Gish gallop

By James Jimenez

Admittedly, I was disappointed by the outcome of the Trump-Biden debate, last week. Like many others, I was hoping that the one serious candidate for the American presidency would put the other one in his place – there certainly being no shortage of reasons to disqualify the Republican. As it turned out, however, the Democrat seemed to have been overmatched; many times, left with his mouth hanging open. As a result, many observers – for the mainstream media in particular – felt that Biden lost. But did he really?

Did Biden Lose?

As a political observer, I do tend to look for eloquence and effective come-backs and put-downs – both of which were in woefully short supply from the Democratic candidate. And so it is easy to understand where the perception of defeat comes from. However, as a debater myself, I’ve been able to look beyond the shortcomings, and understand that the loss was more a matter of style than substance.

The Republican candidate employed a rhetorical technique called the Gish Gallop – that’s where a debater unleashes a rapid series of many specious arguments, half-truths, misrepresentations, and outright lies, all in a short period of time. This approach is intended to overwhelm the opponent with a veritable firehose of arguments and statements, that the opponent literally can’t even begin to argue back.

The firehose

In the American Presidential debate, this firehose was mostly in the form of false claims. A major news network reported at least thirty separate instances of untruths, from claiming that some Democratic states allow the execution of babies after birth, alleging that the US currently has the biggest budget deficit ever, to declaring that many migrants illegally crossing into the US are from prisons or mental institutions. And of course, he claimed that the 2020 elections was riddled with fraud despite multiple courts declaring that no fraud had been proven.

Because these lies came so fast and thick, the opponent was effectively prevented from adequately addressing each point. And because the lies spanned multiple diverse topics, there was simply no time or opportunity to respond adequately, let alone comprehensively.

 Happens here too

This technique is so familiar to me because I spent nearly two decades as spokesperson of the COMELEC trying to defend against this exact same tactic, which was a favorite of the anti-automation crowd.

Many times during public fora and interviews on radio and tv where I would face off against an array of automation naysayers, the arguments would range from the misleading, to the outrightly false. The pattern goes: a bogus argument is made, a rebuttal is given, and rather than take down the rebuttal, a new and completely separate argument is thrown into the discussion. The goal is to confuse the audience and give the impression of having a stronger position by sheer volume of claims. As a side-effect, to an uninformed audience, the sheer number of points can create the illusion of thoroughness and knowledge.

“The ballots are pre-marked, so the outcome is pre-determined,” for example, to which I would respond with the logical argument that voters would not accept pre-marked ballots. From there, my interpolator would go “What about the supplier not wanting to release the entire source code?” This pattern is repeated over and over, and the answers are never satisfying, simply because there is not enough time to do a proper debunk, and in any case, the slightest amount of pushback triggers a jump to another argument, shifting the discussion away from a thorough discussion of the key issues, making it practically impossible to dispose of the core arguments.

I probably did not look as shell-shocked as the Democratic candidate did, but I assure you, I was just as overwhelmed – not because I was in the wrong, but because the false arguments were too numerous to counter effectively within the limited time available.

Not the end of the world

Burying the opponent in a flood of information is, without a doubt, an effective rhetorical technique. However, at its core, it is nothing more than an attempt to manipulate an uninformed audience into thinking that one knows more than one does, or that one’s opponent is unable to answer. “Walang maisagot,” as we say. This is certainly what the Republican candidate wants people to think, coming out of the first debate.

And initially, that was exactly what happened – even the New York Times came out with an OpEd that harped precisely on how outmatched Biden seemed to be, and demanding that Biden be replaced as a candidate. With the benefit of reflection however, and a post-debate poll that showed Biden getting a bump upward in his numbers, more and more people are re-examining their initial impressions of the debate.

To me, this underscores the necessity for an informed electorate. Voters who truly understand the issues and who are aware of any attempts to distract or mislead them, would not be so easily sent into a panic when faced with a barrage of seemingly valid and unanswerable arguments. Voters who are informed would be more likely to step back and analyze the quality of the arguments, rather than accept them at face value. And when they do that, the chances are the decisions they make on election day will be more the product of mature and intelligent reflection, than a hysterical reaction to bad-faith attempts at Gish galloping them into stupidity.


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