Cover image for The Politics of Sincerity: Plato, Frank Speech, and Democratic Judgment By Elizabeth Markovits

The Politics of Sincerity

Plato, Frank Speech, and Democratic Judgment

Elizabeth Markovits


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ISBN: 978-0-271-03340-2

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The Politics of Sincerity

Plato, Frank Speech, and Democratic Judgment

Elizabeth Markovits

“This original and provocative book contributes significantly to both classical political philosophy (the relationship of Plato’s dialogues to democracy, then and now) and democratic theory (deliberative democracy, participatory democracy, and feminist treatments of democracy). Markovits brilliantly connects her interpretations of Plato’s texts to our own thinking about important political questions, examining particularly the problematic role of sincerity in political communication. In so doing, she convincingly shows that these classical texts are valuable resources for citizens.”


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A growing frustration with “spin doctors,” doublespeak, and outright lying by public officials has resulted in a deep public cynicism regarding politics today. It has also led many voters to seek out politicians who engage in “straight talk,” out of a hope that sincerity signifies a dedication to the truth. While this is an understandable reaction to the degradation of public discourse inflicted by political hype, Elizabeth Markovits argues that the search for sincerity in the public arena actually constitutes a dangerous distraction from more important concerns, including factual truth and the ethical import of political statements.

Her argument takes her back to an examination of the Greek notion of parrhesia (frank speech), and she draws from her study of the Platonic dialogues a nuanced understanding of this ancient analogue of “straight talk.” She shows Plato to have an appreciation for rhetoric rather than a desire to purge it from public life, providing insights into the ways it can contribute to a fruitful form of deliberative democracy today.

“This original and provocative book contributes significantly to both classical political philosophy (the relationship of Plato’s dialogues to democracy, then and now) and democratic theory (deliberative democracy, participatory democracy, and feminist treatments of democracy). Markovits brilliantly connects her interpretations of Plato’s texts to our own thinking about important political questions, examining particularly the problematic role of sincerity in political communication. In so doing, she convincingly shows that these classical texts are valuable resources for citizens.”
“What could be wrong with plain speech? Plenty, as it turns out. The appeal to straight talk in politics, relying on sincerity norms in deliberative theory, and avoiding of the art of rhetoric in civic education can lead to a dangerous naïveté regarding modern sophistry. Elizabeth Markovits knows that we can do better. In place of the vain quest for communicative purity, this book offers vital resources for democratic participation.”
“Engagingly written and interesting, this book is useful for political theorists interested in democratic theory, rhetoric, and Greek thought.”

Elizabeth Markovits is Assistant Professor of Politics at Mount Holyoke College.




1. The Trouble with Being Earnest

2. Midwiving Socrates

3. Socratic Irony and the Art of Politics

4. Citizen Judgment and Myth in the Republic

5. Beyond Sincerity: Truth, Trust, and Judgment in Democratic Life




The Trouble with Being Earnest

In February 2004, a crowd decked out in top hats and furs waited on a New York City sidewalk to welcome President George W. Bush’s adviser Karl Rove to a fundraiser. They endured the February cold, chanting slogans in support of Rove and the president. Chomping cigars and drinking champagne, they smiled and held signs for the press: Billionaires for Bush! Blood for Oil! Re-elect Karl Rove! Karl Rove is innocent! Leave no billionaire behind! When Sierra Club protesters chanted, “We want the truth and we want it now!” from the other side of the street, the Billionaires retorted, “Buy your own president!” Eventually, the police figured out what was really going on, perhaps realizing that actual billionaires don’t often wear tiaras, and escorted the “Billionaires for Bush” behind the official protester barrier across the street.

The fur was faux, of course, and the top hats were rented. During a period when polling data reflected a polarized electorate and the United States entered two wars, political protests were not uncommon. “Counter-protests” had even sprung up—prowar rallies took place across the street from antiwar protests. Invariably, both sides complained that the press ignored them, discounted their numbers, or interviewed only the most outrageous elements of their movement. In contrast, the Billionaires for Bush were media darlings. The street theater, coupled with the total seriousness with which the Billionaires played their roles, was especially compelling. They often disrupted more traditional protests, confusing both sides. But their ultimate goal wasn’t confusion. Their strangeness was carefully cultivated to draw attention to their particular criticism of the president, which was that his policies overwhelmingly favored big business and a wealthy few at the expense of the majority of Americans. For many people, Billionaires for Bush was a thought-provoking alternative to the traditional protest. But was the group, with its irony and role-playing, part of legitimate democratic deliberation? Why couldn’t they just be clear about their goals and beliefs?

In the United States, we tend to be skeptical of such theatrics, preferring “straight-shooters” instead. Our culture praises “truth-tellers” as vital members of our democracy—the Spring 2002 issue of Ms. magazine headlined “The Best of 30 years of Reporting, Rebelling and Truth-telling”; conservative Atlanta talk-radio host Neal Boortz calls himself “the high priest of the church of the painful truth”; Jim Hightower, a liberal, publishes the “Hightower Lowdown,” providing “unadorned facts”; Neil Cavuto offers his “Common Sense” on Fox News; and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews promises to “tell you what I really think.” Promoting Glenn Beck’s television show, CNN/Headline News bought a full-page ad in the New York Times to point out that “this guy says it like he means it.” We identify dissemblers and spin doctors with other types of government or with our enemies in a democracy. A group like Billionaires for Bush, with their theatrics and pretense, seems unfair. They are lying about their motives and intentions, mucking up discourse.

This chapter is an exploration of our democratic obsession with sincerity and truth-telling. I focus on two interrelated questions. First, do we lose potentially important discursive resources with an unmitigated faith in sincerity for politics? Second, might this faith hinder deliberations, leading to a less democratic public arena? Much hinges on our answers to these questions, because they deal directly with whose voices are to be considered legitimate and authoritative. I begin from a deliberative democratic standpoint: democracy is a logocentric enterprise—that is, language is at the center of democratic political projects. So it is critical that we pay attention to how we evaluate political words. Otherwise, not only can we not really understand what is going on in political discourse, but we are also more likely to make poor judgments about what sort of speech and speakers make our democracy more robust. To explore these questions, I begin with a look at the discourse ethics that underwrite much of deliberative democratic theory, then move on to critique the theory by way of an examination of the sincerity norm and its relationship to the goal of consensus in deliberation. I go on to discuss some of the dangers that the particular ethic of sincerity poses for democratic deliberation, discussing several rhetorical manifestations of a dangerous hyper-sincerity along the way.

Because it focuses on the role of language in democratic legitimation, deliberative theory is the obvious place to look to critique hyper-sincerity in public discourse. But beyond failing to consider the potential pitfalls of sincerity, deliberative theory as it currently stands gives us no satisfactory way to critique hyper-sincerity. While the particular vision of deliberative theory here is drawn from Jürgen Habermas’s concept of communicative reason, a variety of philosophers and political theorists work within this literature, including scholars who remain wary (as do I) of what they see as its idealizing speech norms. The fear is that certain of the theory’s claims about deliberation prejudge the arguments that might be used, excluding participants or denigrating their contributions in unfair ways. This is especially troublesome given a context of continued inequalities and both outright and subconscious discrimination. This chapter is an attempt to build upon their critique (although not necessarily in ways with which those critics would agree) through an examination of one of the norms of communicative reason—sincerity. While I am conscious of the reasons for a sincerity ethic, I question its usefulness for political deliberation. My goal here is to open debate on the potential dangers of sincerity for democratic deliberation.

The Roots of Deliberative Democracy

There has been a long-standing distinction between two basic strands of democratic political theory: liberal and republican. Liberal models assume that interests exist before a political moment in a relatively coherent, ordered set. We come together to vote, which aggregates our interests, choosing the policies favored by a majority of individuals (provided they do not infringe upon various rights). Meanwhile, republican politics provides the opportunity for the elaboration of interests aimed at the common good, emphasizing the citizen’s right to active participation. Here, citizens draw on a shared culture or identity to find the “common good”; this model places a high value on civility and (prior) consensus. Over the past three decades, however, a third form has emerged: the deliberative model.

Deliberative democratic theory is of concern to a wide range of political scientists and philosophers and has come to dominate much of political theory in recent years. Scholars have also begun to study deliberative democracy empirically, as well as offer proposals for deliberative branches of government or other reforms to increase citizens’ opportunities for deliberation. While many diverse views belong to this branch of democratic theory, they all share a belief in the central role of language in democracy, either as a way to interpret existing democracy or to explicate an ideal theory of democracy.

In deliberative theory we have “the institutionalization of a public use of reason jointly exercised by autonomous citizens.” It assumes preferences are formed or reformed through deliberation, rather than aggregated in the political “marketplace” as in the liberal model. It locates the power of a political system in words and reason, rather than in the shared background of the citizenry as in republican models. State power, thus, is justified through communication. This justification ideally originates in civil society (as opposed to formal institutions of government), cleansed of the corrupting influences of money and power, allowing each citizen the equality already claimed constitutionally. This model underscores the activities of speech and judgment among ordinary citizens, rather than elites, substantiating calls for greater participation in democracy. It provides an explanation of the sources of democratic legitimacy, reminding us what is at stake with the constant pressure toward greater technocratization in the economically globalizing world. Deliberative democrats challenge what they see as the increasing power of instrumental rationality, which in their view treats sentient individuals as objects to be manipulated. The theory also offers a foundation for critique, because speakers can be called to account for the validity of their statements against three universal presuppositions that theoretically underpin all communication. These are claims to truth, claims to sincerity, and claims to normative rightness. If the arguments violate these norms, then they “will simply lack influence, especially over time, as challenges expose the arguments.”

At the same time, there are numerous critiques of deliberative theories, often coming from those still sympathetic to the “linguistic turn” in political theory. They range from critiques of the “pathologies” of actual deliberation, to the privileging of certain forms of communication, to the denigration of “subaltern counter-publics,” to the problems with the ideal of consensus. While remaining committed to the central importance of discourse in political life, I also have criticisms to make, with the hope that by unpacking the theory, I can highlight both its strengths and its shortcomings. In this section, I work through the model proposed by Jürgen Habermas, one that connects almost all of his work, but was first explicitly discussed in his Gauss Lectures in 1971 (published in On the Pragmatics of Social Interaction), and refined in The Theory of Communicative Action and Between Facts and Norms. Habermas’s work provides the foundation for many other deliberative theorists; it is, then, a good starting point for my own critique. I am aware that there are a variety of theories of deliberative democracy, some of which more clearly exhibit the problems that I identify here and some of which go to great lengths to avoid them. I stick with Habermas’s formulation because it contains the authorizing concepts and categories for much of deliberative theory.

In Between Facts and Norms, Habermas aimed to demonstrate the link between the formal institutions of the democratic state and informal processes of opinion and will formation in civil society. According to his theory, constitutional democracies are legitimated by the “consensus theory of truth”; that is, by the potential assent of all other rational persons who could enter the discussion. Democracy is legitimate because it strives not for majority rule, but for openness and rationality. Theoretically, democracies achieve consensus through an intersubjective discussion of experience that allows people to “harmonize” worldviews and actions. The agreement is reached neither through force nor strategic bargaining, but through the communicative power arising from the rationality of deliberation. While it remains a central point of debate among deliberative democrats, many theories maintain that this action is undertaken with an eye on consensus. If the goal of discussion is not consensus, then the endeavor is not “communicative,” but “strategic,” meaning that participants are not treating one another as equals, but as objects to be defeated or won over. Only communicative action can provide a true basis for democracy because only this type of motivation is grounded in mutual respect and accountability.

The opinion formed in deliberation has force by virtue of its “publicity,” or moral traction. That is, after a group of equal and autonomous individuals debate an issue in an arena in which information flows freely, reason will carry the best option forward; it will have communicative power to the extent that it secures publicity (by virtue of its reasonableness). While this ideal may be extraordinarily difficult to achieve, public decisions are judged as legitimate according to the extent to which they conform to this model of rational deliberation. Even when communicative acts fail to achieve this ideal, it remains in play; according to Habermas, one always implicitly assumes that the communicative endeavor in which one is about to take part will be pure and undistorted.

For many deliberative democrats, pure communicative action takes place against a backdrop of universal validity claims, or discourse ethics, that allow communication to run smoothly. They are claims to truth, normative rightness, and sincerity. That is, “agreement in the communicative practice of everyday life rests simultaneously on intersubjectively shared propositional knowledge, on normative accord, and on mutual trust.” Different types of statements thematize only one of the validity claims at a time. For example, an expressive statement like “I feel satisfied” only explicitly raises the claim to truthfulness, while a claim like “that car is blue” only explicitly raises the claim to truth. However, “it is a rule of communicative action that when a hearer assents to a thematized validity claim, he acknowledges the other two implicitly raised validity claims as well.” So the sincerity claim is always in play, regardless of whether one asserts it explicitly or not, or whether one is talking about her own feelings or transmitting a fact to another person.

Habermas considers sincerity to be one of the three criteria of rationality, and other prominent theorists have also endorsed this ethic. In addition to deliberative democracy’s explicit focus on sincerity, John Kang has argued that both libertarian and communitarian thought also rely on sincerity assumptions. Scholars working in communication studies and journalists have also noted the importance of sincerity in contemporary politics. Finally, I believe that our current civic ideology leads most people (at least in the contemporary United States) to assume sincerity is important for political discussions. We expect people not to lie about their intentions and beliefs—to be sincere, rather than strategic—when telling us what they think. The value of sincerity is easy to see; we don’t want liars and obfuscators to have a platform in our deliberations. The deception that might flow from a speech situation unbounded by norms of sincerity would seem to threaten the very possibility of a logocentric polity. Theorists often use “sincerity” interchangeably with “truthfulness” and “authenticity,” which also calls to mind the idea that a speaker is not hiding anything pertinent to the discussion. She is not only not deceitful, but also offers a complete account of the relevant information. She is what she claims she is, without complicating hidden designs on the discussion and without making false statements she knows to be false. Sincerity means intentionally telling people what one thinks, not holding back pertinent details, and not lying; there is a consistency between what one says and what one believes.

Sincerity is also linked to the ideal of rationally motivated consensus. The agreement to which the speaker is oriented will result from the rationality of the statements made, not from some pathos intentionally and strategically elicited by a gifted speaker. If one believes unforced, rationally motivated consensus is possible, then there is no reason to strategically position arguments (thus disconnecting actual beliefs from statements) because with enough discussion, the group will recognize the truth of the argument or else convince one otherwise. Since one is not trying to “win,” there is no good reason to misrepresent one’s beliefs or to pander to the audience’s prejudices. And so sincerity often involves a claim to not use rhetoric—to not try to strategically choose words in order to persuade, but rather to rely on the rational power of one’s facts, one’s sincerity, and the normative appropriateness of what one says. One is sincere—that is, one’s intentions are sincere, and so one has pledged to not misrepresent oneself in order to achieve a goal.

The norms themselves “converge in a single claim to rationality . . . [which] is necessarily built into the way in which the species of talking animals reproduces itself.” This claim grounds Habermas’s model in a distinctly human capacity for reason through speech, providing an alternative to social steering through money or power (economic or bureaucratic imperatives). It is universal, both in the sense that each person has this capacity (according to “ethnopsychiatry”) and in the sense that it follows from the imperative of mutual recognition and reciprocity. These dynamics are embedded in the thought processes of every human being; “truth” consists of what every “rational” being would concede to in a discussion. The endeavor also requires the attribution of communicative freedom to the other persons in the dialogue and openness to the points of fellow discussants. Through communicatively expressed reason, subjects act democratically to move toward a consensus regarding their shared situation and what to do about it.

Discourse ethics, or validity claims, form the background consensus for discussion. That is, we assume everyone in a discussion is operating according to these rules that purport to ground speech in truth. If they are violated—thus disrupting the achievement of a rational consensus—these norms can be used as a foundation for critique. These claims can be questioned and defended, identifying points of agreement and disagreement, making explicit what was implicit in the original communicative act. To redeem claims to truth or normative rightness, the actor must provide reasons to interlocutors. To redeem one’s sincerity, reasons are insufficient; this claim can only be redeemed through consistent behavior or third parties. Sincerity thus requires a community and is related to one’s reputation. According to Habermas, discourse ethics provide the basic logic behind human communication in the social sphere (or “lifeworld”) and thus always have a “steering effect” on deliberations, even when left unfulfilled.

To explain how liberal democracies can and should work, these dynamics are then abstracted to a grand scale. This is made possible by mass communication, which allows discussion to take place in spite of physical absence. As the “conversation” expands, anonymity grows and contexts become more generalized, leading to a more abstract discussion—but one that remains firmly within the realm of “ordinary language” (accessible to nonspecialists) and grounded in discourse ethics. Different associative groups, meeting at various intervals and for various durations, exist within civil society to generate and sustain these deliberations. So deliberations are not limited to such formally “political” venues as legislatures, town meetings, or presidential speeches. Instead, this arena is decentered. According to Iris Marion Young, “Society is bigger than politics and outruns political institutions . . . the processes of communication that give normative and rational meaning to democracy occur as flows and exchanges among various social sectors.” Likewise, W. Lance Bennett and Robert Entman argue that “the public sphere is comprised of any and all locations, physical or virtual, where ideas and feelings relevant to politics are transmitted or exchanged openly.” A narrower definition, while more focused and easier to work with, would ignore the massive variety of locations in which people communicate ideas that bear on their and others’ political perspectives and actions. This enlarged and decentered view of the public sphere helps us recognize the diverse spaces in which democracy takes place. Discourse begins in this periphery and thus depends on the opportunities available and capacities exercised there. The process sorts these influences, and public opinion becomes focused (in contrast to the liberal notion of aggregated opinion). It is focused to the extent that the debate has been rational and exhaustive, meeting all objections, transforming itself as better reasons come into view, and defending itself from further challenges. This opinion then meets with the core—the institutionalized political system—and legally binding decisions are made.

As I discussed earlier, discourse ethics can be used to call discussants to explain themselves further. This notion of accountability is central to deliberative theory. While the terms may differ—“reciprocity,” “accountability,” “deliberative uptake,” or “reflexive challenge”—the crucial and shared assumption is that participants in a deliberation have a mutual respect that renders them willing to justify their claims to one another. Deliberative democracy rests on this recognition of a responsibility to give reasons and explain oneself to other members of the polity. It also requires listening to the reasons and objections of others; accountability is an interactive and potentially transformative activity, not just a resignation to presenting a reason for an action or belief and moving on.

This democratic belief in mutual accountability rests upon and requires universal moral respect or equality. All those affected by political decisions should be included in the process and given equal political rights to communicate their ideas. One could imagine (and indeed history has seen) an oligarchic accountability—a sort of lords of the round table, which excludes large portions of the population, but in which members of a certain ruling class are deemed equal to one another and therefore worthy of holding one another accountable. Or “accountability” could exist where all the members of the polity are theoretically included, but many remain outside the deliberative process because they have been coerced into silence through threats of physical violence (the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, active in intimidation efforts from 1956 through 1973, comes to mind). Thus, to be a deliberative democracy, all members of the polity must actually have “the same symmetrical rights to various speech acts, to initiate new topics, to ask for reflection about the presuppositions of the conversations, and so on.” Democratic accountability provides this foundation for democracy; tyrants and dictators are not accountable, but democrats respond to the claims made upon one another. From Herodotus’s distinction between democratic Athens and monarchic Persia (Histories 3.80) to the current calls for more participation and accountability in global governance, the concept stands at the heart of the democratic sensibility.

For many deliberative democrats, the quality of accountability in a democracy rests upon universal discourse ethics. When one disagrees with a speaker, it is because one finds her to have the facts wrong, or to be saying something we find ethically problematic, or to be disingenuous. These three communicative norms provide a rational foundation from which fellow citizens can critique speakers and call them to account for what they say. In conjunction with formal mechanisms of accountability, such as sunshine and libel laws, reelection procedures, and so on, discourse ethics provide the basis for accountability. It is the way to ensure that when someone makes statements and is questioned by others, that person is not providing false information with impunity. Sincerity in particular is meant to counter the potential for manipulative speech or outright trickery in a deliberative democracy. In a polity based on the power of words, the legitimacy of the process rests on the quality of information and ideas; dissemblers pose a particularly insidious problem for democracies. A democratic speaker is assumed to reveal her views transparently, shunning obfuscations, double-talk, and cheap emotional (and strategic) appeals. When a speaker makes a claim, her sincerity is taken to indicate her commitment to mutual accountability and democracy.

The Problem with Straight Talk

While I share the impulse to locate a rational foundation for political life and am drawn to sincerity as a guarantor of communicative validity, there are several reasons to pull back from embracing the ethic for politics. Before moving on to my examination of the sincerity norm, I want to first discuss the ideal of consensus in these theories. The goal of consensus shapes the sincerity norm because it has to do with one’s intentions in deliberation. Meanwhile, consensus privileges certain styles of political speech. For example, language that may be considered combative and uncooperative is devalued. Such language reflects a problem with the speaker’s intentions—they are not oriented toward unforced consensus. By recognizing one deliberative result as legitimate, deliberative democrats run the risk of ignoring certain styles of speech and denigrating important outcomes other than consensus. They can neglect the idea that deliberation can be a forum for thinking through a problem together or can lead to an understanding of “where another person is coming from,” without necessarily reaching the same conclusion about what action to take. As I noted before, the ideal of consensus is certainly not something on which deliberative democrats agree; what I want to provide here is another argument in support of removing consensus as an ideal of democratic communication, highlighting the relationship between consensus and sincerity.

Expansive mutual accountability is the central component of democratic politics. However, deliberative theories can be too quick to leap from this foundation to an ideal of communication based on validity claims leading to rational consensus. Accountability entails giving an account when called to do so. In the democratic political arena, it may mean that a person works through a problem with other people, possibly changing one’s own beliefs through discussion (the deliberative ideal), but also perhaps maintaining one’s prior preferences or remaining stumped by the impossibility of any decision. If one deeply holds certain beliefs, a radical openness to ideas that contradict those beliefs seems unlikely and undesirable. While we would hope that Ku Klux Klan members could be convinced of their error, we are unlikely to permit ourselves to be converted to it. Would it be irrational or antidemocratic for contemporary U.S. citizens to refuse to seriously entertain arguments supporting slavery? Furthermore, it is not clear why reciprocity cannot entail forms of negotiation in which one gives up something in order to keep the shared world from coming undone.

At its heart, political discussion is how participants work through communal problems together. This discussion may lead to consensus, but can also lead to other specific sorts of mutual understanding in which we acknowledge our differences and move forward with the realization that we may never agree to the same means and ends (yet also without killing one another). Privileging consensus above all other goals may have the perverse result of conceptualizing politics as a zero-sum game in the eyes of participants, leading to more dogmatism and violence in political life. According to Bryan Garsten, “The call for unanimity . . . implicit in the creation of an authoritative public source of judgment chafes and constrains; it is from that implied unanimity that dissenters feel alienated; and it is against the asserted sovereignty of that unanimity that they rebel.” There is often residual disagreement; and while decisions must be made, they often entail a loss that must be acknowledged. This can be achieved with bargaining or negotiation, which can play an important role in reducing the possibility of violence through a substantive acknowledgment of the conflict. Habermas’s conception also poorly describes “strategic consensus”; that is, consensus not motivated by reasons, yet one that is not forced through threats or rewards. It is a communicative moment in which one participant agrees with another, not because she is necessarily convinced (she may not even really care about this issue), but because she wants to keep the discussion moving, or deepen the trust between participants. Finally, as Susan Bickford argues: “Denigrating strategic action only obscures the difficult complexity of actual political interaction, in which strategic and communicative interaction are intertwined, and I am not convinced that this intertwining should be regarded with regret. Trying to purify this mix of motives leaves us unable to appreciate the complexity of human interaction, and reinforces a romantic ideal both of politics and who we are as citizens.” To make consensus the proper result of political discussion can lead to a dangerous idealization, opening the possibility that some participants will criticize others for being uncooperative simply for disagreeing, or that others will refrain from voicing important reservations because of the pressure to conform. We have to maintain both the possibility of a transformation of beliefs through discussion and the understanding that consensus may not (and should not necessarily) occur. This is admittedly a more tragic view of the political realm, but it is one that recognizes the persistent messiness of political life.

But why does deliberative democratic theory often have so much trouble imagining outcomes different from consensus in ways that do not configure them as somehow deviant? This has much to do with the theory’s conceptualization of rational speech. In this view, reason provides a foundation for political life, an impartial and objective way to adjudicate conflict. But giving reasons does not necessarily mean that participants will or should arrive at the same place, or that even when they do agree, that such agreement rests on the same reasons. In some cases, their reasons may simply be incommensurable. For example, the foundational qualities of the claims underwriting both sides of the abortion debate leave the two sides without a basis for agreement. A charge of “murder” does not leave much room for a claim of “reproductive rights.” A mutual understanding of the impossibility of full reconciliation can be an important part of living together. Furthermore, the jarring quality of some speech not oriented toward consensus can serve an important role in helping us understand how far apart our perspectives may be. One website,, a parody of mail-order bride websites that feature stereotyped Asian women, is specifically tagged to lure those looking for pornography websites through Internet search engines. In this way, the author lures in men looking for a “demure lotus blossom,” and then invites them in for some verbal abuse: “After all, us ‘Orientals’ are known for our hospitality and genteel demeanor. We aim to please . . .” The combativeness of the website is the crux of the message and perhaps the best way to express the offense caused by the stereotypes critiqued by the author.

In other cases, a speaker may remain open to consensus but make demands of her audience that may be seen as burdensome or uncooperative. For example, Gloria Anzaldúa’s essay “En rapport, In Opposition: Cobrando cuentas a las nuestra” argues for a rapprochment among feminists of color. Pieces of the work are in Spanish, with no translation offered. Such a move may be seen as rather uncooperative—this is not language that is easily understood by all readers. The reader must undertake a translation effort or else know that she is only partially getting it. Anzaldúa refuses to bridge the distance herself, requiring the reader to meet her along the way. This technique helps the reader understand the predicament of someone like Anzaldúa, coming out of a colonial experience and wary of continued cooperation with those who automatically expect her cooperation. Anzaldúa speaks in two languages because that is how she exists in the world; persuading people to recognize her (and others) as she is is the goal. Her use of Spanish clues the reader into the fact that without an appreciation of this part of the writer’s identity, the reader does not really understand what is going on. While it is tempting to argue that the author really just wants to be understood in the end, to argue that consensus is her aim is to flatten her work and to remove the anger and criticism that animate it. Claims of complete understanding can serve to co-opt another person’s standpoint, which that person has individually cultivated and experienced, perhaps in explicit opposition to the person now claiming to “get it.” As Elizabeth Kiss warns, “An abstract preference for connection over separation ignores the reality that, for the less powerful members of any society, connection often means invasion and intrusion rather than intimacy.”

With this criticism in mind, I am ready to move to the sincerity norm itself. Ideally, the norm could serve to hold members of a community accountable to one another, creating the very possibility of binding decision-making. Václav Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless” and George Orwell’s “On Politics and the English Language,” as well as his novel 1984, implore us to recognize the importance of truth and to reject verbal obfuscations in political life. But truth and sincerity do not necessarily guarantee each other, and an unexamined idealization of sincerity may have perverse effects in a system based on deliberation.

Many deliberative democrats have recently come to acknowledge the ways a “gentlemen’s club” of deliberation might be privileged by some conceptions of the theory: “We cannot define deliberation—as do some deliberative democrats—in terms of individuals’ prior commitment to reasonableness, nor to their intentions to seek consensus, not even to their respect of opponents. Barring the epistemological and political problems of identifying such commitments, it would in effect depoliticize deliberation, limiting it to the easy kinds of politics that can take place once these commitments are secured.” But deliberative theory has yet to fully explore the extent of the “reasonableness” assumptions. Even for those who do not assume an ideal speech situation marked by civility and ending with consensus, sincerity still plays an important role in democratic communication. Yet a focus on the ethic of sincerity can lead to the sort of pathologies of deliberation that these theorists hope to avoid. An unquestioned belief in the value of sincerity for political deliberation too easily collapses the relation between claims to truthfulness and truth claims and contributes to an undemocratic epistemology; oversimplifies human psychology, ignoring the possibility of multiple and complexly related intentions; denigrates “rhetorical” forms of speech; and privileges a seemingly nonrhetorical mode of communication: hyper-sincerity.

Telling It Like It Is

There is a metadiscursive claim to “truth-telling” at work in the sincerity norm. The claim that one’s statements conform to objective reality is posed by deliberative democrats as a separate validity claim (the truth claim) from the claim that one is telling the truth as one sees it (the truthfulness claim), but these two often converge. While the distinction between sincerity and truth claims is important for analytic philosophy, the two are fairly indistinguishable in practice, as Habermas himself indicates. If one is being sincere, then it is impossible to make a statement that one believes to be false. A truthful person cannot “really” state something that she does not believe to be true (although it is possible to “really” believe something that is not true). Sincere Speaker X may in fact be wrong, but cannot believe this to be the case while making that statement. Thus, an explicit claim to sincerity carries with it an implicit (metadiscursive) claim to know.

This norm actually entails two components: acting with sincerity regarding your own intentions and not casting doubt on the sincerity of others. Of course, one should question validity claims that appear to be violated, but trust remains an important component of smoothly functioning communicative action. The participant calling the claim into question must initiate the disruption. Especially in instances in which the speaker’s rhetorical style apparently conforms to “rational” argumentation, critics may be deemed uncooperative and distrustful and unable to participate in a conversation. “Rational” qualities often include a demonstration of high literacy or expertise, the use of abstract language (as opposed to storytelling or joking), and the use of zero-degree tropes. By “zero-degree” I mean a style that explicitly claims to lack any rhetorical flourishes, in which words and reasoning stand alone.

Furthermore, Habermas acknowledges that the criticism cannot be made and debated in certain cases, because of threats to the speaker’s own ego and identity, leading to the appearance of consensus in spite of the fact that the speaker has violated a norm. To question someone’s sincerity and to allow your own sincerity to be questioned requires a tremendous psychological capacity and goes against many of the norms of “polite society.” In the end, those questioning a speaker’s sincerity may be branded “uncooperative,” while those who violate the norm may never have to redeem their claim. Whether criticism increases or decreases often depends on the particular speaker’s reputation and rhetorical style. Moreover, many of those who might otherwise question a speaker avoid doing so because of a dislike of conflict and a wish to avoid appearing hostile. This norm has especially affected women’s involvement in political discussions.

If all communicative action implicitly rests upon mutual trust, then the very claim to sincerity imposes a call for the listener to also accept the truth claim in a statement unless she knows it to be false and explicitly questions it in discussion. Given the enormous complexity of the issues that arise for deliberation, as well as the notoriously low levels of voter knowledge, there are many instances in which one has to use the information provided by others. Citizen Y is unlikely to have firsthand information on every issue debated; she feels she must depend on “expert” opinion, whether from academic journals, newspapers, or talk radio. The “truth” (facts and their extralinguistic meaning) to which one has access often depends on the supposed truthfulness of the speaker; the sincerity claim often underwrites the truth claims that can lead one person to listen to Rush Limbaugh for political insight and another to the BBC. At the same time, and as Machiavelli demonstrates in The Prince, plainly styled language has long been the hallmark of speakers professing their sincerity; whether that speaker actually knows the truth is another matter.

Because of this practical collapse of truth and truthfulness, the sincerity norm can also contribute to a naturalization of the world. When we claim to describe the world as it really is and ourselves as we really feel, we often implicitly make a claim that discourse should correspond to a world from which words somehow stand apart. The world exists naturally, there to be described, and my description, because it is merely words, does not shape it. Joan Scott’s discussion of “experience” makes a similar argument: “What could be truer, after all, than a subject’s own account of what she has lived through? It is precisely this kind of appeal to experience as uncontestable evidence . . . that weakens the critical thrust of histories of difference.” When transparency is assumed, we are less likely to probe the construction of the individual. It also creates an uncontestable claim—if one is truthful about one’s experience, for example, how could competing or contradictory claims be legitimate? Who is going to disrespect the speaker enough to claim that she doesn’t really know how she feels about her own life, especially given what we know about people’s dislike of conflict and confrontation? The anecdotes that make up one’s experience are not a transcription of actual events, however; and even if they were, they are shaped by myriad social factors, many of which could have been otherwise. Moreover, memory is a malleable storehouse of knowledge; studies of eyewitness testimony have demonstrated its unreliability. The easy acceptance of claims based on one’s own lived experience can blind us to the possibility that not only are those experiences not necessary events in our lives, but also that our interpretations of experience create memories and stories that could be quite different from actual events.

Because the sincere speaker shuns artifice, she is able to see the world clearly, while those who admit a place for rhetoric are prisoners of verbal illusions. This is like the complaint made of advocates of “political correctness.” According to critics, they have constructed an artificial world through speech and are not willing to say what is really there, instead making tortured rhetorical stretches to avoid offense. In contrast, the sincere speaker can see the world for what it really is. She is not trapped by discursive illusions and psychological confusion, but instead has a clear view of the real world. If the speaker can see the world clearly, why not trust her? And since the speaker is brave enough to refuse the demands of decorum, willing to tell it like it really is, she has proven her commitment to truth. Furthermore, this implies that there is a world to be seen clearly and, recalling Machiavelli’s comparison of himself to a landscape painter, a privileged vantage point from which to gain an understanding of the truth. The idea that reality depends on one’s perspective (and that these varying perspectives are legitimate) has no place. Since one should trust one’s fellow citizen, and since some speakers are especially trustworthy and can understand the world for what it is, rather than what they want it to be, why all the need for public discussion?

The Certain Self

In his discussion of the realist rhetorical style (to which I will return later), Robert Hariman argues that in this style of professedly sincere speech, “self-assertion is the essential speech act . . . once discourse . . . has been discarded as a means for completing a political scenario, and incapacitated as a source of political motives, the individual becomes the principle of cohesion by default.” The individual’s authenticity is the measure of validity, and the sincere speaker is one with an authentic, unitary self. She disdains ritual language, role-playing, fancy constructions, in favor of straight talk. This person is dispassionate—the assertive self is in control. The irrational emotions do not obscure clear thinking. This tendency helps reinforce a false understanding of our relationship with language as something standing apart from reality, a tool to be used only in a descriptive (as opposed to productive) manner. It also helps privilege a stereotypically masculine style of talk—self-confidence, certainty, and a seemingly dispassionate tone demonstrate the speaker’s commitment to the discussion. Moreover, because the sincere speaker is unitary, there is no split self, no self-consciousness that would allow the speaker to manipulate her own words for greatest effect. Expressions of belief are authentic in that the speaker truly holds them without reservation. Yet this ignores the fact that whenever we speak, we choose words—there are no necessary and natural political statements.

This emphasis on an individual’s assertions oversimplifies human psychology. It assumes that the speaking individual can see her own intentions clearly and that those intentions are both stable and unitary (or at least not conflicting). It also assumes that the individual has ready access to language that expresses her feelings clearly and that those words correspond to a stable intention in the individual. But we make statements contingently, stilling for a moment the constant flux and uncertainty of ourselves to say something. There are always gaps between what we are able to express and what is going on in a particular situation. Appreciating this complexity does not mean silencing ourselves or never making any positive statements; however, it does require that we know what it is that we are actually doing.

The sincerity norm can take for granted that a person would have only one motive when engaging in discussion and privileges the idea that a person will only communicate one thing by what she says. However, there are many situations in which we say something and may mean several things; this saturation of meaning is not a pathology of speech, but a rich resource. Instead of a straightforward, single intention that can be expressed simply, intentions may be multilayered. In unintentional irony, a person is not even consciously aware of all the possible extralinguistic meaning in her statement (i.e., a prescription drug addict condemning alcohol abuse). By thinking about her multiple intentions in making such statements (i.e., concern about drug abuse in society and unresolved anxiety about her own life), she can come to a better understanding of her social world. Other times, the multiplicity of intentions may be known to the speaker—a political cartoon exists both to entertain and criticize. But the joking and hyperbole on which such cartoons rely muddy the idea of a single, transparent intention. Storytellers and songwriters also come to mind—can we know their “true” intentions? In other situations, a person may actually want or feel something for two reasons, one that the listener may find attractive and another that she may find unacceptable (i.e., a person supports an environmental regulation because it is normatively right, but also because the person’s family member stands to profit from its enforcement). Full disclosure becomes much more complicated and threatening; we have trouble imagining how the second motivation could really coexist with the first.

A person may have multiple intentions when engaged in a communicative act; full disclosure may be impossible, too lengthy, or may obstruct the point of the discussion. Multiple intentions are not necessarily devious—they are often just a fact of human psychological complexity. As I will discuss in Chapter 3, hidden or unclear intentions may compel the listener to a deeper engagement with the matter at hand, forcing an intellectual engagement that strengthens the group endeavor (and it may just as well fail). Further, how one’s intentions are perceived has its own impact. We cannot fully determine how other people will perceive what we do or say. In light of this, we must make our understanding of deliberation more complex—otherwise, critics can too easily discredit certain speakers as insincere, uncooperative, or devious. For example, if one uses irony or joking in a communicative endeavor, one may be thought of as obscure or as lacking seriousness. This can occur in two ways. First, the very use of irony or joking may erroneously signal to the listener that the speaker does not take the matter seriously. Second, practices like irony, parody, and sarcasm are often misunderstood, leading to confusion. But irony also relies on this duality—a straightforward joke is unlikely to be a funny or intellectually stimulating one. What is crucial here is that the intentions of the speaker are not entirely transparent; what looks like insincerity may actually be a useful mode of communication. This is also not to say that irony is necessarily a “better” form of speech than straight talk; things called “ironic” may also be flip, antipolitical, or self-defeating. Instead, I want to highlight the difficulties of thinking of political deliberation in terms of intentions.

One could argue that irony is parasitic on sincerity—that is, irony is only irony because we usually assume that people are being sincere. But irony can be more complicated than that. In the type of irony I have in mind, we may never really know what the ironic speaker means. As Chapter 3 will make clear, it is not a simple matter of taking the meaning to be the opposite of what is expressed; the ironist may mean exactly what she is saying, the opposite of that, or some combination of the two. Instead of feeding off sincerity, the most interesting irony calls into question the usefulness of the distinction between sincerity and insincerity. Given its instability, it seems logical that there might be instances in which irony or joking are unacceptable, as when one appears in a court of law. If our attention to sincerity might be relaxed a bit, when is it appropriate to do so? However, to decide beforehand under what circumstances or how irony should be deployed would be to fall again into what we want to avoid—prejudging the reasonableness of arguments. We cannot know beforehand what particular configuration of circumstances and personalities might call for irony. The force of irony—what makes it unique and powerful—is its strangeness and its spontaneity.

Admitting Rhetoric

A variety of modes of speech are omitted from strict conceptions of deliberative democracy. Young has pointed out the absence of greeting, rhetoric, and storytelling in deliberative democratic theory. John Dryzek likewise argues:

Some deliberative democrats, especially those who traffic in “public reason,” want to impose narrow limits on what constitutes authentic deliberation, restricting it to arguments in particular kinds of terms. . . . A more tolerant position, which I favour, would allow argument, rhetoric, humour, emotion, testimony or storytelling, and gossip. The only condition for authentic deliberation is then the requirement that communication induce reflection upon preferences in non-coercive fashion. This requirement in turn rules out domination via the exercise of power, manipulation, indoctrination, propaganda, deception, expressions of mere self-interest, threats (of the sort that characterize bargaining), and attempts to impose ideological conformity.

We still need to better understand why there is such opposition to admitting rhetoric and exactly what the stakes are. I believe that the disagreement surrounding the place of rhetoric in deliberation stems from the notion that the use of rhetoric brings into question one’s sincerity (and one’s commitment to consensus). A common way to impugn an opponent is to claim that the person is using “rhetoric.” The speaker is pandering, playing with words in order to win. For critics, rhetoric is insincere—it is language specifically chosen in order to persuade. Rhetoric involves an acknowledgment that words are chosen and tied to a particular situation and audience. And if one’s words differ depending on who is listening, then language is strategic, which calls into question the deliberative motives. For many people, rhetoric is akin to the “manipulation” and “propaganda” criticized here by Dryzek.

Meanwhile, other deliberative democrats argue that they either do not banish rhetoric from deliberation or that rhetoric has no place in certain areas of it. For example, Benhabib argues both of these points:

Each of these modes may have their place within the informally structured process of everyday communication among individuals who share a cultural and historical life world. However, it is neither necessary for the democratic theory to try to formalize and institutionalize these aspects of communicative everyday competence, nor is it plausible—and this is the more important objection—to build an opposition between them and critical argumentation. Greeting, storytelling, and rhetoric, although they may be aspects of informal communication in our everyday life, cannot become the public language of institutions and legislatures in a democracy for the following reason: to attain legitimacy, democratic institutions require the articulation of the bases of their actions and policies in discursive language that appeals to commonly shared and accepted public reasons. In constitutional democracies such public reasons take the form of general statements consonant with the rule of law. The rule of law has a certain rhetorical structure of its own: it is general, applies to all members of a specified reference group on the basis of legitimate reasons.

Yet it is not clear that Benhabib has not built an opposition between the other modes and argument, as she seems to disallow greeting and storytelling. This passage also seems to limit deliberative democracy to the formal spheres of government, which is certainly not the sole originating location of understanding in a democracy. Benhabib’s deliberative democracy here consists of statements formally promulgated by such institutions, but elsewhere she favors a decentered model. She bars some types of rhetoric from the “public language of institutions,” which remains only a small component of the cacophony of deliberative democracy. The language used in this arena must be pure and abstract, cleansed of the corrupting and particularizing influences of rhetoric (although Benhabib acknowledges that this is its own rhetorical style). But one of deliberative theory’s most appealing aspects is that it helps explain opinion formation throughout society, not just in the formal “core.” The average citizen is more likely to encounter associational life and mass media on a regular basis than the formal institutions and statements of government. Moreover, something like greeting surely has something to do with the cooperation and conflicts that exist in legislatures prior to promulgations of law (as Vice President Cheney and Senator Patrick Leahy would surely attest after their June 2004 exchange on the Senate floor, in which the vice president told the senator to “go fuck yourself”). The titles of bills, the preambles and “Findings” sections of legislation, and Supreme Court opinions, for example, often contain narrative and imagery—sometimes helpful, sometimes troubling—that many would characterize as rhetorical. Finally, it is not clear that the ideal of language purged of such elements would necessarily be more “commonly accepted” and legitimate.

While often perceived by critics to be a distinct element of speech, rhetoric is a quality of all (human) language use, one that is thoroughly intertwined with any utterance. Since the “linguistic turn,” we know that all communication bears a relationship to the social context in which it is uttered. In contrast to the claims of hyper-sincerity, “all language is already artificial, all speaking is unplain by design.” There is no speech that is completely natural, unchosen, and necessary. Each statement has rhetorical elements by virtue of the fact that it appears in our world and has an effect based on its particular expression and context. Pace Young, scholars of rhetoric tell us that rhetoric is not a separate class of communication from storytelling and greeting, but rather a master category by which all statements can be dissected and understood. Sometimes rhetoric is used more self-consciously than at other times (the point of classical rhetorical study), but it is always a part of communication: “Rhetoric is employed at every moment when one human being intends to produce, through the use of signs or symbols, some effect on another.” Just as storytelling and humor have rhetorics, so do mathematics and social scientific analysis. So we do ourselves a disservice to believe that rhetoric could be separated from communication, idealizing a false possibility that empowers hyper-sincere speakers (this does not mean that all hyper-sincere speakers are intentionally using such a style; nevertheless, their style has particular political effects). Rhetoric depends on context, which always exists, and to acknowledge rhetoric is to recognize that statements and speakers are always situated. In different contexts, the same statements can mean very different things; meanwhile, “all successful communication within any given domain will depend on tacit shared assumptions about standards and methods.” As Young argues: “Rhetoric announces the situatedness of communication.” This fact is an unavoidable feature of communication. One speaks quite differently at an academic conference than one would in rural Louisiana. To speak in the same way at both locations simply would not make sense. Both the occasion and the audience are different, and the wrong voice would unduly limit the prospects of being heard. But, as Garsten points out, rhetoric requires the exercise of judgment, and the contemporary landscape is marked by a deep aversion to risk and uncertainty; deliberative theory deals with this aversion by asking people to accept one authoritative public point of view that obviates the need for the risky work of persuasion and individual judgment.

For many deliberative democrats, there is a sharp line between sincere (and therefore true) speech, which leads to a democratically legitimate end, and other forms and aspects of speech. If these norms are intentionally violated, action moves to a strategic level in which behavior is influenced not by the power of words, but by the imperative of “maximizing gains and minimizing losses in the context of competition.” Yet this binary is too harshly drawn and impossible to preserve; many things may be going on in a speech situation. No form can a priori be judged to ensure truth and democratic legitimacy; it must be judged in light of the complex relations between speakers, language, and political reality. This is especially true in light of the fact that in a mass democracy, most people will come to political discussion through media, rather than in the “safe havens of deliberation” that attempt to overcome the asymmetries of mass media. Although proposals for deliberative forums are on the rise and some forums hold great promise, the fact remains that most people will most often experience formal democratic debate from their couch. This is a monologue, not a discussion, and rhetoric will play an even greater role here than in face-to-face communication. This creates certain challenges for deliberative theory as scholars try to spell out exactly how mass communication can form part of a healthy deliberative democracy. As Simone Chambers points out: “If theories of deliberative democracy assume that all such [asymmetrical and mediated] public exchanges are ‘bad,’ they limit themselves and risk becoming overly utopian and irrelevant to the real workings of large modern democracies . . . we must look to the possibility of a deliberative orator.”

The goal thus becomes to try to tease out what qualities make for a good deliberative orator. Chambers, following Aristotle, counsels an attention to ethos, or the character of the speaker: “What guarantee do we have that such appeals are not used to manipulate hearers in illegitimate ways? One answer is to turn to ethos. We should only be listening to those with virtuous characters.” For many interpreters, Aristotelian ethos involves one’s public reputation and long-standing moral qualities, developed through years of practicing phronesis. I do not think it is a stretch to argue that most people would include the quality of sincerity in a description of a “virtuous character.” Given my wariness of sincerity, it should come as no surprise that I have reservations about this particular gloss on ethos. However, given the fact of asymmetrical and mediated democracy, ethos seems critical. The question is, what sort of ethos? An ethos of sincerity? Or is there another possibility?

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