This paper examines the idea that straight talk can actually pose certain dangers for democracy by asking two interrelated questions. First, does our belief in the importance of sincerity necessarily improve political deliberation? Second, does our belief cause us to under-appreciate other important communicative resources? We will see that much hinges on our answers to these questions because they deal directly with whose voices are to be considered legitimate and authoritative in our public sphere. This paper begins from a deliberative democratic standpoint: democracy is a logocentric enterprise—that is, language is at the center of democratic political projects. So it is critical that we pay attention to how we evaluate political words. Otherwise, not only can we not really understand what is going on in the public sphere, but we are also more likely to make poor judgments about what sort of speech and speakers make our democracy more robust.
To explore these questions, this paper examines the discourse ethics that underwrite much of deliberative democratic theory (section I). It then goes on to discuss some of the dangers that the particular ethic of sincerity poses for democratic communication. The paper argues that the emphasis on sincerity:
too easily collapses the relation between claims to truthfulness and truth claims and contributes to an undemocratic epistemology;
oversimplifies human psychology, ignoring the possibility of multiple and complexly related intentions;
denigrates “rhetorical” forms of speech; and
privileges a seemingly non-rhetorical mode of communication: hyper-sincerity.