Monday, April 3, 2017

Importance of Dissoi Logoi

While it is certainly true that immense polarization exists in the political realm, as it relates to both positions held by elected officials themselves and pundits engaged in discussion, to point to the decline of the dissoi logoi as a cataclysmic factor is falsely premised. In fact, I believe that it is precisely the American public’s fascination with controversy, aided by dichotomous dialogue, which allows for such polarization to fester. Politics is much like a sport, for some the greatest joy stems from seeing their team win and by its very nature requires the existence of an opponent.
Rather, it is the skewed construction of the dissoi logoi which is most often at the root cause of polarization and confirmation bias. Alarmist news outlets reinforce their particular agenda through the rhetorical technique of inoculation. Much like a vaccine, the rhetor presents a weakened form of their opponent's argument (often a strawman) for the expressed purpose of refuting it in order to protect their audience from future stronger attacks. Although this is done by all gradations of the political spectrum, one markedly poignant example comes to mind from Fox News, which can be found here:

In the video, pundits lambast, criticize and mock Keely Mullen, a Million Student March organizer, for her seemingly ‘non-response’ when questioned about how the group’s demands for free public education, student debt forgiveness, and a $15 minimum wage would be paid for. Her responses are paraded in order to discredit the movement altogether despite the fact that she is a young adolescent who is not an expert in public policy or economic planning. While Fox News allowed for the representation of a counter-argument, they strategically chose someone unqualified in the matter in order to further their cause.
In some regards, even properly constructed and balanced counter-argument can be destructive and create what Leah Ceccarelli refers to as “manufactured controversies” - that is controversy which arises (usually in scientific matters) when there is already an expert consensus. Researchers Graham Dixon and Christopher Clark examined the influence ‘balanced’ reporting could have on audiences and found “that balancing conflicting views of the autism–vaccine controversy may lead readers to erroneously infer the state of expert knowledge regarding vaccine safety.” That is that, by presenting an evenly split counter argument, people falsely assume that there is likewise an even split in the scientific community. Thus, Dixon and Clark advise journalists to show a proportional counter-argument, which John Oliver did in a comedic manner in the last thirty seconds of this video:

In short, polarization certainly exists and is facilitated by the misuse of counter-argument rather than an outright decline in it. Therefore, it is important that we understand dissoi logoi as an amoral tool - one which must exist to facilitate discourse but can just as easily be construed to stifle or over amplify certain voices in the public sphere. We must concern ourselves with the quality of all media content, particularly when it is enveloped in dramatic rhetoric.

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