State of the oration – a wish for 2019

Our recent past

The last two years have been communication shockers. Debate on political and social matters have become shouting matches. Reason has by and large been trashed by the shouty people and replaced with unsubstantiated assertions, enthymemes, and mendacity.

This is a pretty black picture – but whether one looks West or East or across many European countries (most notably the UK) – the pursuit of truth and considered argument has been put under intense pressure, and often attacked as being a conspiracy of fear. This is a tactic used for example by Climate Change Deniers and by ardent Brexit campaigners to undermine the arguments and amassed evidence of their opponents.

False argument

Particularly discouraging is the use of false (or at least incomplete) argument. Caroline Lucas – of whom I am normally something of a fan – seemed to me to do this when tweeting about the state of the railways this week (the 3.1% fare increase). https://twitter.com/CarolineLucas on Jan 2nd.

It is clearly true that the last year has been, for some railways users, chaotic and unsatisfactory. It is also self-evident that a national transport infrastructure needs appropriate investment. It is also arguable – but probably right – that the structure of the industry is not optimal. And the failures in the franchising process points to a need for radical overhaul/replacement.

Some facts

It is a fact that the industry was privatised in the mid 90s. A further fact that the infrastructure management component (Railtrack) was brought back into public ownership as Network Rail less than a decade later.

The solution

But I can see no root cause analysis which would point to the renationalisation of the railways as an obvious way forward. British Rail – the state owned predecessor – was no advertisement for quality, cost-effectiveness, reliability or investment. In fact, quite the opposite. “We’re getting there” was the most optimism it could muster. And would you put the future of the railways in the hands of a Department and Secretary of State who puts the entire blame for this year’s 3.1% fare increase on the unions?

The thing is, I do think there is benefit in having a considered assessment of different structural and investment options. But boiling everything down to a question of state or part-private ownership loses most or all of the flavour.

Why rhetoric has got a bad name

My subject and interest is communication and persuasion – what I have always thought of as the noble art of rhetoric. It upsets me that the term is most commonly used now as a put-down – “just rhetoric”. I am not surprised though, because many of our politicians do not even try to substantiate their arguments, relying instead upon disingenuity and appeals to prejudice – the “as we all know…….” statement. Assertions without a body of proof are indeed “just rhetoric” and that makes up most of what we hear from our politicians and read in our newspapers. In fact it is much worse than the bland “just rhetoric” label – it is actually sophistry. The passing of Paddy Ashdown, a politician who took pains to explain and exemplify his arguments, paints the appalling quality of the current political stock in high relief.

A wish for 2019

I thought a lot about my own company and what I do. I train and coach others to be more compelling, more influential and persuasive. But there was precious little in my marketing materials or course overviews which really focused on truthfulness and integrity. The conclusion dawned on me:

  • Influence without sincerity is tyranny
  • Persuasion without honesty is manipulation

So let us do what we can in 2019, each in our own way, to demonstrate sincere influence and honest persuasion.

 

Post-truth and our duty of care

Looking back

Well, my last post to this blog was a week before the famous, or infamous, referendum in June 2016. And my analysis then, although accurate in part (especially about the role of pathos or emotions in the vote) put too much weight upon the role of ethos – the standing and credibility of the speakers. I suppose that the tactic of discrediting “experts” as a group would have eroded the impact of this particular, and normally most important, lever of persuasion.

My June post was a reflection on the paucity of facts to support the referendum decision. Since then, “post-fact” and “post-truth” have become frequently used expressions, any acceptance of which we all should, I believe, find truly alarming.

A duty of care

Every one of us, but especially the Prime Minister and other members of the Government and of Parliament, has a duty of care to the nation and its citizens. This means that we and they should not, by act or omission, do anything which could reasonably be foreseen would cause injury to a neighbour. To exercise this duty demands that we do our homework by searching for facts, forecasts, likely outcomes and balances of probability. This is the essence of “evidence-based policy” much vaunted by some, if not all, politicians and their advisors.

Implication

This creates something of a conundrum. In a rapidly changing world and political environment, whatever the best predictions might have been some months ago, it is very possible that the assumptions then deployed might now not hold good and a current policy based upon them might now reasonably be foreseen to be damaging to the nation. And if the Government makes such a discovery, it has a Duty of Care to change course; at the very least to tell the truth to Parliament and the electorate.

The binary world

But, this word truth is a problem in our world which, urged on by some disingenuous politicians and commentators, increasingly adopts a polarised, binary view. Factions are labelled left or right, pro or anti, East or West, there are believers and non-believers, something is either right or wrong, good or bad. And we had to vote to leave or remain! I guess for some things a clear and binary distinction is useful, but I worry a lot about its simplistic over-use.

Theory of Mean

I was (figuratively) thumbing through some materials on my PC when I came across an extract from a book I had read on Ethics. The extract concerned Aristotle’s Theory of Mean. The basic tenet of this is that virtue does not lie at an extreme but sits at a point between two extremes – the mean. The most quoted example takes the concept of “courage”. If asked what the opposite of “courage” is, most people would probably say “cowardice” and vice versa. Actually, the opposite of “cowardice” would be best represented as “recklessness”. “Courage” lies in between those two extremes.

The search for truth

It strikes me that the Theory of Mean has something to offer our concept of truth. Fact and truth are not synonymous. Facts can (and should where they are available) inform an opinion or proposition. What one holds to be a truth is often a distillation of many facts, opinions and propositions. So, perhaps we can use the Theory of Mean as a template or guiding principle, and search for truth within and amongst the cloud of possibilities, rather than assume it is to be found at an extremity, on one side of a binary argument.