The Dragon Debates

How do the public themselves argue today, as compared with the political elites who are traditionally the focus of study? What rhetorical appeals do the public find most persuasive in practice and why?

‘How to live well with rhetoric?’ is a pressing question facing 21st century democracies: commentators and political scientists claim we are living through a ‘post-truth’ era, which has seen emotive soundbites and a disregard for experts undermine the health of democratic debate. Yet, these claims often reflect assumptions about what types of arguments ought to persuade us: rational, evidence-rich cases are, we are told, better than appeals to our emotions or the character of a speaker. From its classical origins, though, the study of rhetoric has always been less interested in prescribing ‘what arguments people should find persuasive?’ than in discovering ‘what arguments people do find persuasive and why?’

What did the project involve? 

Trigger and Angie Bual’s Hatchling project represented a unique opportunity to renew the tradition of rhetoric through a co-produced piece of research framed around two questions we need to answer if we are to start living well with rhetoric:

  • How do the public themselves argue today, as compared with the political elites who are traditionally the focus of study?
  • What rhetorical appeals do the public find most persuasive in practice and why?

‘What to do with the Dragon?’ and ‘What if it gets bigger?’ were classic opportunities for studying deliberative rhetoric, whereby the team attempted to persuade others about what to do next. Uniquely, though, an immersive fantasy scenario allowed the project to observe audience reactions to civic arguments without the distorting influences of party politics. The team’s plan was to work with the Hatchling project’s performers and production team to build in several opportunities for both studying and reflecting on public argument. These were to take place in three primary locations:

Town Hall Debate – As the dragon sleeps beneath City Hall, an ensemble of performers and real-world stakeholders were to debate what Plymouth/Bristol should do if it gets bigger. The investigator was to work with the performers involved to integrate differing styles of rhetoric into their speeches, which was to be filmed along with the audience’s reactions so the project could test long-standing hypotheses about the responses various rhetorical techniques produce: for example, do three-part lists or them-vs-us contrasts still provoke applause in the same way that academics showed they did at party conferences during the 1980s? As they leave, audiences were to be asked who they found most persuasive and why to contribute to the project’s dataset.

Speakers’ Corners – Taking inspiration from the famous corner in London’s Hyde park, they project intended to facilitate smaller debate scenarios that would provoke other genres of oratory; for example, next to the dragon’s egg when it first appears, two soapbox speakers or a newscaster character interviewing two pre-recorded experts will debate ‘what is it?’ (forensic oratory). The project intended to then capture audiences’ views by asking them to vote.

Social Media – Throughout the project the researchers intended to capture wider audiences’ arguments and reactions online. Primarily this was to involve social media text mining, but they intended to also release the video outputs below via different groups involved in the project and track how they are shared online to identify links (or absence of these) in Plymouth/Bristol’s social media networks. Crucially, these videos and other publicity were to contain a link to a webform that would encourage the public to report arguments they’ve heard about what to do with the dragon.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • James Freeman (History, University of Bristol) is a historian of contemporary British politics, economics and society, with particular research interests in the histories of rhetoric, political concepts, neoliberalism, Thatcherism, and digital humanities methodologies.
  • Angie Bual (Trigger) is a producer and artistic director of Trigger. She is a consultant and freelance independent producer. She has 10 years of producing experience, and has initiated and run several cross artform and sector projects.

What were the results?

The project engaged a city hall director to plan and orchestrate the public events, however, shortly before the intended date of the project a public tragedy in the city of Plymouth made the conditions inappropriate for the hosting of this style of public event and the project was cancelled. If the project had gone forward the researchers hoped for the following:

Rather than a static website, the project was to result in 1-3 short videos designed to be disseminated via social media. These videos were to combine footage from the Town Hall Debate, post-debate reactions from the audience, and data visualisations to present a picture of how Plymouth/Bristol argued about the dragon. These videos were intended to highlight the types of rhetorical appeals used and begin to draw out links with how we argue about other issues, such as immigration.