Politics and rhetoric

What is so funny about politics? Among many, politics has become a level playing field for everyone, the best and the worst, the real and the counterfeit alike.

In this playing field, rhetoric plays its charm. It becomes one of stratagems to make oneself, along with his/her agenda, presentable to the public. Philosophically, rhetoric, which is always intricately interwoven with politics, becomes a bone of contention. This contention even dates back to Ancient Greece, to the time of Socrates and his contemporaries.In Gorgias, one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates and his interlocutor, Gorgias, examine the value of rhetoric in polis. Speaking on the matter, Gorgias argues that rhetoric is the supreme art that helps man assert his freedom (eleutheria), “in the sense of having his own way and being able to impose his will on his fellow-citizens.” Rhetoric, as “the art of persuasive or plausible speech,” produces this good because “in the life of a city like Athens, persuasive eloquence is the great weapon by which the statesman acquires power” (A. E. Taylor, 1960, 107).

Against Gorgias, Socrates rejects the idea of calling rhetoric an art (techne), because it is not “a matter of expert knowledge at all.” “It is a mere empirical ‘knack’, and more precisely, a ‘knack of giving pleasure’. In this respect it is like confectionery. The confectioner pleases the palates of his customers by a clever combination of flavours, and the ‘orator’ in the same way ‘tickles the ears of the groundlings’ by attractive combinations of words and phrases” (A. E. Taylor, 110).

Rhetoric is despised because it is a counterfeit of real knowledge of statesmanship. If real knowledge of statesmanship is related to the genuine art of tending public affairs, rhetoric is mainly aimed ‘to tickle the ears’ of the public by recommending what is agreeable and pleasant to their mood of the moment. Socrates puts this problem best when he asks Callicles, another interlocutor, whether the rhetoric of politician aims at the improvement of his public or merely at gratifying their moods: “Do the rhetors in your opinion always speak with a view to the best, aiming at this, that because of their speeches the citizens shall be as good as possible? Or do these men too strive for gratifying the citizens and, for the sake of their own private interest, make light of the common interest, and associate with the peoples as if with children, trying only to gratify them, and giving no heed to whether they will be better or worse because of these things” (Gorgias 502e, trans. James H. Nichols Jr., 1998, 99)?

Reflecting on the last divisive gubernatorial election in the capital, Socrates’ questions above still apply today. In this latest landscape, rhetoric was conspicuously twisted around two notable modes. First, the religious rhetoric. In rallies against Ahok we have witnessed how religious rhetoric has been intentionally employed to deter voters from electing non-Muslim candidate. Scrutinizing its substance, any honest observer could see how rhetoric has been blatantly distorted to gratify public’s religious sentiment. Instead of enlightening and liberating, plethora of religious rhetoric easily appealed to mob’s primordial sentiment and diverted people’s attention from the pressing problems in the politics of the city: good governance, participatory and sustainable development, social justice, the fulfillment of basic rights like health and education, eradication of corruption and political conscientization.

Instead of addressing the ‘tending’ of above urgent issues, this rhetoric simply concentrates on the wounded pride of righteousness and accordingly promotes hatred and bigotry. With regard to the art of politics, this rhetoric contributes nothing but sham and counterfeit prescription for real ‘diseases’ abound in political realm. Instead of providing real ‘medicine’, it only provided ‘confectionary’, candy, to temporarily gratify the mob. Given its potential to induce people to believe in some dubious and bogus cause, it is unsurprising to hear Socrates say: “Rhetoric, then, as seems likely, is a craftsman of belief-inspiring but not didactic persuasion about the just and the unjust” (Gorgias, 455a).

Second, the nativism rhetoric. This rhetoric has been long embedded in our political realm. People of Chinese lineage are considered ineligible to hold governmental office. Counterarguments have been much launched against this rhetoric and all lead to the same conclusion: any Indonesian, irrespective of his/her pedigree, is eligible for governmental office as long as he/she is qualified for the job. So, why waste our precious energy on this nonsense?

Having spotlighted its shortcomings, is it possible then to uproot rhetoric completely from politics? As zōon logon ekhon, a living being capable of speech, being political – quoting Hannah Arendt – basically means that everything is decided through words and persuasion and not through force and violence. Therefore, irrespective of its twists and turns, rhetoric is the only legitimate way civilized politicians use to persuade voters and offer deliberations for the betterment of the society. Socrates himself points to this direction when he mentions didactic persuasion. What does this mean?

‘Didactic’ is fundamentally related to teaching. When rhetoric is didactic, it aims at “making preparations for the citizens’ souls to be as good as possible” (Gorgias 503a) and helping to “get justice to come into being in the citizens’ souls and injustice to be removed, moderation to arise within and intemperance to be removed, the rest of virtue to arise within and badness to depart” (Gorgias 504e). In Plato’s philosophy, ‘soul’ is tripartite: mind/intellect, will/volition, emotion/desire. If following this stance, ‘tending citizens’ soul’ basically means that rhetoric should holistically educate citizens to wisely make rational choices, to courageously embrace truth and do whatever the intellect determines to be best and to acquire a salubrious measure of self-control in a political realm where heterogeneity is non-negotiable.

Now, election is over. New leaders are welcome aboard. Among many pressing concerns, healing divisiveness in the city should be at the top of their table. This should start by deliberately antagonizing two crooked modes of rhetoric above. You don’t have remind me that this task looks next to impossible. However, the current governor is responsible to carry the burden of disseminating and proliferating didactic rhetoric. Only by doing this, history will remember him  as an authentic statesman, not charlatan, or even worst, scumbag.

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