BusinessDay

2023 presidential campaigns: The media must beware of sophists and sophistries

Believe me, I’m not looking forward to the 2023 presidential campaigns that officially started last week on September 28.

Why? You might ask. Well, here’s why: I dread the thought of the likes of Festus Keyamo, Femi Fani-Kayode, Bayo Onanuga, Dino Melaye, Reno Omokri invading the airwaves and mouthing off on behalf of their principals, the presidential candidates.

These are undoubtedly smart people, but they are also Nigeria’s most prominent sophists and dissemblers, with enormous capacity for political doublespeak! Their sophistries diminish the political process and subvert democracy’s first principles, among which are honesty, integrity and character.

Many have called for issue-based campaigns. But truth is, in a country where character and integrity are not on the list of leadership credentials, where politics is devoid of truth and accountability, the political campaigns won’t be based on issues, facts and evidence, but on half-truths, deliberate misinformation and outright lies.

Inevitably, the prevalence of political hacks or hired guns, disguised as campaign spokespersons, who act as proxies and mouthpieces for the presidential candidates and represent them aggressively, will lead to arguments being presented falsely in order to make their principals’ weak cases appear strong.

Many have called for issue-based campaigns. But truth is, in a country where character and integrity are not on the list of leadership credentials, where politics is devoid of truth and accountability, the political campaigns won’t be based on issues, facts and evidence, but on half-truths, deliberate misinformation and outright lies

The Electoral Act 2022 attempts to sensitise campaign conversations. But while the act prohibits abusive language and hate speech and requires the media to give “equal” airtime, coverage and visibility to “all” political parties – unenforceable provisions – it says nothing about lies, false statements, deliberate untruths intended to deceive the electorate.

In other words, the electoral act does nothing to ensure that campaign statements and claims, either made by the candidates or by their proxies, help the voter in making an informed choice.

But, to be fair, you and I know that no electoral act can legislate against campaign lies and misinformation. The task of ensuring that politicians and their aides tell the truth falls professionally to the media, whose tough questioning can reveal and contradict rhetorical fallacies.

Given that most rhetorical tricks prey on sloppy thinking and passive acceptance, it takes critical thinking and tough questioning to tackle them. Unfortunately, although Nigeria has experienced TV journalists, hardly any of them possesses, in my view, the forthright, tough and incisive interviewing style that would expose sophists and sophistry.

This, I hasten to say, is not due to the interviewers’ lack of critical thinking. Rather, it is, in part, due to the seeming cosy relationships between journalists and political figures, unlike the professional detachment one sees elsewhere.

For instance, whenever Fani-Kayode or Omokri appears on certain TV stations, there’s an air of familiarity and informality between them and the interviewers. Hardly are incisive questions asked!

There’s also the cultural factor: too much deference is shown to political and public figures in Nigeria. Yet, as the Economist magazine once said: “A sceptical lack of deference towards leaders is the first step to reform.”

British journalists grill their politicians during election campaigns and wouldn’t let any sophistry go unchallenged. Where are the Jeremy Paxmans of Nigeria?

Before we proceed further, let’s address the definitional issues: What is sophistry, who are sophists and why are they unhelpful to electoral democracy? Well, sophistry is the unscrupulous use of rhetoric. To be sure, rhetoric itself is not bad; it’s the art of persuasion.

But when rhetorical tricks are used to make fallacious arguments, rhetoric becomes sophistry. Thus, as the Oxford Dictionary puts it, a sophist is “a person who reasons with clever but false arguments.”

Plato hated sophists with a passion. In ‘The Republic’, he argued that sophists corrupted and debased Athenian democracy by “prizing rhetorical success over philosophical truth”, and, even worse, doing so for money.

Plato found sophistry and sophists ethically objectionable and devoted much of ‘The Republic’ to attacking them for prioritising combativeness and point-scoring over the search for real truth.

In his book ‘The Tools of Argument’, Joel Trachtman says that “lawyers are the modern heirs of the ancient Greek sophists”, because in wanting to represent their client zealously they try to make the weaker argument appear the stronger. But lawyers are constrained by three factors.

First, as “officers of the court”, they must act honestly; second, the sharp tool of cross-examination can puncture false arguments; and third, a judge’s power of questioning and intervention will put any lawyer mouthing rhetorical fallacies in his or her place.

Sadly, political sophistry is not subject to the same constraints as legal sophistry. Which is why Keyamo, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, can, as a campaign spokesman, indulge in verbal incontinence and dissembling.

For instance, in 2002, Keyamo pursued up to the Supreme Court a case of certificate forgery against Bola Tinubu, then governor of Lagos State. But now, as Tinubu’s presidential campaign spokesman, Keyamo says the case, dismissed on a technicality, was a “storm in a teacup”. Really? So, he deliberately pursued a vexatious or frivolous case and wasted court time! Credibility is all the lawyer has to sell; well, apparently not when the lawyer is a presidential campaign spokesperson!

Keyamo’s aggressiveness in handling Tinubu’s presidential campaign truly amazes me. He bullies TV interviewers with his hectoring, combative and abrasive manner. He has even started a “Tinubu-Shettima podcast” through which he will freely spew out sophistries.

My theory is that, like the ancient Greek sophists, Keyamo is doing this for self-interested reasons. For someone who has not risen beyond Minister of State – a junior minister – in the eight years of President Buhari’s government, Keyamo must be hoping that if Tinubu becomes president, he will make him a substantive minister. I mean, how else does one explain his overzealousness and unscrupulous use of the arts of rhetoric, which, let’s face it, demeans his status as a SAN!

Well, what about Fani-Kayode, the quintessential sophist? He makes changeability and political nomadism seem as if they are virtues. He once viscerally opposed Tinubu; today, he supports him with the same zeal.

In May last year, he tweeted: “If anyone tells you that Tinubu is 69, tell him that FFK said he’s a liar,” adding: “BAT is closer to 100 than he is to 69.” He said Tinubu “slurs when he speaks” and that his “hands shake when he tries to eat and lift a fork and a knife.” In 2020, he issued a statement titled “An open letter to Jagaban”, asking Tinubu to retire from politics, adding: “Conclusion: it is over for Tinubu.”

Of course, Fani-Kayode is entitled to make his choices, but where, given his past utterances and actions, is the integrity of his now overzealous support for Tinubu’s presidential ambition?

But the opportunism goes both ways. In 2015, when Fani-Kayode was appointed Director of Media and Publicity of the Jonathan/Sambo campaign organisation, Tinubu issued a statement through his then media aide, Sunday Dare, saying: “That Fani-Kayode is the best a ruling party can present as a spokesman speaks volume about the PDP”, adding: “They are bereft of talent and character.”

Yet the same Tinubu recently appointed the same Fani-Kayode as Director of New Media for his presidential campaign. It’s called politics without principle, one of Mohandas Gandhi’s “Seven Social Sins”!

Why does this subject of sophists and sophistry matter? Well, it matters because, with Tinubu avoiding live interviews like plagues, the faces and voices you will see and hear ad nauseam on television during the campaign period are those of his official and unofficial spokespersons.

Keyamo, Fani-Kayode and Onanuga will go into overdrive to whitewash Tinubu. Of course, Melaye and Omokri will do the same for Atiku Abubakar and the “Obi-Dients” will fight Peter Obi’s corner on social media.

But the 2023 presidential campaigns are too important to be left to sophists. The media should promote the search for truth by identifying and countering sophistry, by exposing and challenging rhetorical fallacies.

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