Alternatives to Persuasion
Given the apocalyptic vision that forms the foundation of satire, given that satire does not exist to offer palliatives or lessons, given that the ultimate role of its caustic method is to unveil the skeletal horror at the core of the present, where does hope come from? Where is the opening to escape this underworld of horrors? Where is there a path to redemption? It will not come from satire. For the arts of persuasion come from a very different order. Satire is inherently destructive and may prepare the ground. But satire itself is not intended to persuade, to move a person from one set of beliefs to another,
There are other methods for doing so. Inducements can be used to replace influence. In István Szabó’s 1999 film Sunshine starring Ralph Fiennes as the male protagonist, the director traces three different generations of a wealthy Jewish family called Sonnenschein who changed the family name in Hungary to Sors, meaning fate. The latter is an ironic name because, while in each generation the hero acts to take his fate into his own hands, the family’s fate is always to be regarded as Jews no matter what efforts taken to assimilate. The Holocaust does not come as an aberration in the second generation, but merely the most extreme version of the persistent years of anti-Semitism that continue well after the Nazis are defeated.
Ignatz Sonnenschein is a dedicated judge and totally loyal to the Emperor, in spite of the class discrimination of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Adam Sonnenschein, who changed the family name to Sors, converted to Catholicism to escape the race discrimination of the high period of Hungarian nationalism, ends up frozen to death as a Jesus-icicle in a Nazi concentration camp by the bare-faced racism of the Nazi period. Ivan Sors, as a police officer under the communists after WWII is forced, not only to witness, but to abet the purge of Jewish communists, including that of his Jewish friend and superior played by William Hurt, by a corrupt Stalinist regime. The attempt of the Sonnenscheins to trade in their Jewish identity for another repeatedly fails.
In the middle of these three generations, to advance his career and be able to play in the Officers Club, the only route to competitive fencing at such a high level, Adam Sors (modeled on the real life of the Hungarian Olympian fencing gold medalist in the 1936 Olympics, Attila Petschauer) converts to Roman Catholicism. Inducements to set aside one’s ostensible set of beliefs for another may be monetary, but they can also be pride and ambition, Thus, after winning the Hungarian national fencing championship, the heads on Adam’s original “Jewish” fencing club offer him huge amounts of money to rejoin the original club, but Adam not only refuses, but berates “those people” who believe they can buy anything they want in an exhibition of Jewish self-hatred. Adam’s rejection of financial inducements in favour of the inducements of honour and status and the opportunity to realize an ambition, does not make the latter a better quality of honey to the crasser but, ironically, purer inducement of money.
But authority can also be used to attempt to change minds and hearts. In New Spain, that eventually became Mexico, many centres of authority were in competition: the Office of the Inquisition versus the hierarchy of the church itself, the female nunneries from Augustinian Hieronymites to the much stricter Carmelites, the church versus the power of the state, and various forms of state power, including the conflict between Vicereine Leonor Carreto and her husband, the Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio Sebastián de Toledo. But the underlying battle is between these various sources of formal authority and the authentic authority of knowledge, whether of Copernicus or of a young brilliant self-taught illegitimate child, Juana Inés de Asbaje, eventually Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.
The actual name of the superb Netflix original series, covering the life of this extraordinary scholar and poet and eventually a person of enormous political and intellectual influence in the history of Mexico, is called Juana Inés. She is forced by the authorities to join a nunnery as the only, and initially illusionary, route to her faith in the authority of knowledge, an intellectual source of authentic authority to resist the corruption of both the court and the church. The influence of ideas is the only authentic means of persuasion in comparison to the influence of inducements. In that contest, Juana Inés de la Cruz betrays both her faith and her political superiors, vows to give up writing, but continues in her deeper faith to eventually produce 200 volumes.
Finally, intellectual persuasion can be contrasted with the use of coercive means to get someone to change positions. The latter is exemplified in how God deals with Pharaoh, sending Moses in to warn Pharaoh of each disaster about to befall him and Egypt. In the end, it is not persuasion or even the threats of more disasters, but murder and war that get Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Persuasion backed by inducements, formal authority or coercive power, are never and can never be authentic means to change people’s minds and hearts.
However, inducements, whether intellectual or material, are not the only instruments to alter behaviour. For altering behaviour is quite a different enterprise than changing people’s hearts and minds.
Like Pharaoh, Trump is a bully and a tyrant. He cannot and will not be convinced that he is on the wrong track, that he is leading his country to destruction. But one must beseech him, not in the belief that he will be convinced, but to teach oneself the arts of civility, the sophisticated arts of persuasion, even though they can have absolutely no real effects on this egoistic centre of self-aggrandizement. Given that scenario, it matters little if you suffer an impediment of speech, if you are neither smooth of tongue nor clever with words, or you have the gift with words and are clever with language and an inventive wordsmith, for, in any case, Pharaoh Trump seems incapable of coherent conversation and dialogue as witnessed by his rambling, erratic and almost unhinged press conference this past Thursday – but more on that in other blogs.
One technique is to imitate the arts that allowed Pharaoh to achieve power and to maintain power. You must learn precisely whom you are addressing. You must master the science of segmentation of the audience and the arts of manipulating that audience. The character of the addressee, not the substance of the address, is what counts. In the contemporary world, it means using all the techniques of big data and psychographics to break down a supposedly homogeneous electorate of equal and rational citizens and decision-makers into a disconnected amalgam of colours. It is akin to the practice of pop art creating a portrait of the public made up of different pure colours, each colour representing a cluster of the population with common psychometric characteristics to which you can appeal. Truth is irrelevant in such messaging. Seeking out a constant message in the old politics is a disaster because you are not trying to convince them to buy your line or buy into your convictions, but to buy into a portrait where they can locate their own fears and desires.
What is needed is audience targeting and data modeling to match the message to the recipient. Alexander Nix is the new magician in the Pharaoh’s court. And the first lesson is name recognition. The first lesson is branding. The leader must be portrayed as a Pharaoh, as one entitled to and capable of exercising power, as the one and only one capable of exercising that power and occupying the position of the highest authority in the land. Pharaoh may be as ignorant as Swiss cheese and as incapable of composing a coherent paragraph only so long as he communicates strength and the will to power. The media is not the message. The message is the media that requires audience fragmentation.
If Trump were to kill Senator Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate when the Senate is in session and everyone could observe what took place, the Senate would never convict Donald Trump of murder or even manslaughter in the Pharaoh’s court. If Donald Trump were to stand on Fifth Avenue and kill a passerby, his voters and supporters would never find him guilty. That is Donald Trump’s absolute belief. He is immortal and cannot be downed by mere instruments of law and rationality. The objective of an election for a Pharaoh is to create a supine audience and a supine group of legislators that will revel in your power on the one hand as an ordinary follower and cower before that power as a co-conspirator. The objective is not to have an electorate that chooses, but to find and tease out different groups among that electorate who can be seduced, not with a coherent and repeated positive message, but with a message in which voters can find their fears confirmed and their hopes raised. The repetition of messages is used only to destroy the reputations and possibilities of individual rivals and the broader traditional media in general.
To accomplish this task, it is necessary to combine the findings of behavioural science with the techniques developed in advertising, now refined by the feedback mechanisms of big data analysis. There is no single audience. There are only audiences. You may not be able to reach the Israelites, but you must reach out to the mass of Egyptians. Not because they are divided into shepherds and stone masons, farmers and undertakers, but because they are divided, not by function, but by form, by sets of characteristics that allow one group to be inspired by one message and another group by another. Mass advertising is no longer useful. Targeted advertising is. The art of behavioural communications must be mastered to manipulate, not communicate with, different audiences.
But if I use my rod and leave the lectern to point to these different factors on the screen at the front of Plato’s dark cave, and then, while everyone is watching the graphics on the screen, turn my pointer into a slithering serpent hissing like a snake oil salesman to take down Pharaoh, he already has a host of magicians who have mastered those black arts. The sorcerers merely respond and overwhelm you with their spells and tricks. Your disposition in the first place is to use persuasion, not manipulation, so you are handicapped when it comes to competing against master manipulators. You must learn and understand the magic of manipulation, but it will never provide the road to victory, just the route for understanding the black arts at your opponent’s disposal.
Those arts attempt to establish a congruity between the message and the messaged, to marry data on age and gender, ethnicity and religious affiliation, with data on attitudes and preferences, hopes and plans, fears and foibles. If you master those arts, they will make you competitors of your opponent’s sorcerers, but not victors of citizens who choose their leaders and are influenced by them. You must go far beyond mastering the magic arts of manipulation. But you must first develop those arts, not to persuade citizens, but to undercut the power and authority of Pharaoh. It is important to understand him and not focus on the followers he manipulates to build his strength.
That is why satire is a propaedeutic. To what? That is the question. Especially if the next phase of the battle leads to war. For the shedding of blood and the gutting to let the blood of one’s enemy gush forth will provide the next battleground. It may not be the beaches of Normandy, but it may be the beaches of Yemen. The Pharaoh may botch his battles, may try to second guess his generals and leave unprepared and without intelligence to pursue clearly enunciated goals. But it is you that must track every drop of blood that flows into the river of time. It is you who must track the casualties on both sides, and not mainly the soldiers, but the women, the old people and especially the children. You must track every single individual who contributes to turning the Nile or the Mississippi from a slow-moving stream of water into a place where the only way to bathe is to bathe in blood.
That will not make you a winner, but it will level the playing field somewhat. You must now help sew distrust between the Pharaoh and his courtiers. And you must take them on, one at a time, in a concentrated attack from all quarters.
The arts of persuasion can only have room to thrive if the non-persuasive arts are mastered. But they must be put to work always and only in the service of advancing and making room for dialogue and rational debate.
With the help of Alex Zisman