Show Hide image

British politics and the lost art of rhetoric

Hilary Benn and others were acclaimed for their speeches in the Syria debate in the Commons. But if this was the House at its best, its best is not good enough.

When, after almost 11 hours of debate on 2 December, the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, stood up to say that Hilary Benn’s argument for intervention in Syria would “go down as one of the truly great speeches made in the House of Commons”, few inside or outside the chamber disagreed. Asa Bennett in the Telegraph wrote that Benn had shown “a tenacious grasp of detail in his forensic analysis”, while Martin Kettle in the Guardian called his speech “politically elevating”.

It was not the only acclaimed intervention. Lord Harries praised the “excellent debates”, which had been “at once deeply felt and serious and informed and rational”. Benn said, “We have heard a number of outstanding speeches”; Hammond, too, announced that they had “done justice to the gravity of the subject”. Then, using one of the oldest clichés in politics, the Foreign Secretary added: “Today we saw the House at its best.”

If that was the House at its best, then its best is not nearly good enough. There were a few good interventions but, on the whole, the standard of debate was low, with some of the highest praise reserved for the especially poor performances.

The word “forensic” was used a lot by commentators and MPs but if you take an intellectual scalpel to Benn’s speech, for instance – the supposed highlight of the day – little stands up to scrutiny. Its impact owed more to its bold and direct challenge to Benn’s party leader than to its intellectual content. It serves as a case study on how weak arguments and misleading rhetoric can move and persuade a rationally illiterate parliament and people.

To say that the arguments were poor is not just another way of saying that I did not buy their conclusions. A good argument presents a case that demands a careful response, whether you ultimately accept it or not. A bad one commits an error or deploys a fallacy so obvious that the only response it requires is to point out the fundamental flaw in the reasoning. Benn’s arguments were almost all of this latter kind.

One of the most common features of a poor argument is that it fails to address the core issue, either missing the point or attacking a straw man. Take Benn’s argument that the UN Security Council Resolution 2249 is “asking us to do something, it is asking us to do something now, it is asking us to act in Syria as well as in Iraq”. Given this, he asked, “Why would we not uphold the settled will of the United Nations, particularly when there is such support from within the region, including from Iraq?” Even setting aside the significant but generally unnoticed slide from the recent view of the 15 members of the UN Security Council to the “settled will of the United Nations”, this argument misses the point. The main question for all but a handful of pacifists is not whether it would be good to do something but whether something good can actually be done.

The UN Security Council called for nations “to take all necessary measures” but a measure can only be necessary if it is effective. That was what opponents of the motion doubted and nothing that Benn said about the UN addressed that. Too often, MPs spoke as if the issue at stake were one of high principle, when for most the nub of the issue was the evidence for the efficacy of the proposed actions.

Benn repeatedly used the tactic of asking rhetorical questions along the lines of: “Can we really stand aside and refuse to act fully in self-defence against those who are planning these attacks?” That takes for granted both that acting would be effective self-defence and that the alternative to the proposed action was merely “stepping aside”. “Can we really leave to others the responsibility for defending our national security?” he asked, which presupposes that other western powers are indeed defending us by their actions, when many believe that they are doing no such thing. “Should we not play our full part?” he asked, assuming that extending our role is playing a “full part”, rather than simply playing a wrong part.

On top of all that, Benn resorted to the cheap claim that failing to act would send the wrong message to our friends and allies. That’s an argument used to decry sex education, for fear that it would send the message that children should be sexually active; or to deny people the right to choose the time and manner of their own deaths, for fear of sending the message that the weak and ill are of less value. Whenever such arguments are used, it is almost always the case that there is no necessary link between the proposed action and the dreaded message. What message is sent depends on how things are done, not just whether they are done. Britain could have refused to take part in air strikes in Syria, offering instead a metaphorical V-sign to its allies or trying as hard as it can to counter the threat of Isis in other ways.

My list of Benn’s fallacies is not yet exhausted but there is a more serious issue here than the failings of one politician who did better than most. Other widely praised speeches were much worse, most notably Margaret Beckett’s. Even a sixth-form student of critical thinking would spot the false choice that she offered opponents in her question, “Should we take no further action against Da’esh, who are themselves killing innocent people and striving to kill more every day of the week? Or should we simply leave it to others?” – as though air strikes were the only thing that western powers could do.

This use of false dichotomies was characteristic of the whole debate. It took Labour’s Chi Onwurah to point out, “The Prime Minister spoke often of the choice between action and inaction but those of us who will be voting against the air strikes also want to see action . . . cutting off the financial supplies to Da’esh that buy the bombs and help to radicalise recruits.”

Like Benn, Beckett also offered several false analogies, pointing to the efficacy of bombing in Kosovo, Kobane and Sierra Leone, when circumstances were very different in each case and are not comparable to the situation in Syria today.

Although I have focused on two pro-bombing speeches, what concerns me here is not which side was right but the quality of the debate. It is possible to have poor arguments for the right conclusion. That there were more bad speeches on the pro-intervention side merely reveals that the onus was on supporters of air strikes to come up with arguments that answered the concern that they would cause more harm than good.

 

***

 

The poor standard of debate in our nation’s most important political chamber reflects the broader parlous state of the art of rhetoric. Rhetoric has gained something of a bad name, being associated with the use of words to persuade, irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the conclusion that this persuasion aims at. It doesn’t help that the word “persuasion” is now associated primarily with advertising, marketing and spin, the modern dark arts that seek to bend us to others’ will.

In its original sense, however, rhetoric, properly used, was a respectable skill. Aristotle wrote the first major treatise on the subject, in which he distinguished between three kinds of persuasion. The first was rooted in ethos (character). “Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible,” he wrote. “We believe good men more fully and more readily than others.” Benn exudes ethos – he is admired by all parties as a man of integrity and principle. It is notable that several of the other most rated speakers were elder statesmen and stateswomen respected for long service: Gerald Kaufman, Alex Salmond, Margaret Beckett, Alan Johnson. Aristotle would not have been surprised that these were among the most convincing in the debate.

The second form of persuasion uses pathos (emotion). This we saw in spades, with many referring to the “impassioned” nature of the debate, as though that were clearly a good thing. The widespread use of “Da’esh” was emotive – those speaking used the term, which Isis is known to dislike, in order to belittle it. Benn pulled many emotional strings, most obviously when he listed the various atrocities committed by Isis and concluded, “If it had happened here, they could have been our children.”

This is very effective but it does not address the central issue, which is what we can effectively do about it. There was also a dash of pathos in his concluding appeal to Labour’s historical internationalism, an attempt to stir an elevated feeling of universal benevolence. But this, too, lacked substance, since being in favour of internationalism does not entail supporting all international interventions.

The final element of the rhetorical triad is logos (reason). Contemporary rhetoric is good at harnessing the power of personality and emotion but has very little skill in reasoning. For Aristotle, however, this was a crucial part of the mix. A person in command of the means of persuasion “must, it is clear, be able to reason logically, to understand human character and goodness in their various forms, and to understand the emotions”. Without logos, rhetoric becomes mere oratory, which is precisely what Benn’s speech was: an impressive oral performance but not one that displayed the virtues of good reasoning.

Today, logos is very much the junior member of the rhetorical club. The poverty of logos in parliament reflects the poverty of logos in society. Our culture values emotion and authenticity above logic and rationality. It is perhaps telling that there is a thriving all-party parliamentary group for mindfulness but not one for philosophy.

Champions of logos have been lamenting for decades that we don’t spend enough time teaching children to think. Instead, we coach them to pass examinations. Universities, independent schools and some aspiring state ones maintain the tradition of debating societies but I have never been convinced that these nurture good thinking skills. Debating rewards the clever, the quick-witted, the charismatic. Success is measured by the number of ayes you receive at the end, not on the quality of your arguments. Parliament, especially during Prime Minister’s Questions, often resembles one of these undergraduate debates, in which discussion is a kind of competitive sport rather than a serious attempt to arrive at the truth.

Not only do we not teach people to think, we also seem to have lost faith in the power and value of reason. The cognoscenti know that we are ruled by our hearts, not our brains, or rather that our brains are emotional machines, not logical engines. These cynics point to work by the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who has argued persuasively that the brain uses two different systems. System one is fast, automatic, emotional, subconscious and “hot”. System two is the slow, painstaking, calculating, conscious, “cold” mind praised by philosophers. The problem is that system one does most of the work and much of what system two does is simply to provide rationalisations for what system one has already decided. On this view, Aristotle only gave ethos, pathos and logos equal esteem because he suffered from the typical philosopher’s bias of overestimating our rational capacities.

This is, however, a terrible misunderstanding of the truth that Kahneman has revealed. Proof of the error is that he has not persuaded anyone of the truth of his theories merely through his reputation and the use of emotional manipulation. He has shown it by evidence and argument, by careful steps of reasoning that lead you back to observations that are demonstrably true. Kahneman’s account of the power of pathos is, in reality, the perfect example of Aristotle’s logos. His theory “is persuasive and credible either because it is directly self-evident or because it appears to be proved from other statements that are so”.

 

***

 

It is true that we now know that, in practice, ethos and pathos are the automatic prime movers of persuasion. But we are not obliged always to follow our most immediate inclinations. Logos allows us to pause and examine arguments and to see if they stand up. If they don’t, we can reject them, no matter how much we may side with their proponents or want to agree with them.

It would be absurd to claim that the Syria debate was devoid of any rational argument. Benn offered two that require an answer and are not just fallacious. Against those who said that air strikes alone would not defeat Isis, he argued: “They make a difference, because they give it a hard time, making it more difficult for it to expand its territory.” You may or may not agree with this but it is correct that the statement “Air strikes cannot wipe out Isis” is not a sufficient argument against them, because to degrade the group’s capacity to launch attacks and train terrorists would be a clear benefit. This point requires a response.

Similarly, Benn argued that even if the number of ground troops capable of being supported by air strikes was low, “The longer we leave taking action, the longer Da’esh will have to decrease that number.” This, again, is a challenge that opponents of air strikes need to meet. If – and it is a big if – the alternative to air strikes is the gradual elimination of all moderate opposition forces in Syria, is it better to let that happen or take a last, perhaps desperate, chance to support them?

Every other point that Benn made, however, somehow missed the point or distorted it. Others made an even bigger mess of it. David Cameron’s low point came when he ruled out the use of ground troops because their presence “can be a radicalising force and can be counterproductive”. If this is true of ground troops, it is simply implausible that it is not also true of air strikes. In both cases, people know exactly who is firing the weapons. By what strange principle does he think that they bear grudges against infantry but not pilots? Cameron’s logic could so obviously and easily have been turned against him and yet no one in the chamber picked him up on this.

Aristotle argued that however an argument is constructed, it is “persuasive because there is somebody whom it persuades”. Our problem today is that too many arguments that ought not to be persuasive nonetheless are. The only antidote to this is to strengthen our powers of reasoning, and rhetoric should be put back on the curriculum.

Julian Baggini’s most recent book is Freedom Regained (Granta)

This article appears in the 10 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The clash of empires