In my past two posts I have been tackling the problems that are caused by rhetoric in politics. This is due to the dissertation I am writing, the aim of which is partially to integrate some of the ideas and philosophies of Plato into modern politics and government (particularly where rhetoric is involved.) My concern is how prevalent rhetoric has become in so many areas of life, how it has become acceptable for people to mislead, deceive and blatantly exaggerate to others in order to get their way. However, criticising the use of rhetoric, particularly when in the realm of politics, leads to an infinite number of problems.
Firstly rhetoric is essentially a method of persuasion, and one cannot tell someone else that they should attempt to argue without trying to be persuasive. This led me to the Platonic conclusion that in politics rhetoric should only be used to convey something true and beneficial to society. But this is based on the assumptions that there is a Kantian standard of universal good and that truth should be prioritised above everything, even the wellbeing of a society, both of which are debatable. It is all very well to propose the moral axiom that all political rhetoric should be used to convey the true and good, but it becomes impossible to impose if what is true and good is potentially subjective and relative to the context of the situation.
It is this ethical subjectively and relatively that makes rhetoric inseparable from politics. A perfect example is how political policies come about (or should come about.) One person holds a political ideology that they want to see become an actuality because they see it as the best ideology in its context. This ideology must then be argued for to another person, and there is no universal standard of good or common sense to which the ideology can be compared. In fact the other person has their own ideology that they see as the best, but it differs, and they are just as intent on arguing from their own perspective. This is where Plato’s criticisms of rhetoric fall short; they rely on a concept of good that applies to everybody. Rhetoric is what bridges the gap between the two ideologies, it is how they develop and is key to them potentially becoming actuality.
I still subscribe to the Platonic view that everybody should be suspicious of rhetoric, but I do concede that it is necessary and can be beneficial in politics, as described above; nevertheless, my belief that rhetoric is misused too easily and too often in politics is still just as strong. What follows is the conclusion I have come to.
The model for how rhetoric is used in the formation of political ideologies above is one that can have positive or negative outcomes, and it is the use of rhetoric that dictates which way this goes. Despite there being no universal standard for what is good, this system only works if each participant is proposing an ideology that they see as universally good. The rhetoric they employ will only be used to convey this good that they truly believe in and will not be necessary once that goal is achieved (Plato posits a similar kind of “good rhetoric” in his Phaedrus [refer to my previous post].) This way the ideologies are only improved upon as they come closer to reality. On the other hand, if the rhetoric is used to mislead, the ideologies will become distorted and lose their good qualities. What most motivates people to misuse rhetoric in this way is personal interest.
If a proposer puts forward his ideology with the intention of helping society, he will propose it truthfully because he has faith in his idea and its universal benefits; he will use rhetoric to encourage others to realise the same truth. However, if he wants to use the illusion of an ideology to propose a concept from which he will benefit personally, he will use rhetoric to deceive and mislead. Even if the ideology could potentially be universally beneficial, the proposer must not want any egoistic benefit or recognition; that would still be a cause to misuse rhetoric. The proposer of an ideology who is using rhetoric correctly will happily concede any flaws and accept any suggestions or improvements to his idea without hesitation, for “the greater good.”
If rhetorical argument was only employed in politics when entirely separate from egoism and self-interest, it would go a long way to ensuring its correct use on a regular basis. Implementing this idea would be difficult, particularly in a Capitalist society. Politicians working for a wage will always want to appear successful and show that they are serving their political parties. I find this axiom, that politicians should never have any sort of egoistic desire when making an argument, to be one that works as an ideal, and I would like to think that we could go some way towards bringing this axiom closer to reality.
As always I would really appreciate any comments or questions as they all help me progress with my dissertation.