Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. Today we continue our month-long festival of all things deliberative rhetoric with a discussion of Saving Persuasion by Bryan Garston.
One thing exciting about his book is that it isn’t written by a rhetorician. Nope, not really. It’s written by a political scientist, which makes rhetoricians excited for two reasons. First, we always get excited when someone outside of our field thinks of us, much less praises us. Second, this guy is in political science! Political science, the people who are always saying things like “empty rhetoric” and “let’s cut through the rhetoric”! And here’s Bryan Garsten saying that persuasion has value, that it is worth saving. We could, as a discipline, collectively kiss him.
But that would take a while.
Also, it would be weird.
Garsten argues that the political theorists of the Enlightenment got it all wrong; instead of appealing to some sort of universal common standard for political deliberation, we need to be more comfortable with how people actually think. Their feelings, attitudes and even biases.
Because, in our age "efforts to avoid rhetorical controversy tend to produce new and potentially more dogmatic forms of rhetoric" we need to realize that "public reason was ingested by philosophers to quell religious controversy by subjecting debate to authoritative standard"-in Hobbes' case, representation, in Rousseau's "prophetic nationalism" and in Kant's "public reason." In each other these there’s an attempt to keep debate from happening—to push people out of the debate Garsten suggests that all three of these standards result in what he calls "liberal alienation"--the way that "from implied unanimity [...] dissenters feel alienated"--if you feel like you can't participate in "general deliberation," your concerns are unaddressed. The result is a polarization where those not invited to the deliberative party strike out against those who exclude them.
And yes, Garsten invokes Hitler and how German concerns were polarized instead of addressed. You can see how it happens. Post world war I, the Germans were excluded from the table of negotiating the peace. German concerns were left out of the deliberations, or were underplayed and Germany hurt bad after the war. By not being considered part of deliberations, many Germans become polarized and aggressive about groups they feel wronged them. And the exclusion begins again. Hitler says, “We all are hurt from WWI” and the people all murmur “yes, yes” and Hitler says, “German should be great again” and the people all murmur “yes, yes” and then Hitler says, “So we should eliminate Jews and other undesirables” and some people suddenly are out of the discussion again..
Instead, Garsten recommends that we make more space for alternative arguments, including those that are based in partiality, passion and privacy. He defends these elements against the common Habermasian critiques against them and says that what should count as deliberative argument is simply "when we make decisions deliberately [...] when we purposefully consider [...] the factors relevant to the our decision." We need to, instead of excluding our adversaries because of their "bad reasoning," see each other and respect each other for how the actual existing individual thinks and feels.
The example Garsten gives is Pres. Johnson, who was able to meet the small-town, white Texans where they were and position something like civil rights for black people in a way that would be palatable to them as well
In all of this there is still the threat of demagoguery. As a potential solution, Garsten invokes Madison, whose theories about small, localized governments within a extended territory can be extended to deliberation: break issues down into smaller, localized, even interested issues, and make sure that there is plenty of space for things to be re-evaluated in the future, and that even if one issue is decided, it doesn't by extension mean that all of the other issues are. Small, piecemeal disputes are best. These institutional strictures structure the individual though and directions deliberation--there can' be any thought of "If I were king," because there aren't any kings to be had.
Ultimately, Garsten promotes a defense of persuasion where we look at each other, and speak to each other--not that we're BFFs or brothers, but that we "pay attention to fellow citizens and to their opinions," not as their opinions should be constructed, or we think they should be, but as they are. The best purpose of persuasion is that it forces us to think beyond ourselves, to encounter others as they are, instead of trying to make them in our own image.
If you’re a political scientist with thoughts about rhetoric or a rhetorician with thoughts about politics, feel free to contact us either via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or our Twitter account @mererhetoric-k-e-d or put out a negative TV spot showing us in unflattering, slow-motion footage. Keep on persuading, my fellow rhetoricians!