I spent last year reading about deliberative democracy and thinking about dialogue. Western thought ever since Socrates has been very big on dialogue, on the idea that dialogue will lead to truth emerging and falsehood or lesser ideas fall away.
But I had a sense that there are limits to public dialogue. The outcome of a dialogue is still going to be confined to the impact of the knowledge and dynamics of the people in the room. It is magical thinking that dialogue will produce more than the sum of the parts.
That’s why I think citizen dialogues tend to generate risk-averse outcomes: because dialogue can neutralize the risk-taking extremes, curb the innovative thrusts, foment a “wait and see” approach that will be acceptable to all.
In Communication Theory, there is a lovely American thinker named John Durham Peters who says dialogue is overrated, and essentially, that if you want a revolution you have to dissemination (literally, "broadcasting"). He points away from Socrates and towards Jesus, and says you have to cast your ideas like seeds out to the crowd. In good soil they might take root, and in bad soil they probably won’t.
Dissemination leads us away from Socrates, towards Aristotle. It leads towards the idea of rhetoric, and to spicing up your logos (logic) with pathos (emotional acuity) and ethos (ethical credibility). It leads towards the idea of charisma, which Jesus had—though perhaps the older sense of charisma, of being not just charming but inspired.
Rhetoric involves someone taking the stage and others occupying the position of audience, at least for the moment, and taking what they do out of the experience. It can involve story-telling, as in Jesus’s parables. It certainly leads to the need for rhetorical craft, and for the construction of a message to be carefully honed to the audience and the circumstance, as Aristotle described.
Rhetoric is still a democratic process because people get to decide what they believe. It’s not as instantaneous as dialogue is meant to be, and perhaps not as egalitarian as dialogue can be—though for Socrates, dialogue was not the least bit egalitarian, we should remember, but was conducted between someone who knew and someone who did not.
Rhetoric is decidedly competitive. It is something done for a prize, whether a trophy or an elected position or influence. I don’t think there is necessarily anything shabby in that, though it is certainly different from the way something like science operates. Truth does *not* necessarily out in a rhetorical competition, which can certainly favour liars and other sophists if they are better at crafting their message than truthtellers. Rhetoric is P.R. writ large.
To conclude on the uncertain stakes of rhetoric, I would go to another biblical quotation: “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).
At least we have to hope they do.