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The Rhetoric of Democracy

02 Aug

Political Rhetoric

In fifth-century BCE Athens, the birthplace of Western democracy, the political scene was an ongoing contest between the ‘rule of a few’ (oligarchy) and the ‘power of the people’ (democracy). By Plato’s time democracy had generated more problems than it could resolve, motivating the philosopher to reject it outright as a viable model for government. Its fatal flaw, in his opinion, was in the way it put ordinary people (demos) at the mercy of politicians whose deceptive rhetoric made them believe things that weren’t true, and vote on promises they had no intention of keeping.

Ordinary people – today we might refer to it as ‘popular psychology’ – don’t live their lives by the light of clear reason as much as they follow the inclination of their strongest passions. Without training and practice in logic, argument, and critical thinking, the average voter lacks the necessary skills for teasing apart sincerity and balderdash, straight truth and clever spin, the hard way through and the easy way out.

Why in the world would we risk the enterprise of government and the future of its citizens by surrendering our fate to the most persuasive stumper?

Plato himself was in favor of what he called the ‘philosopher king’, a monarchy ruled benevolently under the wise guidance of an enlightened leader. Apparently his low opinion of ordinary folk was offset by an equally idealistic fantasy of a fully self-actualized sovereign lord. Nevertheless a benevolent dictator would still be preferable to the rule of a few (oligarchy) from the wealthy class whose policies inevitably serve their own interests rather than those of the general citizenry.

Just because you are rich and enjoy high status doesn’t mean that you are also wise, altruistic, or even all that smart.

And yet, the American story is full of great rhetoric in the speeches and writings of individual men and women whose ideas (and promises) changed the course of history. Think of the politicians and rebels, the reformers and revolutionaries, the mavericks and visionaries, the anonymous tracts and famous authors who pictured alternative realities and challenged the orthodoxy of their day, in words that stirred ordinary people to accomplish great things.

Just because popular psychology is vulnerable to agitation, inspiration, and persuasion doesn’t necessarily mean that the rhetoric of democracy should be censored.

Politicians and other individuals seeking positions of influence in society will not stop using words and conjuring images with the purpose of moving their audiences into agreement with their visions and in support of their leadership. Every speech is a construction designed on the linguistic magic of manipulating feelings, beliefs, and motivations. The words themselves, of course, but also the tone, volume, and cadence of speech; repetitions, alliterations, and metaphorical associations; body posture, gestures, and facial expressions – all of it is fashioned and delivered to make an impact and provoke some kind of change in the audience.

Instead of censoring or (as Plato would have it) outlawing rhetorical flourishes from our political candidates, we might do better to understand what it is inside us, the audience and potential voters, that gets so quickly pulled in and taken along. In the best of all possible worlds our politicians would speak to our genuine needs and interests, to our deeper virtues and higher aspirations, rather than yanking our chains to support their agendas.

I propose that my theory of Quadratic Intelligence can shed light on this question about what ‘the people’ really want and need. Once we have some clarity on that score, we will be able to tell when a candidate is trying to take us for a ride or put us under a spell – preferably before the magic goes to work on us. My diagram above illustrates the four types of intelligence (hence quadratic) that have evolved as a system in each of us, connecting them to regions of the body where they seem to be centered. For a more in-depth discussion of each type, check out The Harmony of Intelligence, Quadratic Intelligence, and What’s Your QIP?

When politicians warn us that immigration is undermining our economy, how terrorists are conspiring inside our borders, and how our security as a nation is being compromised, they are speaking to our visceral intelligence (VQ). More accurately we should say that they are using words interpreted by our rational intelligence (RQ) for the purpose of provoking strong feelings in our emotional intelligence (EQ) so as to effect a change in our nervous system (VQ) that will move us to action.

Visceral intelligence is centered in our gut, which is why the politician’s warning is experienced as upset in our stomach and intestines. This is where the resources of our environment are converted into the energy our body needs to live. VQ monitors this balance and lets us know when we might be losing the safety and life support we require. Of the four intelligences, this one is the most primitive, and when it gets poked or yanked everything higher up gets put on standby until the crisis can be resolved. Because the body’s visceral intelligence has primacy in emergency situations, the politicians know that poking our need for security will get us to pay attention to their message.

For a majority of voters, perhaps, concerns over safety and survival are not as worrisome as the daily reminder that life just isn’t going their way. Our emotional intelligence (EQ) is more attuned to what’s happening around us, to the degree in which our circumstances are either open or closed to our pursuit of happiness. To define happiness as the feeling that things are going our way does not automatically make it a selfish pursuit. Things ‘go our way’ when our relationships are positive and supportive, when we are making progress toward our goals, and when our desires, on balance, are fulfilled more than they are frustrated.

One pernicious bit of rhetoric works to convince us that something is missing from our lives, that we can’t really be happy until the void is filled. Given that our happiness seems to rise and fall on the rhythms of pleasure and fortune, politicians can easily exploit our readiness to look outside ourselves for the key to lasting happiness. (Indeed, panhandlers and snake oil salesmen perfected this technique long ago.)

They bait us by ticking down a list of things that aren’t tipped in our favor and then ask, “How can you be happy, with all this going against you?”

By this time the charm is set and we have taken the hook. That’s right! we think to ourselves. How have I been managing without this person in office?

Plato was correct in his observation that ordinary people make most of their important decisions in life on the basis of how the options make them feel. In many cases our best interest would be better served if we could just detach ourselves from the passions and exercise a little more reason instead. This ability to detach, discriminate, critique, compare, analyze, extrapolate, and consider things from a more objective standpoint is made possible by our rational intelligence (RQ).

Frankly, rhetoric of any kind is less about convincing us through the logic of argument than it is about moving us emotionally in support of its conclusion.

Rational intelligence works out our need for meaning – that things and life make sense in the bigger picture and longer view. We shouldn’t be surprised if most of democracy’s rhetoric rarely attains this level of clear-thinking consideration. If the big picture is invoked at all, it will usually be in the interest of constructing a rational frame around an emotional or visceral issue. Cut back on emissions and develop clean energy technology because our coastal cities will be underwater within a decade if we don’t – that kind of thing.

But remember, your average voter doesn’t push levers or pencil in bubbles according to sound theory or even the evidence we have in hand. (Who conducted those studies anyway?)

If the rhetoric of democracy prefers to play closer to our animal urgencies and powerful moods than to the shining logic of higher reason, it hardly ever manages to touch the dimensions of our spiritual intelligence (SQ). This is probably due to the fact that most politicians and ordinary people fail even to acknowledge its presence, much less give it priority in their lives. Of course I’m not referring here to our religious affiliations, since religion can be as dissociated from spiritual intelligence as anything else we do – oddly enough, even actively repressing it in many cases.

Our spiritual intelligence makes it possible for us to break free of our personal perspective – that is to say, of the perspective on reality that is tied to our separate center of identity as egos – and re-enter the oneness of being. If this sounds like a bunch of metaphysical gobbledygook, we must know that our separate identity is merely a delusion of consciousness, a construct that exists only in the performance space of a role-play (society) where we hope one day to be somebody and make something of ourselves.

This is in fact the (insubstantial) part of us that politicians work to recruit for votes: the part that declares, “I AM a Republican” or “I AM a Democrat,” “I AM for this” and “I AM against that.”

When we break past the delusion of a separate identity, our spiritual intelligence opens consciousness to the grounding mystery within and to the sacred universe beyond. Ego drops away as awareness descends to its Source (what I call the mystical turn), whereas in going outward it is transcended in communion with the Whole (the ethical turn). We come to understand that we are manifestations of one reality, along with everything else, and together we belong to the same.

Taking full responsibility for our place in the greater community of life is what I mean by creative authority.

Rhetoric is simply the ability to use language effectively. It doesn’t have to be deceptive or biased or tied to a party platform. Indeed the “rhetoric of democracy” might be about using language to focus our longings and lift the human spirit, to inspire a greater love for each other and for our planetary home. And ultimately, perhaps, to awaken us to the fullness of what we are here to become.

 

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