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The important precursor to improving the human condition within politics is to master the predicates of good communication. To this end, academics and the broader intellectual culture within every society must be committed and diligent to the study of political communication toward the goal of maximizing the ethical use of symbols and persuasion. Several important points of inquiry emerge toward the clarification and accomplishment of this end of more ethical political communication: 1) understanding what is the human condition presently, 2) what is the relation between communication and the human condition and 3) how can improvements in political communication improve the human condition.

Understanding the Human Condition

Initially, it is important to understand that the human condition is historically dominated by a straightforward rubric of political persuasion: violence. A variety of empirical and historical expert sources demonstrate that violence between human being dominates the rhetorical relationship of individuals and even society. E.O. Wilson’s excellent 2011 treatise, The Social Conquest of the Earth, provides the broad historical and anthropological contours to the human fascination with violence.[1] This violence is cross cultural and broadly apparent throughout thousands of years of human history. This is the most base form of political communication: forceful coercion and dehumanizing destruction. This dehumanization is highly symbolic and intended to convey a response of silence from subject observers of these overtly unethical political acts primarily focused upon public executions of the innocent. An important aspect of intellectual and academic imagination is research and a theory of evolution. Ideally, from an evolutionary standpoint, humanity is giving up its violent past and moving forward to one of peace. In the touchstone of the United Nations— humanity is beating the swords into plowshares. This aspiration is not immediately apparent in the conduct of the 20th century. Here again, we find an unfortunate and noxious mix of violence recognizable in both war and genocide. Wars killed 40 million human beings in that 100 year interval and genocide killed more than 180 million.[2] The fuel and intimate form of political communication steeped in unethical formation is propaganda. Experts such as Jacques Ellul have expounded on the problem as a 20th century manifestation.[3] It will fall to us presently to inquire of the increasingly sophisticated forms that this unethical symbolic form takes in our current century. The communication precepts to propaganda likely extended from primitive technology designs provided by professionals such as Edward Bernays who pioneered notions of “public relations.”[4] Mass communication in radio, newspapers, and television provided an exceptional communication conduit for propaganda. It was not the technology that allowed innovators like IBM to assist in the numbering of victims for the Holocaust.[5] It was the failed intellectual discernment of care in how we avoid propaganda—the central fuel for the worst results of human injustice: genocide. Radio as a technology did not require the content of ‘Tutsis are cockroaches’ in order for this communication to function.[6] Our human insights and ethical precepts must be continually engaged to match our growing technological prowess. New technologies but similar dilemmas await us with regard to political communication in our present century.

Further intensified and globalized efforts to teach and instill debate remains an empirical yet innovative means for reducing human harm as expressed in the terminology of violence.

The Relation Between Communication and the Human Condition

It should be clear that the driving force of genocidal violence was not weapons or the physical tools of attack used by human beings. The formation of thoughts into words was used to impel human beings to kill one another. This intimated relation between, thought, speech and action is a necessary and imperative consideration to academic studies. Human beings have a proven capacity to form words into powerful imperatives that drive the deadly processes of genocide. The 21st century does provide more than considerable evidence that restraint of unethical political communication may be providing human relief from the dreadful scourge of violence propagated by propaganda.[7] The ideal counterpart to propaganda is discursive complexity:

Discursive complexity can be defined and recognized as the capacity of an individual or group to encourage and allow dissent. Furthermore, discursive complexity is a principle recognizing the value of various expressed viewpoints. The notion of discursive complexity is highly contrasted with a diminished notion of discursive simplicity whereby an individual or group demands or insists upon a limited capacity of expression. Argumentation inherently valorizes discursive complexity by emphasizing the study and teaching of contrasting and competing ideas. Discursive complexity represents a moral point of view since we can prefer individuals and groups that make greater provision for free expression. Such environments encourage critical thinking and diminish the expectation and need for violence.[8]

Improvements in Political Communication Can Improve the Human Condition

This insidious relationship between communication and human condition can be rectified by drawing attention and emphasis to the positive developments apparent toward the end of the 20th century and being more keenly aware of unique threats emerging in this century. At the heart of improving political communication ethics and thereby the larger human condition lies a straightforward academic pedagogy: debate. Debate is the structured communication praxis of argumentation. Argumentation is the communication consideration and engagement of convergent discourse. Further intensified and globalized efforts to teach and instill debate remains an empirical yet innovative means for reducing human harm as expressed in the terminology of violence. It is important to realize that argumentation and debate are not cultural, ethnic, or geographic products.[9] Every human being experiences personal senses of dissonance and even disagreement with their fellow human beings. Those senses of difference animate the profound possibilities of human imagination implemented in symbolic acts diverse as literature and art. The differences between human being can be harnessed in structured communication forms known as debate. More precisely, debate is characterized by four essential ingredients:

  1. A topic of consideration usually known as a resolution.
  2. Two opposing sides considering this resolution—often known as affirmative and negative or the house and the opposition.
  3. Equal amounts of time assigned to each side in presentation of arguments for and against the resolution.
  4. A means for resolving the question for some period of time—typically in the form of a judge who composes a response to the debate in the form of a ballot.

This basic educational practice blunts the common impulse existing within all authors of communication to be authoritarian. When individuals are raised in their youth to expect that there are differences of opinion within others and that those differences should be heard and discussed, the nature of politics as a social convention necessarily changes. The cultivation and enculturation of debate within a society reduces authoritarianism as a dominant political form and tends to diminish the need for and the production of propaganda.

The cell phone is becoming the epistemological rival of the AK-47. The ability to record and keep a record of human wrongdoing is an abstract deterrent to injustice.

Debate has an empirical record of raising human voices and diminishing unethical political communication. In American history, an important interval of political propaganda and unethical political communication were the various iterative rationalizations of racism that rhetorically deemed African Americans less human and less politically suitable to power than their European origin counterparts. Slavery, racial segregation, and various insidious forms of unethical political communication were apparent by-products to a propaganda of racial supremacy. Debate played an intrinsic role in devolving this propaganda world within the United States. Important figures of the 20th century were transformed by the pedagogy of debate and their voices undermined the propaganda of racial inferiority and cultivated the discursive complexity of more voices joining the American civic chorus through voting and political participation. Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Woodrow Wilson were diametrically opposed on the question of race.[10] Wilson chose to show the racist propaganda of the early motion picture, Birth of a Nation, at the White House, while Coolidge was trying to ban its showing in Boston theaters as a state official of Massachusetts. Wilson chose to segregate the Federal workforce while Coolidge would later desegregate it. Coolidge explicitly attacked fellow partisans in New York for attempting to deny a black man the right to run for political office. Coolidge was transformed from a timid unassuming youth to a prospective leader by his experiences with debate at Amherst College.[11] Wilson’s public arguments contributed to the rapid rise of racial lynchings in the US to 70 per year while Coolidge’s later arguments led to a 90 percent decline in the 1920s. Various American civil rights activists including—Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, James Meredith, Lula Farmer, James Farmer Jr., and Medgar Evers were all inspired and changed by teaching in argumentation and debate. Malcolm X was primarily transformed by a collegiate debate program that instructed prison inmates on how to debate.[12]  

Because knowledge is power, intellectuals and academics must play a careful role in the production of knowledge so intimate to education. Our careful and ethical role is ensured by encasing the production of knowledge in debate. Our knowledge can best be improved when it is subject to open challenge and not the characteristics of indoctrination, intimidation, censorship, bullying, gaslighting, or other crude short cuts to open discourse and study. The global dissemination of debate in educational forums raging from primary girades through secondary and higher education can ensure that teaching is not mere replication of ideology and propaganda. National education leaders should adopt debate as a unifying thread for all subjects of instruction. Contemporary academic leaders like professor Chris Medina at Prairie View A&M have pioneered both the empirical proof of this work alongside the curriculum to accomplish this important humane goal.[13] Various international efforts to this end are also in abundance as seen in the work of Jean Michel Habineza and his iDebate Rwanda program extensive debate programs across Asia as led by Stefan Bauschard.[14]

Seemingly intractable unethical political communication is being actively displaced by discursive complexity in the 21st century. One of the most pernicious authoritarians and genocidaires of the conclusion of the 20th century was Sudan’s Omar Bashir. The genocide in Darfur characterized the closing decade of the 20th century and signaled an infuriating stubbornness to public awareness potentially defeating such proponents of unethical political communication. Bashir was convicted by the ICC of genocide, yet his sovereignty persisted. But public protests have in the past five years led to his exit from power and the decline of his propaganda state with such severe limits on public protests. Grassroot dissent in Sudan led to an argumentation process that removed him from power.[15] In 2003, African advocacy alongside U.S. and African Union forces displaced authoritarian and brutal practitioner of democide, Charles Taylor. Two successive democratic elections producing the first female president on the continent and now George Weah-- suggesting that a new and better argument based society can take root anywhere in the world.[16]

Despite the setbacks of genocide in the 20th century, the human condition improves both in longevity and raw numbers. The world is more populated than ever and we are living longer healthier lives.[17] Global poverty declined over the past 40 years more rapidly than anytime in human history. Wars between national armies are also on decline. The permeation of ideal forms of communication allows literacy to increase dramatically even in remote parts of the world. Cell phones are pervasive with more cell phones than people now on the planet. The cell phone is becoming the epistemological rival of the AK-47. The ability to record and keep a record of human wrongdoing is an abstract deterrent to injustice. Data accumulated by excellent academic idealists like Steven Pinker and Hans Rosling document the empirical momentum toward a politically better world fueled by the enrichment that comes with discursive complexity.

The powerful data visualizations seen in charts produced by groups like Our World in Data can blind us to the threats that remain ahead for humanity. Those threats are intimately tied to the obstructions of discursive complexity. Technologies have no moral dispositions. Human beings imbued with political ambitions do. There are several key threats to humanity apparent in 2021: 1) Chinese Communist mastery of communication obstructionism, 2) Islamic supremacism and 3) American partisan imperialism. All three exert unique spheres of diminution to aspirations of human well being upheld by free expression. In all three cases, these are not threats inherent in the people who partake in these forms of political expression, they are seductions that empirically provide a path for limiting and reducing discursive complexity. The Communist Party of China utilizes the frontiers of internet technology including artificial intelligence to further its own propaganda based view of nationalism. The dangers of this closed discursive system were prominently displayed in the current outbreak of the COVID-19 viral epidemic that likely emerged from a viral research lab controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. The creation of the virus and the communication obstruction surrounding its origin and ultimate design are indicative of the dreadful outcomes a 21st century dystopian communication system built upon a new generation of internet grounded artificial intelligence could bring. The ability to absolutely control what subjects see and hear poses dangerous threats to the intrinsic value of discursive complexity and the inherent capacity for dissent within all individuals. The collapse of Hong Kong and the threats to Taiwan are plain empirical examples of the risk. Muslims face a threat both from the Communist government of China but also the Islamic supremacism that can make any Muslim a dissident to a particularly politicized view of this religion. Unique supremacist Islamic views in political settings such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran all pose clear and present dangers to discursive complexity for tens of millions of people—most acutely Muslims. As the most powerful nation in the world, the partisan supremacism risk in the United States is also important. Traditions of freedom of speech can fall to partisan storytelling that disputes dissent as a threat to a collective political technologically imbued narrative. Rights to a fair trial, due process,[18] and freedom of religion[19] can be subordinated in the United States increasingly to political narratives. The unique modeling role the United States plays globally means that threats there must be treated with the highest concern since they can be immediate rationalizations for weaker but aspirant authoritarian regimes around the world.

Advice Toward a Better World of Political Communication

The global community has both the present resources and the empirical track record for further improvement in political communication that produces better results for all of humanity. The focus of global efforts to improve the ethics of our political communication can and should focus upon a single straightforward theoretical principle: discursive complexity. The capacity to dissent and disagree is a human signal of openness and transparency. The rhetorical doorway opened by discursive complexity within groups and societies provides a path to better ideas discovered when individuals feel confident to share new ideas. Discursive complexity is ecologically hostile to propaganda because inquiry is highly valued and practiced. This does not need to be an abstraction as a matter of social and political commitment.

Debate is the means for teaching and transmitting discursive complexity within all global societies. Young people raised with debate across their educational curriculum are better critical thinkers. They are better speakers and advocates. People educated within systems of debate are not afraid of differing opinions, they see them as both exciting and the basis of further improvements. For civic veterans, there needs to be a greater demand and expectation for political power to subject itself to debates. Debates should take place with fewer intermediaries and larger audiences. American Presidential debates are becoming increasingly clouded by intermediaries who consume more and more of the debates with insular political narratives. In the past 30 years, American journalist moderators have grown from occupying five percent of debate times to close to 25 percent of the speaking times.[20] This diminishes the direct political content and increases the likelihood of political sloganeering and even propaganda. Propoganda is the oversimplification of human politics. Debate encourages complex thinking and alienates propaganda as a political communication practice.

Debate served as the backbone of American political communication strength for at least the past 100 years. Debate is increasingly common across all continents. Sustained encouragement of this practice across educational settings will yield the better and more ethical political communication. With these improvements, humanity will experience less hunger, less poverty, less war, and even less genocide. All of these benefits and so many more should urge us all to take up the patient task of encouraging and teaching discursive complexity worldwide. With this commitment and praxis, political communication can become more ethical and the concomitant harms of unethical political propaganda empowered by a 21st century range of information technologies can be thwarted by these idealistic yet proven communication practices of humanity. 


[1] Edward O Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth. 1st ed (New York: Liveright Pub. Corp., 2012) and Tom Holland, Dominion?: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. First US edition (New York: Basic Books, 2019).

[2] Ben Voth, The Rhetoric of Genocide: Death as a Text (Lanham: The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2014).

[3] Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (New York: Vintage Books, 1973).

[4] Edward L. Bernays, Public Relations (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977).

[5] Edwin Black, IBM and the Holocaust?: the Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation. 3rd pbk. ed.; Expanded pbk. ed (Washington, D.C: Dialog Press, 2012).

[6] Kennedy Ndahiro, "Rwand: Dehumanization - How Tutsis were Reduced to Cockroaches, Snakes to Be Killed," AllAfrica, 14 March 2014, https://allafrica.com/stories/201403140176.html

[7] Steven Pinker. Enlightenment Now?: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York, New York: Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2018).

[8] Ben Voth. The Rhetoric of Genocide: Death as a Text (Lanham: The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2014).

[9] George B. N. Ayittey, Africa Unchained?: the Blueprint for Africa’s Future. 1st ed (New York, N.Y: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

[10] Matthew Lucci and Ben Voth, “Chapter 38: President Calvin Coolidge’s Local Argumentation: Resolving Questions of Race,” in ed. Dale Hample, Local Theories of Argument (Routledge, 2021).

[11] Amity Shlaes, Coolidge. 1st ed. (New York: Harper, 2013).

[12] Robert James Branham, “‘I Was Gone on Debating’: Malcolm X’s Prison Debates and Public Confrontations,” Argumentation and Advocacy, Vol. 31, No. 3 (1995), p. 117–37.

[13] Chris Medina, Sean Allen and Drake Pough, “Debate as Pedagogical Empowerment at HBCUs in the United States,” in Ben Voth, Debate as Global Pedagogy?: Rwanda Rising (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2021).

[14] Jean Michel Habineza, “Rwanda Rising: Rwanda as a global model for success,” in Ben Voth, Debate as Global Pedagogy?: Rwanda Rising (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2021) and in “Debate as Pedagogical Empowerment at HBCUs in the United States,” and “China Rising: Debate programs across China,” Ben Voth, Debate as Global Pedagogy?: Rwanda Rising (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2021).

[15] Joseph Goldstein and Declan Walsh, “Sudan’s Intelligence Chief Leaves Job 2 Days After President as Protesters Win Again,” The New York Times, 13 April 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/13/world/africa/sudan-intelligence-chief-resigns.html

[16] Gerald C. Koinyeneh, "Liberia: U.S Goverment Launches US$ 16 Million Civic Education Program," AllAfrica, 18 October 2021, https://allafrica.com/stories/202110180663.html

[17] Julia Probst, “Seven reasons why the world is improving,” BBC, 10 January 2019, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190111-seven-reasons-why-the-world-is-improving

[18] Associated Press, “Judge holds Washington, D.C., jail officials in contempt in a Jan. 6 riot case,” National Public Radio, 13 October 2021, https://wfuv.org/content/judge-holds-washington-dc-jail-officials-contempt-jan-6-riot-case.

[19] Jaclyn Cosgrove, “Why L.A. County paid $400,000 to a church that violated coronavirusas rules,” Los Angeles Times, 2 September 2021, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2021-09-02/why-l-a-county-paid-400-000-to-a-church-that-violated-coronavirus-rules.

[20] Ben Voth, “Presidential Debates 2020,” ed. Robert Denton, The 2020 Presidential Campaign: A Communications Perspective (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books).

CONTRIBUTOR
Ben Voth
Ben Voth

Benjamin Voth is a Professor of Rhetoric and Director of Speech and Debate in the Dedman College of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.He is also the Calvin Coolidge Debate fellow.

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Foreword How much time is twenty years? Long enough to inspire, or short enough to be unnoticeable? Turkish Policy Quarterly (TPQ) was published for the first time in February 2002. We are celebrating its 20th anniversary with this issue. While much has changed since then, we believe the values that guide TPQ are as relevant and important as ever. There was then and there is now a chance for us all to...
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