Argumentation theorists have traditionally paid attention to political discourse as a fruitful source of examples illustrating the type of argumentative phenomena they were concerned with. Not in vain, it is a commonplace that the field emerged in response to the shortcomings of formal logic to deal with the intricacies of public discourse. In more recent times, philosophers of language and epistemologists have also started to consider the special features of communication and justification within political contexts. These three disciplines have joined efforts to shed light on the characteristic traits, functions, and normative conditions of political argumentation. For their part, political theorists and political philosophers have seen in public argumentation and deliberation not only an everyday phenomenon that demanded attention as regards its political implementation and scope, but also a legitimation method for political interactions and decisions. In the last few decades, a growing literature in Political Theory is exploring the role of argumentation as a methodology for public decision-making in specific cases.
This special issue of Topoi encompasses a collection of articles developed from nine selected contributions to the international conference Argumentation and Politics, held at the University of Granada, Spain, in April 2022. The participants in that conference, scholars from disciplines such as Argumentation Theory, Philosophy of Language, Communication Studies, or Political Theory, started then a fruitful, interdisciplinary dialogue that the reviewers of the articles joined during the editorial process. This dialogue has resulted in the present special issue, and we thank them all for their cooperative, open-minded, and rigorous work. The outcome is a collection of texts that, from a rich variety of topics, reproduce certain methodological patterns – like the interest in illustrating theoretical discussion with the applied reflection on contemporary issues – and widely overlap in their theoretical concerns.
One of these concerns are the specific features of communication in political contexts. Although this interest is shared by all the articles in this special issue, the three first ones explicitly focus on the pragmatics of political discourse.
Ideally, one would tend to think of political argumentation as an exchange of political proposals with the aim of assessing them and choosing the ones that better advance the agendas of the members of a political community. Real political exchanges, though, often get stuck in what ought to be just a preliminary step: the clarification of the meanings of the terms that are central to each debate. In fact, political argumentation often degenerates into a battle about the meanings of words, a battle in which the meanings of crucial terms are purposedly manipulated or involuntarily obscured. These points are illustrated by José Gascón’s paper “The Inferential Meaning of Controversial Terms: The Case of ‘Terrorism’”. In this paper, by resorting to the analytical tools provided by Robert Brandon’s inferentialism, Gascón shows how a pragmatist philosophical analysis can illuminate the controversial character of the term “terrorism”, a term lacking an internationally agreed definition. Because of this, as Gascón explains, although there is ample agreement on the epistemic, evaluative, and programmatic consequences of the application of the term ‘terrorism’, there is not a consensus on the conditions of application that determine in which cases the term is to be properly used.
The second article, “Distorted Debates”, by Claudia Picazo, focuses on the way in which political phenomena affect communication. As Picazo points out, disagreement on, and manipulation of the meaning of, central terms can affect the quality of political debate by means of one subtle strategy: speakers can be silenced by having the meanings of their words obscured by a subsequent speech act performed by another speaker. This strategy is what the author calls “retroactive distortion”. Retroactive distortion may have the effect of preventing the debate on certain topics from even occurring, and this can be a strategy of the powerful to silence the powerless by hiding their agendas.
The third article in this special issue deals with other contentious term, “extremism”, a label recurrent in political debate. The authors of “What is Extremism? Advancing Definition in Political Argumentation” (Hareim Hassan, Léa Farine, Nick Kinnish, Daniel Mejía and Christopher Tindale) believe that this concept remains vague and needs to be clarified. Instead of simply classifying or criticizing existing definitions, they grasp the nettle and argue for a definition that attempts at providing such clarification. Besides discussing in detail the advantages of their proposed definition, they illuminate the relationship between argumentation and definition, and provide criteria to distinguish the concept of extremism from other related concepts, like terrorism, radicalism, and fundamentalism.
Extremism appears again in the following article of this issue, although this time not through a study of the term, but as a discussion of the communicative strategies of the extremists. Sometimes, extremists of anti-democratic persuasion manage to enter legislative bodies of democratic countries and use their gained status to increase their influence. It is commonplace that some of the strengths of democracy may be seen as weaknesses when those who do not share democratic convictions take advantage of the framework of liberties and rights to challenge it. In his piece “Elected Extremists, Political Communication and the Limits of Containment”, Matej Cibik describes how these paradoxical situations arise in the contexts of public debate and political communication and proposes a multi-faceted communicative strategy to contain the extremists in a democratic environment.
The following article does not deal with the misuses of democracy, but with the tools that argumentation theory can provide to improve the quality of democratic participation. In “Arguing in Direct Democracy: An Argument Scheme for Proposing Reasons in Debates Surrounding Public Votes”, Michael Müller and Joannes Campell resort to one of the tools developed by contemporary argumentation theorists: argument schemes. They propose a particular argument scheme that can be used by citizens who are about to decide whether to vote “yes” or “no” in a referendum, a popular initiative or any other procedure of direct participation that are frequently set up by countries like Switzerland, and less often by others. Typically, such instances of public vote trigger complex public debates that can notably influence the voters’ decision. But the voters may find it difficult to understand and assess such debates to make up their minds. The argument scheme advanced by Müller and Campell may, hence, make a very valuable contribution to improving the usefulness of public debates for democratic decision making.
The theory of argumentation schemes also plays a central role in the two following articles included in this special issue. The first of them, i.e., Jan Albert van Laar’s paper “Arguments from Popularity: Their Merits and Defects in Argumentative Discussion”, deals with a frequent argumentative pattern in public debate. Van Laar distinguishes between arguments from popularity, stricto sensu, and those arguments appealing to a given policy’s alleged popularity. Genuine arguments from popularity would be those in which the popularity of an opinion is put forward as a reason to accept that opinion. According to the author, these arguments are not always fallacious, because in some cases people can be a reliable source, but they have very limited argumentative value.
Dima Mohammed’s contribution, “On Argumentative Associates and the Transmissibility of Commitment in Public Political Arguments” builds on another argument scheme: the scheme of Guilt and Honor by association, proposed by Groarke and Tindale. She agrees with the proponents of the scheme that acceptance of association is a legitimate source of commitment attribution but argues that association does not provide by itself enough ground for such attribution. The reason is that the attribution of the commitment by association needs to be argued for, and being this argumentation defeasible, commitment transmissibility is defeasible too. Mohammed claims, hence, that although under certain conditions arguers become accountable for the commitments of their “argumentative associates”, in some circumstances disclaimers can prevent a legitimate commitment attribution.
The last two articles of this issue focus on the role of frames in political discourse, by means of empirical studies of controversies occurring in the social media. The first of these articles is “Characterization Frames Constructing Endoxa in Activists’ Discourse about the Public Controversy Surrounding Fashion Sustainability”. Her author, Chiara Mercuri, provides linguistic-discursive tools for the analysis of characterization frames and shows how these contribute to constructing implicit premises through argumentative patterns. While the theoretical ground is provided by Pragma-Dialectics and the Argumentum Model of Topics, the empirical basis comes from a corpus composed of 400 social media posts related to a campaign for a more environmentally and socially fair fashion industry. This article, hence, in addition to its methodological and theoretical contributions, provides valuable insights on how real political argumentation proceeds in the social media.
Finally, “The Institutionalization of Hatred Politics in the Mediterranean: Studying Corpora of Online News Portals During the European ‘Refugee Crisis’” also analyzes public argumentation in the media. The authors of this article, Dimitris Serafis, Franco Zappettini & Stavros Assimakopoulos, use the tools provided by Critical Discourse Analysis and the Discourse-Historical Approach to study how mainstream news portals from Malta, Greece and Italy reported on the so-called “refugee crisis” in 2015–2017. The authors trace the main meaningful patterns of discursive and argumentation strategies found in these media to show that discriminatory discourses are not always explicit and sometimes take the form of “soft hate speech”. Although the examined discourse from the media cannot be labelled as prosecutable hate speech, since it does not explicitly incite to violence or hatred against immigrants or refugees, the authors contend that this kind of discourse validates anti-migrants and xenophobic attitudes and provides support for discriminatory decision-making in the European Union.
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Bermejo-Luque, L., Rodríguez-Alcázar, J. Introduction to the Topoi Special Issue “Argumentation and Politics”. Topoi 42, 543–545 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11245-023-09917-2