Tag Archives: rhetoric

The Rhetoric of Prejudice: Can Europe Still Be Inclusive? Some Remarks

On May 9, 2017, Europe Day, a date chosen as a sign of goodwill for the future of Europe, a group of philosophers, linguists, historians, political scientists and media experts, coming from Belgium, France, Greece, Iceland, Norway, Poland, and Italy of course, gathered in Genoa (Italy) to debate The Rhetoric of Prejudice. The subtitle of the Conference, which should not to be overlooked, posed a crucial question: can Europe still be inclusive?

Opening the conference on Europe Day was presumed to have a symbolic flavour, seventy years after the Treaty of Rome. A choice that marked the will to strengthen the ties of an already-existing scholarly network, the aim of which lies in the mutual exchange of cultural and academic concerns, in order to face without hypocrisies and restraints social and political topics, however unpleasant they may be.

The conference has been conceived as the first step of a research path which involves a larger network of scholars, from Northern and Southern, Eastern and Western Europe. In fact, this group has proposed to the European Commission a Cost action on Discourses of violence and peaceful persuasion: new and past Rhetoric in Europe, as a useful instrument to tackle the language of violent propaganda, a major challenge for Europe today. More specifically, the Action wishes to provide a comparative analysis of the patterns of both violent rhetoric and peaceful communication, in order to identify their core-principles and offer recommendations and strategies to everyone confronted with these phenomena in the public sphere (political journalists, policymakers engaged in educational and cultural policies, teachers, civil servants, social workers, NGO’s operators and International public organizations).

We believe that only an international and inter-disciplinary network will lead to a thorough comprehension of the political, religious, and philosophical roots of the persuasive arguments that, having a strong impact on social imaginary and historical narratives, seem to justify violence or, the other way around, can lead the audience to recognize the value of peaceful communication.

The inquiry has started with the meeting in Genoa and tried to trigger a free and balanced debate on language and its relations with power and society. More than ever, we focused on the multiple misgivings caused by the distorted and discriminative use of language, though conscious or unconscious.

The topic was “prejudice”, and there’s no need to remind that an abundant and eclectic literature has been produced on the issue, in the fields of psychology, sociology, anthropology and philosophy of science in 20th century, from Adorno and his eminent theories to Allport, Tajfel and Teun van Dijk, just to name the best-known scholars.

As a first step, looking at a bunch of national dictionaries could help us to grasp what prejudice is; or better, how it is defined in various contexts.

In Italian: Giudizio basato su opinioni precostituite e su stati d’animo irrazionali, anziché sull’esperienza e sulla conoscenza diretta (Il Sabatini Coletti. Dizionario della lingua italiana).

In French: Jugement sur quelqu’un, quelque chose, qui est formé à l’avance selon certains critères personnels et qui oriente en bien ou en mal les dispositions d’esprit à l’égard de cette personne, de cette chose (Dictionnaire de Français Larousse online).

In English: An unfair and unreasonable opinion or feeling, especially when formed without enough thought or knowledge (Cambridge Dictionary online).

So: lack of knowledge, experience, rationality, critical skills…

If we were to “limit” ourselves to a strictly philosophical approach, we could face the question reassessing the legacy, so to say, of the Enlightenment or Hermeneutics. According to the Enlightenment approach, we can assume that reason, in its path towards the truth, must get rid of prejudices as well as any other sort of deceitful knowledge available beforehand. But we could also deem prejudices, in the way Gadamer did, as the unavoidable starting point of any enquiry on the world and its structure. In fact, Gadamer’s treatment of prejudice is by far more moderate and “liquid”:

Actually ‘prejudice’ means a judgment that is rendered before all the elements that determine a situation have been finally examined.  […]  Thus ‘prejudice’ certainly does not mean necessarily a false judgment, but part of the idea is that it can have either a positive or a negative value (Gadamer 2004: 308).

We could also think that prejudice should not be challenged upon a rigorously rational ground, when emotions play a role in the definition of its cognitive value. More than ever since we are equally interested in the output: how prejudice is expressed and its impact on a relational, social and political level.

Here, moreover, other actors enter the scene, namely the study of language and communication: what about the various means of expressing prejudices – verbal, visual, physical etc.? Does a rhetoric of prejudice really exist? Do we rely on a typical verbal or visual form to express our prejudices? What is more, do we emphasize improperly our negative prejudices?

This issue is particularly important, because the rhetoric of prejudice and the logic of exclusion are strictly connected. If we want to think anew the European societies as societies of inclusion, we must pay close attention to language, to the different types of narratives through which negative prejudices are expressed.

Prejudice is grounded on the absence of recognition as far as identity is involved. Such a lack of recognition denounces not merely the want of a shared history, but, focusing on the existence of a small community, our common heritage and the same belonging to mankind. Any co-identity is forbidden when it comes to prejudice; what we face, here, is the rejection of co-identity, even as an option.

So if we could come close to unveil the rhetorical tools of prejudice, we could also fight prejudice by means of  a “good” rhetoric, apt to “resolve the problem itself of prejudice”.

The rhetorical analysis of prejudice has a large space of inquiry: cultural industry and media produce and reproduce a set of diffused prejudices; the discourses of political leaders are often embedded with prejudices; through everyday language and, in the present tense, from blogs and social networks, harmful sentences filled with words of hate and racial, sexual, ethnic, religious prejudice bounce in the net, as well as just till the newest shape prejudice has picked up, the one which points the finger against experts in the fields of politics, science, medicine, education, media…

Once the ruling classes were highly influential in the production and diffusion alike of prejudices; today, though, elites experience a great loss of fortune and guidance, being followed, or even recognized, no more by public opinion. The leading role has passed to the web-based influencers, who seem not to violate the horizontal power-structure streaming from the net. All in all, public discourse itself apparently has become flat, so that popular judgment, instead of public opinion, is feared of.

We should wonder whether it be feasible to fight this state of affairs, triggered by what I would call “horizontal prejudices”, by means of a rhetorical strategy embodied in daily acts of non-racism, non-anti-Semitism, non-homophobia, non-misogyny etc., where the moral and linguistic extents are inextricably tied up, which means resisting those prejudices stationing inside of us as well.

Adhering to this view, the distinguished scholars in rhetoric and argumentation, history of philosophy, social ethics and political science attending the Conference have delivered their papers, a first group of which is published here.

 

The congress got started with the prolusion of Maria Zaleska, associate professor at the University of Warsaw, Department of Italian Studies, and president of the Polish Rhetoric Society, who stressed the crucial role of rhetoric and the need to depict a “good rhetoric” through a novel appreciation of its theoretical and methodological stances (please note that her contribution will have to be uploaded at a later stage than the others). A road alike was taken by Victor Ferry, a member of the Groupe de Rhétorique et Argumentation Linguistique at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, a network of scholars who try to rejuvenate the teaching of Chaim Perelman. Dr. Ferry has argued that precise argumentative techniques could be used, as revealed by multiple experiences of high-school and college students groups, to soften social habits and teach people mutual respect, when it comes to ideas and values so different to seem irreconcilable.

Carlo Penco, professor of philosophy of language at the University of Genoa, has focused, by his side, on non-offensive language as a means of self-discipline: in the steps of the Italian philosopher Flavio Baroncelli, former professor of moral and political philosophy at the University of Genoa, Penco maintained that the collapse of any distinction of the public and private spheres in the field of communication, most noticeably in social media, threatens the same role of non-offensive language as a tool of respect and appropriateness. New media and technology, then, challenge us all to find original solutions to overcome negative prejudices.

The freedom-attaining potential of language by means of a close dialogue between reason and emotions has found its way in the paper of professor Paola de Cuzzani, of the University of Bergen, who provided the audience with an interesting and innovative reading of Spinoza. While Dr. Hans Marius Hansteen (University of Bergen) has compared Adorno’s theory of authoritarian behaviour to Paul Ricoeur’s main theses. In so doing, he has revealed how ideology, utopianism and prejudice share a possibly common ground when we deal with an identity-driven utopia which leads to a sort of dis-humanizing rejection of the Other.

Pascal Nouvel, professor at the University of Tours – François Rabelais, by his side has proposed an interesting, new tool to explore the logic of prejudice: the analysis of inner discourse in classic, award-winning novels. Quite an extraordinary example of this method has been presented by Nouvel in his reading of the inner speech of detestation in some pages of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust.

We have seen, so far, that the pluralistic nature of the approaches has allowed us to debate the rhetoric of privilege in nearly every distinctive feature. The same applies to the papers more centered on the social relevance of prejudice, as to philosophy, politics and the media. There is no need to say that the very idea of prejudice retains a strong impact on political culture, public communication and policy-enhancing: Giorgio Baruchello, professor at the University of Akureyri, offered a provocative though persuading study of Donald Trump’s political rhetoric through the lens of Richard Rorty’s vision, while Dr. Alberto Giordano (University of Genoa) has emphasized the fact that contemporary populists set up their discourse around some fixed patterns such as the worship of the people, an inner appeal to prejudice and the rhetoric of privilege.

The conference closed with a stimulating paper centered on the ambiguous and often dangerous liaison between prejudices and media: Dimitra Dimitrakopoulou (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki), indeed, has wondered how much both traditional and new media increase or fight prejudices, relying on their peculiar lexical and narrative choices in the Greek political context.

In the end, while countries like Greece and in Italy, but it might be said the whole Southern Europe, must confront with dramatic choices all along the refugee and migrant crisis, the scholars who attended the Conference agreed on the reflection that the way in which old and new media handle the story of migrants and refugees could be a good starting point to question the topic of prejudice in our countries. Would it be enough to fight the rhetoric of fear and build anew an inclusive Europe?

 

Populism, Prejudice and the Rhetoric of Privilege

In a short statement released late in the evening of April 23, 2017, just after the first run of the French presidential elections, madame Marine Le Pen, the well-known candidate of the far-right party Front National who had won the second position after Emmanuel Macron, addressed her supporters gathered in her headquarters:

 Il est temps désormais de libérer le peuple français, tout le peuple, sans oublier nos compatriotes d’Outre-Mer qui ont exprimé à mon égard une confiance qui m’honore, il est temps de libérer le peuple français d’élites arrogantes qui veulent lui dicter sa conduite. Car oui, je suis la candidate du peuple[1]. (Le Pen 2017a)

 

This passage, quite impressive indeed, seems clear enough to introduce the working hypothesis that I will try to prove throughout this paper, that is to show how much, and how frequently, populists set up their discourse around a relatively small number of patterns, which happen to be often intertwined. All in all, my guess is that we may identify three main narratives:

1) the worship of the people;

2) a hidden appeal to prejudice;

3) the rhetoric of privilege.

 

Why are they so fundamental? In my view, because they serve the creation of the most remarkable character which may be found in most populist galleries, i.e. the ‘enemy of the people’, who apparently enjoys all those benefits and rights that people at large have been stripped of. I will proceed by offering a quick insight into the most interesting studies on populism and its rhetoric, sketching the three main narrative patterns by means of a close look at recent samples of populist political communication and, as a final point, submitting some provisional closing remarks.

 

 

Defining Populism: A Never-Ending Story

The vast and varied literature on populism, its nature and rhetorical legacy is proof of a continuing fascination for scholars, who, nonetheless, fail to agree on a standard definition of the concept itself. Three approaches, at least, contend the market of political science, each stressing a (presumably) unique feature of populism:

1) the ideology approach;

2) the discoursive approach;

3) the attitude approach.

 

According to the first, populism can be understood only in terms of an ideology, however thin it may be (Canovan 1981, Mudde 2004; Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2017). It is, for sure, an odd ideology, moving beyond class identity and political affiliation (the left/right cleavage so often derided by populists) but holding a strong grab on the sovereignty of the people, the crucial role of leaders (whose words often have a healing effect on social evils, according to Incisa di Camerana 1976) and the anti-establishment perspective, issues which could make of populism an inner alternative to the liberal democratic theory and practice (Mény and Surel 2000).

Still, the ideology approach underestimates the communicative value of populist narratives, which is why a good number of researchers have developed the discoursive approach, focusing on the rhetorical patterns performed by most populist leaders and representatives. Scholars such as Taguieff (2002), Laclau (2005), Reisigl (2007) and Cedroni (2010), however differing in the scope and methodology of their analyses, share a common belief in the fact that populism is «a political style that is used by a wide range of actors across the world today» and consequently highlight its «performative aspects» (Moffitt 2016: 28).

Others, though, – like Betz (1994), Taggart (2000) and De la Torre (2008) – deem both the ideology approach and the discoursive approach equally inadequate to embrace a phenomenon so complex as populism is. In fact, their proposal lies in the depiction of populism as an attitude, a state of mind marked by «a peculiar vision of social order grounded on the faith in the aboriginal virtues of the people, whose primacy as the sole legitimate foundation of political life and governmental policies is openly and proudly called for» (Tarchi 2015: 52).

Notwithstanding the differences, the aforementioned approaches converge towards the acknowledgment of ‘the people’ as a key principle in populist thought and storytelling. Yet, they seem to miss – more or less extensively – a crucial point, i.e. that the supremacy of the people (at least, in the brand new fashion sanctioned by populists) is forcefully, and furtively, connected to an ambiguous usage of stereotypes and prejudices in order to stimulate a spontaneous reaction of the people (i.e. the voters) against those targets which are blamed for their privileges (however real or presumed). This is what I will deal with in the next two paragraphs.

 

 

The People

What do populist mean when they invoke ‘the people’? If it is true that «all forms of populism without exception involve some kind of exaltation and appeal to ‘the people’» (Canovan 1981: 294), a remarkable feature of contemporary European and North American populism seems to be located in their embracing losers and victims – of globalization, governments and ruling classes, international organizations, industrial and financial élites, intellectual circles etc. – and turning them into ‘the people’[2]. A pro-common man and anti-elitist stance has always characterized any sort of populism, of course: for instance, the former leader of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), Jörg Haider, repeatedly stated that «very often plain people got a much wider good sense than top-notch politicians, who nonetheless try to teach them what moves their inner desires» (Cedroni 2014: 48). But, while we must surely keep in mind the «difference between populist audiences (those who are spoken to by populists) and populist constituencies (those who are spoken for by populists)» (Moffitt 2016: 96), it is nonetheless amazing to hear of how many odes to the real, and therefore disgraced, men and women are stunningly sung by populists, as in the case of Donald Trump’s inaugural address:

What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now. (Trump 2017a)

 

In this portrait of ‘the people’, the moral and political dimensions of public life are strictly tied up, so that Nicholas Bay, the secretary-general of the Front National, could assert, back in 2015, that «the French long for a real, meaningful change, not merely a political but a moral break», since they had looked with disappointment at «the disdain towards democracy and the people displayed in the last few days by the affiliates of the political élite» (Bay 2015). These words let us notice another double-sided feature of populism, that is the contempt for traditional politicians and the consequent acclaim of populist leaders as the sole ‘voices of the people’.

No surprise that both Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, just to mention the most relevant, have largely relied on some slogans of the sort all along their campaigns: Trump’s merchandising managers made stickers and hats available with the motto ‘I am your voice’ and sold them abundantly, while Le Pen’s posters often claimed her being ‘la voix du peuple’. But why are populist leaders deemed as extraordinary by their supporters, at least as far as their proximity with the people is concerned? Because they can handle quite skillfully the rhetoric of difference: ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘pure people’ and ‘the corrupted few’, the ‘honest bulk of the people’ against the ‘wealthy turncoats’. A very good example, once again, is offered by a passage in Trump’s inaugural speech:

 Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning. Because today we are not merely transferring power from one Administration to another, or from one party to another – but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People. For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished – but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered – but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s Capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. (Trump 2017a)

 

In sum, populist leaders are perceived as different not merely because they can legitimately speak for the people, but in so far as they belong to the people – which is funny, indeed, when we recall that a lot of populist billionaires like Trump, Berlusconi, Perot, Fujimori and many more have pretended to act as the true representatives of the common people. In so doing, it has been written with more than a reason, they can be successful «by emphasizing action and masculinity, playing into cultural stereotypes of the people and by proposing ‘common sense’ solutions at odds with the opinion of experts» (Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2017: 68). In the meantime, we should never forget what Jan-Werner Müller has argued so persuasively, that «in addition to being antielitist, populists are always antipluralist. Populists claim that they, and they alone, represent the people» (Müller 2016: 2). Which is why they need to sketch a detailed catalogue of enemies and their servants, appealing to our inner prejudices to decry their pretended privileges and clearing the way for an illiberal, absolute representative presumption.

 

 

Enemies, Prejudices, and Privileges

Many enemies, much honour: it seems like our populists have learnt the lesson well. Professional politicians, as we have seen, are the first on the list since they belong to the worst class, that of the ‘enemies of the people’. Politicians are not reliable because «they are not willing to do anything for you [common people], since they are submitted to Brussels, Berlin, to corporate interests and financial powers» (Le Pen 2017c); besides, they do not comply with the popular will, a reason to choose the populists who, instead, «offer the electorate a real alternative to the old status quo» and «ensure that the politicians are reminded that real people must not be ignored» (UKIP 2017: 2, 3).

Politicians, though, are just a small portion of the overwhelming assemblage of the enemies. Matteo Salvini, the young leader of the Northern League, tweeting right after the first run of the French presidential elections, for instance, included in the list «politicians and journalists, philosophers and pseudo-artists» not to mention the «bankers [who] celebrate Macron», while «around 40% of farmers and workers voted for Marine Le Pen» (Salvini 2017). Farmers and workers, the ‘pure people’, who vote for the populists, against the (un)happy few. Who are the latter? The privileged, the rich, the well-educated, the well-born, the ones who live under the State’s patronage and drain resources from the poor while scorning them.

Other targets, yet, are required these days: the EU and eurocrats are among the best for populists, both right-wing and left-wing (let me mention at least the anti-European rhetoric of Podemos and Syriza). European authorities are seen, a priori, as unfriendly rivals and true obstacles on the path of the people: UKIP leaders, for example, have long dreamt, before Brexit, of «a Britain released from the shackles of the interfering EU» since Europe is a «failing super-state that tells us what to do and does not listen to what we want» (UKIP 2015: 5). Of course eurocrats enjoy plenty of privileges, granted by the States’ contribution to the EU budget and sharply criticized by populists who, as in the case of the Finns Party, ask for the «termination of detrimental EU-bureaucracy» (The Finns Party 2015b: 5). Besides, eurocrats’ guilt exceeds by far their existence being, as they are sometimes, «designated by national governments to sit in mysterious committees» (Lega Nord 2014: 3).

The EU, in fact, in most populist narratives is portrayed as the ‘bad guy’ who forces member States to raise taxes and cut the healthcare, social insurance, culture etc., while the same «nation States are less and less democracy-driven», since the EU is an «obscure and distant entity» and does not listen to the people (Lega Nord 2014: 3). But Europe is responsible, as well and most noticeably, of the worst crime of all (in mainstream populist perception): the ‘open-door’ policy when it comes to immigration issues. Right-wing populism has monopolized the topic, since it «endorses a nativist notion of belonging, linked to a chauvinist and racialized concept of ‘the people’ and ‘the nation’» (Wodak 2015: 47); it consequently blames European authorities for «the EU’s founding, unshakable principle of the ‘free movement of people’» (UKIP 2015: 12) and proposes the «demission of the Schengen treaty to take back control of national borders» (Le Pen 2017b).

Still, there is something more subtle and disguising: the frequent appeals to anti-migrants prejudices (mostly anti-Muslim, at present) are often mingled – at least in the last few years – with a novel narrative pattern which emphasizes the alleged privileges of migrants and asylum seekers. After all, few months ago, Donald Trump explicitly told the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, that «immigration is a privilege, not a right, and the safety of our citizens must always come first» (Trump 2017b). But the same applies to what has been called the ‘welfare chauvinism’, a phenomenon that has recently reached its apex when European populist parties such as Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the Swiss UDC, the Front National and the Finns’ Party (formerly known as the True Finns), have denied any legitimacy to whatever claim over national healthcare and social security programs put forward by «migrants who lack necessary skills for employment as well as for those with religious and cultural reasons that are not willing to accept basic European concepts and principles of equality and freedom of speech» (The Finns Party 2015a: 1). Even more plainly, right-wing populists very often deplore the fact that ‘our people’ is left behind, while the State and communities ‘pay for them’:

The Finns Party does not accept that people can reside in Finland illegally – never mind that these people are getting health and social care as well as extra and wider services. The asylum seekers are also getting support for transport and leisure activities – this situation should be reviewed. The Finnish welfare-state should not be acting as a magnet for immigration – the system should be prioritising Finns for receiving education and medical care and treatment services. The repercussion of the immigration flow on the welfare-system and its effect on the Finnish population must be brought under control. (The Finn’s Party 2017: 11)

 

How? Easy to figure out: as a first step, by the «termination of any public medical aid for illegal migrants» (Le Pen 2017c); then, maybe, introducing «an Australian-style points based system to manage the number and skills of people coming into the country» (UKIP 2015: 11) and so forth. The anti-privileged-migrants narrative deployed by populists is multifaceted as it is effective.

We have come so far to witness a full circle: the worship of ‘the people’ – even better: the belief that populists, and they alone, serve «the interests of a imagined homogeneous people inside a nation State» (Wodak 2015: 47) – has become the basis, and the ideological anchorage, for a series of appeals to intimate, well-rooted stereotypes and prejudices fueled by a discourse centered on a flamboyant condemnation of the privileges that others than ‘the pure people’ (politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, businessmen, intellectuals and, lately, migrants) apparently enjoy against the popular will. And this, in turn, «attracts the attention of the all-important media through which they [populist leaders] broadcast their appeal to ‘the people’» (Moffitt: 68). Voilà.

 

 

Final Remarks

In this paper I have tried to argue, looking at the most recent samples of political discourse in Europe and America, that most messages sent by populist are intended to flatter the people and stimulate prejudice-based reactions by means of the rhetoric of privilege, the strong impact of which on public opinion cannot be underrated. These narrative patterns, in my view, serve the purpose of creating a large gallery of enemies – however implausible they can be – that populists must rely on to develop their anti-establishment arguments.

What does this outcome tell us on populism and its nature? First, it confirms that Ruth Wodak was right when she maintained that populists are used to «instrumentalize some kind of ethnic/religious/linguistic/political minority as a scapegoat for most if not all current woes and subsequently construe the respective group as dangerous and a threat ‘to us’, ‘to the people’» (Wodak 2015: 2), even though we might add that the same applies to any social group that doesn’t fit in their fictional portrait of ‘the people’. Second, it gives us some practical insights into the rhetorical tricks veiled under their advocating a democratic revival, that, when populists «succeed in leading the government of a democratic society» (as in the case of Hungary and Poland), suddenly turns into an authoritarian project including «centralization of power, weakening of checks and balances, strengthening of the executive, disregard of political opposition and transformation of election in a plebiscite of the leader» (Urbinati 2014: 129).

Our analysis seems to teach us something more, yet: populism prospers where public opinion is too fragile and dumb to find out any hidden appeal to prejudice and stand against it. After all, as Walter Lippmann wrote long ago, public opinion relies heavily on stereotypes, since they offer us «an ordered, more or less consistent picture of the world, to which our habits, our tastes, our capacities, our comforts and our hopes have adjusted themselves» so much that «any disturbance of the stereotypes seems like an attack upon the foundations of the universe» (Lippmann 1991 [1922]: 95). Here, precisely, may be found the final reason why populist rhetoric is so attractive: no challenging thoughts, no self-responsibility, no efforts required, just a number of lame excuses and pleasant customary prejudices. But what’s that if not another form of propaganda, a well-designed «effort to alter the picture to which men respond, to substitute one social pattern for another» (Lippmann 1991 [1922]: 26)?

 

 

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United Kingdom Independence Party (2015), Believe in Britain. UKIP Manifesto 2015,  http://www.ukip.org/manifestos.

United Kingdom Independence Party (2017), UKIP Local Manifesto 2017, http://www.ukip.org/manifestos.

Urbinati, N. (2014), Democracy Disfigured. Truth, Opinion, and the People, Cambridge Ma.: Harvard University Press.

Van Eermeren F.H., Blair, J.A., Willard, C.A., Garssen B. (eds.)(2007), Proceedings of the Sixth Conference of  the International Society for the Study of Argumentation, Amsterdam: International Center for the Study of Argumentation.

Wodak, R. (2015), The Politics of Fear. What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean, Los Angeles-London: Sage Publications.

 

 

Endnotes

[1] «It is time, at least, to free the French people, the people as a whole, not to forget our fellow citizens of the departments outside France who have pleased and honoured me with their faith and consent, it is time to free the French people from arrogant élites ready to influence its conduct. Because it’s true: me alone, I am the candidate who speaks for the people».

[2] See Gest (2016).

Poets/Trump/Philosophers: Reflections on Richard Rorty’s Liberalism, Ten Years after His Death

Starting with a prescient 1998 quote on the impending decline of US liberal democracy into right-wing, strong-man-based demagogy, this paper outlines Richard Rorty’s political philosophy, which I believe can help us understand perplexing political trends in today’s political reality well beyond the US alone. Specifically, I tackle three key-terms encapsulating the thrust of Rorty’s political philosophy, i.e. “liberalism of fear”, “bourgeois” and “postmodernism”. Also, I address a contraposition that explains how Rorty would approach and attempt to defend liberal democracy from contemporary right-wing, strong-man-based degenerations, namely the priority of “poetry” over “philosophy”. Essentially, if one wishes to win in the political arena, she must be armed with the most effective rhetorical weaponry, however good, solid and well-argued her political views may be. Finally, some remarks are offered on the role that “philosophy” can still play within the same arena.

 

Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty (1931–2007) was probably the most famous American philosopher at the end of the last century. As I pen this introduction, ten years after his death, his name has re-appeared on the pages of many newspapers, at least in the Anglophone press, and some aspects of his political thought are going ‘viral’ across the world-wide-web. We live in the age of Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter, after all. Various passages of his 1998 book, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press), have been ‘unearthed’ and variously circulated. Among them we read what follows:

Members of labor unions, and unorganized and unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else… At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots… Once the strongman takes office, no one can predict what will happen. [However, o]ne thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion… All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet… [e.g. in] socially accepted sadism… directed toward people such as gays and lesbians[.] (ibid., 81ff)

To past European generations and probably most modern historians, a socio-political picture like the one portrayed above is likely to recall the rise of autocratic demagogues such as Napoleon III or Benito Mussolini. Today, however, this passage sounds like an eerily accurate prediction of the bitter conclusion of triumphant post-Cold-War globalisation and its ‘inevitable’ sacrifices, epitomised by the rise of Donald Trump. And so it has been taken by media outlets and opinion-makers, e.g. Stephen Metcalf’s 10th January 2017 “cultural comment” for The New Yorker, entitled “Richard Rorty’s Philosophical Argument for National Pride” and discussing also the media attention received by the passage above.

 

Donald Trump

Fresh US President and long-time billionaire, Mr Trump won in 2016 a harsh electoral campaign against a seasoned politician, Ms Hillary Clinton, who, it should be noted, was the publicly vocal and politically proactive US First Lady when Rorty’s book was published qua, inter alia, scathing critique of the increasingly right-wing, free-market policies promoted by the Democratic Party, which Rorty regarded as his own party of choice in the US. Whilst describing the leading 20th-century Democrats, from F.D. Roosevelt to L.B. Johnson, as outright social-democrats, Rorty did not approve of several decisions taken by the Clinton’s administration, such as the controversial 1994 NAFTA agreement with Canada and Mexico and the 1999 repealing of the long-lived Glass-Stegall Act, a child of the Great Depression and a piece of legislation that had limited the systemic threat of unbridled finance (cf. Richard Rorty, “Una filosofia tra conversazione e politica”, interview by Giorgio Baruchello, Iride, 11(25), 1998, 457–84; translation mine). Those of us who remember the roots and the fruits of the 2008 financial collapse, namely the Great Moderation at one end and the Great Recession at the other, should not find it difficult to realise what momentous consequences the Clintons’ friendliness toward Wall Street has been outpouring. It is in fact in a climate of unresolved under- and un-employment, globalisation-induced economic insecurity, and increasingly strong anti-immigration and anti-establishment feelings that Donald Trump came to prominence qua political leader.

Prominent, if not brazen or simply unusual, were his language and many of his declared stances throughout the electoral campaign of 2016. As recorded and frequently criticised by mainstream media, Mr Trump often: (1) uttered racist, sexist and homophobic slurs; (2) fashioned himself qua anti-establishment champion of the impoverished, economically insecure, and primarily white working class of his country; (3) paraded his willingness to cooperate with foreign dictators and political leaders whose human-rights record is far from spotless; and (4) insouciantly condoned words and concepts that make violence, torture included, seemingly acceptable in the public sphere, both domestically and internationally. Evidence of all this is not hard to find. Trump’s electoral speeches are archived and available online (cf. also a selection of his statements by The Telegraph). In power for only few weeks at the time of writing, Trump has already started delivering on his electoral agenda, at least as regards tightening immigration rules in the US, though it is far too soon to pass any trenchant judgment yet. Cruelty, in the shape of “socially accepted sadism” or worse (e.g. extensive warfare), might regain the front stage as a major ingredient in the political life of the world’s sole nuclear super-power, whose 500 and more military sites outside US borders and territories span across most continents, and a fortiori in the political life of all countries at large. I write “front stage” because Trump’s predecessor did not halt, say, police violence in the US or the bombing of the populations of foreign countries by US drones (e.g. Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen), but he never spoke publicly of such issues in as cavalier a manner (concerning the US military foreign sites, cf. Department of Defense, Base Structure Report – Fiscal Year 2015 Baseline). Bombs may have been dropped throughout the two-term Obama administration, but not verbal ones.

For all we know, the new US presidency might prove less prone to endorse the highly destructive forms of legally termed humanitarian intervention and politically proclaimed promotion of Western-style democratic institutions seen, say, in 21st-century Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan under George W. Bush and Barak Obama (e.g. military occupation, air raids and killings by remote-controlled drones). On the domestic front, Trump himself might succeed in becoming an effective tribune of the common people, or at least of a large segment of it. Chronically disenfranchised blue-collar Americans might end up enjoying more and better jobs than they have over the previous three decades. Who knows? They might even witness the end of the gross – when not grotesque – imbalance in incomes and influence between Wall Street and Main Street that Ronald Reagan’s economic policies kick-started in the 1980s, and that Bill Clinton’s aforementioned abolition of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act definitively entrenched. Rather than christening involuntarily a shantytown, as some of his predecessors did (i.e. post-1929 “Hooverville” and post-2008 “Bushville”), the name of a flamboyant US billionaire might go down in history for reverting the forceful re-affirmation of patrimonial capitalism that has been occurring in most countries on Earth since the days of Thatcherism. Unlike Obama, Trump might not “stand between [the bankers] and the pitchforks” (Lindsay Ellerson, “Obama to Bankers: I’m Standing ‘Between You and the Pitchforks’“, ABC News, 7th April 2009). Alternatively, as Rorty suggests in the same foreboding pages of Achieving Our Country, the elected “strongman” will just “make peace” with “the international super-rich” and appease the masses via jingoistic militarism and charismatic posturing. Time, as always, will tell. Cruelty, whether in the shape of petty humiliation of minorities or military extermination of scores of people, is never too far away.

 

Poets

Cruelty matters a lot, at least for Richard Rorty, who championed one specific school of political thought that, in the late 20th century, made this notion central to the understanding of social and political life, claiming that Western liberalism is characterised by a unique abhorrence of cruelty in the public sphere. Called “liberalism of fear”, this school of thought was a theoretical creation of Harvard political scientist Judith Shklar (1928–1992), but it is commonly recalled today in connection with Richard Rorty, who was and still is far more famous than Judith Shklar. The quintessence of their political stance is simple to express: “liberals… think that cruelty is the worst thing we do” (Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, 73). Therefore, they draw a clear distinction “between cruel military and moral repression and violence, and a self-restraining tolerance that fences in the powerful to protect the freedom and safety of every citizen” (Judith Shklar, Ordinary Vices, Cambridge: Belknap, 1984, 237). Liberals opt for the latter option and defend all those institutions (e.g. parliaments, constitutions, human rights, judiciary independence, freedom of the press, etc.) that foster peaceful coexistence over violent oppression, debate over force, individual liberty over State control, and people’s safety over their systemic endangerment.

Rhetoric also matters a lot for Rorty. Ironically, it is of the essence. According to Rorty: “The principal backup [for liberals] is not philosophy but the arts, which serve to develop and modify a group’s self-image by, for example, apotheosizing its heroes, diabolizing its enemies, mounting dialogues among its members, and refocusing its attention” (“Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism”, The Journal of Philosophy, 80(10), 1983, 587). The art of rhetoric must be understood in a catholic manner here. In his texts, Rorty would normally speak of “arts”, “narrative”, “poetry” or “literature”. What he means, however, is that he does not trust traditional philosophical argument and repeated appeals to reason to do the job. Reason matters, of course. Rigour too. But relevance vis-à-vis the context and the audience is the actual key, hence the ability to persuade that one can attain by reaching people’s hearts as well as their minds, especially when fundamental social values are at issue, rather than the day-to-day activities of tribunals or elected councils. Only in this manner can liberals hope to achieve any progressive aim. Truth does not imply per se any victory whatsoever in the public arena; nor does it matter much, in the end. Speaking and writing well in favour of liberal principles and institutions do, instead; they are much more crucial, even if we may not be able to demonstrate once and for all why we should prefer liberalism to Nazism or Social Darwinism. As Rorty writes: “Whereas the liberal metaphysician thinks that the good liberal knows certain crucial propositions to be true, the liberal ironist thinks the good liberal has a certain kind of know-how. Whereas he thinks of the high culture of liberalism as centering around theory, she thinks of it as centering around literature (in the older and narrower sense of that term – plays, poems, and, especially, novels)” (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 93).

Rorty did actually speak of “rhetoric” as well, but only occasionally. Nonetheless, it has been argued that, as far as the 20th-century American academic community is concerned, the ancient art of rhetoric regained ground primarily thanks to him, pace Kenneth Burke’s (1897–1993) efforts in this sense since the 1930s. First came the 1979 publication of Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press), by now a widely acknowledged modern classic, which excavated the metaphorical roots of all objectivist, rigorous, scientific and pseudo-scientific terminologies. Then, a series of conferences were held in the mid-1980s at Iowa and Temple Universities, out of which was launched the “Project on the Rhetoric of Inquiry” (POROI). Richard Rorty participated in them and another participant, Herbert W. Simons, credits him with coining at one of the meetings the now-popular slogan “the rhetorical turn” (The Rhetorical Turn: Invention and Persuasion in the Conduct of Inquiry, Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 1990, vii).

Interested in persuading wide audiences rather than producing bullet-proof arguments for academic circles, Rorty declares himself to be candidly partial to “the Hegelian attempt to defend the institutions and practices of the rich North Atlantic democracies… [i.e.] ‘postmodernist bourgeois liberalism’.” (“Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism”, 585). As he writes: “I call it ‘bourgeois’ to emphasize that most of the people I am talking about would have no quarrel with the Marxist claim that a lot of those institutions and practices are possible and justifiable only in certain historical, and especially economic, conditions.” (ibid.) Money matters too, then. Liberal institutions, high and low, depend upon appropriate material conditions. This is the fundamental insight and theoretical legacy of Marxism, according to Rorty. We must take the “structure” seriously into account, if we wish to make sense of the “superstructure”, even if we consider the latter to be partially independent from the former and not fully determined by it, i.e. a sort of mere epiphenomenon. That is why economic insecurity and inequality matter so much in liberal polities, as Donald Trump’s election has further confirmed.

Rorty’s acknowledment that material conditions are important does not mean that he subscribed to Marxism, Chicago-style liberalism, Randian Objectivism or any fundamental claim about the nature of the human soul and human societies. According to Rorty: “There is no answer to the question ‘Why not be cruel?’ – no noncircular theoretical backup for the belief that cruelty is horrible … Anybody who thinks that there are well-grounded theoretical answers to this sort of question – algorithms for resolving moral dilemmas of this sort – is still, in his heart, a theologian or a metaphysician.” (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, xv-i). A self-declared champion of American neo-pragmatism, Rorty followed this tradition in believing that “morality is a matter of… ‘we-intentions’… the core meaning of ‘immoral action’ [being] ‘the sort of thing we don’t do’.” (ibid., 59) There is no grand narrative; no ultimate vocabulary as Kenneth Burke understood this term, i.e. a theory or discourse capable of ordering all relevant conceptual elements, including apparently conflicting ones, into one synthetic vision, account or system. As Rorty explains: “I use ‘postmodernist’ in a sense given to this term by Jean-Francois Lyotard, who says that the postmodern attitude is that of ‘distrust of metanarratives,’ narratives which describe or predict the activities of such entities as the noumenal self or the Absolute Spirit or the Proletariat. These meta-narratives are stories which purport to justify loyalty to, or breaks with, certain contemporary communities, but which are neither historical narratives about what these or other communities have done in the past nor scenarios about what they might do in the future.” (“Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism”, 585)

Let me add that, according to Rorty, postmodernism is not relativism: “Relativism certainly is self-refuting, but there is a difference between saying that every community is as good as every other and saying that we have to work out from the networks we are, from the communities with which we presently identify. Post-modernism is no more relativistic than Hilary Putnam’s suggestion that we stop trying for a ‘God’s-eye view’ and realize that ‘We can only hope to produce a more rational conception of rationality or a better conception of morality if we operate from within our tradition’.” (ibid., 589) One thing is to say that we can, in theory, set all moral or political options beside one another and state that they all have the same value. Another thing is to say that we cannot do it, because we can only and must operate from within one option at the time, building or burning bridges with the others. The latter being Rorty’s stance on the matter.

 

Philosophers

We are philosophers, scientists, academics. Rational argumentation is our bread and butter. Yet, it is ours. It is probably also the judges’, the lawyers, the engineers’ and some others’. It is not theirs, though, i.e. ‘common’ human beings’ at large. Talk to your relatives; your neighbours; the ‘man of the street’; have a conversation in a bar, shop, or parish hall. Arguments matter, generally, but only to a point. Sometimes, it is plainly futile to even present one and expect it to be listened to, not to mention being taken so seriously as to change the listener’s beliefs. Let us ask ourselves, why do we engage in rational debate? Because we expect it to bear fruit. In other words, we do so under two major assumptions: (1) we can find reasons; and (2) reasons matter. As Rorty once stated: “To take the philosophical ideal of redemptive truth seriously one must believe both that the life that cannot be successfully argued for is not worth living, and that persistent argument will lead all inquirers to the same set of beliefs” (“The Decline of Redemptive Truth and the Rise of a Literary Culture“, 2000).

Perhaps we can find some reasons. Perhaps even good reasons. No final, ultimate reasons can be found, though, according to Rorty, who claims chimeric any conclusive philosophical grounds of agreement that correspond to a universal and unchanging human nature, the essence of things, pure rationality, the hidden structure of historical dialectics, God’s plan for the universe, etc. According to Rorty, when we look deep and hard into ourselves, the most profound things that we can get a glimpse of are the most entrenched prejudices of our own culture, our ethnos or, as quoted above, “our tradition”. But this is not everything. Even if there were any such deeper, ultimate reasons, who would listen to them? Some people would. Perhaps a fair amount. Not most human beings, however. Religion, politics, marketing, economic history, psychology and many ordinary experiences bear witness to the limits of human rationality. Albeit not irrational, people are frequently unreasonable, impervious to logical thinking, biased in many ways, and unwilling to reconsider their basic, often deeply engrained and sometimes blissfully unaware assumptions. If this is a plausibly correct assessment of humankind under contemporary democracy, how can liberals win in the public arena? Rorty’s answer is patent: a “turn against theory and toward narrative” (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, xvi). In other words, rhetoric is needed. A good one, of course, in both content and form.

As regards the content, Rorty’s own political plans and works show what it should be: the principles and institutions of liberalism. To them, he then adds specific projects that liberals should focus upon (e.g. universal healthcare; cf. “Una filosofia tra conversazione e politica”). As regards the form, that is where “poets” excel or, as Rorty also calls them, successful “agents of love” (i.e. ‘missionaries’ reaching non-liberals) and “justice” (i.e. enforcers of liberal principles within liberal ethnoi; “On Ethnocentrism”, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth – Philosophical Papers vol. I, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991[1981], 206). Let us learn from them: read good books; watch good films; read good books; practice your communication skills; read good books; engage in your own ethnos’ ongoing moral and political conversation (e.g. by joining a political party, charitable organisation or a trade union); and, to top it all, read good books. There are no ideal Platonic philosopher-kings here; poets are the kingmakers. “Poets” too must be understood in a catholic manner, though. They can be priests, film-makers, propagandists, teachers, political leaders, etc. They may not be able to produce a definitive demonstration of why liberalism is to be preferred and pursued; however, at least for us children of liberal institutions, it is not a serious issue. What really matters is to keep them going; and that is what poets can help us with. What is left for us as philosophers? I have three suggestions:

(A) We can and, perhaps, should join the ranks of the “agents of love” and “justice”. Become better at speaking and writing well, and use your skills to fight the good fight—the liberal fight, according to Rorty. Be an engaged intellectual. Be a promoter of democracy in the schools, as the US pragmatist John Dewey (1859–1952) had already tried to do and let American teachers do. If you cannot be a leader, help one to emerge. Rorty himself regarded his work as making room for, or paving the road to, greater minds, such as Jacques Derrida (1930–2004; cf. “Una conversazione tra filosofia e politica”).

(B) As Rorty never denied, there are people, a minority of course, who do respond to philosophical arguments; philosophers can still be useful in finding ways “of making political liberalism look good to persons with philosophical tastes” (“On Ethnocentrism”, 211).

(C) My personal contribution is that philosophers can provide ideas, social legitimacy and psychological encouragement to poets. In our culture, pace Rorty’s “turn against theory”, poets are not expected to give us rational arguments and axiological foundations, whereas philosophers still are. Then, even if such an aim is ultimately utopian and as long as this division of intellectual labour holds in our culture, poets can find things to say and work upon. The rhetorician’s inventio and topoi can unfold in close contact with the texts by philosophers that they admire and may decide to rely upon. Dante Alighieri had Thomas Aquinas, Ugo Foscolo Condorcet, George Bernard Shaw Friedrich Nietzsche, Luigi Pirandello Henri Bergson, Mahatma Gandhi Lev Tolstoy, James Joyce Giambattista Vico, and Zeitgeist’s Peter Joseph John McMurtry. Through their association with established philosophers and philosophies, moreover, the same poets can obtain a higher degree of social acceptance, insofar as their ethnos still acknowledges the special status of philosophers as those members of society who grasp ‘deeper’ or ‘higher’ things. Poets themselves may be reassured and sustained in their fights by the knowledge that there are thinkers who, in more analytical and articulate ways, agree with them.

(A)–(C) may not seem much, prima facie, especially if one recalls the Platonic ideal of philosopher-kings; but they are more than enough for a meaningful existence, both personal and professional, in a contemporary liberal ethnos, which political leaders like Donald Trump would seem to endanger and, at the same time, reveal to us all – as sceptical and blasé as some of us may have become – as awfully valuable.

Exercising Empathy: Ancient Rhetorical Tools for Intercultural Communication

Can multiculturalism work? Can people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds live side by side peacefully and, even better, enrich each other? There are two ways social scientists can deal with this question. The first one, which I would label as “macro”, focuses on statistics and opinion surveys. A macro approach would, for instance, analyze the effects of an increase in religious and ethnic diversity on social indicators such as trust in neighbors, civic engagement or political participation (Bloemraad: 2006; Kesler & Bloemraad: 2010; Heath & Demireva: 2014). The second one, which I would label as “micro”, focuses on the skills citizens need for a better management of cultural diversity (Ruben: 1976; Bennett: 1986; Hammer et. al.: 2003; Walton et. al.: 2013). This paper falls into the second category and will provide support for two claims: (1) training for intercultural communication should focus first and foremost on empathy; (2) ancient rhetorical exercises offer an effective way to develop empathy.

To support the first claim, it will be argued that for a multicultural society to be peaceful, citizens need to be willing and able to use empathy when interacting with their fellow citizens of different religious, ethnic or ideological background (section I). A method to develop empathy using rhetorical exercises will then be described (section II)[1]. Finally, I present the results of an experiment to test its effectiveness with secondary school teachers (section III).

 

 

 

Empathy: a key skill for a better management of cultural diversity 

Intercultural communication research presents empathy as a skill, among others, that people have to master in order to manage cultural diversity[2]. I would argue that empathy plays a more fundamental role for the smooth running of a multicultural society: it is not just a component of intercultural competence, it is a necessary condition for peaceful intercultural contact.

A flaw in research on intercultural competence?

What is perceived as polite or important in one culture might be considered as rude or frivolous in another. The field of intercultural communication reflects on the means to avoid such misunderstandings (Beamer: 1992; Gudykunst: 1993; Fantani: 2009). For this purpose, several methods aim at forming effective intercultural communicators, able to be understood well while maintaining friendly interactions (Ruben 1976; Olebe & Koester: 1989; Bhawuk & Brislin: 1992; Olson & Kroeger: 2001; Deardorff: 2011; Hammer: 2012). I would, however, argue that those methods might not be relevant to meet the challenge of facilitating peaceful multiculturalism. Indeed, they were designed for and tested with people who are already willing and able to brave a multicultural world. For instance, Hammer (1984), Chen (1988), Williams (2005), Portala (2010) and Penbek (2012) conducted their experiments with international students; Ruben (1976), Graf (2004) and Hammer (2012) worked with staff members of international companies. Of course, students and professionals might need to fine-tune their intercultural competence and the above-mentioned methods are useful to this end. But the challenge of peaceful multiculturalism is of a different nature. It is not primarily about ensuring that students make the best out of their study abroad or about making sure that business expatriates are tactful enough to secure international deals. The challenge of multiculturalism is to allow people from different religious and cultural backgrounds, who happen to live side by side, to develop the willingness and the ability to interact peacefully. With regard to this challenge, empathy is the key skill.

The fate of multicultural societies depends on empathy

It has often been argued that empathy is a critical skill for peaceful intercultural contact. Indeed, several studies have demonstrated a link between empathy, the ability to mentally simulate others’ subjective experience (Decety: 2004) and altruism, that is caring for others’ wellbeing in our words and actions (Feshbach: 1975; Batson: 1981; Eisenberg & Miller: 1987; de Waal: 2008; Young & Waytz: 2013).

The way from empathy to altruism can be pictured as a Russian doll (de Wall: 2007). At the core of it lies a mechanism of emotional contagion: when we see somebody injured, sad or stressed this impacts us[3]. Emotional contagion often leads to sympathetic concern, an example of which is consolation. The upper level of empathy is an ability to perceive things from someone else’s perspective. Perspective taking relies on the lower level since emotional contagion gives us access to others’ subjectivity (Damasio: 2003; Ferrari & Gallese: 2007)[4]. But perspective taking also requires an ability to differentiate oneself from others. Empathy is thus more effortful and less immediate than sympathetic concern. Finally, altruism occurs when all levels smoothly run together: emotional contagion makes us care about others and perspective taking allows us to understand their needs. Altruism is almost automatic for people who are close to us. When dealing with people outside of our circle of care, the chain from perception of suffering to altruistic behaviors is much easier to break, especially when the target person is perceived as an outsider (Crisp & Meleady: 2012; Davidov et al.: 2013; Rhodes & Chalik: 2013). The fate of multicultural societies might thus depend on our ability to fix those empathy failures (Meier & Hinsz: 2004).

The causes of empathy failures in intergroup relations are well documented (Cikara et al: 2012). Among those causes, extreme ideologies are probably the most serious threat for peaceful multicultural societies (Pinker: 2012; Ginges & Atran: 2009). Ideologies are consistent sets of ideas that help us make sense of the events around us. Although ideologies are useful in this respect, they ultimately tend to increase empathy toward some people and to decrease empathy toward some others (Staub: 1990; Candace: 1997; Pinker: 2012; Ferry & Zagarella: 2013)[5]. During the process of indoctrination, one can even get locked in one single negative narrative about other communities (Berthoz: 2010; Costello & Hodson: 2014)[6]. A crucial challenge for multicultural societies is, therefore, to prevent those indoctrination processes by habituating citizens to take into account different points of view on events and people around them. It is especially important to start developing such a flexibility in one’s point of view’s during adolescence since the damages of indoctrination can be difficult to repair (Berthoz: 2004). This is where rhetorical exercises come into place.

 

 

The rhetorical exercise of empathy

Many scholars would agree on the importance of encouraging empathy early in citizens’ education (Nussbaum: 2010; Pinker: 2012); many of them would also propose their own method to do so (Gerdes et. al.: 2011). Why, then, use rhetorical exercises and how to do so?

Why use rhetorical exercises to develop empathy?

There are two main reasons why rhetorical exercises are especially relevant to engage development of empathy with teenagers and young adults: (1) rhetorical exercises are suitable for classroom work since they are stimulating and empowering (Heath: 2007; Woods: 2009; Ferry & Sans: 2014; Sans: 2017); (2) rhetorical exercises confront participants with the limits of empathy and help them develop the skills to overcome those limits.

It can be difficult to work on civic education with teenagers. There is always a risk that they, or their parents, will perceive the proposed activities as an attack on their values [7]. One should, therefore, think twice about the message sent to the target audience. Unfortunately, most empathy training misses that point. Indeed, many influential scholars conceive empathy training as engaging teenagers in activities (such as watching movies or listening to testimonies) aiming at triggering their empathy toward a specific group of people (Stephan & Finlay: 1999; Vescio et. al: 2003; Crisp & Turner: 2009). In those cases, the message seems to be: “we believe that the world would be a better place if you had more empathy toward group X or group Y” [8].  For the training to be effective in the long run, one has to think of a better goal to offer to the target audience. Rhetorical exercises offer this better deal: by following a rhetorical training, teenagers develop empathy as a skill that will help them to succeed in their professional life[9]. Indeed, rhetorical exercises were originally designed to help citizens win their cases in democratic institutions (Aristotle, Rhet.). The most effective way to do so is to be well aware of others’ points of view. Rhetorical training develops this awareness through the practice of twofold arguments (Pearce: 1994; Danblon: 2013; Ferry: 2013): on any issue, the apprentice is asked to find good reasons to support opposite opinions. This ability to switch between different points of view is at the core of empathy as a skill (Berthoz: 2014) and experimental studies have shown that this practice leads to greater moderation of opinions (Tuller: 2015). Moreover, a four-year field-project demonstrated that teenagers actually enjoy those exercises (Sans: 2017). Finally, in the process of finding arguments to support opposite opinions, participants will gain a better control over their empathy failures.

Although there are several existing tools to measure empathy (Davis: 1980; Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright: 2004; Favre: 2005; Jolliffe & Farrington: 2006), those tools are of little help in counteracting empathy failures. Indeed, those tools (i.e. self-report questionnaires) give participants an empathy score but no instructions on the ways they could do better. By contrast, when engaging in rhetorical exercises, participants will gain awareness of three limits of empathy: technical, ethical and situational. The technical limit comes from the fact that humans are hard wired to look for confirmations of their beliefs (Houdé: 1997; Danblon: 2002; Mecier & Sperber: 2011; Kanhman: 2011). Once one has an opinion in mind, it might be difficult to conceive that others might think differently. The ethical limit comes from the fact that humans have values. As soon as values come into place, humans tend to behave as if they were engaged in team-sport (Angenot: 2008; Haidt: 2012): they don’t want to have anything in common with those who belong to the other team. On sensitive issues, we tend to be reluctant to consider and express opinions opposite to ours[10]. Finally, situational limitations come from the fact that humans tend to switch off their empathy as soon as they perceive others as competitors (Singer et. al : 2006 ; Takahashi et. al.: 2009)[11]. Proper empathy training should focus on people’s ability and willingness to better control those limits.

 

 

How to develop empathy with rhetorical exercises?

The method is straightforward: (1) participants support opposite opinions on non-sensitive issues; (2) they do the same exercise on sensitive issues; (3) they publicly defend their judgments in front of contradictors; (4) they finally give each other feedback on their ability to display empathy in disagreement.

Exercising flexibility in points of view

Rhetorical training begins with a task in which participants are asked to find good reasons to support opposite views on controversies such as this one:

A man had a son. When he lost the boy’s mother, he married another wife. The father, the wife and the son lived happily for one year until the son fell seriously ill. The doctor explained to the father that the boy would die if he drank cold water. One day later, the boy was thirsty and his stepmother gave him cold water. He died. He was only 12 years old. The stepmother is accused of poisoning by her husband.

(From Ps-Quint., Lesser Decl., p. 350)

 

In this case, participants are expected to find reasons to charge the stepmother as well as reasons to exonerate her. This kind of controversy is suitable to stimulate participants’ ability to overcome the technical limit on empathy (that is, the difficulty to switch from one point of view to another because of our natural tendency to seek confirmation). To do so, participants use a rhetorical tool: the common places (Aelius Theon, Progymnasmata). The idea of these is that on any issue it is possible to draw arguments from the same “places”. For instance, when judging someone’s deeds, one might argue on intentions (did the person have good intentions), on responsibility (was the person fully responsible?), on circumstances (are there mitigating circumstances?) or on consequences (will the judgment do more good than harm?). In practice, participants are asked to fill in the following table:

 

Common places: Opinion A Opinion -A
Intentions
Circumstances
Responsibility
Consequences

Figure 1: The common places of argumentation

 

For instance, to exonerate the stepmother in the above controversy, one might argue on circumstances by saying: “The accident happened only one day after the doctor gave his diagnosis to the father. Maybe the father didn’t inform his wife?”  Conversely, one might use the same common place to charge the stepmother: “In a normal family, the father would make sure that the mother has all relevant information about the son’s illness.” Using such a table habituates participants to the fact that there will always be good reasons for supporting both sides of any issue. The practice of common places also habituates participants to suspend their judgments (Houdé: 1997; Danblon: 2013), inhibiting their tendency to seek confirmation of their opinions in order to perceive to good reasons to support alternative views. Participants have to master this skill before moving to sensitive issues.

 

 

Empathy on sensitive issues

The following controversies were created by school teachers from their experience in class[12]:

In a high school, a 15-year-old boy, Paul, no longer considers himself a boy. He begins to dress like a girl and asks that his teachers and classmates call him Marie. Does the school management have to accept the student’s request?

(Controversy 1: The boy who felt like a girl)

 The English teacher works with his students on the American elections. He organizes a vote on the programs of the two candidates: H. Clinton and D. Trump. Programs are presented to students anonymously. After the vote, a student realizes that he voted for Hilary Clinton. He tells the teacher that he wants to change his vote because he would never have voted for a woman knowingly. Should the teacher respect this opinion? Should the teacher sanction this opinion?

(Controversy 2: On equality between man and women)

During the biology class devoted to evolution, a student tells the professor that he doesn’t want to follow the course anymore. He explains: “The theory of evolution is a form of disbelief. One cannot say that man descends from the ape and Adam and Eve at the same time. It’s against my religion”. Can the student be allowed not to attend the class?

(Controversy 3: Science vs. Beliefs)

 

Such issues will lead to a clash of values. In particular, they often reveal oppositions between liberal people, who tend to value equality and care above other values, and conservative people, who tend to value authority, in-group loyalty and sanctity above other values (Graham, Haidt & Nosek: 2009). Consequently, those issues are suitable to examine ethical limits to empathy. To do so, participants are asked to fill in again the commonplaces table (fig. 1). In this process, some participants might be reluctant to consider opposite opinions. It is, therefore, important to be clear on the benefits they might gain by recalling that the most effective way to get support for our opinion is to treat others’ opinions with respect and accuracy (Perelman & Olbrecthts-Tyteca: 1969; Caldini: 1987).

 Empathy in disagreement

The next step is a real test for participants’ ability to better control their empathy. They are asked to publicly defend their judgments on a sensitive issue and to do so in a way that would be acceptable for a universal audience (Perelman & Olbrecthts-Tyteca: 1969). This requires real efforts to identify and overcome the differences of opinions. In front of the “judge”, some participants play the role of contradictors: they carefully listen to the judgment and then try to push the judge out of his/her comfort zone. The setting of this disagreement lab (Ferry: 2015) looks like this:

 

The Disagreement Lab

Figure 2: The disagreement lab

 

The more accurate and respectful the judge will be in his/her treatment of others’ opinions, the more difficult the contradictor’s job will be[13]. The soothing effect that the judgment might have offers a first empirical indication of the participant’s skill for empathy. The second empirical indication is the ability to display empathy in a situation of disagreement, that is, a situation in which one would spontaneously switch off empathy.

 

 

Evaluating empathy

In order to evaluate empathy in the disagreement situation, “observers” use a rhetorical scale (Ferry: 2016). The rhetorical scale takes into account three dimensions of communication: logos, ethos and pathos (Aristotle, Rhet.). Logos refers to the content of the speech, ethos refers to the orator’s credibility and pathos refers to the affective dimension of communication. Thanks to this rhetorical scale, it is possible to evaluate the three dimensions of empathy: cognitive, affective and behavioral (Preston & De Waal: 2002; Decety & Cowell: 2014).

The cognitive dimension refers to the accuracy with which one manages to grasp what the other has in mind (Nichols & Stich: 2003; Decety: 2004). In an interaction, the scale measures cognitive empathy as the accuracy with which one is able to refer to others’ points of view[14]. The lack of empathy in logos typically gives exchanges like:

 

  • So, you’re telling us that (…)
  • This is not what I said![15]

 

In its emotional dimension, empathy refers to the ability to understand others’ emotions (Favre et al.: 2005; Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia: 2008). In interactions, the rhetorical scale measures this dimension as the awareness one demonstrates of appropriate emotions (Aristotle, Rhet, III, 7, 1408a; Micheli: 2010, Ferry & Sans: 2015)[16]. The mastery of emotional empathy appears in relevant references to the emotions one can legitimately feel (for example, “I understand that this might sound shocking”). The lack of mastery of this dimension results in emotional contagion (for example, “You calm down!”) or by rejecting others’ emotions (for example, mocking the other’s anger).

Finally, in its behavioral dimension, empathy refers to benevolence toward others[17]. Typically, one will show empathy if one is able to listen to the other and to give him/her space in the discussion. On the contrary, one will demonstrate a lack of empathy if he/she tries to fill the space for discussion with aggressive gestures, rapid speech flow and high voice volume. Here is the evaluation form[18]:

 

Logos

The participant refers to his/her opponents’ opinions accurately

1                      2                     3                    4                    5

Not at all                                                                           Absolutely

Ethos

The participant shows respect for his/her opponent(s)

1                      2                     3                    4                    5

Not at all                                                                           Absolutely

Pathos

The participant shows awareness of appropriate emotions

1                      2                     3                    4                    5

Not at all                                                                           Absolutely

Figure 3: The rhetorical scale for empathy

 

Thanks to this evaluation form, participants learn, session after session, to identify the practices that are likely to block or to stimulate empathy.

Does the method work?

The key-test for a pedagogical tool is whether actors of the educational system are willing to own it. Concretely, there are two main reasons why teachers would be willing to experiment a new method in their class: (1) they find it useful; (2) they find it enjoyable. This section presents the results of a first study to test whether the rhetorical training for empathy meets those criteria.

During the academic year 2016-2017, I gave 7 two-day training sessions to secondary school teachers. At the end of the training, participants had to fill an evaluation form. The items were designed to verify that the training met standards of the Belgian institute for in-service training (IFC). Among those items, two were relevant to assess the enjoyableness and the usefulness of the rhetorical training: (1) “I am satisfied with the training”, which informs on the enjoyableness of the method; (2) “The training answered my professional needs”, which informs on the usefulness of the method. Here are the participants’ answers to those questions:

 

(Number of participants: 83)

Strongly disagree Slightly disagree Slightly agree Strongly agree No answer
I am satisfied with the training 0

(0%)

3

(≈ 4%)

33

(≈ 40%)

45

(≈ 54%)

2

(≈2%)

The training answered my professional needs 1

(≈ 1,5%)

6

(≈ 7%)

50

(≈ 60%)

25

(≈ 30%)

1

(≈ 1,5%)

 

The next step is to verify whether regular rhetorical training leads to: (1) a greater convergence in participants’ judgments on good and bad empathy performances; (2) an increase in participants’ empathy scores. In this regard, the data collected so far are encouraging: the fact that participants appreciated the workshop gives confidence in the possibility of replicating it.

 

Conclusion

It is not clear yet whether multiculturalism generates more good than harm as intercultural contacts can increase prejudices as well as reduce them (Pettigrew & Tropp: 2006). Processes of ghettoization in European societies increase the risk that people lock themselves in negative narratives about other communities. What is clear, however, is that we can give citizens a better chance to make the best out off multiculturalism with a strong political commitment to equip them with skills to deal with it. The rhetorical training for empathy is a contribution to this challenge.

 

 

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Endnotes

[1] This method was designed during a four years fieldwork project with teenagers, secondary school teachers and university students (Danblon: 2013; Ferry & Sans: 2014; Ferry: 2015; Dainville & Sans : 2016).

[2] For instance, according to Ruben (1976), there are seven dimensions of intercultural competence: display of respect, interaction posture, orientation to knowledge, self-oriented role behaviour and empathy.

[3] This tendency to automatically match others’ states relies on our mirror neurons (Gallese : 2007 ; Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia: 2008).

[4] As Ferrari & Gallese (2007) put it: “Every time we observe an action made by another individual, we are able to understand its goal because the observed action is matched on our internal representation of it”.

[5] For instance, it has been demonstrated that strongly adhering to the liberal ideology according to which one will succeed if he/she tries hard enough tend to reduce empathy toward poor people: their poverty is seen as a consequence of their laziness  (Candace: 1997).

[6] For instance, an explanation for suicide bombers’ atrocities is that the process of indoctrination destroyed all their empathy towards out-group members (Ginges & Atran: 2009).

[7] An interesting example of this happened in France, in 2014, when the ministry of education tried to implement a policy to promote equality between genders and tolerance toward homosexual and transgender people. This was perceived by some people as charge against traditional values. Some parents, alarmed by far-right political parties and islamist lobbies, protested by keeping their children one day out of school (Chetcuti: 2014; Vilchez: 2015).

[8] The risk is thus to foster competition between memories (Stora: 2007): “Why do we always talk about group X while group Y also suffered a lot?”

[9] For instance, it can be useful to be able to put oneself in the recruiter’s shoes when writing a cover letter or when preparing a job interview.

[10] I experienced this with two colleagues of mine, Emmanuelle Danblon and Loïc Nicolas, during a workshop in a summer school (2011). After giving the audience the reasons why we believed rhetorical exercises were good pedagogical tools to develop critical thinking, we proposed them to actually produce twofold arguments (dissoi logoi) on same-sex marriage. Most participants refused to do so and some of them justified their refusal arguing that they didn’t want to make “their mouth dirty” with arguments against same-sex marriage.

[11] For instance, a football fan might experience pleasure (‘Schadenfreude’) when seeing a player from the opposite team being injured.

[12] During the academic year 2016-2017, I gave a series of training sessions for secondary school teachers. In one activity, teachers had to describe a situation in which they experienced a clash of values in class and reached their tolerance threshold (Cohen-Emerique: 2011). They then had to turn those situations into controversies. For a development on how to design  good controversies, see Sans (2015).

[13] It is indeed difficult to argue against somebody who is careful and accurate in the discussion of the different opinions at stake: such a speech would not create many cognitive conflicts in the listeners’ chief. Cognitive conflicts are the starting point of argumentation (Dessales: 2008).

[14] Self-report questionnaires measure cognitive empathy with items such as : “I find it difficult to explain to others things that I understand easily, when they don’t understand it first time” (Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright: 2004). Now, the problem with self-reported questionnaires is that they measure empathy « off-line »: they cannot predict how much empathy someone would actually display when interacting with someone else.

[15] To use a term from argumentation studies, the lack of cognitive empathy leads to the straw man fallacy (Walton & Macagno: 1996).

[16] That is, the socially awaited emotional reactions in certain situations (for example, it is embarrassing to be seized by laughter at a funeral). Self-report questionnaires measure emotional empathy with items such as : “I find it difficult to tell when my friends are afraid” (Jolliffe & Farrington: 2006).

[17] Self-report questionnaires measure this dimension with items such as: “When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective toward them” (Davis: 1980).

[18] In a first study to test the validity of this rhetorical scale for empathy, I assessed the inter-rater reliability. To do so, I asked 83 participants to perform two tasks: (1) evaluating the level of empathy (from 1 to 5) of debaters in three different videos (the “intuitive measure of empathy”); (2) performing the same task using the rhetorical scale for empathy (the “rhetorical measure of empathy”). I then compared the degree of agreement between raters in those two tasks using the Fleiss’ Kappa (1971). The degree of agreement was higher when using the rhetorical scale. I interpret this result as an evidence that the rhetorical scale helps participants to evaluate empathy more objectively (Ferry: 2017).

Joseph V. Femia and Alasdair J. Marshall (eds.), Vilfredo Pareto: Beyond Disciplinary Boundaries (Surrey, England and Burligton, USA: Ashgate, 2012)

The volume opens with a jewel introduction. It contextualizes Pareto historically and it offers the big pictures in which to fit all the pieces of Pareto’s intellectual production. Pareto was an engineer involved with the running the newly nationalized Italian railroad system, but his claim to fame is for his sociological work. He wrote hundreds of pamphlets calling for change, free trade, small government, and pacifism, all of which fell flat. And “his youthful idealism soon gave way to skepticism, even cynicism, about human potential” (p. 2) so that today he is best known for his theory of human rigidity and inflexibility which make the world fundamentally unchangeable. His mathematical training and skills made him a professor of economics at Lausanne University (1893-1900), but his discontent with the model of a rational homo economicus led to his interest in and research on human irrationalities. During a time in which disciplines fought to establish their boundaries, Pareto broke them and refused to be confined in any one. For him comprehension of the complexity of human behavior came from the complexity of a boundless knowledge.

 

The rest of the book reflects the introductory claims. The first chapter, “Pareto and the Elite”, by John Scott, describes the not always successful balance of an open definition of elite that Pareto offers us. This analysis smoothly continues in Chapter 2, “Talents and Obstacles: Pareto’s Morphological Schema and Contemporary Social Stratification” (Francois Nielsen). Pareto’s empiricism allows him to analyze data from across the world and across time and see patterns in the wealth elites. Wealth is not distributed normally, but more “like an arrow”. Regardless of time and place, income inequality seems to be a natural and inevitable pattern: 80 percent of income is distributed among 20 percent of the population. This 80-20 distribution seems to be a constant pattern in many natural phenomena, from elites to genes, not just income distribution. This raises a question, not raised by the author, but that any post-2011 reader may ask: does ‘Occupy Wall Street” know about Pareto? And assuming that by some miracle, Occupy Wall Street is successful in changing the distribution of wealth in rich societies, will it be a sustainable change? Or will we move back, inevitably, to the arrow-shaped income distribution that Pareto kept finding in his data? The inability of society to change, to be stuck with certain patterns or with certain equilibria becomes a major theme in Pareto’s thought. While some of his contemporary sociologists and political scientists would theorize beneficial changes in society, Pareto focuses on dysfunctional evolutions and sticky points where societies may be unable to get out of detrimental conditions. So Chapter 3 is the chapter where Charles Powers describes “The Role of Sticky Points in Pareto’s Theory of Social Systems”.

 

The empirical and pessimistic eye of Pareto is also present in his visions of political theory, as Joseph V. Femia describes in Chapter 4—“Pareto, Machiavelli, and the Critique of Ideal Political Theory”. A scientific understanding of human behavior requires that we look at human beings as real and not ideal creatures. This is why Pareto leans on the realism of Machiavelli, rather than the idealism of Kant, in his theories. And this realism, when combined with modern risk analysis, allows us to link Pareto to a variety of cultural and psychological patterns widely recognized and accepted today, as Alasdair Marshall and Marco Guidi demonstrate in Chapter 5—“The Idea of a Sociology of Risk and Uncertainty: Insight from Pareto”.

 

The relevance of Pareto in today’s debates and research agenda is pushed further by John Higley and Jan Pakulski in their chapter on “Pareto’s Theory of Elite Cycles: A Reconsideration and Application” (Chap. 6). They apply what may seem a vague theory of elite to the UK and the US governing elites of the twentieth century. It is unclear whether Pareto works or not when applied today. This question mark comes at a perfect time in the volume. So far one is exposed to the marvel of Pareto’s thinking, its correctness and applicability. One may be starting to question whether Pareto was this infallible intellect, underappreciated in his time and also in ours, who deserved a much larger role because of his continuous correctness. Higley and Pakulski remedy that sensation and bring back the fallibility, or at least imperfections, in a genius’ work. I see their chapter as sort of refreshing watershed, as it is followed by two other chapters more prone to see some of the deficiencies of Pareto. Alban Bouvier shows how Pareto may be more indebted to J.S. Mill than he is willing to admit—or than his readers are willing to admit (Chap. 7: “Pareto, Mill and the Cognitive Explanation of Collective Beliefs: Unnoticed ‘Middle-range Theories’ in the Trattato”). Similarly, Giorgio Baruchello shows how Pareto may be more indebted to Aristotle than to Plato in his understanding of the role of rhetoric.  Interestingly enough, in these two chapters, as well as in some preceding ones, there is subtle emphasis on the importance of language in communicating effectively and how Pareto may not have been gifted with it: a possible reason for the fact that his popularity does not necessarily reflects his contributions.

 

The breadth of Pareto’s understanding, or his willingness to accept the complexity of human behavior, is returned to in the last chapter of the volume (“Pareto’s manuscript on Money and the real Economy”) where Micheal McLure describes how Pareto rejects the quantity theory of money and is willing to integrate money in the general equilibrium model of Leon Walras, despite the unwillingness of the discipline to bridge the monetary and the real analysis.

 

The volume is an impressive and yet balanced testament of the breadth and stature of Pareto. Pareto does come out as a rounded Renaissance man, who for all that is pessimistic about the possibility of human improvement. He does come out as a scholar willing to break all disciplinary barriers and one who, as a consequence, stands alone. And probably today and more so in the future, when we also realize that many of the existing disciplinary boundaries are artificial constraints that limit our creativity and intellectual development, we will come to appreciate Pareto more. This volume is a step in that direction. 

 

Rhetorical Strategies in Legal Argumentation. Some remarks on the recent decisions of the Portuguese Tribunal Constitucional and the Italian Corte Costituzionale on same-sex marriage

I think that contemporary theories of legal argumentation have let aside the idea that the analysis of legal argumentations can show the judges’ hidden ideological and political positions by resorting to traditional legal arguments. Just as an example, it may be interesting to analyze the justificatory function of argumentations contained in two decisions taken by two constitutional courts, in Italy and in Portugal, on the same question. Why constitutional courts and not, for example, a court of first instance? Constitutional judges, apparently, do not need to persuade anybody: there is no higher judicial authority, and their interpretation of constitutional text is definitive. For this reason, one can assume that strategic argumentation plays little role in the arguments justifying their verdicts. I hope I can show that this assumption may not, fully, reflect the reality.

Now, let us consider the examples: two decisions taken almost at the same time by two separate authorities in two different countries on the same matter, same-sex marriage. Also the judicial course is almost the same: same-sex couples applied for a marriage licence, and their application was refused, on the grounds that same-sex marriage is a violation of the Civil Code. Finally, the couples challenge the ban in court.

The Italian case

In the Italian case, in April 2009 the Tribunal of Venice sent the issue to the Constitutional Court, claiming a possible conflict between the Civil Code, which does not allow for same-sex marriage, and article 3 of the Italian Constitution, which forbids any kind of discrimination, and article 29, which is the article of the Italian Constitution concerning family. The Constitutional Court ruled on April 2010 that the statutory ban on same-sex marriage is not a violation of the Constitution[1].

In the grounds of the judgement, the Court briefly mentions art. 3 of the Constitution (which states that all citizens “are equal before the law, without consideration of sex, race, tongue, religion”)[2], saying that this article does not prohibit any form of discrimination, but only unjustified or unnecessary or disproportionate discriminations[3]. So, the question is whether the ban of same-sex marriage is a justified discrimination. For this purpose, the Court begins by examining “for logical reasons”[4] (that are instead reasons based on the content of the article) article 29 of the Italian Constitution, which defines family as a “natural society based on marriage”[5]. This definition is clearly gender-neutral, but the problem, obviously, is the qualification of the family as a “natural society”. In order to clarify this qualification, the Court resorts to traditional legal arguments. In these cases, the main argument is obviously the naturalistic argument. Yet, this argument has become less effective in post-traditional and multi-ethic societies: for this reason, the Court resorts also to a psychological argument, saying that “with this expression, as one can deduce from the preliminary work of the constituent assembly, the constitutional legislator meant underline that the family has original rights, not derived from the authority of the State or of the legal order”. As we can see, the naturalistic argument is still implicit, but the strategy of the Court is to hide this argument, which ultimately states the unnaturalness of same-sex marriage, by resorting to the intention of the legislator. It thus shifts the burden of proof to the “Constituent Fathers”. This strategy comes out most clearly in the following lines. First of all, the Court states that a legal concept such as “family” cannot be “crystallized” (“cristallizzato”), say, entrenched in a stable definition once and for all (thus, the Court is apparently avoiding the naturalistic argument), but immediately thereafter it adds that one cannot push the interpretation of a statute to the point to distort the “nucleus” of the content of a norm, and cannot reframe the statute in a way which incorporates phenomena and problems that could not have been foreseen at the time of its promulgation[6]. Now, to say that a legal concept is not closed or “crystallized” is equal to saying that it can incorporate phenomena and problems not foreseen at the time of its promulgation. But we can leave this aside, for the moment. What it is clear is that the pivot of the argument is the definition of this “core” or “nucleus” of the legal statement that cannot be changed.

In order to make this definition more precise the judges resort again to the psychological argument, saying that «as one can deduce from the preliminary work of the constituent assembly, the problem of the same-sex marriage was completely ignored by the assembly, though the homosexual condition was not unknown». And again: «the constituent fathers, while writing the art. 29, made reference to an institution [the family] already shaped» in the civil code[7]. In other words: when the constituent assembly talked about “family” it made reference to heterosexual marriage because: a) by using the expression “natural society” they meant an institution pre-existent to the legal order (that is assumed to be the heterosexual marriage); b) during the session of the constituent assembly, nobody talked about homosexual marriage; c) in any case, while discussing this issue, the constituent fathers made reference to the civil code.

The first argument is obviously naturalistic, the second one presupposes the intentional silence of the legislator, the third one turns the discourse into an historic argument: “Because of the absence of references, we must deduce that the constituent fathers made an implicit reference to the civil code”, which ban, de facto, homosexual marriage[8]. In order to strengthen this opinion, the Court uses finally the systematic argument, in this case the sedes materiae argument: the following article of the Constitution, which is art. 30, concerns filiation and its effects, this means that the family “as natural society” is the family that can potentially procreate biological children[9].  So, all included, the concept of “family” intended by the Constitution is the traditional one. And we come back to the naturalistic argument.

Once the legal concept of family has been defined, as the judges did in their ruling, it is clear that this concept does not include same-sex marriage. For this reason, the discrimination between heterosexual and homosexual couples is not unjustified and, ultimately, the civil code articles are not unconstitutional on the basis of the article 3 of the Constitution, which only ban unjustified discrimination.

The Portuguese case

The Portuguese case is quite similar. A same-sex couple challenges the ban in court, saying that the ban discriminates on the basis of sex and sexual orientation, and that discrimination on the basis of sex is banned by the 1976 constitution. Moreover, in 2004 a constitutional amendment explicitly protected sexual orientation from discrimination[10]. In May 2007 the Court rejected the couple’s claim[11]. The couple then appealed to the Portuguese Constitutional Court (Tribunal Constitucional). Similar is the judicial course, similar is the conclusion: the Tribunal Constitucional received the case in July 2007 and, in July 2009, decided that the constitution does not demand the recognition of same-sex marriage. Also the arguments used by Portuguese constitutional judges are quite similar. The plaintiffs based their claim on the alleged unconstitutionality of article 1577 of the Civil Codes (that clearly states: “two persons of different sex”)[12], but the Tribunal Constitucional, due to the fact that art. 36 of the Portuguese Constitution gives an ambiguously gender-neutral definition of marriage[13], ultimately decides to interpret the Constitution in the light of the Civil Code. The argument, roughly speaking, is that the Constitution only says “family”, generically, because it accepts implicitly the concept of family stated in the Civil Code. In order to strengthen this argument, which could appear unusual, the Portuguese Tribunal Constitutional resorts to the systematic argument, underlying the consonance between two different sections (the Constitution and the Civil Code) of the Portuguese legal system. In order to do this, they need something more: they need what we could call a “coherentist interpretation”, which can be obtained using the historical argument[14], the systematic a coherentia argument[15] or, more generically, a restrictive interpretative attitude as expressed by the brocard (legal maxim) ubi lex voluit, dixit; ubi noluit tacuit (“when the law wanted to regulate the matter, it did regulate the matter; when it did not want to regulate the matter, it remained silent”), a principle used in order to limit an excessively expansive interpretation that can go beyond the intention of the legislator[16].

As we can see, the two examples are analogous to each other. The main difference (which should not be underestimated) is that the Portuguese Constitution does not make reference to the family as a “natural society”. Actually, it does not specify how the concept of “family” should be understood. Using systematic arguments, the Portuguese Constitutional Court ultimately decided to interpret the Constitution on the light of the Civil Code, which explicitly declares that the marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman. This could seem surprising, especially if we consider that the Portuguese Civil Code was drafted before the current Portuguese Constitution. Therefore, what the Court wanted to do in this case was, obviously, to transfer the responsibility of any decision to the Parliament.

Conclusions

The argumentative tools used by both constitutional courts are almost the same and they are neither surprising nor unusual. The use of arguments such as the systematic argument, the historical argument, the psychological argument, and the appeal to the (both chronological and topographical) coherence of the legal system, are part of a strategy to emphasize the consistency of the latter, even where there is no such consistency. In the Portuguese example, this kind of strategy has been the core of the Court’s strategy. In the Italian example, due to the constitutional definition of “family” as “natural society”, the Court decides to resort to the naturalistic argument. However, the use of the naturalistic argument, which has been more common over the past decades, is now ancillary because of its lack of persuasiveness. For this reason the Court chooses, perhaps unconsciously, to cloak this argument about the “natural family” into one about the coherence of the legal system.

One of the standing results of modern theory on legal argumentation is that we have to differentiate between at least two levels of argumentation. On the lower level, a judicial decision is justified by reference to an existing legal statement. But it is possible that, in a given case, no applicable rule exists, or that several rules exist, which support, however, different decisions, or even that the interpretation of an existing rule, which is in principle applicable to the case, is unclear. In these situations, we are compelled to progress to a second level of justification. On this level we have to justify which rule, or which interpretation of a rule, should be applied.[17] At the first level, logical deduction is sufficient: judges do actually reason deductively. At the second level the question could be basically, from an argumentative point of view, persuading the audience about the correctness of an interpretation.  For this reason, the second level is basically rhetorical, in the sense that strategic argumentation plays here a central role. In the two examples mentioned above, arguments are rhetorically balanced in order to persuade of the validity of the interpretation, while hiding political choices or ideological preferences by means of an appeal to the coherence of the legal system or to the “naturalness” of a social institution.


[1] Corte Costituzionale, Sentenza n. 138/210

[2] “All citizens have equal social dignity and are equal before the law, without distinction of sex, race, language, religion, political opinion, personal and social conditions”.

It is the duty of the Republic to remove those obstacles of an economic or social nature which constrain the freedom and equality of citizens, thereby impeding the full development of the human person and the effective participation of all workers in the political, economic and social organisation of the country.

[3] Corte Costituzionale, Sentenza n. 138/210, 3, Considerato in diritto

[4] 9, Considerato in diritto

[5] “The Republic recognises the rights of the family as a natural society founded on marriage.

Marriage is based on the moral and legal equality of the spouses within the limits laid down by law to guarantee the unity of the family”.

[6] 9, Considerato in diritto: “è vero che i concetti di famiglia e di matrimonio non si possono ritenere “cristallizzati” con riferimento all’epoca in cui la Costituzione entrò in vigore, perché sono dotati della duttilità propria dei princìpi costituzionali e, quindi, vanno interpretati tenendo conto non soltanto delle trasformazioni dell’ordinamento, ma anche dell’evoluzione della società e dei costumi. Detta interpretazione, però, non può spingersi fino al punto d’incidere sul nucleo della norma, modificandola in modo tale da includere in essa fenomeni e problematiche non considerati in alcun modo quando fu emanata”.

[7] 9, Considerato in diritto: “come risulta dai citati lavori preparatori, la questione delle unioni omosessuali rimase del tutto estranea al dibattito svoltosi in sede di Assemblea, benché la condizione omosessuale non fosse certo sconosciuta. I costituenti, elaborando l’art. 29 Cost., discussero di un istituto che aveva una precisa conformazione ed un’articolata disciplina nell’ordinamento civile”..

[8] 9, Considerato in diritto: “in assenza di diversi riferimenti, è inevitabile concludere che essi tennero presente la nozione di matrimonio definita dal codice civile entrato in vigore nel 1942, che, come sopra si è visto, stabiliva (e tuttora stabilisce) che i coniugi dovessero essere persone di sesso diverso”.

[9] 9. Considerato in diritto, “Non è casuale, del resto, che la Carta costituzionale, dopo aver trattato del matrimonio, abbia ritenuto necessario occuparsi della tutela dei figli (art. 30), assicurando parità di trattamento anche a quelli nati fuori dal matrimonio, sia pur compatibilmente con i membri della famiglia legittima. La giusta e doverosa tutela, garantita ai figli naturali, nulla toglie al rilievo costituzionale attribuito alla famiglia legittima ed alla (potenziale) finalità procreativa del matrimonio che vale a differenziarlo dall’unione omosessuale”.

[10] Constitution of the Portuguese Republic, art. 13, 2: “No one shall be privileged, favoured, prejudiced, deprived of any right or exemptedm from any duty on the basis of ancestry, sex, race, language, place of origin, religion, political or ideological beliefs, education, economic situation, social circumstances or sexual orientation”..

[11] Tribunal da Relação de Lisboa, acórdão 6284/2006-8, 15/02/2007

[12] Art. 1577 (“Noção de casamento”): “Casamento é o contrato celebrado entre duas pessoas de sexo diferente que pretendem constituir família mediante uma plena comunhão de vida, nos termos das disposições deste Código” (corsivo mio); art. 1628 (“Casamentos inexistentes”), comma e): “É juridicamente inexistente […] o casamento contraído por duas pessoas do mesmo sexo”.

[13] Constitution of the Portuguese Republic, art. 13, 1 (“Everyone shall possess the right to found a family and to marry on terms of full equality”) and 3 (“Spouses shall possess equal rights and duties in relation to their civil and political capacity and to the maintenance and education of their children”).

[14] A recepção constitucional do conceito histórico de casamento como união entre duas pessoas de sexo diferente radicado intersubjectivamente na comunidade como instituição não permite retirar da Constituição um reconhecimento directo e obrigatório dos casamentos entre pessoas do mesmo sexo. (cfr. Gomes Canotilho e Vital Moreira, Constituição da República Portuguesa Anotada, vol. I, 4.ª edição, Coimbra, 2007, pág. 362).

[15] Mas a circunstância de a Constituição, no já citado n.º 1 do seu artigo 36.º, se referir expressamente ao casamento sem o definir, revela que não pretende pôr em causa o conceito comum, radicado na comunidade e recebido na lei civil, configurado como um «contrato celebrado entre duas pessoas de sexo diferente». Argomento sistemático-concettualistico (dogmatico).

[16] Na verdade, se o legislador constitucional pretendesse introduzir uma alteração da configuração legal do casamento, impondo ao legislador ordinário a obrigação de legislar no sentido de passar a ser permitido a sua celebração por pessoas do mesmo sexo, certamente que o teria afirmado explicitamente, sem se limitar a legitimar o conceito configurado pela lei civil; e não lhe faltaram ocasiões para esse efeito, ao longo das revisões constitucionais subsequentes.

[17] A. Soeteman, Deduction in Law, in F.H. van Eemeren (ed.), Argumentation: Analysis and Practices, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin-New York, 1987, p. 102.