Aristotle in Washington

  • This piece was written over a year ago. It may no longer accurately reflect my views now, or may be factually outdated.

The relations between rhetoric and ethics are disturbing: the ease with which language can be twisted is worrisome, and the fact that our minds accept these perverse games so docilely is no less cause for concern.

Octavio Paz, The Monkey Grammarian [H. Lane, trans.]

We are living in bleak times, politically-speaking. That Britain is bitterly divided was made apparent in the recent EU referendum. Leave won a shock victory, but rather than inquiring as to the ‘why’, the primary response has been a sustained, indignant wail of ‘how’ from those most stunned. Instead, they double down on the deepening of this divide, branding Leave voters as ‘Little Englanders’, ‘racists’ and ‘selfish’. They derisively name them ‘Brexiteers’ and ignore the decades of economic, social and political affairs that led over half of the country to their decision.

Leavers are no better: they flaunt their ‘victory’ over the ‘Remoaners’ as though politics is a zero-sum game, tarring the near-half of the country who—for a range of reasons as broad and nuanced as their own for Leave—voted to Remain as ‘Guardian-reading liberal metropolitan elites’, unworthy of the same consideration they complain as having not had extended to themselves.

The Land of Hope and Glory fares no better: they, too, still reel from the unexpected election of the most outrageously, comically unqualified President the nation has yet seen, rather than the woman largely considered to have had the contest sewn up despite being so distasteful a human being that she somehow still manages to have lower approval than so abhorrently unconscionable a boob as Mr Trump.

Clintonistas are uninterested in how Trump garnered such (surprisingly non-monochromatic) support, channelling McCarthyism of all things as they ascribe blame to Russian malfeasance. Trumpeteers, meanwhile, seem driven by a politics of spite over any higher concerns. The discourse between both sides is depressingly limited: one is either a Nazi or a ‘cuck’, blaming immigration or nationalism for all the ills of the day. The great similarity between both camps, as also in Brexit and in just about every major political issue of the day, is that fear, anger and enmity are the order of the day.

Spurred on by a video lamenting the loss of rhetorical education in modern schooling, I picked up a copy of Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric [H. Lawson-Tancred, trans.]. Composed between 367–322 B.C., it’s simultaneously a testament to both Aristotle’s intellectual rigour and to human nature’s consistency that it reveals not a jot of its over-2,300 years of age.

Aristotle describes emotions in Part II: Emotion & Character as […]those things by the alteration of which men differ with regard to those judgements which pain and pleasure accompany[…], before dividing them into six more- or less-loosely opposing pairs:

  • anger & calm;

  • friendship & enmity;

  • fear & confidence;

  • shame & favour;

  • pity & indignation;

  • and envy & jealousy.

The suggestion, clearly, is that one should encourage those emotions in one’s audience that are opposite to those inflamed by the other side. No emotion is to be considered ‘good’ or ‘bad’, for surely anger has its place just as calm does, but excess of any must be restrained. One should meet anger with calm, counter enmity with friendship, thwart fear with confidence. Instead, the style of the times is for all to promote the same emotions—anger, enmity, fear—in their audiences, differing only in their targets.

Consider Aristotle’s definition of anger as […]desire, accompanied by pain, for revenge for an obvious belittlement of oneself or of one’s dependents[…]. To calm is […]a suspension and placation of anger. Regardless of the subject of disagreement, I can think of no political conflict which includes anyone seriously fighting calm’s corner. Men are calm, writes Aristotle, towards those who humble themselves before them, those who are thought to be taking them seriously and not despising them and those who are not insulting or mocking, not disregardful of anyone—in short, those who respect them.

In the example of the EU referendum those prompting anger towards the European Union were countered not with these things—with sober analysis of the not-baseless criticisms of the institution, or even with a basic level of civility—but with more of the same sentiment, merely redirected to different targets. ‘The EU belittles national sovereignty’ thunders one side, and anger is generated. ‘The Leave campaigners belittle your intelligence’ comes the other’s reply, and it is perpetuated. When the Leader of our Opposition—a man traditionally opposed to the EU—finally weighed in for Remain, he was one of the few allowing for the possibility that the criticisms of EU were not without weight, but that we should avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater. He tried to bring a measure of calm, but at this point the cumulative fury had reached so high a water-mark that he may as well have been pissing in the wind.

More insidious is fear. Aristotle gives fear as […]a kind of pain or disturbance resulting from the imagination of impending danger, either destructive or painful[…]. Leave tell people that if they don’t leave the EU, their country will become unrecognisable. [O]ne must put the audience into the state[…]of thinking that they are in a position to suffer by pointing out that others[…]have in fact suffered, and thus Greece is held up as a fearsome example of the EU’s intransigence. Meanwhile Remain promote a much-discredited Project Fear, warning of the economic destruction to be wrought by a decision to leave. Trump plays on fears of the dismantling of traditional institutions, the threat of Islamic terrorists, the prevalence of job-stealing Mexican rapists and just about everything else under the sun. Clinton retorts with new fears about white supremacists, Christian fundamentalists and Russian hackers. Neither candidate’s boogeymen really exist in the way they make out, but against this climate of terror it can be no surprise that Trump’s blustery, hollow confidence won people over in spite of his many, many failings.

Both of these deficiencies must lead, unavoidable, to enmity. The opposition is no longer seen as a dialectical partner, an ally in the mutual search for the truth hidden somewhere between your differing views, but as a debating foe to be vanquished. Where friendship is fostered amongst […]those who praise one’s good features, and of these features especially those that one fears are not present and […]those with whom they would co-operate to advantage[…], no such praising or co-operation takes place across party lines. True, friendship is also present amongst […]those who do not put on a pretence[…and] who tell even bad things about them, but this is not the same as endless denigration. Team Trump view themselves as up against weak-willed liberals—‘cucks’ to use the current terminology—inordinately focused on issues of race and trying to hold the country hostage to their own pet politics. Their foes are no less vocal in their view of the former as white supremacists, neo-Nazis and homophobes.

Brexiteers rebuke Remoaners as petulant children living in their ‘metropolitan bubbles’, throwing hissyfits because they ‘lost’, whilst the Brexiteers are all either simpletons, duped against their will by a Rumplestiltskin-esque trickster in the guise of Nigel Farage, or intending to unleash a tidal wave of racism across the country. Again, neither side’s boogeyman exists in reality, which is the crux of the issue: can you blame a Republican for not seeing how anyone could possibly subscribe to what he thinks a Democrat is, or vice-versa, and the subsequent inability to empathise with one? Each side argues constantly against a ludicrous effigy of their opposite perspective, invariably coming out of the fray victorious, and in doing so further remove themselves from any chance of rapprochement and a collaborative search for the truth.

I believe that there is far more that unites us than divides us. This view is difficult to sell, however, to a world flooded by an imbalance of emotion—an excess of a select few and a dearth of their counteractions. It remains to be seen whether we teeter precariously upon the rim of some dark and unpleasant abyss, or if we have long since thrown ourselves eagerly into its maw, but I intend to do my part with calmness, with confidence and—perhaps most crucially—with friendship.

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