Opinion, Debate, Rhetoric

Recently checking out the Facebook group on political debates and it struck me that the debate section is nothing but polls asking rather generic and open questions such as "Does Age matter?" or "Does the faith of a candidate matter?"

This is a trend, I believe, in our society of conflating the expression of an opinion with debate. The way people, as I've noticed among friends and students mostly, is that the discourse of opinion is safe because nothing there can be proven. People will say, "Well that's just my opinion," in response to presses for better warrants, evidence or proof for their claims. A debate is a battle of opinions, so it's perfectly acceptable to have them in the format we see on CNN and MSNBC - big open press conferences where nobody has to defend a particular perspective and answer arguments at all.

The problem Gadamer noted - the reliance on the modes of evidence and support from the hard sciences for the social sciences and humanities - is alive and well in this definitional confusion. Since opinions cannot be proven via deductive logic or scientific standards of evidence, they can never be right. Therefore, they are always a secondary discourse. This means it's almost nonsensical to demand better proof or evidence for an opinion - they are beyond the realm of facts, support and proof. They are just opinions.

Distrust of rhetoric as a discourse is part of the reason this is such a difficult confusion to solve. Rhetoric is seen as the thing that fogs everything up - like trying to get dressed up in front of a fun house mirror. Without a healthy understanding of rhetoric, there are no tools for negotiating the field of opinion - or as Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca put it, the world of "probability."

I suppose one of the ways to begin to fix this issue, and return some sense of the good to public debates, presidential debates and the like would be to push a notion of rhetoric as equally essential to human political choices as formal experimentation is to hard science. It seems the public speaking class could be used to this end, by showing the elements of style, audience, and delivery in business and scientific situations - that the definition of a fact is "a highly stylized opinion." From this understanding, one can more comfortably accept the nasty idea of rhetoric, and as one sees the power of framing and audience adaptation, one falls for rhetoric, has anxiety about its disappearance rather than anxiety about it's use.

We can eventually replace the hermeneutic of suspicion we use to examine our candidates with a hermeneutic of the agon - one in which we honor, support and respect the candidate who struggles through the contest of words, offering the best support, reasoning and proof for their claim. We begin to realize we should support what is best, not what is right.

This is a long term goal of mine, I think, and I've been trying to figure out assignments where students are confronted by facts that require a hierarchy or a judgement be made between them. This way, they have to articulate the category of "the better" instead of "the factual," which for most students is self-explanatory. They read their list of facts and sit down.

Beginning with distinctions between the factual and the better seems like a good starting place to reverse the ill-effects of a society who has globalized deductive and scientific reasoning to the point of being the only proper decision making process to engage in for any question.