Polemics: A remedy for fake news?


In the present era, we are increasingly seeing the communication between politics and the people constrained to 280 characters, simplified into soundbites and misconstrued in clickbaiting articles. Communications are increasing exponentially whilst the quality of the information transferred is dropping precipitously. This has led to or emphasised phenomena such as the fake news epidemic, political apathy and a seemingly never ending spiral of voter disapproval.


The appeal to short flashy interactions certainly has its beneficiaries; Jeremy Corbyn used it to great affect with young voters and Donald Trump used it to quickly ensnare the disillusioned voters of middle America. However, it is undeniable it has come at the cost of nuanced debate and well justified argument.


Perhaps it is time to look to the past for a solution, and more specifically how polemics were once used as an integral tool of political discourse.


But that beggars the question: what is a polemic?


A polemic is simply a piece of literature written to attack an idea the author considers wrong, and in some cases it will also juxtapose its own ‘correct view’ to further support its conclusions. Polemics have come in many lengths and forms, some being short essays, some being longer pieces, or even novellas as is the famous example of George Orwell’s Animal farm.


The prominence of polemics declined due to increasingly stringent libel laws, and this is certainly a danger of them. For example, even the renowned Roman historian, Polybius, was said to write "quite bitter self-righteous polemic[s]". It is then difficult to distinguish between exceptionally long slander and a well thought out polemic attack on another’s idea or action.


Many forms of polemics can be applied for varying types of effect, such as the 18th century modest proposal by Jonathan Swift. In this piece he satirically argued that Irish peasantry suffering from famine should simply sell their children for food, in order to highlight their dire suffering.


One of the greatest problems with polemics throughout history is, ironically, when they are a little too persuasive; Martin Luther’s polemic ninety-five thesis that ignited centuries of religious strife in Europe is a particularly poignant example.


But how could they be useful in the current era?


The Humanist author Brian McClinton describes polemics as "rationalistic aggressiveness". While there’s no need to add more venom to the political system, a longer and more direct written attack than, for example, the POTUS’s twitter bickering, would have the benefit of forcing those involved to give more evidence and critical analysis to back up their assertions. A polemic requires more commitment to one’s argument, as there’s no doubt that it will be picked apart by an opponent, leaving false promises and outright lies more exposed to the reader.


An argument via a tweet is essentially just hit and run. Its quick and easy to show to a large audience, who give it a life of its own like a kaleidoscopic Chinese whisper. Attacking via tweet almost always lacks significant substance, but simultaneously this is also its strength. The lack of commitment and depth of argument makes it difficult to counter and easy to retreat from, as little has actually been stated in the first place. A response with nuanced focus on factors related to the subject of the tweet can therefore be cast aside as baseless assertion.


Ultimately the argument for polemics as opposed to tweets is the same as that of roundabouts over intersections: it forces you to be more cautious with your thoughts and actions because if you don’t, you’ll get blindsided (by a better argument).


In a world where technology has increased the speed of communication to disorientating levels, we can never truly leave the quick-fire arguments and counter-arguments the internet has enabled. However, conscious introduction of a more well thought out and methodical route of written attack may catalyse higher calibre debate to the political sphere, and by extension allay some of the rapidly entrenching political discourse issues we now face.

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Please reload

Want to respond? Submit an article.


We provide a space for reasoned arguments and constructive disagreements.

Help to improve the quality of political debate – support our work today.