic, categorization and argumentation. It could be argued that all three philosophers have led us to our present judgmental and adversarial culture.

But you can argue democracy depends on reasoned argument. Yes, this is very true. But it is hardly reasoned argument that we are seeing on our TV screens. It is more a series of sound bites and an appeal to the immediate desires and needs of those listening packaged in language of promise for immediate action. Many people have grown weary of this culture that promotes accusations, insults and instant judgments by our politicians against their opponents. Personally I think it is the ignoring of Aristotle’s third proof in his ‘Rhetoric’ that has led to the present malaise in political debate. Perhaps this is why so many citizens will turn cynical.

Aristotle in his thesis on Politics wrote, Man is by nature a political animal.  The philosopher goes on to tell us, Man by nature is an animal fitted for living in the polis. But as politics is essentially the art of the management of language and argumentation, Aristotle wrote his Rhetoric to help his fellow Athenians to participate in the political world of their city. It is about how to influence others in public debate or discourse. We had a slugfest in Brooklyn some months ago where Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders squared off. Shortly we will have Clinton and Donald Trump face off each other in the race for the presidency of the U.S. And in the U.K. there are the Brexit debates which are often more about slagging´ each other than presenting the facts about Europe.

The problem is that Aristotle’s third proof, Ethos, has been interpreted as simply credibility, meaning audience perception. This ignores the character aspect of the proof. According to Aristotle, the authority of any argument is closely connected with how the audience views the personal character of the speaker. It is about soundness of character rather than the personality cult that we are experiencing today.

Consequently the adversarial system has its place in modern debate and most certainly will be confrontational in nature, but if politicians remember that Aristotle’s third proof is not just about audience perception, but essentially about the character of the speaker, then we may experience less of what commentators describe as ‘slugfest’ in the up and coming U.S. political debates and the present Brexit debate. In this way speakers may avoid the use of modern propaganda techniques to demonstrate their point of view.

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