The point is to win

Many introductions to philosophy will tell you there is a difference between rhetoric, which is the art of persuasion, and philosophical argument, which is the pursuit of truth. Many persuasive arguments are false, and many sound arguments unpersuasive.
All this is true. But as soon as you move into the political, you ignore rhetoric at your peril. If there is a truth (or perhaps, more guardedly, a most rationally supported view) about an issue like asylum law, then it would be very odd if you didn’t mind whether the right view prevailed, just as long as your arguments were logically coherent.
With these thoughts in mind I tuned into the latest edition of Radio Four’s The Moral Maze on asylum. One of the guests was Kate Adie, who chaired a Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust enquiry into destitution in which I was involved.
In her cross examination, it became clear that the main tactic of her critics was to shift the terms of the debate. This is a classic rhetorical device which creates a dilemma for the person being quizzed. If you refuse to be shifted you can look evasive, as though you are trying to avoid answering tough questions. But if you try to go with the questioner and lead the line of enquiry back, you risk going down a blind alley, fighting on your opponents terms, or making matters too complicated to follow.
In this case, Kate’s key focus was on the plight of people who have been refused asylum but remain in this country because they cannot or choose not to return home. Whether you want then to stay or not, you have to accept that current policies aren’t working. (I went on about this more in an earlier post.)
Michael Portillo’s first attempt to divert her was very odd, since it was to ask why the report wasn’t about the 200,000 who had disappeared from the system. Well, that’s exactly what the report was about, so that failed. Later, he tried to argue that there was no mention of the people who had been refused and had returned home, since by definition they weren’t around to be interviewed. This sounds like a fair point: if the argument is that the big stick approach doesn’t encourage return, then surely you need to know that people haven’t actually been returning.
In fact, this is again a spurious attempt to shift the grounds of the argument. The case for saying that the big stick isn’t working is that up to 450,000 people choose to be beaten by it rather than follow the commands of the baton-wielder. Whether or not others have given in is actually besides the point. The failures are so large that even if the system can claim other successes, it’s not a sufficient defence. (It reminds me of that wonderful The Day Today segment where a night attendant at a swimming pool tries to argue he’s done a good job by listing all the years in which no one died, and that 1990 was just an anomaly.)
So how do you deal with these attacks? On paper, of course, you try to give good rational responses. But in face to face debate, that can be very hard. The key, I think, is to enter the debate knowing the grounds on which you want to fight and to be ready to try to steer the questioner back onto them. But also important is nothing to do with rigours of argument, but force of personality. Psychologists have shown that we are just more likely to believe people who put their case confidently. Being understanding of the opposition is an intellectual virtue, but it can be politically disastrous in live debate if your goal is to win.
That’s why it’s better to put a broadcasting pro like Kate Aidie on the programme than a nerdy policy wonk (which is not to suggest that Kate doesn’t have a good intellectual grasp of the issues). She knows how to stand her ground. Early on she was asked why refused asylum seekers don’t go home. “They won’t…” she began and was interrupted. “They won’t, they can’t and they fear to,” she then said, but Michael Buerk talked over her. So, a third time, uninterrupted, she got her soundbite out. It’s a tactic politicians will have used against her in the past, but just because you know the importance of rhetoric for winning, that doesn’t mean there is no substance or values behind your style.
One more post to come on this subject and then that’s it. For now.

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