Everyone who deals with the issue of polarization cannot but study the rhetorical tools available to politicians, theorists, political philosophers, journalists and media experts to construct the “Us vs. Them” dichotomy and apply it to public and everyday discourse.
The present issue hosts a number of papers on this topic that scholars from different countries discussed in a research meeting at the University of Genova – Italy last November. The field of polarization, political rhetoric and discourse analysis had a long tradition of studies, from the classical Aristotelian Rhetoric to the rise of the New Rhetoric approach developed by Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca in the late ‘50s, until the significant recent multidisciplinary researches.
In fact, a great number of works have been published in order to enlighten the evolution of democratic societies and the recent escalation of violence, focusing on the rhetoric as the art of influencing the thought and conduct of an audience and the ability to use language effectively.
Furthermore, in the last years, we have witnessed the rise of xenophobic political discourses, populist rhetoric and hate speech in European public space, and some scholars have lately focused their research on these themes. Ruth Wodak in The Politics of Fear. What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean has paved the way for other studies that emphasize the degeneration of language and its socio-political impact, such as Mark Thompson’s Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics? and Benjamin Moffitt’s The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation. However, it should be mentioned that social media offer to haters an invaluable tool, the consequences of which for democratic discourse have been highlighted in Cass Sunstein’s #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media.
The European research team that has long devoted itself to the study of political feelings, as well as ideas, and of social cohesion in democratic societies has chosen to start discussing works and ideas of the Italian moral and political philosopher Flavio Baroncelli (1944-2007). Michael Karlsson gives an affectionate philosophical and personal portrait of him, deep and passionate. The portrait is completed by the witty philosophical dictionary à la Baroncelli reconstructed by Giorgio Baruchello.
Baroncelli in his most relevant book, Il razzismo è una gaffe (Racism is a blunder, 1996), analysed the possible social effects of the use and the misuse of political correctness, focusing on its performative efficiency. Today, after more than 20 years, a lot of individuals, though scholars or not, believe that p.c. is a falsification of reality; that is necessary to use a simple, truthful and raw language since each correctness would be a limitation of free speech.
Moreover, in a global, hyper-connected society, everybody can insult and offend her/his political adversary or simple neighbours, more than ever when relying on social networks, without any visible responsibility.
Hate speech, divisive rhetoric, damnation of the Other, populism, friend-enemy distinction: those patterns, and many more, are the issues discussed in these papers according to different points of view: philosophical, political, sociological and anthropological dealing and, what is more, with both synchronic and diachronic perspectives.
The starting point is the process of the construction of the Othering, a typical issue of Anthropology. Marco Aime (The Other) tells us that producing the other, the stranger, is an essential step in the definition of ourselves, at least in the definition of what we would like to be or to look like. Having an enemy is important for defining our identity. Besides, discrimination cannot be disabled if we replace racial differences with a sort of “naturalized” cultural difference and we consider culture as an essential entity. In order to overcome discrimination we have to accept that cultures and identities are mobile and changeable.
Changing and the psychological reactions to metamorphoses are the issues of Pascal Nouvel (The changing feeling of Otherness). In his paper, he choose to express the nature and challenge of the change examining the feelings we prove during the process we are involved into.
The question is particularly significant if the changes are involving our identities. Indeed, the plasticity of identities is at the core of any change and especially of those which involve mixing people of various origins. Nouvel face this task by examining Frank Westerman’s book El negro and me, “because it describes very vividly a large array of feelings that persons can experience from each other when a change in their vicinity occurs”.
A particular divisive polarization concerns the theme of religious faith, of churches and their believers. Philosophers and theologians has often found the theoretical solution to conflicts in the concept and practice of tolerance. Daniele Rolando (Conversion and Inclusiveness) compares the current notion of religious freedom or freedom of conscience with the current notion of tolerance. His aim is to prove that this connection is far from being plain and easy-to-use. By an accurate analysis of the different answers offered in contemporary moral and political philosophy to the tolerance question, Rolando concludes that the setting given by F. Baroncelli, and namely his idea of an “indifferent” tolerance, is the best way to set it correctly.
In counterpoint, Paola de Cuzzani (Political cohesion, Friendship and Hostility) discusses the return to friendship in current political thinking, communitarian as well as liberal: can friendship be the emotional foundation of social-political cohesion in a modern state? From the radical normative approach to civil friendship proposed by Saint Just to the Carl Schmitt’s emphasis on the friend/enemy divide, rather than proposing other emotional relationships for uniting and directing a political community, de Cuzzani proposes a “Spinozian turn” to fight back the “sad political passions”.
Certainly opposed to the dichotomous vision friend-enemy is the perspective taken into account by Franco Manti (Diversity, Otherness and the Politics of Recognition) from F. Baroncelli’s essay on “Recognition and its sophistry”: the focus is the reflection about otherness, the incommensurability of cultures, their translatability and their being open systems. In fact, we read a critique of communitarian positions based on the idea of plural and mobile individual and cultural identities. The recognition should primarily concern what unites us, just like our belonging to the same species and being inhabitants of the Planet, and, at the same time, in taking on the challenge of cultural otherness. Manti deduces the need for a planetary ethics, founded the non-reducibility of the part to the whole and of the individual to the community.
Polarization in political thinking and attitudes is discussed by Alberto Giordano in Us and Them the Logic of Othering from Pink Floyd to Populist. Giordano offers, at first, a concise sketch of the development of the us/them divide in the realm of political theory since the 18th century to the first half of the 20th. He goes on, then, in highlighting the changes undergone by the same dichotomy within populist ideology and discourse, focusing on three discursive patterns which marks contemporary political communication.
In turn, a brief speech by Marianna Mancini compares the intellectual and communicative tools shared by different blends of populism in the cultural and political area of the French-speaking world. In particular, the comparison between La France Insoumise and the Front National helps us in the understanding the plural nature of polarization and its likely fashions.
Throughout the debate, the important role of the media and in particular of social media in the construction of the us / them divide was not neglected. Micol Burighel tries to discuss the idea that group polarization is a dangerous phenomenon developing in democratic societies. This mechanism leads to strong fragmentation on political and social issues and, in certain cases, to extremism and fanaticism. Nevertheless, how much did Internet and social media shape group polarization? The answer is based on a review of the current state of the art, referring particularly to Cass Sunstein’s works.
At last, Mirella Pasini questions the possibility of a non-exclusive us / them divide, discussing the Reports of the American Immigration Commission (Washington 1911).
The us/them polarization in public discourse is not really a contemporary phenomenon: just think of Aristotle and oi barbaroi (the barbarians). Today, however, it is close to racist approach, as van Dijk says, like never before. His ideological discourse analysis is useful to clarify the connection between polarization and racism, through the analysis of a particular case-study, i.e. the construction of prejudice and stereotype about the Southern Italian “race” at the beginning of the 20th century in the USA. This past case is set by Pasini as a model to analyse the political and ordinary language of our time, in order to define a non-discriminatory approach to differences.
On the eve of March, 1973, Pink Floyd published their most renowned and exciting album – at least according to many fans: The Dark Side of the Moon. The ninth song on the playlist bore the title Us and Them; the lyrics, written by Roger Waters, endorsed the vision of a class-cleavage embodied in the juxtaposition of ‘us’, poor and labouring people sent to fight a distant war by ‘them’, the ruling élite who cannot but command and exercise its power:
Us and them
and after all we’re only ordinary men
me and you
God only knows it’s not what we would choose to do.
‘Forward’, he cried from the rear
and the front rank died
and the General sat, and the lines on the map
moved from side to side.
Black and blue
and who knows which is which and who is who
up and down
and in the end it’s only round and round and round.
‘Haven’t you heard it’s a battle of words’
the poster bearer cried.
‘Listen, son’, said the man with the gun,
‘there’s room for you inside’.
It might seem odd to open a scientific paper quoting a rock song, but it is not. Us and Them, in fact, vividly portrays one among the traditional patterns of the logic of ‘othering’, anything but a distinctive feature of contemporary political theory and discourse – the belief, included, that populists make an exclusive use of it. The story of polarization, in fact, is much longer and its roots deep and plural; however, in the last 30 years on, the approach has undergone a remarkable metamorphosis. In this short paper I will try, at first, to present a concise sketch of the development of the us/them divide in the realm of political theory since the 18th century; I will subsequently highlight the changes undergone by the same within populist ideology and discourse.
Us and Them: to cut a long story short
The us/them divide – that is, the call for identity – Is as old as the world can be, anthropologists have often claimed (Berreby 2006). After all, it was Aristotle to state that barbarians were not entitled to the political privileges of the polis since «non-Greek and slave are in nature the same» (Aristotle 1998: 2 [1252b]). However only the eighteenth century witnessed the emergence of the first modern sample of the aforementioned dichotomy.
After the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’, Great Britain saw the consolidation of the Whig regime, embodied by the long government of Robert Walpole, who served as prime minister 1721 to 1742 (Langford 1992: 9-57). Walpole’s public policies, and the absorption of power in his hands, caused the rise of a strong opposition movement all across England, led by a group of intellectuals and politicians who labeled themselves and their acolytes ‘country’ in front of the ‘court’ led by Walpole and developed an innovative ideological stance grounded – broadly speaking – on natural rights, rotation of offices, separation of powers and accountability (Dickinson 1979: 90-192).
The opponents were mostly Whig – more precisely, the liberal-republicans who renewed the old, glorious tradition of the Commonwealthmen (Robbins 2004) – but alongside with a bunch of Tories led by the well-known Henry St. John, viscount Bolingbroke (Kramnick 1968). The men who built up the ‘country paradigm’ perceived themselves as ‘other’ from those who embodied real power and corruption, i.e. the government and the politico-economic élites whose closed ties with the Whig establishment they repeatedly denounced.
No surprise, then, that John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon – two renowned Commonwealthmen – maintained in one of their famous Cato’s Letters (no. 62) that «whatever is good for the People, is bad for their Governors; and what is good for the Governors, is pernicious to the People» (Trenchard and Gordon 1995 [1720-23]: 423). The approach marked by the antagonism Country/People vs. Court/Governors rapidly gained popularity and ignited much of the ideological production at the time of the American Revolution (Wood 1998).
Still, so much more was yet to come. The early nineteenth century saw the rise of socialism in England, France and, finally, Germany (Newman 2005: 6-45). It was precisely in 1848 that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published the Manifesto of the Communist Party, prepared under request of the Communist League, that soon became a powerful tool for socialist intellectual and workers in order to spread their belief. The Manifesto was conceived by Marx – who wrote it almost entirely – as a summary of his and Engels’ «joint efforts up to 1848», focusing on «the development of modern capitalism [and] its ruthless overthrow of older social and economic systems» to deliver his newly-coined doctrine of the class struggle and place «revolution at the centre of Marx’s narrative» (Claeys 2018: 119-120). A revolution which was grounded on the premise of an irresistible antagonism between ‘us’ (the proletariat) and ‘them’ (the bourgeoisie):
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes. The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonism. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones. Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – Bourgeoisie and Proletariat (Marx and Engels 2016 : 9).
Near the end of the century, however, something started to change: the past two cleavages seemed to converge towards a new synthesis which appeared at first in the United States. A.D. 1892 saw the official birth of the People’s Party, the first populist party to stand against traditional politics and reproduce the logic of othering following the pattern ‘the people vs. the élite’, where ‘the people’ were «the good rural farmers…who tilted the land and produced all the goods in the society», while ‘the élite’ was formed by «the corrupt, urban bankers and politicians» (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2017: 23). An excerpt taken from the first party’s electoral program, the so-called Omaha Platform, deserves to be quoted at length:
We have witnessed for more than a quarter of a century the struggles of the two great political parties for power and plunder, while grievous wrongs have been inflicted upon the suffering people. We charge that the controlling influences dominating both these parties have permitted the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to prevent or restrain them. Neither do they now promise us any substantial reform. They have agreed together to ignore, in the coming campaign, every issue but one. They propose to drown the outcries of a plundered people with the uproar of a sham battle over the tariff, so that capitalists, corporations, national banks, rings, trusts, watered stock, the demonetization of silver and the oppressions of the usurers may all be lost sight of. They propose to sacrifice our homes, lives, and children on the altar of mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires (People’s Party 1892).
And yet, while class and political cleavages combined in a patchwork synthesis, we can still trace back its expression to a number of traditional patterns. However, somewhere between the 19th and 20th centuries Europe witnessed the insurgence of a special blend of nationalism, one with a strong ethnic flavor where ‘us’ and ‘them’ responded to an anthropological divide, Drawing on an extensive intellectual framework outlined by many nineteenth century philosophers and political theorists (Todorov 1989: 105-308) and intertwined with coeval reflections on imperialism and racialism (Arendt 1962 : 3-302), in what has been called ‘the short twentieth century’ (Hobsbawm 1994) «ethno-nationalism draws much of its emotive power from the notion that the members of a nation are part of an extended family, ultimately united by ties of blood. It is the subjective belief in the reality of a common ‘we’ that counts» (Muller 2008: 20).
When the echo of such a dichotomy reached the shores of the institutional realm, it suddenly found a theoretical translation in the juxtaposition of the categories of ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ within the political theory of Carl Schmitt. As he himself stated in his short essay The Concept of the Political, the significance of this opposition goes well beyond the traditional conceptual contrasts such as «good and evil in the moral sphere, beautiful and ugly in the aesthetic sphere, and so on»; being confined to the dominion of politics, and defining it as an autonomous dimension, it «can neither be based on anyone antithesis or any combination of other antitheses, nor can it be traced to these» (Schmitt 2007 : 26). More specifically:
The distinction of friend and enemy denotes the utmost degree of intensity of a union or separation, of an association or dissociation. It can exist theoretically and practically, without having simultaneously to draw upon all those moral, aesthetic, economic, or other distinctions. The political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not appear as an economic competitor, and it may even be advantageous to engage with him in business transactions. But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible. […] The enemy is not merely any competitor or just any partner of a conflict in general. He is also not the private adversary whom one hates. An enemy exists only when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity. The enemy is solely the public enemy, because everything that has a relationship to such a collectivity of men, particularly to a whole nation, becomes public by virtue of such a relationship. The enemy is hostis, not inimicus in the broader sense (Schmitt 2007 : 26-27, 28).
If it is true that the friend/enemy divide was conceived by Schmitt as a means of overcoming «the concept of a neutral liberal State» (Cassini 2016: 99), he pointed out, nevertheless, that his dichotomy served as well to surmount the «antagonisms among domestic political parties [since they] succeed in weakening the all-embracing political unit, the state» (Schmitt 2007 : 32). And this, in turn, ignited Schmitt’s holistic view of ‘the people’ and his denial of proceduralism and representation in favor of «a plebiscitary form of democracy» (Cassini 2016: 100).
No surprise then, as we shall see in the next paragraph, that populists learnt his lesson well and quickly in the aftermath of WWII. And this is why, according to Jan-Werner Müller, Schmitt has something to teach them yet (Müller 2016: 28, 56-7).
Us and Them, Populist Style
Populism is by no means a contemporary phenomenon: its roots trace back at least to the end of the nineteenth century, as we have already noticed, with the birth of the People’s Party in the United States (Kazin 2017: 27-48) and to the first decade of the twentieth with its Latin-American version (Conniff [ed.] 2012). Hints of its past are detectable in Western Europe as well, mostly in the 1940’s and 50’s, when Guglielmo Giannini in Italy and Pierre Poujade in France institutionalized the us/them divide as a pattern of their political discourse.
Giannini, founder and leader of the Everyman’s Front (Fronte dell’Uomo Qualunque; see Setta 2000), which won huge but short-lived consent, was crystal-clear in his depiction of an irreducible contrast between ‘the crowd’ (us) and the «poisonous professional politicians» (them), pleaded guilty of any social evil and asked by the crowd – literally – «to break not our balls anymore» (Giannini 2002 : 160, 184). Poujade, by his side, was more than ready to address a parallel rhetorical outline which opposed ‘us’ (common people represented by the members of his Union et Fraternité Française) to ‘them’ (corrupt minority of bankers, politicians and polytechniciens): «nous sommes le mouvement de l’honnêteté, de la probité, de la justice face aux vautours, aux politiciens, aux intrigants» (Tarchi 2015: 99). The approach was shared by the first, real founder of contemporary European populism, i.e. the Danish lawyer Mogens Glistrup, who in 1972 gave birth to the Progress Party on a no-tax and anti-immigrants platform which gained him and his party 28 seats in the 1973 general elections.
Broadly speaking, and referring to the populist political discourse that has been constructed in Europe and the United States since the 1980’s, I think we may identify at least three main narratives through which the us/them dichotomy has been developed and implemented:
1) the good and honest people vs. the evil and corrupted élites;
2) the people of our nation vs. the ‘other(s)’;
3) ordinary citizens vs. professional politicians.
Needless to say, these patterns are strictly connected the one with each other since they define a common framework «that simplifies the political space by symbolically dividing society between ‘the people’ (as the ‘underdogs’) and its ‘other’», while it must be noted that «the identity of both ‘the people’ and ‘the other’ are political constructs, symbolically constituted through the relation of antagonism» (Panizza 2005: 3). However, it is also true that each one holds its own peculiar character, which we are going to sketch briefly.
As to the first, it is widely recognized that the fight against ruling minorities marks any type of populist rhetoric, though right and left-wing (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2017: 11-16). In the last years, in fact, we had witnessed a growing accent on this feature, mostly in official/institutional occasions: for instance, Trump’s election was celebrated by Marion Maréchal Le Pen as a «victory of democracy and the people against the élites, Wall Street and politically correct media» (Maréchal Le Pen 2016), while her aunt Marine Le Pen, running for the French presidency, claimed her being «the candidate of the people» set to «free the people of France from the rule of arrogant élites ready to influence its conduct» (Le Pen 2017a).
But it is in Donald Trump’s political discourse that such a design reaches its climax. His inaugural address may be seen as a perfect manifesto of this peculiarly populist attitude:
Today’s ceremony…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 2017).
Trump’s rhetoric is exemplary to understand, as well, the second pillar of the us/them divide. He has never ceased to boost the fear of the stranger, not merely the migrant but the ‘other’ at an almost ontological level: we just need to recall his long-lasting campaign against Mexicans («they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some I assume are good people», Vinattieri 2016: 45) and his promise that «from this moment on, it’s going to be America First» (Trump 2017). But every populist leader relies strategically on the policy of fueling the ethnical separation of the citizenship of a given nation-State and anyone who comes from the outside, fundamentally described as a sort of free-rider.
All along her 2017 presidential campaign, Marine Le Pen repeatedly claimed the need to «re-establish the control of national borders and exit the Schengen agreement» in order to «find our liberty anew and restore the sovereignty of the French people», stop illegal migration and «reduce the number of legal migrants to a quota of 10000 per year» (Le Pen 2017c). The United Kingdom Independence Party, on the other hand, maintained (and still does) that Brexit was the only way of putting an end to uncontrolled immigration, that «has placed huge pressure on public services and housing. It has affected the domestic labour market, where wages for manual and lowpaid jobs have stagnated» and even «community cohesion has been damaged» (UKIP 2017a). The emphasis is placed here on what has been called the ‘welfare chauvinism’, a phenomenon perfectly highlighted by the guidelines on immigration submitted to public opinion by The Finns’ Party in 2015:
The asylum procedure was initiated to help people that were fleeing persecution but it has become the most important modus operandi for the present stream of migrants – many of which have questionable backgrounds as to whether persecution is the real issue. Extremely high unemployment, already existing throughout much of the EU, together with the present public sector austerity programs make the integration and absorption of a huge number of migrants prohibitive. Immigration will change, irreversibly, the host country’s population profile, disrupt social cohesion, overburden public services and economic resources, lead to the formation of ghettoes, promote religious radicalism and its consequences, and foster ethnic conflicts. Actual outcomes of these factors can be seen in the many riots, brutal events, and the formation of violent gangs in a number of large European cities (The Finns’ Party 2015).
The most renowned and popular technique of implementing the us/them dichotomy, however, is seemingly the opposition drawn between common people and professional politicians. The Five Star Movement, once led by the Italian comedian Beppe Grillo, has built its own political reputation on a staunch and fervent campaign against ‘la casta’ (the ruling élite), where politicians and technocrats are described as enemies of the people since «they have become our masters, while we play just the role of (more or less) unconscious servants» (Tarchi 2015: 342). To be sure, it is this precise issue that defined, at least until 2018 (see Jacoboni 2019), the identity of the movement, so that at the end of 2013, campaigning for the European elections to be held in May 2014, an article published on Grillo’s blog announced that «the Five Star Movement isn’t right nor left-wing. We stay on plain citizens’ side. Fiercely populists!» (Blog delle Stelle 2013).
But they are not alone in their contempt for la politique politicienne. According to Marine Le Pen, politicians (herself excluded, of course) 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). Quite similarly, the UKIP leaders have always stressed their being close to the people (a collective, powerful ‘us’) and thus structurally different from their opponents whose lack of transparency endangered democracy in Britain:
People see a lack of democracy and connection with the three old parties. UKIP brings a breath of fresh air into politics and offers the electorate a real alternative to the old status quo. We now ask you to continue to vote UKIP in order to ensure that the politicians are reminded that real people must not be ignored (UKIP 2017b).
All in all, each one of the narratives which we have rapidly outlined may be understood if, and only if, a further question is answered: who are ‘the people’? If it is true that «’the people’ is a construction which allows for much flexibility» and for that reason «it is most often used in a combination…of three meanings: the people as sovereign, as the common people and as the nation» (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2017: 9), populists often go far beyond any flexibility.
Delivering a speech in the middle of his party’s (Akp) electoral convention, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan derided his opponents addressing them a provocative (and staggering) question: «we are the people, who are you?» (Müller 2016: 5). Additionally, the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, interviewed by the journalist and anchorman Giovanni Floris, some months ago innocently stated that «’the people’ is, first and foremost, the aggregate of the shareholders who support our government» (Conte 2018), i.e. the electors who voted for the Five Star Movement and the League, being these parties involved in the coalition which backs the so-called ‘yellow-and-green government’.
And even though it was Ernesto Laclau who notably highlighted the fact that «populism requires the dichotomic division of society into two camps — one presenting itself as a part which claims to be the whole» (Laclau 2005: 83), it seems quite hard to view such a phenomenon, even in the light of a so-called «’return of the political’ after year of post-politics», merely as «a discursive strategy of construction of the political frontier between ‘the people’ and ‘the oligarchy’» – which should define, more than ever, left-populism (Mouffe 2018: 6). It rather feels like a rhetorical plan aimed to weaken the substantive features of liberal democracy, to begin with the same existence of a majority and a minority: both, in fact, must acknowledge the legitimacy of each other while the us/them divide, where ‘the people’ is confronted with its enemies, hinders any room for dispute, bargaining and compromise.
As things stand, if populism may be correctly viewed as «a growing revolt against politics and liberal values», it is highly questionable to consider «this challenge to the liberal mainstream…in general, not anti-democratic» (Eatwell and Goodwin 2018: xi). In fact, as Jan-Werner Müller has correctly pointed out, «in addition to being antielitist, populists are always antipluralist. Populists claim that they, and they alone, represent the people» (Müller 2016: 2). That’s why almost any populist leader or movement shows a deep despise for constitutionalism and its tools, imperfect as they are, designed to enable but check popular sovereignty, grant individual rights and guarantee socio-political pluralism. And here, in the end, we are confronted with the biggest shift which the us/them paradigm has experienced so far.
In this paper I have tried to draw attention to the metamorphoses undergone by a peculiar pattern which has embodied – in the public realm – the logic of othering, i.e. the dichotomy of ‘us’ and ‘them’ as a means of framing the political arena, that has recently regained a certain popularity because of its massive use in contemporary populist rhetoric and ideology.
Along with posing a threat to liberal democracy, some scholars are beginning to notice its impact on fundamental constituents of public life and culture, for ex. the pursuit of truth as a shared social goal. Analyzing the connections between populism and ‘post-truth’, i.e. the «circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief» (Oxford Dictionaries 2016), Silvio Waisbord wrote:
The root of populism’s opposition to truth is its binary vision of politics. For populism, ‘the people’ and ‘the elites’ hold their own version of truth. Preserving a populist, fact-proof narrative is necessary to safeguard the vision that truth is always on one the side and that lies are inevitably on the other side. Facts belong to one or other camp. Facts are not neutral, but they are politically owned and produced. They only make sense within certain tropes and political visions. Facts that contradict an epic, simplistic notion of politics by introducing nuance and complexity or falsifying conviction are suspicious, if not completely rejected as elitist manoeuvers […] Post-truth communication is exactly where populism wants politics to be – the realm of divided truth, binary thinking, and broken-up communication.Populism rejects the politics of deliberation and truth-telling; it thrives amid the deepening of rifts in public communication and society. It appeals to identity politics that anchor convictions unconcerned with truth as a common good. Populism’s glib assertion ‘you got your truth, I got mine’ contributes to fragmentation and polarisation. Public life becomes a contest between competing versions of reality rather than a common effort to wrestle with knotty, messy questions about truth (Waisbord 2018: 26, 30).
Whatever accurate and appropriate this description may be, it shows quite evidently how much the logic of othering and the us/them divide are shaping our public sphere almost anew. In the era of social media, after all, like never before «the medium is the message» (McLuhan 2003 : 7). Something we should definitely be aware of.
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Aristotle (1998), Politics, edited by C.D.C. Reeve, Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company.
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Robbins, C. (2004), Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman: Studies in the Transmission, Development, and Circumstance of English Liberal Thought from the Restoration of Charles II Until the War with the Thirteen Colonies, revised ed., Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
Schmitt, C. (2007 ), The Concept of the Political, edited by G. Schwab, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Setta, S. (2000), L’Uomo Qualunque, Rome-Bari: Laterza,
Tarchi, M. (2015), Italia populista. Dal qualunquismo a Beppe Grillo, Bologne: Il Mulino.
The following definitions combine insightful personal memories and personally memorable insights that I recall from, or associate with, Flavio Baroncelli (1944–2007) qua eloquent and witty teacher, brilliant and ingenious writer, fast and sharp conversationalist, generous and kind human being, and committed promoter of the teacher- and student exchange programmes linking together Iceland, my adoptive country, and the University of Genoa, my alma mater. Not all of them must be taken literally or too seriously; besides, I would not agree with some of them myself! All of them are, however, sincere tokens of gratitude, friendship and love to a truly remarkable individual, who enjoyed entertaining and shocking his audiences, but above all liked making them think, debate, and think some more. Furthermore, these definitions are a creative and inevitably poor attempt at exemplifying for the Anglophone public the sort of pithy and humorous style that, inter alia, made Baroncelli famous in Italy in his day.
Another word for potentiality.
A disease mistaken for moral failure.
Causing pleasure by sly words, even when the listener knows that they are lies. Philosophers, in their stately parlance, would call it a perlocutionary speech act.
The daily demonstration of how little control we have over our own will.
A polite way for educated people to be open-minded pluralists in theory but narrow-minded atheists in practice.
Analysis (of concepts)
The bizarre tendency to turn ambiguous profundity into unambiguous superficiality.
A typically modern attempt at making self-conscious philosophers sound like respectable scientists.
The best way to acquire power in a capitalist society, especially if one wishes to destroy it.
One of the most important life-defining characteristics that a person can have the good luck to possess and that philosophers keep stating not to matter.
A seemingly private place where both neighbours and State authorities seem often eager to enter.
The least understood yet most important principle of the French Revolution: without a modicum of genuinely felt compassion among fellow citizens, both liberty and equality will get used to ruin someone else’s life.
A dangerous and stupid way not to listen to dangerous and stupid claims.
When rasping hopelessly and continuously on a hard road surface, they exemplify instinctual behaviour as opposed to deliberate.
Powerful, sweet, devious killers.
The curse of any philosopher who may wish to come across as deep, original and worthy of enduring attention.
Coherence (aka consistency)
The unhealthy obsession with getting rid of all the instances of personal diversity, creativity, capriciousness and experimentalism that make individual life interesting and collective life possible.
The 20th-century political scarecrow that, for the duration of about one generation, made the de iure liberal countries of the world be actually a little more liberal than their de facto oligarchic past and present flag out.
The most important virtue cultivated by Christianity.
A much-cherished liberal value, as long as it does not apply to oneself.
Generally loathed by the very same people who have most reason to complain—an instance of slave morality.
A not-so-modern attempt at making self-important philosophers sound like profound mystics.
Someone else’s form of madness.
The folklore of the rich.
Coping with far-too-real nightmares.
Its training in infancy reveals how people prefer freedom to be qualified and circumscribed.
Discipline (and Punish)
The most important book by Michel Foucault, who taught us that the more societies publicly incense liberty and call themselves “liberal”, the less freedom common people truly enjoy in order to do as they please.
The ideal sort of loyal, selfless, hard-working and simple-mindedly grateful employees that employers would like to have.
A branch of mathematics mistaken for empirical science.
A branch of philosophy mistaken for empirical science.
Clarification articulating possible meanings of a pithy expression, with consequent loss of aesthetic and thought-provoking value of the latter. Sterilisation by explanation. (E.g. paraphrasing a poem, explaining a joke.)
The possibility for all people to be as bad and as silly as the rich and powerful minorities frequently are.
Aristocracy’s last ditch at controlling modern society.
See “Get lost!” below.
It is only after Darwin that people understood what the heck Lucretius and Telesio were talking about.
The first step towards tolerance and pluralism.
An option generally available only to a person who stops doubting.
The culture of the poor.
Birds that can be confused with swans, especially in Iceland.
An exact formal science that can be used rhetorically as a persuasive labelling method for inexact metaphysical reasoning.
Uttered in a timely fashion, it can save a person the trouble of having to answer a difficult question.
If ancient, it is an excellent way to display one’s own erudition.
The true source of happiness, yet regularly forgotten until missing.
Hegel (Georg Friedrich)
A typical German philosopher, he wrote several tomes to demonstrate that nothing stays the same.
History (of ideas)
A way to find out why we think the way we think.
The equalising social process deplored by anthropologists whereby identifying the poor, the outcast, the loathed, the derided and the downtrodden becomes a little less easy.
An uncharacteristically prodigal Scotsman, he noticed that the only way to be sure that all matches in the box do work is to light them all up.
The misunderstood virtue of avoiding conflict in realty by accepting conflict in principle.
A set of loosely interconnected concepts, some of which may be even mutually contradictory, that allow people to feel justified in their claims and actions, or at least to project an air of justification for them.
The demonstration of the bodily basis of the mind.
The least acknowledged yet most important virtue in a pluralist society: by caring little about what other people believe or do, mutual tolerance can be the norm.
Insight (aka Intuition)
Prejudice we like.
The remarkable social invention whereby to preserve the memory of past errors and make the inexorably ignorant new generations less likely to repeat them.
Intervention (by the State)
A much-loathed socialist value, which liberals accept as soon as they are in trouble.
A valuable means of instruction that can reach even those who do not wish to be instructed.
A typical German philosopher, he wrote two tomes to undo an earlier one.
That which philosophers seek and analyse most, and yet have the least of.
The precious and inevitable source of all misunderstandings.
Lashes (by whip)
As long as someone else gets more than yourself, most slaves will not rebel against slavery.
Another good way to show one’s own erudition.
The political wisdom teaching that State authority should be used only to protect a person from her worst enemy: her neighbours.
A rather bothersome business, but also the only one in town.
An open motive among men; less so among women. Gender equality’s lewd horizon.
Another way to understand religion.
A typical German philosopher, he wrote several tomes to demonstrate that, normally, if the employer gains, the employee loses out—and vice versa.
A neologism by the privileged.
The easiest and fastest way to explain why a marriage did not last. No such option is available for divorces between people of the same ethnic origin, the explanation of which may then take years of keen psychological scrutiny.
Montaigne (Michel de)
His essays became so famous and commonplace that later philosophers forgot to mention the source of the ideas they discussed and, eventually, Montaigne himself. There can be such a thing as too much fame.
Great wisdom expressed with clarity.
An atypical German philosopher, he wrote aphorisms to acknowledge a major yet neglected motive of human thought and action: resentment.
The likeliest outcome of a person’s life, which we spend trying not to think about it.
In practice, the supreme official principle of social life.
The future outcome of the present ignorance about the past.
Pain (and Pleasure)
The fabric of our inner tapestry.
When good, it is the playful use of our imagination and of our reason in order to break apart, toy with and recombine concepts, beliefs and habits of thought, in order to make better sense of them. When bad, it is the skillful use of our imagination and of our reason in order to do the same and be even more confused in the end.
An artificial reminder of life’s beauty.
The ungainly social process whereby the less respected members of a community can have a chance to be paid a little more respect.
A widespread yet uncomfortable signpost of liberal freedom.
Another word for actuality.
A person’s attribute that, if conspicuous, makes other significant attributes deplorable or intolerable to the surrounding individuals: age, race, religious affiliation, ignorance, ugliness, etc.
Insights we dislike.
A vice leading frequently to virtuous behaviour.
Often confused with quantity.
Often confused with quality.
The best instrument available to reveal how ignorant we are, no matter the number of university degrees we may have.
A historically popular but unnecessary notion which justifies people being nasty to one another. In its absence, freckles or bad pronunciation can serve the same purpose.
The art of making outlandish ideas sound plausible, thus duly impressing unsuspecting young minds and potential sexual partners.
The perplexing faculty to take apart whatever solid conclusion we had reached before.
The unjustly neglected study of how language shapes people’s life under all circumstances.
The most dangerous virtue cultivated by Christianity.
Unwise over-intelligent overthinking—it is by far too delightful an endeavour for most philosophers to resist the temptation of indulging in it despite their own better judgment.
A natural reminder of life’s beauty.
Great wisdom could be expressed with more clarity.
Having someone below you is usually more important than having someone above—another instance of slave morality.
The regularly underplayed yet visibly increased outcome of greater freedom in human societies.
Birds that can be confused with geese, especially in Iceland.
A structured way of thinking and talking that allows the person using it to come across as astoundingly intelligent and thereby force another to shut up, even if the latter may actually be right.
The socially crucial ability to endure people we dislike.
The perplexing notion whereby tolerance is not enough in society, for we must also like the people that we dislike.
The most efficient way to get bad information from innocent weaklings and no information at all from guilty brutes.
To modern eyes, an old form of cannibalism.
One of the most important life-defining characteristics that a person can have the ill luck to possess and that philosophers keep stating not to matter.
That from which all great ideologies wish to free us once and for all, but which all great historians tell us we must accept for any human endeavour to have a chance to work at all.
Whether threatened or applied, it is in practice the supreme unofficial principle of social life.
The best example of how being a master of style condemns a man to being remembered as a minor thinker.
A person’s attribute that, if conspicuous, makes other significant attributes invisible to the surrounding individuals: age, race, religious affiliation, ignorance, ugliness, etc.
We like thinking of it as free, despite all contrary evidence.
A Continental philosopher mistaken for an analytical one.
One of the many words for the imaginary place of endless joy that all cultures have concocted and that only some silly philosophers would state not to want to go to.
The time of peak performance in a person’s life, the rest of which is spent trying to make use of ridiculous concepts that can help that person to enjoy some respect and self-respect: the wisdom of old age, the charm of grey hair, the value of experience, etc.
Often confused with “Jewish” and “Israeli”, it can be combined with them in the following matrix:
Among all the theoretical contributions on the topic, I will rely on the approach which classifies populism as a political style, marked by a set of rhetorical and discoursive practices. In this sense, it seems possible to find some connections even between apparently opposite positions when it comes to the adoption of a common populist strategy and its communicative codes. Within this discursive pattern, shared by a politically heterogeneous group of actors, contemporary politics tends to rely more intensively on the logic of othering, namely a process through which the affirmation of one’s own identity depends on the positioning in an opposite front compared to the one of the different enemy. The us vs them rhetoric showed itself efficient because, by simplifying public space, it allows an immediate identification of the individual with a collective front, in addition to a clear discovery of her/his political rival. But how does populism make the spreading of this discursive divide concretely operational? Benjamin Moffitt has persuasively claimed that the appeal of populist rhetoric results from the adoption of a series of narratives, actions and linguistic choices through which populist parties establish a privileged communicative bond with their public. Under these terms, populism as a political style achieves a performative act, and through its discoursive practices ties in a political relationship which «typically consists of a proclaimed relationship with the ‘public’, an us/them attitude and […] a period of crisis and mobilization» (Moffitt 2016: 31).
Laclau: the Populist Construction of Political Identity
Among the most discussed theorists who adopted and developed this interpretative approach we may find Ernesto Laclau, who based his research precisely on the performative features detectable in populist political discourse. In his well-known On Populist Reason the Argentinian scholar proposes an original reading of the phenomenon as he starts wondering: «why could some political alternatives or aims be expressed only through populist means?» (Laclau 2005: 17). The identity crisis that, on different levels, is affecting the traditional actors of the political arena is self-evident: but what are the trajectories of possible evolution of this crisis? Is there any social rationality behind populism? Would it be possible to take advantage of its impetus?
Setting himself apart from the many scholars and policymakers who deem it a pathological disease of contemporary politics, Laclau considers populism an occurrence to study in the light of social dynamics in the process of community building, as a natural process of articulation of the various issues, inscribed in the grammar of the political itself; that is, a natural expression of the political character organic to each individual. From this point of view, populism refers to «a constant dimension of political action which necessarily arises (in different degrees) in all political discourses, subverting and complicating the operations of the so-called ‘more mature’ ideologies» (Laclau 2005: 18). From this constructive approach, which evaluates the performing acts achieved by populism through its discoursive and rhetorical practices, we could try to draw an analytic framework in order to understand the nature and legitimacy of two political movements featuring a different ideological baggage but linked by a common political style.
The New Heroes:Right-wing and Left-wing populism
In particular, it aims to consider how the current political background tends to shape up in a dichotomic distinction between right-wing populism and left-wing populism, evolving from the traditional right and left positions. Populism is no longer to be understood as a distinctive feature of both extreme right and left: its historical developments, indeed, «followed the inner opportunities offered by the particular dynamics of competition» (Tarchi 2015: 71), so as to generate different outcomes in different backgrounds (that’s the case when we compare European and Latin American populisms). To make my point clearer, I will rely on the contributions by two scholars which are expressly fitting in the explanation of this approach, both based on the interpretative structure of Laclau’s populism: the political theories of Alain De Benoist and Chantal Mouffe. In fact, they have been trying to sketch a populism vision rooted, respectively, on the traditional values of the right and the left through a bunch of very close discoursive practices and namely through the us vs them logic. The first pattern which leaves the mark of populism on the political outline provided by De Benoist and Mouffe is precisely the rhetoric of antagonism, which must be understood as the ground of the associative practice. The expression of the different souls that make up a community must depend, according to this logic, on the grouping of issues and positions along a frontier, which would set up the conditions for a dialogic struggle for hegemony (in Gramscian terms). The need to resort to populist discoursive strategies arises, according to De Benoist and Mouffe, when the demands of the various social groups of a given historical society become aware of their public role and ask for the building of new frontiers in order to articulate themselves and express their own political identity, positioning on one of the two sides of this frontier.
The Populist Democratic Revolution
The institution of a new antagonistic frontier serves as a tool to guide public opinion and comes in response to the tendency to occupy the central stage of the political spectrum that marks, according to both De Benoist and Mouffe, most traditional parties in many European democracies. This process reveals itself through the rise of anti-establishment, grassroots movements who claim their political autonomy and the satisfaction of their demands, while their ideological roots may equally be right-wing or left-wing. The democratic balance is broken, according to the analysis of both theorists, when centre-right and centre-left parties merge into a dominant ideology which «argues that there’s no alternative to the neoliberal order and that the break-up of people in the global market is the only horizon of human history» (De Benoist 2017: 29). They identify this unifying tendency as a direct consequence of an ‘original sin’: the surrender of the traditional left to the laws of globalisation.
Speaking of which I find quite meaningful the analysis of the French philosopher Jean-Claude Michéa, who maintains that the convergence of the right and the left towards a undefined program starts right when the left moves away from its ideological origins, joining the cultural values and codes of liberal society such as «cult of modernisation to the bitter end, mandatory and permanent mobility (both geographically and professionally) and moral and cultural transgression» (Michéa 2005: 45). Framing his analysis on a revision of the political history of French socialism, Michéa argues that the left persuaded itself of the impossibility of overcoming capitalism and renounced to the traditional connection with the working-class movements (Michéa 2005: 122). The ‘treason’ of the left converts it into a political entity incapable of grasping and meeting the needs of the various social groups that used to refer to it, through a «progressive dissolution of the socialist ideal of a society without social classes […] in the liberal night when all of the cows are grey» (Michéa 2005: 28). In the meantime, that portion of the right which does not accept any loosening of its positions to converge towards a centrist perspective, finds in populism a perfect discoursive frame in order to broadcast its most relevant purposes, often extreme in their shapes.
As a consequence of the homogenisation of the political offer, the democratic principle of a free and responsible choice between two opposite alternatives fails and citizens get deprived of the concrete chance of expression of their beliefs. This is why Mouffe demands the necessity of a democratic revolution, which would appear on stage with the rise of «new social movements» and from the «questioning of many other forms of inequality» (Mouffe 2018: 51), something that requires a new identity partition in the political scheme. The Belgian scholar takes this binary logic straight out of the definition of the ‘political’ developed by Carl Schmitt, according to whom a political community finds its identity when confronting the otherness of an enemy, whose existence comes into being «when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity» (Schmitt 2007 : 28).
The antagonistic dimension becomes an interpretative key of every aspect of the political life inside a given community, therefore requires the establishment of a series of novel politically opposed borders, which would distinguish a new us from a new them. Namely, the precise discoursive setting populism rests on. Both right and left-wing populisms build their political proposal aiming to respond to the unsatisfied demands of society, re-articulating community along a frontier. As Silvio Waisbord argues, this kind of Manichean storytelling is fostered as well by the evolution of contemporary media, more and more characterized by the communicative modality named post-truth. Denying the information model which refers to the existence of a one and only rational, empirical and demonstrable truth, post-truth assumes that «we cannot overcome subjectivity and that diverse publics lack shared norms and values» (Waisbord 2018: 4). According to the aforementioned perspective, populism looks at this fragmented and multifaceted portrait of reality and therefore chooses to highlight the alternative political choices, insofar as expressions of different souls which don’t deny each other, but clash in an hegemonic war for dominion.
France 2017: A Case Study On Populist Construction of Identity
A very clear, practical example of the meaningfulness of this theoretical approach is supplied by contemporary French politics. Recent Presidential elections held in April 2017 saw the lining up on one side of Marine Le Pen’s right-wing figure, fuelled by a well-prepared populist rhetoric; on the other, Jean-Luc Mélenchon tried to bring back together some pieces of the French left. France Insoumise took advantage, as well as Le Pen’s Front National, of the proclaimed effectiveness of populist rhetoric to present itself to the voters; an ideal case to show how two forces so distant as to their ideological origins can share a discoursive strategy. Both parties defined a collective identity – us – made up of strong symbolical meanings and created an enemy to fight against. The us pictured in such a storytelling is represented by the people, which should be understood in term of a collective and autonomous political subject, structured around a series of cultural and linguistic features.
The myths of homeland and of the drapeau tricolore bleu, blanc, rouge lies at the heart of the Front National’s (now Rassemblement National) political rhetoric and it’s no surprise that Marine Le Pen labelled herself «the candidate of the people» (Le Pen 2017). Similarly, Jean-Luc Mélenchon fills his storytelling with metaphors taken from the natural world, suggesting the existence of a people anything but artificially built but constructed around innate and emotional boundaries: «take a listen everybody to the whistle coming from our ranks […] like the sound of wind blowing through leaves, like the one of rain on stone. This sound hasn’t a name, but a signal, the one of the strength of the people when it burst into history» (Mélenchon 2017). On the other side of the frontier, the portrait of a them with deliberately liquid boundaries and unidentifiable in a single social group: the enemy is sketched as the symbol of an external domination, applying a strong political and financial pressure over the people. A collective them occasionally embodied by the ruling class of the country, the financial oligarchy, the technocratic bureaucracy of Brussels and many more options.
This binary logic of counterposing the two fronts therefore leads to an identification process based on nationality; namely, a discoursive practice appealing to the attachment to homeland and its values in emotional terms. The political discourse is then framed not only to deliver its storytelling but to push citizens towards its internalization through a shift which involves the emotional level, in order to strengthen the bond with a collective external entity. Chantal Mouffe deems that this ‘sentimental’ blueprint is fundamental for an effective political discourse and finds its justification directly in Freudian psychoanalysis: way before speaking of rational choices, it is fundamental to get in contact with the irrational side of the individual, to the «strong libidinal investment operating in the forms of identification» (Mouffe 2018: 85). Here we may find the reason why of the myths of the France Fière, la République, the flag and the defense of the national idiom, recurring in the discursive practices of both Rassemblement National and France Insoumise, as a plea to the emotional sphere of each individual.
A Common Style with Many Variations: The Value of Ideology in French Populism
While we can assert that a faint line runs between left and right-wing populist discourses, both adopting a language equally aimed at identifying a frontier defined by an emotional connection to the nation, it is not necessarily true that populism flattens the ideological stances cherished by its actors. Mouffe herself remarks that the same discoursive practice of dividing public space in two opponents could be developed in the light of different ideological criteria. When right-wing populism builds its concept of ‘nation’ not merely in patriotic but nationalistic terms, it implies that we should exclude from the collective us immigrants and people belonging to different cultures, none of which would find her/his own space in the national storytelling pattern. According to her, instead, the project for a left populism should extend the democratic horizon towards everyone opposing the hegemonic domination of the oligarchic and financial establishment, including in the project «workers, immigrants and the precarious middle class, as well as other democratic demands such as the LGBT community» (Mouffe 2018: 27).
Drawing on this outline, all through the 2017 presidential campaign the alignment of the two parties along a frontier showed up to be divergent in many topics and mostly when the identity discourse went through the immigration issue. Le Pen’s right-wing populism maintained a coherent approach with the most radical conservative tradition on this matter, putting the safeguard of the French cultural baggage and the highest standards of national solidarity over the opening of society to multiculturalism. Resorting to the motto «rétablir les frontières nationales et sortir de l’espace Schengen», even through the militarisation of borders, Le Pen stands against ius soli as well: «L’acquisition de la nationalité française sera possible uniquement par la filiation ou la naturalisation» (Front National 2017). Instead of seeking for compromises and practical solutions to the integration issues, right-wing populism rather goes for a neat rhetoric according to which every single hole in the wall endangers community as a whole.
On the other side, France Insoumise sets out the limits of its frontier fostering a strong patriotic pride but still tracing its identity border along a more inclusive line, strengthening its own idea of national identity through the need to integrate outer elements in the horizon of the country: «France is a political community, not an ethnic reality. It’s therefore the existence of a common destiny who should ground access to nationality» (Féraud and Senon, 2017: 23). A left-populist social model needs to be based on shared but not exclusive cultural elements, which could be imparted to individuals and social groups who want to join the community. In his fight against political élites and financial oligarchy Mélenchon includes migrants as well, since they become the first victims of the common enemy, instead of being its instrumental allies. The only immigration to fight against is the one which comes through the «free trade routes» and gets abused as regard to the lowering of «wages and putting an additional pressure on social rights» (Mélenchon 2018).
In sum, both Front National and France Insoumise share a common, divisive rhetorical pattern, while pursuing partially different ends and targeting somehow diverse segments of public opinion in terms of ideological belonging.
Speaking of Left-wing Populism: A (Momentary) Conclusion
Laclau argued long ago that «between left-wing and right-wing populism, there is a nebulous no-man’s-land which can be crossed — and has been crossed — in many directions» (Laclau 2005: 87). Until recently, right-wing populism proved to be more efficient in leveraging the emotional sphere of many citizens and drawing an identity narrative which expressed people’s frustration for its exclusion from political life. According to Chantal Mouffe this is the place where the challenge for a left populism lies: the aim should consist in the adoption of an alike rhetorical pattern supporting an identity discourse set to build a collective opposition to the historical hegemonic élite while inclusive of any social force oppressed by the actual dominion, driving this emotional identification towards «better and more egalitarian perspectives inside the national tradition» (Mouffe 2018: 85).
References De Benoist, A. (2017), Populismo. La fine della destra e della sinistra, Bologna: Arianna Editrice.
Eatwell, R.; Goodwin, M. (2018), National Populism: The revolt against liberal democracy, London: Pelican.
We are quite used to observing and criticizing the politicians statements, their behavior, and even their personal appearance. We might take pride in not being naive and in recognizing how much they are twisting their arguments, omitting inconvenient facts and mistakes, generally polishing their own image, while promising how much good they will do for their voters and for the nation as a whole. We are usually aware that politicians are performing rhetoricians before the public and the recording cameras. In short we keep an eye on them and their rhetoric. But this may not be the only type of persuasion or rhetoric involved nor the only place to look: this paper argues that we should also look at what is going on behind the cameras in terms of camera technique.
Whenever a speech or a debate between politicians is broadcast live on television or offered to the general public as video clips on social media, an additional group of people join the production process, namely those handling the cameras, microphones and other technical equipment. The camera technicians and producers apply their professional skills, norms and procedures, and they make a lot of more or less conscious, natural or conventional, choices about how to place, operate, move and adjust the cameras in order to record and transmit the performance of the politicians. The point of this paper is to show that this placement and handling of the camera in each and every case has a significant influence on how the politicians will appear to the public.
This whole recording procedure may seem quite trivial, we may generally trust the camera people to follow aesthetic and technical standards and aim for “best practice” and a fair presentation. Of course we might suspect in special cases that a journalist or even a specific TV-channel may have very selective and slanted views of things, but generally we tend to trust reportages and video clips to be showing us what is going on, almost as if we were actually there ourselves. Thus we concentrate our attention on the politicians that we see “through” the camera. The camera itself is in this way usually transparent, and the work that goes into placing and handling it is generally unobtrusive, it seems natural and not worth discussing.
But just because the camera work generally goes unnoticed left to the smooth practice and skills of professionals technicians, it nevertheless contains a range of possibilities for supporting, enhancing, directing attention, suppressing or emphasizing what goes on in a debate or even in the seemingly simple reportage from a ceremonial speech. It should be of interest to an overall critical, rhetorical and phenomenological analysis of modern visual media to consider that cameras are always bound to be showing us politicians from specific (and sometimes significantly changing) points of view.
Skillfully conducted and in the right context a variety of camera movements, cuts, camera angles, and framing options (together with the work on the audio tracks) can influence or even construct what the audience will experience, and perhaps how they will evaluate the politicians and the process and outcome of a debate. In terms of rhetoric both logos, ethos, and pathos can be affected by the specific camera work. In the following a few fairly simple examples will be analyzed and discussed, starting out with the significance of zoom-in and zoom-out, then the point of view of the camera (including angles, height and framing – not in the journalistic, but in the photographic sense), and lastly the potential impact of reaction-shots (or shot/reverse shots).
It should be noted that the terminology used in this interdisciplinary paper is drawn from both classical rhetoric, communication theory, film studies, and video production. The overarching framework is an analytical phenomenological approach to the appearance of politicians on modern media, and the working hypothesis is that the work behind the camera plays an important role in creating the attention, the mood, the emotional impact, the reception, and understanding of political speeches and debates. On television and on social media the visual production set-up is constantly staging and framing politics, moving, passing, appealing, focusing, entertaining, and pointing out to us.
Zoom in and Zoom out
For decades the Danish Queen Margrethe II has been addressing the Danish population on national TV on New Year’s Eve. It is a live broadcast, always commencing at 18:00 hours and lasting some 10 to 15 minutes. It is a very ceremonial address, in terms of rhetoric the genre of her Majesty’s speech is epideictic, mostly a reinforcement of common (national) values, and perhaps some existential reflections about the passing of times. Her Majesty may also offer some slightly moralizing advice, e.g. about how to be kinder to each other. The Danish monarch is not supposed to act as a politician in any ordinary sense, however, the camera work involved in this very ceremonial broadcast may well illustrate how the authority and ethos of a speaker can be supported by the setting and operation of the camera.
The whole speech is delivered live in one take, i.e. addressed to just one steady camera placed in front of and in eye height of the queen sitting at a large desk. The are no cuts to other cameras during the speech and the one camera stays in the same position. But there is nevertheless one subtle move: soon after start the camera very gently zooms in, not to any extreme closeness, but semi-close. The camera starts from an overview of the stately room and the whole of the impressive desk where the queen is sitting, it then very slowly zooms in closer and stops at a moderate close up with the queen conventionally framed in a head and shoulder shot, much like a news reader or host on conventional TV-programs. Neither the point of view, the framing, nor the slow zoom in at the beginning of the speech stand out as remarkable.
It should be noted that there is a certain difference between a camera zooming in, as it is here on the queen, and a camera actually moving (travelling) closer to a speaker and keeping the same zoom setting, but this is in most cases not a crucial difference (however, the counter-operating of zoom and travel can be utilized for creating specific effects).
It is quite standard procedure in classical Hollywood film style (and in mainstream television today) to begin each scene or even a whole film or program with an overview shot of the location, and then to follow up with either a cut or a zoom in to some specific spot or person of interest. An overview shot at the beginning of a program serves much like an introduction or even a meta-communicative comment to the viewers about where we are and what is next to follow. As film theorist David Bordwell remarks, it is highly communicative: Typically, the opening and closing of the film are the most self-conscious, omniscient, and communicative passages (Bordwell, 1986). In terms of corporal phenomenology the camera can be said to imitate or mimic a person’s physical entering and overlooking of a room providing thus the television viewer with a (mediated, but) somewhat similar experience of entering and meeting the person at the desk.
The opening of the program offers a lot of information to the viewer, or, in order to avoid the misunderstanding that this “information” should be of a verbal or discursive nature, it would be better to say that the camera provides a view that immediately sets a tone and attitude: as viewers we sense a large room with stately furniture and decorations and a person sitting behind a grand desk gazing directly at us. This already sets a certain mood and tone in us, even before the first words are spoken. We may recognize the person or not, the view itself is likely to have a certain quality and impact, calling for attention or perhaps even awe and respect. Discovering a person looking straight at us, or turning towards us, always has a strong impact, it seems to be an instinctive reaction, rooted perhaps in our reptile brain parts or nervous system as well as in social norms and schooling. And in this case a strong set of cultural norms further adds to the impression: the noble decor, royalty, the position at the desk well known from meeting our schoolmasters and bosses, and the sort of “parental gaze” (Juel, 2004) that the queen is exercising, here in a rather kind and almost shy way. So, as viewers we have already perceived and felt a lot even before the first words have been spoken.
The slow zooming in on the speaking queen after a few seconds is a camera move that is both conventional (well-known from traditional films and programs) and at the same time very natural (mimicking the view we have when walking closer to a talking person in real life). There is no contradiction between the “conventional” and “natural” aspect of this camera move, indeed it goes hand in hand to explain why it passes so unnoticed (or “seamless”, as we may say about classical Hollywood editing). It is a curious fact, however, that we also accept that the sound remains the same (in terms of loudness and nearness to the microphone) even though we by means of the camera seem to move in closer to the talking person (from a theoretical and phenomenological point of view this way of connecting/disconnecting sight and sound in the experience of film media is an interesting and complex feature – even though it may at first seem trivial and “natural”).
In the 2017 version of the Danish Queen’s New Years’ address there is no zooming out at the end of the speech, the producer cuts to camera views from outside the castle. But it would have been quite in line with normal film and television procedure to mark the ending with a zoom out. Indeed this common camera feature can be seen as an instance of the general narrational principle of seeking a certain symmetry or balance to a story by returning at the end to something reminding of the initial location or state of affairs.
So, a zoom out at the end of a political speech or debate on television is quite standard procedure. One example of this is the German chancellor Angela Merkel’s New Year’s speech for 2018. During the entire main part of the 6 minute long speech the camera stays zoomed in at a fairly close head-and-shoulder shot. There are, however, within this main setting some very small movements in the zoom, hardly noticeable unless one runs the recording fast forward or backwards. This is not due to sloppy camera work, on the contrary it is just a skilled way of adding a bit of life to an otherwise rather stiff appearance of the speaker. These small adjustments – movements almost as if the camera was slowly breathing or adjusting its stance – can be seen in many other examples of portraying a politician on TV (even as early as 1969 as we shall soon see).
In the example with Angela Merkel the camera is again placed straight in front of and in eye height with her. This is standard procedure making her communicate as if directly to the viewers’ face. In terms of rhetoric the camera is supporting the ethos of the speaker, or at least not detracting anything, which would be the case if the camera was looking down at her, watching her from the side, or framing her not as the center of attention but as a marginal figure. To get an idea of the massive amount of conventions involved, and of the variable options for the camera to influence the viewers perception of the speaker, one just has to consider what would happen in case the camera all of a sudden zoomed in on the flowers on her desk, on a window in the building behind her, or began to dash around in a dizzying, hand-held amateur style.
The opening shot here with Angela Merkel at the center includes a view of some flowers to the left and some flags (German and EU) to the right, and we see a bit of the well-polished surface of a desk. Unlike the Danish queen, Angela Merkel appears to be speaking without manuscript papers in front of her, and she seems fairly relaxed and friendly in her attitude and appears to strike a rather confidential or familiar tone. It does not seem to be a very programmatic and political agenda setting appearance, but mostly a social and ceremonial one. But this may of course all be part of supporting the chancellors position and political status – and well thought through by some strategic advisers.
It is therefore worth noticing what the camera includes in the semi-total opening and ending shots, namely not so much the interior of a palace room, as in the case of the Danish queen, but a view outside behind the chancellor: here in the evening light we see at some distance in the background a large, representative building, including classicist pillars, a dome, and a tower with what appears to be – once again – the German flag at the top (actually it is the German Parliament, or Bundestag). So, it is literally on the background of, or in the setting of national political symbols (well known to the German viewers) that the chancellor this evening gives her seemingly very personal or family like address. In the whole long middle of the speech where the camera has zoomed in on the speaker, we may as viewers have forgotten this setting as we only see the person speaking – and perhaps also the lit Christmas tree and the lights of moving traffic making it all very seasonal and cozy: but then we are reminded again, when the speech is over and the camera zooms out giving us again a larger perspective.
Till now we have seen two main functions of the zoom in and zoom out of the camera: first and foremost these camera moves guide the viewers by marking the beginning and ending of the program, and together with the camera angle, framing and focus the movements help to point out the main person and to support her status. Secondly, we have smaller movements during the main body of the speech where the otherwise static camera adds a bit of life to the scenery by means of gentle adjustments of the fairly close zoom. These secondary small movements could be seen as aesthetic or in terms of Roman Jakobson they could be said to have a poetic function, whereas the main zoom in and zoom out can be seen as guiding the viewer by a mix of conventional, social, expressive and persuasive features, which in Jakobson’s terms would be phatic and emotive functions, perhaps even conative, as the camera handling adds to the impressiveness of the speaker (Juel, 2013). In terms of rhetoric the camera can be said to support or even perform an ethos appeal.
But also a third type of communicative function of the zoom in and zoom out can possibly be detected in some recordings of political speeches, as we shall see in a rather famous historic example.
The American president Richard Nixon gave a TV-speech from the White House on November 3rd 1969 about the war in Vietnam and a new policy he wanted to employ. This has become known as Nixon’s “the Great Silent Majority Speech” and has been much discussed and analyzed, not just politically but also in academic circles, so far, however, with little attention to the camera work involved.
What the audience saw in 1969 was an almost 32-minute long unbroken live transmission in color from a single stationary camera placed quite conventionally in flat front and eye height of Nixon. The opening shot is from a fair distance giving us an overview of the president sitting at a large desk with his papers, a telephone, and in the background the American and the Presidential Flag, a framed photo and a huge curtain; it is a familiar and easily recognized view of the Oval Office in the White House.
This framing and setting lends a lot of presidential authority to the speaker (the framed family photo adding also a “human touch”) , it seems conventional or even natural and is hardly noticed, but it should be remembered that a camera recording could have been made from a different angle (semi-profile), with a different framing (e.g. Nixon placed not in the center but to the far right), and the camera could in principle have been hand held and looking down on Nixon (but surely it would have been a poor idea for many reasons, also because the studio cameras were rather heavy at that time).
Again in this broadcast the camera soon after the opening lines zoom in closer. Here the zoom in actually brings us very close, at times Nixon’s face appears so fill almost the whole of the screen: the top of the frame cuts the top of his hair and the bottom cuts away his tie and all below. This is actually a bit unusual, at some points it seems really close, indicating perhaps that the camera crew tries its very best to make Nixon’s appeal on this crucial and sensitive issue a very personal and persuasive one.
The camera zooms in on Nixon’s face during his speech – at times it is very close.
That is of course an interpretation, the audience probably had very different reactions depending on whether they liked Nixon in advance or not, and depending on the audience’s view of the war effort. The camera moves are still to be seen, however, when we now review the video recording, they are so to speak objective features or part of the video text as such and open for analysis.
During Nixon’s long speech the camera is changing the zoom gently now and then as if moving a bit closer or away and thus adding some life or variation to the picture as we saw in the case of Angela Merkel. And quite as expected the camera retreats, or actually zooms out, when the speech is coming to an end following the traditional pattern of beginning, middle, and ending, where the beginning and ending call for an overview shot, whereas the middle calls for a closer and more focused look at the speaker and content. Or it could be said that the camera assists that the middle part of the speech is experienced in an immersive, intense, lively, or even personal way.
The recording of Nixon’s speech offers a special variation of the traditional overview ending: the speech seems to come to an end with a very solemn historical perspective and the camera zooms out in what seems a becoming and closely coordinated move as Nixon says “Fifty years ago, in this room and at this very desk, President Woodrow Wilson spoke words…”. But right after this comes the real ending with a renewed zoom in on Nixon’s face looking straight at the viewer and giving his final appeal trying to muster, no doubt, as much personal ethos and pathos as possible: “As President I hold the responsibility for choosing the best path…” So, the camera by its speech correlated move and emphasis can be said to try to convince us in a non-verbal visual way to have trust in Nixon’s political agenda and leadership.
A close analysis of the various small zooms in and zooms out during the Silent Majority Speech reveals another rhetorical tool embedded in the camera moves. Eleven and a half minute into the speech Nixon says that he will read from a letter, that he newly sent to Ho Chi Minh. The camera immediately marks that a quotation is now coming by a distinct zoom out almost back to the starting position, and the camera holds this position for about a minute, precisely until the quotation ends, and then the camera again zooms back in closer to Nixon. Here the camera work helps to clarify the content of the speech, much in the same way as a change in lay-out of a written text by means of indent, quotation marks, or italics could help the reader to understand the different level of the quotation. Again, the camera moves here are done in a skilled and professional manner, they do not draw any undue attention, but they do add to the overall rhetorical features of the TV-transmitted speech.
This last function of the camera, where the zoom work obviously try to help the viewer understand the text of the speech, is hardly controversial, it can be seen as just very instructive, skilled and pedagogical, another tool for clear communication within the large box of possible visual and filmic features. However, at the same time it should be recognized that the different ways of visually portraying a speaker in terms of framing, focus, zoom movements, nearness-distance, angle, height, etc. have a large but generally unnoticed potential for influencing the reception of the verbal rhetoric.
Nixon’s “Great Silent Majority Speech” has been closely analyzed and discussed not just out of political or public interest, but also from an academic point of view. An example of this is Forbes Hill’s so called neo-Aristotelian rhetorical analysis that aims at disclosing whether the speaker makes the best choices: “…how well did Nixon and his advisers choose among the available means of persuasion for this situation?” (Hill, p. 384). Hill looks into the argumentative, structural, and stylistic verbal features, and even comments on the speech-writer’s literary skill and Nixon’s “tone” (the choice of words, etc.), but there is no treatment of the actual audio-visual features, no mention of camera work or setting or voice quality, or light: it appears that Hill’s analysis may just as well be based entirely on a written version of the speech and not on an actual viewing and listening. This means that Hill’s analysis in all its thoroughness misses an important part of the original text, this “text” being the actual tv-broadcast that reached the viewers in 1969 – a text that we can still review today thanks to the preserved video.
Camera work should be considered not just as a technical vehicle or aesthetic wrapping of words, but as an integral part of the rhetorical performance and potential persuasiveness of a political speaker. As an audience we basically see what the camera work has chosen to show us, and to show us in a specific way, but usually we are not critically aware of this selection and filtering of the visual presentation.
Point of view
Prior to the invasion of Iraq by the US and allies in Spring 2003 a number of debates were held in the United Nations Security Council. February 5th the US secretary of state Colin Powell gave a speech indicating that Saddam Hussein in Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, had terror connections, and that therefore a military intervention seemed necessary. About a month later the chairman of the UN weapon inspectors, Hans Blix, also gave a speech in the Security Council reporting about progress in their work and asking for more time to investigate. Even though the two men addressed the same issue in the same place and in front of the same audience (which thanks to television and video recording also included the general world public), these two speakers were not treated in the same way by the camera. The camera took a different position and filmed from a different point of view on those two occasions. Today we can review the videos and compare how Hans Blix and Colin Powell were presented to the viewers in two very different ways.
Hans Blix we can see was filmed from above and from his left side in semi-profile. This means that he is not facing the viewers, he is not in eye contact with the viewers and not at the same level, he is being observed and looked down upon in a literal sense. This is significant because the metaphorical sense of “being looked down upon” (i.e. to be seen as inferior, unimportant, disliked, or irrelevant) may very well follow, this may very well be the immediate, instinctively and culturally conditioned reaction of the audience. This “downgrading” point of view of the camera is not supporting, but detracting from any ethos the speaker may have had in advance and in the situation, he is being framed not as an authority but as a partial voice in a debate, almost like an outsider commenting on something to someone else, not as an important person directly addressing the viewer.
The people in the Council room next to Hans Blix and visible in the background in the actual picture framing do not seem to pay much attention to his speech, they are moving about, fiddling with papers, one of them bending over looking for something in his briefcase etc. There is no symmetry or balance or steady order to the picture, no stable support from the people around him, so this does not sum up to make Hans Blix seem competent and trustworthy, on the contrary the television viewers are likely to be influenced by the attitude of the non-attentive people next to Hans Blix. It is quite standard psychology (known from the clever practice of so many talk-shows and tv-programs that have a very positive studio audience in the picture and on the sound track) that we as viewers tend to share the attitudes and reactions of the co-viewers on the set. It is socially contagious – even when mediated on film, tv, video and other platforms – to see other people behaving like entertained or bored, grateful or outraged, excited or distracted.
Hans Blix himself does not seem eager to present his report in an elegant or rhetorically powerful way, he is not trying to face the camera but reads rather monotonously from his detailed and technical report. The camera stays on him most of the time in this distanced and down-looking way, only a few times the producer shifts to other rather random views. There is a glimpse of Colin Powell at one time, and he neither seems to be following Hans Blix’ presentation with any attention at all. As we shall see shortly, this sort of “reaction shot” (here it is rather a “no reaction shot”) is also likely to have an influence on how we come to perceive the speaker.
Even though this may now seem like a rather unfavorable treatment of Hans Blix by the camera, there is hardly any reason to suspect a conspiracy or conscious plan to make him appear small and unimportant. It is more likely that this recording was just normal procedure, the usual type of video documentation of negotiations and speeches in the Security Council at that time, and with the cameras placed in convenient, for the participants un-disturbing places. But then in contrast it appears as if the presentation by Colin Powell a few weeks earlier was much more carefully staged and directed to camera crews well instructed and eager to make him appear trustworthy and impressive.
Various sources indicate that Colin Powel and his crew went through considerable preparations in order to make his appearance in the Security Council as persuasive as possible. ”Powell engaged in extensive rehearsal for the speech, rearranging the furniture in one room so that it would more closely resemble the Security Council chamber” (Zarefsky). Colin Powell himself has later admitted that his presentation was designed to be as persuasive and impressive as possible, and that it seemed successful in that respect, even though it later turned out that there were no weapons of mass destruction to be found in Iraq and that the alleged evidence and intelligence sources were less than solid:
…at the time I gave the speech on Feb. 5, the president had already made this decision for military action. The dice had been tossed… The reason I went to the U.N. is because we needed now to put the case before the entire international community in a powerful way, and that’s what I did that day… And we had projectors and all sorts of technology to help us make the case. And that’s what I did… there was pretty good reaction to it for a few weeks. And then suddenly, the CIA started to let us know that the case was falling apart… So it was deeply troubling, and I think that it was a great intelligence failure on our part… (Colin Powell, quote in: Breslow)
Looking at the video from Colin Powell’s address to the Security Council on February 5th, 2003, it is immediately obvious that this is not a casual recording from a distant camera somewhere up above, but that the camera has been placed right in front of the speaker and at the level of eye height. Colin Powell is in focus, in the center, and framed much how news readers or hosts of programs are usually framed, head and shoulder, but here also with his gesturing hands visible, and a sign on the table saying “United States”. This point of view of the camera gives the speaker the opportunity to exercise the “parental gaze”, as we saw it in the case of Nixon, Angela Merkel, and the Danish Queen in her ceremonial New Year’s Eve address. It is a point of view for the camera and the television viewer that (everything equal) highly supports the status, credibility, seriousness, expressiveness and impact of the speaker.
Even if one does not take into account the sound of Colin Powell’s very authoritative, sonorous, and well-articulated voice, the seriousness of his message comes across visually from his posture, facial expressions, and insisting gestures. And in the background of Colin Powell we see a balanced arrangement of well-suited, serious looking men, who actually seem to be listening to him and to support him, they are part of his national team (even if we did not know that one of them was the director of the CIA, their stern appearance still add to the power of the speaker they were so obviously backing).
Hans Blix did not show audio-visual material to the Security Council and the camera, but Colin Powell’s in his long and elaborated address made rather extensive use of sound-recordings, and graphical and video material shown on a large digital screen – and this was reproduced by the broadcasting and recording cameras. The reliability and interpretation of this material has later been called into question, but it functioned nevertheless as part of the overall rhetorical aim and persuasiveness of the speech.
Colin Powell and his team was not the first American delegation to use visual material as part of their presentation in the Security Council. About 40 years earlier during the Cuban missile crisis, Adlai Stevenson very dramatically brought posters with aerial photos of alleged missile construction sites on Cuba into the room and demanded a “Yes or No” answer from the Soviet ambassador, and famously declared that he was ready to wait for the answer “…till Hell freezes over” (Zarefsky). This scene became well known around the world, and on photos and video footage of the incident one can see, that the American delegation was placed much in the same way as later Colin Powell and his team (even though filmed a bit from above). No doubt the famous performance of Adlai Stevenson served as an inspiration for the crew of spin-doctors around Colin Powell, and the point of view chosen for the main camera seem well planned.
When talking about how dangerous anthrax was even in very small dozes, Colin Powell held up a small vial in his hand and showed it to the camera and the Council. This was an illustration, a visualization, that was very acute and impressive, perhaps even scary. In itself, of course, it did not prove anything about what was in Iraq or not, but Colin Powell rhetorically managed to imply a lot by this exhibit – and it was perhaps by some seen as visual proof of Saddam Hussein’s evil intentions.
Another display was a somewhat rough graphical drawing of a truck, in a way it looks today like a rather childish construction of a toy truck on a digital screen. Besides some unclear photos and videos, various constructed (drawn, not recorded) images were shown in coordination with Colin Powell talking about possible mobile facilities for dangerous weapons in Iraq. Today it seems ridiculous, or at least rather weak, to try to support a political agenda of invasion with “evidence” of this sort. It was only by means of Colin Powell’s status and trustworthiness, his great ethos, as previously earned and as supported and enhanced in this situation by the camera’s point of view, that it became a rhetorically viable road to convince viewers around the world.
The debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in 1960 up to the US presidential election has become renowned as the first live broadcast of a major political duel, and one that proved the new television medium to have a decisive influence. Even though it has later been questioned if the two polls were actually comparable, the story goes that television viewers favored Kennedy whereas radio listeners favored Nixon: “Television audiences thought Kennedy won the debate by a landslide, while radio audiences thought Nixon won it by a landslide” (Power).
Kennedy versus Nixon 1960 presidential election debate.
Reviewing the black-and-white footage confirms that Nixon does not appear quite as comfortable and stateman like as Kennedy. Nixon’s suit is grey, with little contrast to the greyish background, whereas Kennedy’s is black, making him look more distinct and authoritative. In the opening overview shot, which as mentioned is in line with film tradition and in line with what follows in many more television debates and speeches to come, we can see both candidates sitting in the chairs on either side of the debate host. Nixon sits in an awkward position with his legs crossed and seems nervous, Kennedy seems more relaxed and confident. This is perhaps not a huge difference, and certainly not one that can be ascribed to the camera work as both candidates appear in the same balanced (symmetrically framed) overview opening shot. Curiously enough the camera is a bit slanted to one side, not completely horizontal, but this seems to be just a small technical error, perhaps due to lack of studio routine.
Later, when the candidates in turn deliver their speeches on various points, the camera is closer (or zoomed in), with only one person appearing in the frame. Here both Nixon and Kennedy seem to perform quite well, they are framed in similar ways, and Nixon’s voice is actually very good and authoritative with no trace of nervousness. Perhaps it is worth considering also (to explain the suggested difference in audience reactions between radio and television) that Kennedy’s voice and rather high class New England accent may not have pleased all segments. So, when speaking and seen close up by the camera both candidates seem quite vigorous and confident. And the quality of this footage actually makes it hard to determine if Nixon was really sweating and unshaven, as it has often been claimed: “The cameras favored Kennedy who looked calm and composed throughout, while Nixon appeared unshaven and flustered” (BBC).
But even so, there is some truth in the claim that Nixon appeared as if unshaven and flustered. Because this is the impression the viewers get from the reaction shots or “listening shots”, namely the instances where the producer for a while shifts to the camera resting on the non-speaking candidate. Most of the time the speaking candidate is shown, but to make everything more lively, and quite in line with traditional film style, we once in a while see a shot of the listening person, so as to see his reaction or attitude towards what the opponent is saying. This shift of camera and attention is of course managed by the producer, but often it is quite unnoticed or natural for the viewer as it generally follows a question-answer, or action-reaction routine quite familiar to us, not just from film but as part of our culture, or perhaps it is even instinctively rooted in us.
During this early tv-transmitted debate Nixon is shown several times with a nervous face while not speaking, looking away from the other candidate and the whole scene, biting his lips, etc. It is during these reaction shots – and not while he is speaking himself – that Nixon appears rather uneasy and uncomfortable with the situation, and from there on one might perhaps also get the impression that he is sweating and unshaven even though the fairly poor picture resolution does not make such details distinctly visible. In contrast to Nixon, whenever Kennedy is shown close up while not speaking, Kennedy appears listening, attentive, alert, he is looking in the direction of his opponent and seems to lean into the debate, comfortable about being on stage and eager to contribute.
We are quite accustomed to see close ups of persons in video and film – and as early as during the silent area of film it has been noticed by film theorists that the audience tend to interpret and react rather strongly to the inferred “inner” sentiments of the faces portrayed, also when not speaking (Balazs, 1924). Also more recent film theorist have talked about Emotional contagion responses to narrative fiction film (Coplan, 2006) and about The scene of empathy and the human face on film (Plantinga, 1999).
Furthermore, even before the age of television and close up shots and reaction shots it was of course well known – at least to rhetoricians and political advisers – that the overall appearance of a politician does matter in the eyes and minds of the voters, and that this includes gesture, posture, haircut, clothing and behavior even when not speaking or being directly on a podium. In rhetorical terms the ethos of the speaker is inferred also from the non-verbal communication and appearance. So the rhetorical importance of this is not new, but what is new with the film media, television and video, is that the camera (the camera operators and the producers and editors shifting between different camera views) have the power to show or not show (and when to show, and how to show) different views of politicians on stage and in the middle of a debate. With the camera work a new layer of rhetoric can be said to be installed on top of the politicians own performance, and this rhetoric, these choices about what the audience will be allowed to see and not see, are in some cases, especially if not well considered and foreseen, pretty much out of the hands of the politicians themselves, their speech writers and their advisers. But, as we saw in the case of Colin Powell, the politicians and their crew may try to calculate and influence just how the camera work will be presenting the speaker.
When Bill Clinton ran against George H. W. Bush in 1992, the campaigners were aware of the importance of “video-bites” and “sound-bites”. Paul Beluga, a senior strategist in Clinton’s camp explained: “The key is: dominate the moment – that can then be put on the morning shows, the evening news, recycled” (Beluga). At one time, during the second of the three television debates between Clinton, Bush and the independent Ross Perot, the camera caught Bush looking at his watch while waiting for his turn to speak again. This was seen as a very unlucky move as it suggested that Bush felt uneasy and eager to get the debate over with.
An even more striking moment or video-bite appears a little later in the debate when a camera and the producer catches Bush sitting with a flabbergasted, sheepish looking face listening to Clinton. Bush had had some difficulty answering a critical question from a female voter in the studio, he had somewhat frowned and leaned away from the questioning, whereas Clinton in his turn approached the voter and seemed to answer her in a very personal way, friendly and eloquent. The cameras had been following Clinton’s tour de force closely from several angels, showing him amidst the voters in the studio, when all of a sudden we see a shot of Bush sitting in the background with a stupefied face, as if he felt hopelessly beaten by Clinton at that moment. A few shots later we see the camera moving a bit around the candidates, obviously trying to have within the same frame both the speaking Clinton in the foreground and the skulking Bush in the background.
Certainly in 1992 the camera people and producers were aware of what would be “good shots”, especially good reaction shots, but there is no reason to believe that they on purpose tried to favor one candidate over the others. However, even today, when shown to students at Roskilde University in Denmark (the author of this paper has tested this a number of times), this scene, with Bush appearing baffled in a reaction shot, creates immediate amusement, and the students find the Bush-figure ridiculous and beaten, even though they do not have many preconceptions about the debate or about the actual outcome of the election. So, reaction shots do seem to have an impact.
Even though the importance of camera work in relation to politicians seems to be generally underestimated (one exception being Grabe & Bucy, 2009), and though it seems difficult to keep track of the many ways in which it can influence the appearance of the politicians, there are examples of politicians who handle the challenges well and try to take back some of the control, e.g. by carefully staging their own appearance and being aware of the possibility of reaction shots and close ups even when not speaking.
One example is the Danish Prime minister Helle Thorning Schmidt’s reactions to a vehement verbal attack in the European Parliament in January 2012. Denmark held the chair at that time and after Helle Thorning Schmidt’s opening speech the Danish MP Morten Messerschmidt delivered a rather flamboyant and radical critique of her (and of the European Union in general). One could have expected the Prime minister to have reacted with attentive disapproval, perhaps even anger, or taking notes for a reply. However, we see something else in the three reactions shots of her during the three minute long critical speech by Messerschmidt: in the first shot she looks up and around smiling indulgently, almost as if speaker was just a remarkably naughty child and not a serious political opponent, in the next shot she seems not to be listening at all but to look at some of her own papers, and in the third reaction shot she is tapping/texting on what seems to be her smartphone. Clearly she demonstrates to the camera, in case it should film her, that she does not find the speaker worthy of any attention.
Again, in this example the camera work was in line with normal procedure and professional standards, no reason to suspect partiality here, and generally it may also be hard to say what the “right” or best balanced or unbiased camera work would be once and for all. But this recording – with its flamboyant speaker and the reaction shots of the undisturbed Prime minister – was shown on Danish National TV at the time, and it must be fair to assume that these reaction shots were significant to the rhetorical impact of the speech. A more recent and remarkable example of “reactions” caught (in this case involuntarily) by the camera is the video known as “Plaid Shirt Guy” from a Donald Trump rally in Montana, 2018.
The aim of this paper is to draw attention to the rhetorical potential of various forms of camera work such as zoom in/zoom out, point of view, and reaction shots. Though these forms of camera work are quite often involved in presentations of politicians and political debates on modern media, the specific impact on the viewing audience has rarely been noticed or discussed in public and academic circles. With this paper the author hopes to contribute to a vital and critical phenomenological and rhetorical discussion of how politicians appear in today’s era of visual culture and digital media.
Balázs, Béla: Der sichtbare Mensch oder die Kultur des Films. Deutsch-Österreichischer Verlag, Wien u. a. 1924.
Coplan, A. (2006), “Catching characters’ emotions: Emotional contagion responses to narrative fiction film”, Film Studies, 8: summer, pp. 26-38.
Forbes, Hill: ”Conventional Wisdom – Traditional Form – The President’s Message of November 3”, 1969 in The Quarterly Journal of Speech, December 1972, Vol. 58, Number 4.
Grabe, Maria Elizabeth & Bucy, Erik Page: Image Bite Politics: News and the Visual Framing of Elections (Series in Political Psychology) (Kindle Locations 247-256) (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 344 pp.)
Plantinga, C. (1999): ‘The scene of empathy and the human face on film’, in Plantinga, C. and Smith, G.M. (ed.), Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 239-256.
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?
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. (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.
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’. 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.
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 : 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 : 26)?
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.
 «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».
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 (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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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). 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. 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. 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). 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). During the process of indoctrination, one can even get locked in one single negative narrative about other communities (Berthoz: 2010; Costello & Hodson: 2014). 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 . 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” . 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. 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. 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). 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:
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:
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:
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. 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.
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. The lack of empathy in logos typically gives exchanges like:
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). 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. 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:
The participant refers to his/her opponents’ opinions accurately
1 2 3 4 5
Not at all Absolutely
The participant shows respect for his/her opponent(s)
1 2 3 4 5
Not at all Absolutely
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)
I am satisfied with the training
The training answered my professional needs
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.
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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 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).
 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.
 This tendency to automatically match others’ states relies on our mirror neurons (Gallese : 2007 ; Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia: 2008).
 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”.
 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).
 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).
 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).
 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?”
 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.
 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.
 For instance, a football fan might experience pleasure (‘Schadenfreude’) when seeing a player from the opposite team being injured.
 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).
 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).
 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.
 To use a term from argumentation studies, the lack of cognitive empathy leads to the straw man fallacy (Walton & Macagno: 1996).
 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).
 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).
 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).
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.
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.
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”), saying that this article does not prohibit any form of discrimination, but only unjustified or unnecessary or disproportionate discriminations. 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” (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”. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. In May 2007 the Court rejected the couple’s claim. 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”), but the Tribunal Constitucional, due to the fact that art. 36 of the Portuguese Constitution gives an ambiguously gender-neutral definition of marriage, 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, the systematic a coherentia argument 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.
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.
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. 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.
 “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.
 Corte Costituzionale, Sentenza n. 138/210, 3, Considerato in diritto
 “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”.
 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”.
 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”..
 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. 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”.
 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”..
 Tribunal da Relação de Lisboa, acórdão 6284/2006-8, 15/02/2007
 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”.
 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”).
 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).
 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).
 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.
 A. Soeteman, Deduction in Law, in F.H. van Eemeren (ed.), Argumentation: Analysis and Practices, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin-New York, 1987, p. 102.