Doubles on Scorched Earth

Situated at an intermediate yet uncertain (and apparently capricious) point between the parliamentary debate and the party rally, the television debates have been incrementing in multiples of two: two debates for the frontrunners, two debates for other candidates (for Barcelona, for example, on RTVE and TV3), the debates conventionally between two have now been between four or between six, and until the election year itself a double round between April 28 and May 26 seems much more likely.

There have been even debates, yes, also odd ones for the naysayers (and the “no means no” folk), the denials, the negativity, the exclusions notwithstanding. There have been debates, or rather moments during the debates, which looked typical of doubles matches between the left and the right. Of tennis, perhaps (although without saving the smashes), only not on clay. By the accumulation of bile, misdirected energy, real or feigned animosity, outright rudeness and pompous arrogance, these debates seemed rather like doubles on scorched earth. I don’t despise that one English word, which I heard a British professor say with a look of disgust that embodied its meaning, to summarize what these debates have truly been: nasty.

Alas, with all the anticipation that they stirred, the experience has only led to a disappointing paradox: the more necessary they seem, the more oversaturated and corrupted we become once they are through. The narrow-minded suggestion, emphasized by Pablo Iglesias, that the electoral debates must be bound and regulated by law is a symptom of that very Hispanic peculiarity of wanting to solve by legal means with small print what ought to belong to the life-giving spirit of the democratic arena.

If this demand to hold debates is truly so imperative, such a spirit cannot be expressed only by party officials who routinely or habitually appear on television networks on any night to campaign and say everything and more, but should rather be based on requirements which can’t really be codified yet constitute at the very least a minimum standard of civility. In short: no transgressions should be tolerated that in any other form of public discourse would serve to terminate the act.

But if clashes have been so rough it’s because they constitute a very pure expression of something as extremely murky as it is widespread: the destructive ways of the Spanish dialectic (it is a saying). Conceived as a strategy (or so it seems), this sensationalism and shrillness threaten to conquer the playing field, but have they succeeded? Note that simply answering yes or no will seem very ambiguous at best.

The field of public discourse is divided and sectarian, and in media it’s as such or even more than in politics itself, in a way that not only are these tendencies transmitted onto television sets, but moreso, as if in a loop, they have achieved continuity in the media itself.  Therefore, instead of a unanimous attitude of the press being repulsive, each one is more attentive in order for their sponsors come out well to be able to declare them something like victorious.  Sometimes, as it has been observed, in stark contrast to the opinion of pundits.

That is why the rather vivid comparison of television with “entrails” has been so frequent, moreso with Mediaset than Atresmedia, or that it resembles screaming in a nightclub while the music is blasting on full.

At a glance, in a hyperconnected society, the fastest solution always seems the most efficient. However, applied to the societal sphere, this recipe just doesn’t work like that. It would be as much as equating giving a concussion to convincing someone, unless that other isn’t persuaded to punch back not even with reason.  Some have acted like the Allied generals in the First World War, with the confidence that carpet bombing annihilates the enemy to allow an advance into no man’s land. Only that this adversary is comfortably crouched and doesn’t hesitate to respond with machine-gun fire: less forceful, but more deadly. Alas, they can’t even occupy trenches, not even reaching melee combat.

By contrast, venturing on to renounce these behaviours, as did Pablo Iglesias in his second debate, runs the risk of falling into irrelevance, wanting to make an example of the counterexample. Also, notice that for this he even had to supply the moderators with their reprimands. It was another striking feature: the moderators were so disoriented in such an overheated environment, so anxious that the contestants did not feel bound by any corset of courtesy, that the debates ended up falling apart. It is revealing that they didn’t receive later the reproaches that were directed towards Manuel Campo Vidal on similar occasions in 2015 and 2016.

We would add that among the most unusual has been the decision to have two debates in successive days between the spearheads of the four main parliamentary groups, and that this was due, above all, to an accidental stroke of serendipity, a reasonable decision by the Central Electoral Board: leave Vox out in the debate scheduled at Atresmedia. Reasonable, not for the technical criterion of lacking parliamentary representation, but for the comparative grievance by others who did. This kept Pedro Sanchez’s opportunism in shackles, as someone who embraces the virtues of public television only when the conjunction of private stations doesn’t come out to his liking. Forcibly restrained: had to go, had no other option, to both debates, such circumstances influencing his strategic conservatism in his manner of debating and in his poorer tendencies.

No less extravagant was being able to attend a debate in which two candidates fiercely attacked at first breath none other than the moderator! .They further contested not even the moderator’s role in the debate but even his position, handing him his letter of resignation already written! It happened in Barcelona, with Inés Arrimadas and Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo in front of Vicent Sanchis, the director of TV3. It was legitimate and perhaps necessary to ask that Sanchis not moderate the debate for being rejected and under prosecution from the parliament, as if the station didn’t have other journalists. It shouldn’t be ruled out that Sanchis used the debate to re-embellish his tarnished image. But once these things are accepted, you just have to adhere to the rules of the book.

And alas, another paradox: the political vice of abounding in falsehoods without qualms, so stark and frequent in this year’s debates, has stimulated in the media groups of fact-checkers to constantly prove the veracity of information ( from El objetivo of the La Sexta to La Vanguardia, to highlight the most prominent).”

However, offering these moral-political admonitions is not an obstacle to managing at the same time sound, measured advice of a decidedly technical nature. It’s because personal perplexities are not limited in this case to the hackneyed “what politicians we have” (with signs not of admiration but rather of resignation) but to an interrogative and surprised “but, what kind of advisors do these people have?! ”

First of all, an objective problem becomes clear: increasing the number of contenders in a sea of undecided voters implies that candidates not only have to persuade, but that they must begin by seeking out their voters amidst that enormous mass, just as voters for their preferred choice.  We must imagine strategies to that effect in order to excel without incinerating the whole debate into ashes.

Second, it is amazing that the last speech of each debate, the so-called “golden minute”, which ought to be resonant to end on a good impression, has been so utterly misused. The rhetorical similes that aspire to be unequivocally memorable, obscenely simplistic and awkwaredly pre-programmed rather than embodied by already unnatural actors – Rajoy’s “girl”, Rivera’s “Do you listen to the silence?” may end up flirting with the outright the ridiculous and are A-grade meme material. Interrupting by the urge to strike the last blows, as happened to Casado, is not exactly advisable either. That minute should be so rehearsed that it looks natural, doing without papers, free from any distraction. It has to be firm, impeccable and inevitable in the best sense of the word.

Third, equally striking has been the use and abuse of the so-called “visual elements” – framed pictures, doctoral theses, books, rolls of paper, graphics and statistics without an accredited source – that have splattered the debates spontaneously.  Susceptible to this mishandling was anything that could fit in the hand or in the meager podium (it was incredible how many things did). These have also been justly ridiculed.

All of which leads to the conclusion that, dialectical tricks aside, the debates require more professionalism and eloquence, devoid the rhetorical emptiness to which have, unfortunately, grown accustomed to. It must be understood that debates can be the occasion to present some ideological formula well devised by the one who intends to be “leader”, but we must devise a consistent strategy and persist in constructive ways: the virtuous methods seem initially weaker at first, but if they do take root they are unequivocally more solid.

To conclude, we should note that although this analysis in nature was devised quite a while before knowing any sort general election results, I invite the reader to consider to what extent does the way in which the political leaders proceed influence their respective performance and results.

This is just the end of the first act. The debates of the second, surely, may be less harsh, but not necessarily better. We’ll see.


                   

Pablo Carbajosa 

Officer responsible for the Public Speaking Area of Proa Comunicación and coordinator of the Debate Club at the Comillas Pontifical University of Madrid