In my last post I talked about the BBC3 attempt to ‘trick’ young people into getting into politics. In this post, I want to to clarify what I meant there. In brief, I was talking about the nature of spin, as opposed to genuine politics and even rhetoric.

It is often easy to talk about politicians as rhetoricians as opposed to logicians, sophists as opposed to philosophers, that is, people who are only interested in persuading you to agree with them (for their own goals) rather than engaging with you in order to bring virtue in the world (the common goal). Both the genuine politician and the rhetorician treats the public as a body of people who have an opinion that they have chosen for themselves. Even the rhetorician is concerned with making you think in a certain way, such that you agree with him. However, the contemporary discipline of PR and Spin works on the presumption that you will not think at all. To make this point, I want to rely on the brief interchange between the three party leaders in the third Prime Ministerial Debate. A full argument and analysis of the interchange to back my claims up would take up far too much space for a blog. Though, not to use this as an excuse for sloppy argument, I’ve provided the analysis here.

The Libdem immigration policy was brought into discussion when Cameron presented it as simply an amnesty (Third Debate, p. 14). Clegg responded with a partial clarification, saying it was not blanket amnesty and that it addresses the ‘real’ problem of illegal immigrants “living in the shadows of our economy” (Third Debate, p. 15). Cameron carries on as if Clegg had simply said that ‘we do not have an amnesty’, Brown joins in saying that he agrees with Cameron. Clegg then presents the policy in the form of an argument proper which can be reconstructed as follows:

Premise 1, There are illegal immigrants who, rather than be caught by the authorities, work for criminals in exchange for safety. This is a problem that we’ve inherited.

Premise 2, We cannot deport them because they are so well hidden that the authorities cannot find them.

Premise 3, It would be better that they were integrated into society contributing to that society.

Conclusion, Therefore, we should offer an amnesty to those who have been here for a decade, provided they speak English and obey rules so they can integrate (in accord with P3) and pay a penalty (community service) for their crime.

Cameron and Brown do not once in the interchange mention the social problem given in P1, that is they do not once mention the thing that a) Clegg raises as a serious social problem, b) is both the reason for, and a main justification of the Libdem policy. They do not give any reason for the argument being invalid. They do not address the argument at all, but merely the policy as if it had not been defended. When Cameron immediately stated “I think it is profoundly misguided” (Third Debate, p. 15) , the ‘it’ is not the argument but the policy. When Brown claimed “Nick won’t answer the question about how he can justify an amnesty for illegal immigrants” (Third Debate, p. 16), it is an outright lie because he has answered the question several times by this point. In fact, we know that Brown knows quite well that Clegg has a reason for his policy, because in the second debate Brown very briefly interacted with Clegg’s argument saying “We’re removing them” as an alternative to deportation, to which Clegg replied “No, you can’t deport 900,000 people. You don’t know where they live.” (Second Debate, p. 25).

So, both Cameron and Brown, rather than interacting through argument with Clegg’s argument, simply acted as if the argument hadn’t happened by continuing to ask Clegg to justify himself and addressing their comments solely to the policy itself rather than its defence. By acting in this way they hoped that the viewer would not notice that Clegg’s argument had happened, even though they had just witnessed it because if the viewer did not acknowledge the argument, then they were free to discredit the argument in whatever way they wanted. More specifically, they hoped that the viewers would not make the judgement that linked Clegg’s argument to Brown and Cameron’s ignoring of that argument and discrediting of the policy in such a way that it showed the latter two’s claims in their lack of substance.

They tried to maintain the viewer in a sort of limbo of thoughtlessness, in which the viewer has all the information they need in order to cognise that there was a direct contradiction between what they implied had happened (by acting as if no argument had been uttered) and what had actually happened (an argument being uttered), but do not actually make the judgment that brings the information together and shows the contradiction. A limbo in which the agent does not think. In order to recognise a contradiction we need to think about the information we have; it is thought that brings our notions and experiences together in a way that lets us see what fits together and what doesn’t, what is sound and what is absurd etc. Spin of the order that Cameron and Brown were using in this passage both presupposes a lack of thought in the viewer and actively encourages it.

While the sophist or rhetorician worked within the presumption that the audience was thoughtful, and therefore needed to be persuaded by argument. What distinguished him from the philosopher was that the philosopher aimed for truth, whilst the rhetorician took anything he could find to convince people to agree with him irrespective of truth. The tactics used by Brown and Cameron in this interchange, however, were not of an order of logic or rhetoric. Rather, it was a blind hope that the public would, quite literally, not put two and two together at all. They presupposed a public that did not think, that blindly accepted the words coming out of their mouths, such that (if the extreme of this was true) what would decide their vote would be the person to have the last word before going into the booth, not the policies nor the voter them self.

Indeed, I think our society has a trend towards thoughtlessness. Most of the social technologies in place presuppose thoughtlessness. Advertising hopes that you will not question the claims made in the advert, but simply take the advert as an imperative that is to be followed out as quickly as possible. They hope you do not think “But why do I need cillit bang? What if it doesn’t actually work? My friends bought some and they said it didn’t work, I therefore think that it doesn’t work because I trust them more than the company. I’m not going to buy this.” They hope you do not think at all.

This presupposition of thoughtlessness is not a case of the politician/company/society presuming that humans do not think, rather it is a sort of ‘hope’ that the people they want something from do not think. And this hope must actually conform to reality with a large amount of people, otherwise political campaigners could not rely on such methods and advertising companies would have to take a different line all together. We in our society have a tendency not to think. We allow ourselves to be taken in by spin, advertising and the like – and the only way we can do that is by suspending our thought. I am not here trying to say “Urgh, look at Cameron and Brown not using proper arguments! They think that you do not think! Vote Libdem.” No. I am saying “Urgh, look at you non-thinkers who by not thinking make possible a thoughtless politics, in which a technology of spin can be developed, perfected and utilised by people like Cameron in order to use you to get into power!”

Now, I’m not claiming that noone in our society thinks, or even that any one person in particular does not think at all. I’m saying that there is a tendency, in far to many people, to not think enough. Possibly enough so that if they all did think properly, the result of the coming election would be radically different than it will be. As a condition, I think it has many causes. For one, an education system based on the indoctrination of information in a pupil in order to pass exams, that is ‘answer questions’, which in the same breathe discourages and penalises ‘asking questions’. This too large a matter to discuss here though.

I’m in favour of anything that starts to break apart this tendency, and I think the debate is one of them. When the politicians (primarily Labour and Conservative) were only ever filmed separately, the spin was much harder to notice and as such was very successful. However, in the debate the contradictions are far too obvious to seriously work. This is the true cause of ‘Cleggmania’, not because of ‘x factor politics’ or ‘something new’, but because the Libdems never had enough media attention to have spin-politics as a serious possibility. Their only voters were the ones that would seriously look into the issues by reading manifestos, and such they had to have serious arguments to sway them rather than relying on an expensive and broadly published media spin campaign. Thus, the leader of their party was an arguer not a spinner, not because he is some sort of perfect politician next to sleezebags but because he has had to be. That is why the debates occasioned such an upsurge in Libdem popularity. Arguments make you think, thinking dissolves spin. You can have as many spin doctors as you want, but it only takes one arguer to make you think and whether you agree with him or not the spin doctors are shown for who they are.

c.f. Hannah Arendt.


Analysis of the treatment of the Libdem immigration policy in the third debate

BBC Transcript of the Second Debate

BBC Transcript of the Third Debate


  1. This is a lovely posting Matt! Very much enjoyed it. The argument concerning the rise of an engagement with the public that does not attempt to use persuasion but, rather, to encourage inattention to argument, is an intriguing one and it might be worth thinking about the relationship between public debate and technology. Habermas, for example, suggests a certain kind of decay of the public sphere since the classic age of it in the 18th century. Your closing reference to Hannah Arendt suggests further you might be working with a model of a kind that requires further spelling out. Two interesting things in conclusion: 1) you point to the need of the Liberal Democrats to engage with a more thoughtful constituency suggesting this might be only to do with their marginal status but might it also be something to do with liberalism itself?; 2) the background of both the Habermasian and Arendtian analysis of publicity is Heideggerian but Heidegger himself is opposed to democracy as such. Does this give pause?

  2. Thank you for reading Gary! And thank you for calling it lovely, I'm flattered! Habermas sounds interesting, I'll have to give him a read if I'm going to fully get to grips with what I'm trying to get to grips with. You're questions are also very interesting and have helped open up avenues to explore. I'll just respond to them briefly from the avenue I'm currently standing in.With regard to your point about the Liberal Democrats, perhaps I was being too pessimistic thinking that if the LibDems had not been marginalised then they would have developed the same style of politics that I was disparaging. But, now that you've made me think about it this interpretation leads open the question 'Why were the Liberal Democrats marginalised at all?'. It could well be because they did not lend themselves to this style of politics, which lends itself so well to the media! This is all just speculation, a proper analysis of the history of the party, media technology and also the emergence of the Labour party would be helpful I think.On you second question, I think that, as far as Arendt is concerned, pause for thought (or as she would say, a 'STOP… and think!' is indeed needed! I think, and I argue in my dissertation, that the theory that evil can be traced to a complete thoughtlessness in the agent is insightful and does hit on a real phenomenon, though at the same time is reductive, treating a rather complex issue as something simple (she was taught by Heidegger after all!). Although 'thoughtlessness' in practical terms is enough to talk about the problem, it is not philosophically adequate. Especially taking into account Heidegger himself. In the Cambridge Companion to Arendt, the essay on her theory of thought concludes by showing a tension between her claims that evil is accompanied by a thoughtlessness and that Heidegger is the thinker of the 20th century par excellence, despite his involvement (however slight) in the NSDAP. Arendt has missed something. My dissertation argues that it isn't really evil that she is talking about, but a much broader phenomenon that in special circumstances (like Nazi Germany) can result in evil. I also argue that 'thoughtlessness' is not a sufficient explanation. In this post, however, I fell back on Arendt's 'thoughtlessness' for the sake of simplicity and space. Really, what is missing is a certain mode of thought, and even then it is not necessarily completely absent from the agent but only in certain situations. For example, as a philosophy student I am very thoughtful about philosophy, though not so much about practical things like looking after my bills!Thank you again for reading (and also reading this reply! I do need to learn to be concise!)

  3. Not sure that this was what you promised in your previous post but it is interesting nonetheless! I have much sympathy with your argument that we live in a thoughtless society and would be interested in an analysis of why. It may simply becuase thinking is harder than not thinking and our society promtes leisure above effort. It may also be that we are scared of the consequences! There may be an interesting PhD here if you're touting for funding!Having said all that, I suspect a bias towards the LibDems may be colouring your arguments a little. My recollection of debate 3 is that both Brown and Cameron criticise Clegg on the grounds that an amnesty would only encourage further immigration in the hope of further amnestys. I haven't checked the transcript so may have got this wrong but if I haven't then this directly addresses Clegg's argument with a relevant counter argument. Similarly, I disagree with your suggestion that Clegg rises above spin. For example, it is noticeable that he makes an effort to call questioners by their name and overtly sympathises with their problems (a tactic the other two adpoted in later debates). His popularity is not based on better arguments but simply on the fact that people sense he understands them (rightly or wrongly). None of this invalidates your argument but it does suggest you should present your evidence more carefully and, perhaps, level your criticisms and Mr. Clegg too!

  4. I'm not surprised that you picked up a bias towards the libdems (although it is interesting since Gary just pressed me on being too mean to the libdems!), but it is rather because I did not make as clear as I could have that I was only concerned with this brief interplay about their immigration policy. In that interplay Clegg uses arguments and the others do not, this does not necessarily transcend universally to their tactics elsewhere but I think it does indicate a trend. Clegg seems to rely on argument more than the other two, as does Gordon Brown- I was quite surprised at his behaviour here! Cameron in my opinion seems to be more orientated to spin.Also, regarding Clegg's referring to people by their names and other such tricks. To start, I didn't claim that Clegg was a genuine politician, I just claimed that he used argument. Second, I think the problem is that I tried to move into a fairly limited concept of 'spin' that does not cover everything we'd normally associate with it. By spin I meant a sort of coercion that both encouraged and relied on a lack of thought in the viewer. I think I'd want to say that such tricks that Clegg are really rhetoric rather than the sort of spin I was talking about. I suppose we could say that spin, in this sense, is rhetoric without argument at all. Which is peculiar because usually rhetoric has its argument and argument has its rhetoric. These sort of tricks aren't precluded by the use of argument, what I was trying to point out was the striking lack of argument in this interchange from the other two.And what you said about Cameron and Brown criticising the amnesty on the grounds it would send out the wrong message, this wasn't so much an argument as a blank stating that this was the case despite Clegg's arguments for his policy. Which were, what you're saying does not matter, we need to 'get real', this is the only way to deal with the problem. I do provide a link to a careful reading of the transcript where I try to show this, I don't expect you to read it but anyone is welcome to look at it and tell me I've misread it!Thanks Jeremy.

Leave a Reply