Background and rationale. During the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump made a habit of uttering disparaging and even legally reprehensible public statements. Interestingly, these messages were all plausibly deniable - and Trump often did deny having meant them. For instance, he was accused of (i) insinuating, after the first Republican primary debate, that the moderator’s (Megyn Kelly) alleged aggressiveness towards him was due to the fact that she was menstruating, and (ii) inciting murder on his Democrat rival, Hillary Clinton, by pondering whether “2nd amendment people” could “do something” to prevent her from being elected. These messages shared two properties: they (i) fulfilled an argumentative function of support that was (ii) implicitly expressed, in this case through insinuation. These messages participate to a form of democratic deficit: while their sheer presence is controverted (since they are deniable), they distract attention from main issues and support sneaky forms of misinformation. In other words, their rhetorical appeal may facilitate epistemic deficits which, in the public sphere, are themselves likely to generate democratic deficits by impacting norms of argumentation pertinent to message acceptability and equality among speakers. This project adopts a pragmatic perspective on meaning to investigate the rhetorical potential of implicit messages and its impact on linguistic norms of public argument. To do so, it relies on experimental methodologies.
Overall objectives. In terms of fundamental research, the project contributes to the cognitive and linguistic turn in argumentation scholarship by experimentally documenting how different types of implicit meaning can be used to trigger a range of rhetorical effects. From a critical literacy perspective, the project sheds light on how linguistic and pragmatic norms of public argument can be violated and makes its results available for integration in relevant defensive communication designs for public deliberation. In terms of networking, the project capitalises on the collaboration of Swiss scholars (vice-chair and substitute MC member) and European colleagues in key positions (Action chair and WG2 leaders) to both strengthen Switzerland’s participation to European research networks and benefit from the networking COST instruments.
Specific aims. The project seeks to (i) map types and functions of implicit meaning in argumentative discourse, and (ii) characterise types of rhetorical effects from a pragmatic vantage point. Through experimental designs, the project will furthermore investigate (iii) how different types of implicit meaning are conducive to different types of rhetorical effects and (iv) provide insights on how implicit meaning - and its problematic uses - can affect norms of public argument.
Methods. The experimental studies planned in this project implement psycholinguistic experimental research methods by measuring the effect of independent discourse variables on different evaluative responses.
Expected results. We expect to provide a detailed, experimentally validated, account of how implicitness can be exploited in public argument to fulfil different problematic rhetorical purposes at odds with linguistic and pragmatic norms of public argument. We also anticipate in particular that (i) the use of implicit meaning makes certain rhetorical effects more likely to arise than the use of non-implicit meaning and that (ii) among types of implicit covert speech acts, insinuation and dogwhistles - which allow for denial and de-committing strategies - are particularly well-suited to affect speaker ethos (their perceived image).
Impact. In terms of research impact, the project will confirm the usefulness of an experimental approach to deepen our understanding of the role of implicit meaning in the rhetorical success of arguments. In terms of pedagogical impact, the project will cohere with 2 of the main long-term impacts of the COST Action: by providing an account of how implicit meaning can be strategically exploited in public deliberation, it will inform the design of effective strategies meant to counter its nefarious effects. These, in turn, can be disseminated as part of the COST Action deliverables to help citizens critically identify fallacious argumentation and populist rhetoric in view of improving the quality of their decisions.