Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: Prof. Ben Voth


Ben Voth is an associate professor and the director of debate and speech at Southern Methodist University. @BenjaminVoth

1) To what ethical standard should political communication be held? Where should political communication ethics be grounded?

The notion of beloved community organized the American Civil Rights movement from at least 1942 to 1970.  While containing important Christian premises, the notions were shared by Jewish, Secular, Hindu and even Muslim participants.  The idea of love can be simply expressed in the notion of meeting the need of another person. Communication is a need that all human beings have and so facilitating communication among all people is an act of love.

King said that people fear each other because they don't know each other and that they don't know each other because they cannot communicate.  Ethical communication should further our human communication needs. Ethical communication leads to more communication not less. Intimidating strategies that make us unwilling to speak are not ethical.  This fits with a research point from my 2014 book The Rhetoric of Genocide. A concept of discursive complexity should reign in individuals, groups and nations. Profound moral problems like genocide can be evaded and prevented by adhering the communication precept articulated by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel:  What hurts the victim most is not the physical cruelty of the oppressor but the silence of the bystander.

2) Why should someone in political communication behave ethically?

Ideal political communication improves individual and collective conditions.  The existence of discursive complexity—the ability to consider and hear multiple points of views—is well correlated with higher life expectancy and better human outcomes.  South Korea has better outcomes for its human communities than North Korea because of communication ethics.

The recent declines in US life expectancy are likely tied to our inability to have more free conversations about health care and related problems.  Unethical communication gives rise to propaganda and fuels a cycle of genocide as individuals resort to violence in the absence of options.

3) Can you give an example of ethical political communication? What can people point to and say “do more of that?”

Two of my favorite examples of ethical political communication are:  Calvin Coolidge and James Farmer Jr. Coolidge had a careful habit of using words with discretion.  He made the following observations at the end of his Presidential career in his autobiography:

“Perhaps one of the reasons I have been a target for so little abuse is because I have tried to refrain from abusing other people.” pp. 185-186.

“The words of the President have an enormous weight and ought not to be used indiscriminately.” p. 186

“It would be exceedingly easy to set the country all by the ears and foment hatreds and jealousies, which, by destroying faith and confidence, would help nobody and harm everybody.  The end would be the destruction of all progress.” p. 186

“While everyone knows that evil exists, there is yet sufficient good in the people to supply material for most of the comment that needs to be made.

The only way I know to drive out evil from the country is by the constructive method of filling it with good.  The country is better off tranquilly considering its blessing and merits, and earnestly striving to secure more of them, than it would be in nursing hostile bitterness about its deficiencies and faults.”  p. 186

James Farmer Jr. had the nickname the Great Debater and his internalized ethics about debate created in him an extraordinary sense of patience in communication aimed at justice.  He would dialogue with a wide range of actors who held highly disparate and antagonistic beliefs. He was nonetheless successful in destroying segregation in the United States between 1942 and 1970 using non violence direct action communication techniques derived from Gandhi.

4) Can you give an example of an ethical challenge or question you or political communication professionals in your field have faced or are likely to face?

A major challenge we face is escalating sense of cynicism among those who teach young people.  Afro-pessimism and ecological pessimism can lead students and young people to the false conclusion that nothing can be improved.  This is untrue and we need to work to reverse this destructive spiral of cynicism as it was termed by Kathleen Jamieson.

5) What advice about ethics do you have for people studying political communication or starting their careers in the field?

Be idealistic.  Think about the hows and whys of idealism.  Draw from empirically successful examples. If you cannot think of successful examples in relation to a theory—it is probably not a good theory about political communication and ethics.