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Trump and “Muted Eloquence”

women-accusing-clinton

In the classical literature on rhetoric there is a concept called “muted eloquence.” The term is attributable to Rousseau and is part of the common distinction between reason and emotion or appeals to rationality versus attempts to arouse interests and stir passions in order to induce conformity. There’s always been this argument between those who champion the unadorned use of reason – as if humans were all mind – and persuasion that induces change through baser and more primitive appeals to passions. We can see this distinction borne out between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump with Hillary more oriented toward (although not completely) defensible reason and Trump who was almost completely consumed by stirring tribal emotions as opposed to reason-based policy analysis.

The distinction is also one made between “persuading” and “convincing.” Again, persuasion is affecting change through typical appeals to emotions, passions, and the like; and convincing is the act of completely reconstituting the psyche and will of the other by giving them new content and reconstituting their consciousness. Classical scholars argue this point because they were deeply divided with respect to the primary avenue of change that citizens were capable of. Some argued that the highest form of reason was convincing which led to the purest and most accurate formation of preferences and opinions. Others challenge the ability of humans to be reasonable in the purest sense and argued that legislators and leaders needed to find a way to “persuade without convincing” because the only way to effect change was through appeals to the passions on an equal level with reason. Most people were deeply flawed, as the argument went, with respect to their ability and receptiveness to “pure” reason. Persuasion could be musical and non-rational even at the risk of potential fanaticism. Charismatic leaders aroused deeper and more immediate passions in listeners, and their oratory was musical in the same way that chanting could be prophetic of charismatic religious figures. They did not use rationality to convince but persuasion to move. Mohammed and Moses are examples of the link between reason and passion and illustrations of how stirring the passions can lead to fanaticism.

I certainly would not call the oratory of Donald Trump musical but it does function the same way in that it is processed holistically and produces a gut pre-rational passion. “Muted eloquence” is when a visual sign has a sense of immediacy and impact. It is when some physical object or image communicates with a powerful effect. So, for example, The King cuts down the tallest flowers in the garden as a message to kill his enemies. In the movie “the Godfather” when a smelly fish wrapped in newsprint arrives at the door the character Tessio explains “it means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” The message that Luca Brasi is dead and his body dumped in the ocean is semantically ratified by the dead fish. It is a mute wisdom that speaks clearer and more powerfully than a long discourse.  These visual signs are a form of persuasion that differs from the ideal of reasoned discourse.

We pivot to Donald Trump surrounded by three women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault. They were then seated in the audience for the debate. The presence of these women was supposed to attenuate Trump’s behavior and signify sexual malpractice in Hillary’s case in addition to Trump. And even though these women are accusing Bill Clinton not Hillary just the image of sexual impropriety is supposed to be a form of muted eloquence designed to associate blame and shame with Hillary, and as a piece of evidence that Trump is no different than anyone else. Even though Trump is the sexist perpetrator here he sought to bathe himself in the victimhood of other woman.

The alleged rapist of one of the women, Kathy Shelton, was defended by Hillary and acquitted. Hillary was little more than the court-appointed attorney and she was fulfilling his constitutional right to legal counsel. But such argument seeks conviction rather than persuasion. Her innocence in the Kathy Shelton case is logically and rationally undeniable, but the muted eloquence of Trump’s debate has closed off appeals to conviction.

The brazen and stunning stunt struck at the core of our unhinged national consciousness, a consciousness increasingly reason-free.

 

 

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Stories as Arguments

Stories play an important role in asymmetric ethnopolitical conflicts with each side using stories to legitimize their own experiences. Sometimes stories contribute to polarization between the two sides and strengthen the tendency to exclude others and classify them as morally objectionable. But stories play a particularly important role in asymmetric conflicts because the root of such conflicts is the relationship between adversaries and the influences of culture and history on these relationships. It is stories that carry meaning and narrate culture and history. Stories are the data that conflict participants in asymmetric conflicts use to support their version of history. Consequently, stories serve as powerful expressions of subjective reality that on the one hand must be taken seriously as a picture of the lived world of the participant, but are also used as arguments that can be examined and challenged.

narrative as argument

Stories as Arguments

Treating stories as arguments is a powerful form of communication analysis that resonates with human experiences. For asymmetrical conflict, narrative can be a communicative technique for pursuing common interests. In other words, a narrative is a story that relates to events and people. It has a plot, a storyline, and cast of characters. When someone tells a story, even an ethnopolitical narrative characterized by loss or violence, the story illustrates a reality of their life. The narrative has personal and ideological value to the individual and represents a lived experience that must be made sensible. A story that relates a real experience is the basic mechanism for conveying the nature of reality including judgments and the truth value of certain statements. It is both an individual subjectivity that is susceptible to all of the confusions and distortions individuals are capable of, as well as a story built on argument principles. If an Israeli is listening to the story of a Palestinian and the Palestinian tells the tale of oppression and difficult circumstances, along with subplots of personal experiences concerning confrontations with the military and violence, then that story is real to the individual and subject to debate and discussion, albeit difficult debate and discussion. The same is true for a Palestinian listening to an Israeli talk about historical discrimination, the state of Israel, and the moral and legal difficulties of the conflict. The stories are part of personal experiences and representative of the different ways of speaking and knowing that must be explored in dialogue by all participants.

The high standard of argument proposed by deliberation theorists is realistically out of reach and not descriptive of actual deliberation, which is more emotional than rational and rooted in “conversation argument” rather than theoretical models of argument. In the traditional description of an argument it is a formal structure that exists independently of individuals. Hence, it is not unusual to see diagrams illustrating formal relationships about claims, data, and conclusions. But conversational reasoning, which is where storytelling that functions as argument is expressed, views communication as pragmatic. A “conversational” argument is concerned with presumptive reasoning rather than logic.

Presumptive reasoning is based on pragmatics and draws conclusions from context in general usage of the term rather than from formal structure. This type of conversational reasoning is statistical in that it assumes a certain relationship exists. For example, I might say John (x) supports government welfare programs (A) and is therefore a Democrat (B). The relationship between (A) and (B) is presumptive or statistical in that the association is defensible but certainly not logically required. There are situations where (A) is not (B) and there can be conversational inconsistency. Certainly the idea of “supporting government programs” and “being a Democrat” can be definitionally inconsistent.

Reasoning processes like these develop their own standards of defensibility. The form of argument that occurs in everyday interactions is not dependent on logic but is informed more by how people reach acceptable conclusions. It is a frequent and persistent form of communicating between members of asymmetric groups. The presumptive relationship between supporting government welfare programs and being a Democrat will change over time and be influenced by many communication variables including contexts. The implications of this relationship between (A) and (B) and the questions and critical inquiry it stimulates are central to the deliberation process. Various psychological factors and levels of commitment will also influence deliberative communication. One could believe in the presumptive relationship and be emotionally committed to it even though it is indefensible on numerous evidentiary grounds. Arguments can be more easily inconsistent as well as failing to meet principles of proper inferential reasoning but still be influential. This is the nature of stories as argument.

The Argument Landscape of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Israelis and Palestinians flagThere remains those who still discount the centrality of communication and believe that difficult conflicts such as Israel-Palestine simply must continue with bloodshed, difficulty, and recalcitrance. But the argument landscape while not pristine could arc toward success with just a little help. Below are some data (see The Program for Public Consultation, US Institute of Peace for additional data and sources) that lay out the argument landscape and strongly suggest that with more work the scales can be tipped toward acceptance.

There are more than a few rational voices populating this conflict and there’s a fair amount of agreement over what solutions could look like if people were truly willing to achieve peace. Solutions are not so difficult; there are plenty of them. The difficulty is getting people to the discussion table. In the table below is a proposed final status package deal. It deals with final status issues and covers what many specialists considered to be the key points. It is rational, sensible, and workable.

In a study conducted by the principal investigators sponsored by the Program for Public Consultation both the Israelis and the Palestinians were presented this package. Each side generated arguments for and against the proposal.

So the terms of the package deal are as follows:
1. A sovereign Palestinian state would be established. The boundaries would generally be based on 1967 borders, but Israel  would annex 3-4% of the West Bank that includes major settlement blocks with comparable land swaps to be
negotiated.
2. Gaza and the West Bank would have a secure, unobstructed link, either in theform of a tunnel, highway or bridge.
3. For Jerusalem, Israel would have sovereignty over Jewish neighborhoods,while the new Palestinian state would have  neighborhoods. The Walled City would be under a special regime that would include both international control, and Israeli and Palestinian participation.
4. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians would have military forces in the Palestinian state, but Palestinian Security Forces would handle internal security in the Palestinian State. International military forces, such as NATO forces possibly under American command, would be stationed along the Jordan River.
5. Palestinian refugees would be compensated for loss of property, would be allowed to return to the Palestinian state, with a limited number being allowed to return to Israel.
6. Palestinians would recognize Israel as a state of the Jewish people and of all its citizens.
7. Israel and Arab and Muslim states would establish full diplomatic relations and open trade.
8. Israel and the Palestinians state would explicitly agree to end the conflict and Palestinians would relinquish all claims pertaining to the conflict.

Although the original report contains considerably more detail, the primary conclusion is that each side after evaluating the arguments found the negative arguments to be substantially more convincing. About 50% of the participants from each side would recommend accepting the package. That is not a bad number. The Israeli Jews who preferred rejection were asked their reasons and it was because they did not believe the Palestinians would accept the framework so there was no point in them accepting it.

Moreover, both sides said that if the other side accepted the agreement the likelihood of additional acceptance was strong. The key issue here is that these arguments are rejected or held at a distance because of failures of trust and additional communication – just enough additional communication to alter the landscape and manage the arguments that are the primary points of contention.

The study also reported that the two issues most widely cited as a problem where the division of Jerusalem and the establishment of a Palestinian state with land swaps. Recognition of Israel as a home of the Jews and a Jewish state is also a difficult issue.

The issues here are no longer one of achieving the best Habermasian ideal argument. The influence of psychological resistances, the difficulty of change, trust, and the willingness to form new relationships are the barriers to improving the landscape. Continuing to confront the arguments along with civic, interpersonal, and political engagement will alter the landscape such that the flowers bloom brighter and the weeds shrivel up.

Educating for Free and Deliberative Speech

Hearing criticisms of your own convictions and learning the beliefs of others are training for life in the multi-faith society. Preventing open debate means that all believers, including atheists, remain in the prison of unconsidered opinion. The right to be offended, which is the other side of free speech, is therefore a genuine right. True belief and honest doubt are both impossible without it. John O’Sullivan

indexI have been a pretty standard liberal Democrat all my life, but recently I have been more critical of the left’s retreat from First Amendment protections. I’m talking about the left’s willingness to restrict symbolic expression that is critical of an ethnopolitical group or identity group of any kind. A recent article by John O’Sullivan in the Wall Street Journal takes up the issue of the new limits on free expression in the name of protecting religious and ethnopolitical group sensitivities. The article is an excellent treatment of these issues and I highly recommend it.

The harsh and anti-democratic strand of jihadist Islam has successfully scared enough people into restraining free expression in the form of restricting criticism of religion and political culture. Earlier in the history of free expression, O’Sullivan explains, the predominant restrictions on speech were with respect to obscenity, pornography, and language that was sexually explicit. The purveyors of these restrictions were moralistic and believed themselves to be defending proper standards of society. Political speech was strongly protected. But now, the calls for restrictions are designed to limit the political speech of others and consider off-limits the entire array of topics surrounding religion and politics. Obscene and pornographic speech was limited on the basis of protecting the broad moral foundation of the culture, limiting speech that is critical of religion is justified on the basis of particular groups with each making their own demands.

Burning an American flag is considered political speech and symbolic expression that is protected. I can legally burn the American flag in the center of the town square as a symbolic statement of opposition to some aspect of American foreign policy. But if I burn the Koran, which would still be legal in the United States as politically protected expression, it will cause a different reaction. There is a suggestion that the US endorse an international blasphemy law that would define the Koran as so special that burning it constitutes a particular offense, rather than simply protected symbolic expression.

The traditional approach to protected speech is to ignore the content of speech but simply disallow symbolic expression that will cause imminent danger (yelling “fire” in a crowded theater).Yet feeling free to limit speech because words are supposedly so powerful and dangerous is a slippery slope that will slowly erode freedom.

The Answer: Education

One does not come into the world with established political ideology and sensitivities to managing group differences. Democracy and freedom of speech is advanced citizenship in a democracy and must be taught. Free and open societies, where citizen participation is rich and required, necessitate learning the habits of pluralism and democratic processes. The legal environment surrounding freedom of expression has drifted toward an oversensitivity to categorize speech is injurious and in constant need of management. We should not be in the business of restricting all sorts of pure symbolic behavior. Living amongst one’s fellows in a pluralistic, multi-faith, diverse environment requires living in a world that is not of one’s own making and is constituted by differences. These differences must be managed through the deliberative communication process which is by definition “contestatory.”

The lines and distinctions implied here are difficult. For example, do we allow street gangs to deface public buildings with racist slogans and call it “freedom of expression”? I presume it would be possible to define such activities as sufficiently harmful and capable of producing imminent danger, but it will depend on many factors. Slow and long term as it is democratic cultures must continue civic education that includes democratic values.

Managing Extreme Opinions during Deliberation Between Deeply Divided Groups

Even during those heavy late-night conversations in college about God the guy with an unmovable opinion, who just couldn’t see outside his own boundaries, was annoying. Extreme voices, and the harsh opinions and rigid sensibilities that accompany them, are always a problem during deliberation or any attempted genuine discussion. The practicalities of deliberation require manageably sized groups that are small enough for sufficient participation in genuine engagement with the other side that is not defused throughout a large network of people. In fact, smaller deliberative groups provide a more empirical experience one that is more easily observed and measured.

Originally, deliberation was associated with existing political systems working to solve problems through liberal democratic means that include all of the normative expectations of deliberation. The “rationality” associated with deliberation is most realistic for intact political systems. Deeply divided groups – groups divided on the basis of ethnicity and religion – were thought incapable of such discourse. But in the last few years authors such as Sunstein and myself have made a case for deliberation and ethnopolitically divided groups on the basis not of rationality but of the “error reduction” that communication can provide. And as the empirical work in deliberation has evolved numerous practical issues focusing on how people actually communicate has been the subject of research attention. Moreover, researchers form smaller deliberative groups that are more practical.

One of the variables or issues that emerged from the research that the smaller deliberative groups make possible is the matter of extreme opinions. Deliberators in the true sense are supposed to be engaging one another intellectually for the purpose of preference formation, along with all of the normative ideals of deliberation. But in the “real world” of deliberation people behave differently and sometimes badly. Individuals with polarized opinions and attitudes are supposed to moderate them and work toward collaboration, but this is an ideal that is not often achieved. There are individuals who do not fully appreciate or respect deliberative ideals.

This difficulty of extreme opinions is particularly pertinent to conflicts between ethnopolitically divided groups where the conflicts are deep and intense. Conflict such as that between the Israelis and the Palestinians is characterized by highly divergent opinions and tension. People hold firm and unshakable opinions and discussions between these competing groups are filled with individuals who hold rigid and extreme opinions. At first glance, you would think that rigid opinions would be disruptive and certainly damaging to the deliberative ideal. And, of course, that is possible. Research has shown that sometimes when groups get together and talk the result is a worsening of relationships rather than improvement. Efforts to reduce stereotypes by increasing contact with the target of the stereotype can sometimes simply reinforce already present stereotypic images.

Almost all decision-making groups of any type, deliberative or not, struggle with the problem of members who have extremely rigid opinions and cannot be or will not be moved. Subjecting one’s influence to the better argument is an ideal of deliberation and this is thwarted if group members resist exposure to the other side. Those with rigid opinions typically pay little attention to any collaborative strategy since their goal is the imposition of their own opinions. But the communication process can once again come to the rescue and at least increase the probability of moderation mostly through the process of continued exposure to information, ideas, and counter positions. And although it’s more complex than that the basic communicative process is the initial platform upon which change rests.

It turns out that educating people about how policies and positions actually work tends to increase their exposure to other perspectives and improves the quality of debate. This is one more weapon in the “difficult conversation” arsenal that can serve as a corrective and ameliorate the polarization process. Rigid opinions will not disappear but improving knowledge promises to be an effective unfreezing of attitudes procedure.

Stories and Arguments: How Real People Communicate

A narrative is an argument because it is an interpretation of evidence that explains some version of reality. As scholars explain, narratives provide a foundation for reasons. If a Palestinian tells a story of lost land and injustice then he or she is making an argument supporting a position. In the case of ethnopolitical conflicts, personal narratives set with national narratives and define the political environment of the participants. Each party to a conflict uses stories to justify their position. The stories are the basis for competing claims about resources, political events, and the assignment of blame for one’s condition. Moreover, narrative must be included in the deliberative process because it is simply a fundamental way that people communicate. And although narratives can become deceitful and misleading, and subject to manipulations designed to elicit emotional responses, they remain part of the folkways of communication. Narratives often involve an appeal to a moral standard. And these are some of the most difficult issues for deliberators. Making the claim that narrative is part of the argumentative structure for deliberating groups is a departure from the Habermasian ideal which purges folk rhetoric from the deliberation process in order to keep deliberation pure. Still, even Habermas would recognize that all arguments need to be accounted for and can be expressed in diverse ways. Such narratives draw attention to issues and injustices that cannot escape deliberative attention. Finally, such forms of communication as narrative and stories are often characteristic of a more popular form of rhetoric, or patterns and styles that are more culturally distinct. Including these forms of communication in the argumentative process helps achieve sensitivity toward pluralism and diversity that must be included in political discussion. If deliberative communication is as epistemic and effective as it is capable of then the full range of rhetorical styles must be accommodated. There is the reasoned argument tradition of Habermas stressing the public sphere and the ascendancy of the best argument, and the second tradition that stresses popular social relations, emotions, and folk theories of communication. These will meld together.

Clearly, theorists and practitioners of deliberation have worked too hard to try to purify the process by removing emotions and identities in the pursuit of rationality. And this has resulted in the exclusion of communication and rhetorical styles that are separate from the history of logical debate. I make this point not because of political correctness or a sense of social justice but in order to improve the quality of the deliberation and dialogue process. By including narratives and identities in deliberation it improves our understanding of the communication process and actually forms a more accurate foundation for problem resolution.

We cannot ignore the fact that intergroup conflicts are over material resources and the rational allocation of these resources is typically part of the solution. But in intractable conflicts a rather straightforward disagreement about material resources is intensified and made salient through narratives and identities. This is one more reason that narratives, which are easily part of the dialogue process, must be expanded to include deliberation. And the more material conflicts are filtered through and associated with identities the more intractable they become. Conflicts in which progress is genuinely possible often become “impossible” because the conflict has moved beyond resource allocation and become identified with the fundamental nature and definition of the national group. We see this clearly in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict where every aspect of society is politicized and the political conflict is refracted through the culture. The pathway from a manageable conflict to a difficult identity that exacerbates problems is typically through stories and personal narratives. Stories allow members of conflicting groups to voice perspectives and express values relevant to the issues. Stories also help move the groups to dialogue because stories are a natural way to express experiences and communicate genuine emotions.

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