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Why there’s so little real argument in today’s political debate

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (left) and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten after the leaders’ debate. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Why there’s so little real argument in today’s political debate

Some of the critics who watched Australia’s political leaders go head-to-head during Sunday’s federal election debate were not impressed by what they saw.

Dour and pedestrian” wrote one, full of “carefully scripted answers” wrote another, and “both leaders answered almost none of the questions” said a third.

Why has the political debate become such an uninspiring event today?

The rarest thing in politics is someone who wants to genuinely argue for a position. When it comes to a reasoned public debate – in which points are raised and dealt with, responses are analysed and evaluated, and arguments progressed and made transparent – forget about it.

This might seem counterfactual, as all we seem to hear is politicians disagreeing with each other, but simple disagreement is not all that an argument should be about. Nor is it only characterised by assertion, no matter how well delivered, or how earnestly spoken.

An argument, as defined in philosophy and eloquently phrased by Monty Python, is “a connected series of statements intended to establish a definite proposition”.

How not to have an argument.

In other words, it’s about a chain of reasoning, beginning with things we assume to be the case (our premises) and ending with a conclusion.

It also includes some clue about how we got to the conclusion from those premises, a process known as inferring. The clear and logical mapping of this process is the methodology of argumentation.

Now, it certainly is the case that politicians sound like they are arguing. They say things like “if my opponents get in then [insert awful thing] will happen, because they don’t care about [insert something we value]”. Their use of “if”, “then” and “because” makes it sound like reasoning of a sort.

But this is surface dross. Form does not equal substance. Whether the premises are true or just convenient is seldom important; it’s the rhetoric that counts.

The art of persuasion

The point of a politician speaking is not generally to argue, but to persuade. These need not be the same thing, and usually aren’t.

Arthur Martine wrote in his estimable Hand-book of Etiquette, and Guide to True Politeness, originally published in 1866:

[…] let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent.

Of course, truth is the first casualty of war, and politics is rhetorical war.

But argumentation as an academic pursuit is the vehicle of truth. Argumentation and politics, therefore, are at loggerheads.

Truth-seeking is an academic virtue, but not so in politics. flickr/Xiquinho Silva

What’s more, one of the most important components of intellectual rigour in argument is missing from politics: the principle of honesty and charity.

The principle of honesty and charity is a core value of philosophy. While it is indeterminate in origin, the philosopher Daniel Dennett has recently expressed it in a most satisfying way:

Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

It’s about being honest in your representations and, when in doubt, giving the most charitable interpretation to your opponent’s motivation or intent.

By expressing your opponent’s view in such a way, and then showing why it is wrong, you have defeated their argument on its strongest terms and in a way that is difficult to answer. There is no more wind in their sails, so to speak.

Not only is the principle of honesty and charity the most intellectually honest way to win an argument, it’s the most effective. It also ensures that you are playing the issue, not the person, and thereby avoiding an ad hominem attack.

But it’s only effective if you take the time to do it, and if your audience thinks you’ve done it well. More disturbingly, the danger with using the principle of honesty and charity is that you might find your opponent is right. You might even end up convincing others that they are. That, of course, is high risk.

If a politician were to be persuaded to an alternative point of view through clear, public reasoning – the very essence of enlightenment thinking – they might be accused of being fickle.

Appealing to values

The result is a general principle of political discourse: genuine argumentation in pursuit of truth must be avoided at all costs.

But in favour of what? Most commonly, an appeal to values. An opponent’s position must seem incompatible with some value, or set of values, that people (hopefully, the majority) hold dear.

Conservatives frame (small “l”) liberal positions as being against individual liberties and responsibilities. Liberals frame conservatives as unconcerned by social inequality, placing too much emphasis on wealth creation over social cohesion.

It’s as much about repelling voters away from the opposition as it is drawing voters towards themselves. Hence the cartoonish representations of complex situations and the proliferation of three-word slogans such as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s latest description of the ALP leader as “Billion dollar Bill”.

When it comes to politics, it’s a marketplace of ideological candy rather than one of ideas. Politicians would rather we pass judgement immediately than think too deeply on an issue. This is the source and driver of political spin.

One consequence of this is the all-or-nothing association some people have with political parties. Why deal with every topic on its merits when you can toe the party line?

This kind of behaviour is the opposite of argumentation for truth-seeking, and does not display or value intellectual integrity. Worse, it assumes that voters do not value it either.

If only there was some way we could register our displeasure.