BY PETER LOGE
In Plato’s dialogue Protagoras, Socrates’ young friend Hippocrates was excited that the sophist Protagoras was in town and was eager to study under him. But when Socrates asked precisely what Protagoras taught, Hippocrates could not come with an answer beyond Protagoras being someone who “knows wise things.” This troubled Socrates because “knowledge is food of the soul” and when the “soul is in question” one cannot be too careful. Socrates helpfully agreed to scout the situation out for his young friend, and they headed off to meet the sophist. Socrates asked Protagoras the same set of questions he asked Hippocrates. Protagoras told Hippocrates, “the very day you join me, you will go home a better man, and the same the next day. Each day you will make progress towards a better state.” Socrates pressed on Hippocrates’ behalf—better at what? If Hippocrates studied under a painter he would get better at painting, if he studied under a flautist he would get better at playing the flute, if he studied under a sophist at what would he get better?
Protagoras: What is the subject? The proper care of his personal affairs, so that he may best manage his own household, and also of the State’s affairs, so as to become a real power in the city, both as speaker and man of action.
Socrates: …I take you to be describing the art of politics, and promising to make men good citizens.
Protagoras: That…is exactly what I profess to do.
Socrates: …I did not think this was something that could be taught (Plato, 1948, p. 59).
Plato and Socrates spent a lot of time, across a number of dialogues, reinforcing their dim view of Protagoras and his fellow sophists. Their primary complaint was that without a clear understanding of the ideal, the just, or the true, those who taught eloquence were more likely to harm their pupils than to help them.
Protagoras’s claim is the claim of many professors today. We teach history, philosophy, political science and other liberal arts because the disciplines train our students how to think critically and write clearly. Broadly speaking, we give our students the tools necessary to make sound judgments and to be good citizens. My colleagues and I in the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University, and in communications and political science departments around the country, further claim to teach “the art of politics.” We teach our students how to write compelling speeches and ads, how to design issue and candidate campaigns, and otherwise use the tools of persuasion to get the public and policymakers to do what we want them to do. Most of this teaching is done absent a discussion of the moral worthiness of the topic or wisdom of the speaker; our focus is on getting students to make a compelling case.
Plato was far from the last critic of those who claimed to teach persuasion but not virtue. In about 95 C.E. the Roman orator Quintilian lamented that, “For as soon as the tongue began to offer a way of making a living, and the practice developed of making a bad use of good gifts of eloquence, those who were counted able speakers abandoned moral concerns and these [moral concerns], left to themselves, became as it were the prey of weaker minds” (Walzer, 2006, p. 268).
Two thousand years later, the mid-20th century rhetorical scholar and conservative public intellectual Richard Weaver complained that “in the not-so-distant Nineteenth Century, to be a professor of rhetoric, one had to be somebody.” For Weaver, rhetoric’s fall from intellectual grace was tragic because in his view rhetoric is “truth plus its artful presentation” (Weaver, 1953, 2015, p. 15). Weaver argued that “rhetoric at its truest seeks to perfect men by showing them better versions of themselves, links that chain extending up toward the ideal, which only the intellect can apprehend and only the soul have affection for” (Weaver, 1953, 2015, p. 25).
Weaver, like Plato, believed that rhetoric is, or ought to be, about the nature of the good. As such, those who teach rhetoric need to understand that nature and also how to explain it in compelling ways.
Weaver was echoing his contemporary and political opposite, George Orwell. In his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell—a committed socialist—wrote that “in our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing,” it is “largely the defence [sic] of the indefensible,” and is meant to “give the appearance of solidity to pure wind” (Orwell, 1970, pp. 165, 166, 171).
Quintilian’s complaints about “hack advocates” (Quintilian, 1922, p. 12 1.25) could have been written last week.
That people have been complaining about the vacuity of political rhetoric and the ethics of those who teach it for several thousand years, and we have managed to more or less wind up fine, does not mean we ought not to worry about teaching ethics. We need to teach political communication ethics because, in the words of Emerson College president Lee Pelton, “the world is still in want of clear headed citizens, tempered by historical perspective, disciplined by rational thinking and moral compass, who speak well and write plainly” (Pelton, 2010).1
The moment you read the phrase “now more than ever” it is wrong because you read it after someone wrote it (often long after), making it “then more than ever” with “then” being whenever it was the author first thought about dropping the cliché into the document. That said, there does seem to be some urgency to finding ways to reunite civic and political education, ethics, politics, and rhetoric. Now might not be “more than ever,” but it feels close.
Teaching ethics in political communication is tricky. It is easy to agree with Weaver that rhetoric ought to be taken seriously because what we say matters, and it ought to be tied to a greater Good because it is Good, and also because the Good is necessarily more persuasive. But that does little to address what the Good is. That one could even make such a claim seems absurd to many; how can I know what is best for someone whose life experience is wildly different than mine? Who am I to say what is right? After all, the leading professor of the art of politics (and arguably the first political consultant) said that “man is the measure of all things” (Gergel, 2003, p. 3). Surrendering to that ambiguity feels more intellectually honest than saying, “It’s always been bad so don’t worry about it.” But it does not let us off the hook.
Over the past several decades the political-industrial complex has become firmly entrenched. We are awash in lobbyists, digital strategists, strategic communication consultants, researchers, speechwriters, professional community organizers, direct mail firms, TV and radio production houses, and fundraisers. There are legislative staff, White House staff, governmental and quasi-governmental agencies, trade associations, non-profit and advocacy organizations, think tanks, and much more. While only a few of these professionals get rich, many make a decent living advocating for what might broadly be called the public good.2
Colleges and universities are both responding to and feeding the demand for political communication professionals. Increasing numbers of students start college with a career in politics in mind. More and more schools are offering majors, minors, graduate degrees, and certificates in political and strategic communication. Almost everyone has access to courses on advocacy, digital strategy, speechwriting, campaign management, and so on. Political science majors earn minors in communications, and business majors intern in Congressional offices. Our students are finding ways to learn the skills they need to be effective advocates.
But too often we do not help our students connect the mechanics of politics and persuasion with the ideals of justice or truth that politics is meant to advance. Political communication and advocacy are communication and advocacy about something. That something matters, and we should talk about it.
We need to teach our students that the point of political argument is to find the best path forward, and then how to engage in those arguments. We need to teach them that the path forward is about more than the win in the moment, that there is more at stake than the next election or piece of legislation, numbers of clicks, or “owning the libs.” We encourage our students to bend the long moral arc of the universe toward justice, but often do not tell them where the arc should point. We need to be sure our students know that, in Weaver’s words, “ideas have consequences.” (Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, 1948)
The problem is getting worse. Rather than “now more than ever,” we are in the position of “now is urgent.” We need to reenergize the study of political communication ethics and reintegrate ethics into political communication and the curriculum because its absence is acutely felt and the impacts of that absence are getting worse.
As the business of business became more complex, programs in teaching business emerged. As it became clear that left to their own devices business leaders might not always make ethically sound decisions, schools began to teach business ethics.
Now is the time to do for political communication what others have done for business (and countless other fields). Those who want to go into professions that are primarily talking about politics—running for office, speechwriting, making ads, campaigning, lobbying, and so on—should have to take courses in political communication ethics. Courses in speechwriting, campaigning, advocacy, and so forth should include at least one session on ethics.
The ethical challenges these budding political communication professionals will face are complex, and often go unnoticed in the moment.
Of course, one should never suggest a candidate is unfit for office based on gender, race, religion, or sexual identity. Of course, one should never share or re-share stories on social media that an advocate knows are not true. But in the day-to-day world of politics, advocates are rarely asked to do the obviously wrong thing.
More typical challenges are those shades of spin that one can explain away as “true if not entirely factual” or “true enough.” Ethical lapses are committed in a rush to get a comment on social media, a press release out the door, or just to finish a project to go home. Communicators tell themselves, “This isn’t quite right but the cause is important so it’s OK.” As a leading communications consultant suggested in a discussion about ethics in advocacy, sometimes you may need to choose between your principles and your cause. Even if staff or consultants see these challenges in the moment, they do not feel empowered to raise their concerns without risking their jobs. Our graduates need to balance doing good and paying off their student loans.
Advocates face ethical choices at every step of a strategic communication campaign. The best campaigns start with a discussion of strategy and framing. It is axiomatic that issue definition “is at the heart of the political battle” (Jones, 2009, p. 29). Those who can define the terms of a debate are far more likely to win it. In highlighting a compelling angle or approach to a topic, advocates necessarily hide less compelling angles. Choosing what to foreground—and thus what to background—matters. In choosing to make criminal justice “about” the allocation of scarce resources, those concerned with incarceration rates may achieve policy success. But this framing hides the more daunting issue of race in criminal justice policy. Setting aside race for the win may be an immediate good, but it may also come at the expense of an arguably more important conversation about race and justice that is far more difficult to resolve.
Achieving agenda status comes with its own ethical choices. Any effort that gets an issue on policymakers’ agendas necessarily bumps something else off the agenda, forcing advocates to choose between their issue and issues that matter a great deal to others. For example, the government has a limited amount of money to spend on medical research. Any communications effort that persuades policymakers to fund research in one area denies funding to someone else. Advocates have to decide if their research is worth taking funds from someone else (or taking money from an unrelated federal program, adding to the debt, or raising taxes—the money has to come from somewhere).
Once strategy has been set, communications professionals are confronted with a dizzying array of ethical questions around tactics. For example, individual stories play an important role in many campaigns—advocates put a face on an issue to make the issue real and salient. The choice of whose face to use can be an ethical minefield. Stock photos avoid the risk of exploiting an individual’s tragedy, but they are not “true” representations of an issue; on the other hand, a picture of someone impacted by the issue reduces their pain to a prop to advance a cause and forever traps that person in the worst moment in their lives. The goal of a picture is to evoke sympathy or fear, to make a decision-maker think “this could happen to me, someone like me, or someone I love.” But those who need the most help often look different from those in power. In choosing a familiar—and thus more sympathetic—face, advocates may have policy success but may also reinforce a view that those who look like policymakers deserve the most attention. Conversely a picture that represents most of those who would benefit from the policy may perpetuate a view that “those people” need “our” help, reinforcing stereotypes and power dynamics that led to the problem in the first place.
The list of ethical challenges goes on. Communicators need to consider what personal information, if any, is legitimate to use against an opponent (or that they should reveal about their own side); which data are relevant and “accurate enough”; which coalition partners with whom to work; whose money to accept or reject; whether or not to correct misleading information that supports their cause; and more.
Professional codes of conduct can help inform answers to these questions. But such codes generally do not deal with the gray areas in which the difficult decisions get made. There are also few, if any, consequences to violating professional codes of conduct. Advocates often need to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, not because they will be sanctioned for doing the wrong thing.
We cannot hope to answer all of the questions for our students. But we can help equip them with the tools they will need to make good judgement calls. We can ensure that the first time they think about how to respond to an attack ad is not at 10:00 p.m. the Thursday night before an election, and that they know to ask “who is left out?” when developing messaging.
The obvious first step is to talk about ethics in our classes. Adding a discussion of ethics to courses you or your colleagues teach is easy to type, but more difficult to do. Taking a normative position—claiming “this is right”—runs counter to how many view teaching (to say nothing of the world). That pressure is somewhat relieved if faculty focus on encouraging students to reflect on their own ethics, rather than asserting a specific ethical standard.
The other challenges to adding ethics to courses are no less daunting: time and resources. A week spent on ethics is a week not spent on narrative, framing, or other elements of persuasion. Adding an entire course is even more difficult because that involves finding both faculty and encouraging (or requiring) student interest. The effort is nevertheless critical. When we teach our students how to talk about politics, we must teach them that how they talk matters.
The challenge of good teaching material is happily getting better. The Media Ethics Initiative at University of Texas is developing political communication ethics case studies for students, and the website for the Project on Ethics in Political Communication has links to articles, books, and other resources. There is also a new text book on the theory and practice of ethics in political communication with chapters from both academics and practitioners (Loge, 2020).
As academics, we should probe the question of political communication ethics. Can there be a political communication ethics absent a shared external understanding of the Good? What are the electoral implications of “ethical” campaigning? What are the ethics of agenda setting, framing, and priming? Is there a gap between what academics think about ethics and how ethics are practiced? What do we do about that? The questions are endless and important.
Many of us who teach advocacy and political communication also speak publicly and in the press. We should make the ethics of political communication part of what we talk about. As we pen op-eds, talk to groups, or respond to media inquiries, we should raise issues of the ethics of political communication. When we point out that candidate rhetoric may move to the extremes during primaries and to the middle during the general election, we should ask if that amounts to lying half the time. When we are asked about civil political discourse, we should note that civility and ethics are not always the same thing, and that America could use a bit more of both. We should make ethics as standard a part of our rotation as comments about social media echo chambers and the effectiveness of protests.
Finally, those of us who advise advocacy and candidate campaigns need to bring our ethical questions with us to client meetings. Being biting, clever, effective, and ethical at the same time can be difficult. But our clients pay us to do difficult things. We can prove that one can do good, and do it right.
Somewhere between Plato and the early 2000s ethics became the kid rhetoric left at a rest-stop saying he’d be right back. It is past time to reintroduce the teaching of ethics to the teaching of persuasion. If our political communication seems grounded in pure wind that may be because too few of us who taught those doing the political communicating suggested it should be otherwise. We should fix that.
1. Emerson College was the second school to offer a degree in political communication, I am an early graduate of the program. The George Washington University was the first to offer the degree.
2. I am very much a part of this system. Over 25+ years I have held a number of communications and management positions in an out of government in addition to teaching.
Baumgartner, Frank R. and Bryan D. Jones. (2009). Agendas and Instability in American Politics (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (https://www.press.uchicago. edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/A/ bo6763995.html)
Gergel, J. D. (2003). The Greek Sophists. London: Penguin Classics.
Loge, P. (2020). Political Communication Ethics Theory and Practice. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Orwell, G. (1970). A Collection of Essays. Boston: Mariner Books.
Pelton, L. (2010, September 8). Acceptance Speech. Retrieved from Emerson College: https://www.emerson.edu/about-emerson/leadership/office-president/speeches-remarks/acceptance-speech
Plato. (1948). Protagoras. (S. Buchanan, Ed., & B. Jowett, Trans.) New York: Viking Press.
Quintilian. (1922). Institutio Oratoria. (H. E. Butler, Trans.) London, Cambridge, London, MA, England: Harvard University Press, William Heinemann, Ltd. Retrieved from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2007.01.0069%3Abook%3D12%3Achapter%3D2%3Asection%3D6
Resources. (n.d.). Retrieved from Project on Ethics in Political Communication: https://ethicsinpoliticalcommunication.org/professionals
Walzer, A. (2006). Moral Philosophy and Rhetoric in the Institutes: Quintilian on Honor and Expediency. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 263-280.
Weaver, R. (1948). Ideas Have Consequences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Weaver, R. (1953, 2015). The Ethics of Rhetoric. Brattleboro: Echo Point Books & Media.