e Principles of Persuasion

The Principles of Persuasion
Howard Adelman

Reason (and history as I argued in my thesis) begins not with explaining events or actions, but with incongruencies, with different and incompatible ways of interpreting events. That means that in persuasion we must set up procedures to offset a confirmation bias, the propensity to simply use and even twist information to reinforce strong beliefs. And it can be a matter of life or death. I just watched part of a television show on Pearl Harbour and, in part, it dealt with the question of why the information Washington had in advance of the attack on Pearl Harbour wasn’t sent to the naval base there, if only to take precautions. One major suspicion is that there was a propensity to disbelieve such information because it contradicted previous analyses of what the Japanese in 1941 would and would not do.

One heuristic technique to get around confirmation bias is to have the two sides conduct the discussion with each party arguing the other’s position. The argument can be about a complex but still rather specific problem, such as the efficaciousness of voucher school programs on costs and results. Or it can be about whether evidence pointing to a Trump campaign-Russian link was a real problem or one concocted by the Democrats. Advice: avoid such complex or even intermediate problems and begin by sticking to ones that are reasonably easy to solve – such as massive voter fraud in the presidential election. Does the data support such a claim or refute it, or does the claim have very different meanings?

However, as soon as one tries to do this, one recognizes the merit of Gorgias’s second goal of rhetoric – but not expressed as a positive aim of acquiring power, but as a negative one of preventing being taken advantage of by the other with whom one is in discussion. Socrates was a whiz at this, pleading ignorance and then leading the other down well-trod paths to contradicting himself. This is a central problem and why, perhaps because of evolution, winning arguments and, therefore, status and power, becomes more important than reasoning together towards the best resolution of a problem.

Further, that propensity can be correlated with another – the more we have a vested interest in an issue, the more we are likely to dig in our heels and insist we are correct. The more intense one feels, the less willing one is to put one’s own views under a microscope. The following guidelines are about inverting inclinations.

Topic      Inclination         Guideline

Goal   Necessary truth     Freedom to choose
Power over others Prevent being                                                      disempowered
Explain Clear and Distinct Equivocation                         Ideas
Action/Events      Incongruencies
Standard Indubitability     Analytic truth is not
Confirmation (Bias) Falsifiability
Conditions More we know More we know                        better off               less we can trust
Group thought      Group thought                     reinforces belief   undermines belief

I have already clarified the first four inclinations and the suggested guidelines to override them. Let me expand on the last four. Plato over the archway entrance to his academy had the slogan, “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter.” It was important for he used analogies – such as the metaphor of the divided line – to convey different degrees of conviction or knowledge. Further, the highest form of knowledge was viewed as mathematics for its conclusions were certain. This was a modern trope from Descartes onward who sought knowledge that was certain and indubitable.

As I explained in my last blog, mathematics is not a model for persuasion for it leads, not to making choices, but to only one true answer. Persuasion is intended to establish the better choice when there are at least two real options. Rhetoric is based on dialectic and not deduction and deals with the skills of persuasion on any subject of debate – excluding mathematics and pure physics. The art applies to virtually all other subjects.

Torture is not an art of persuasion but a means of intimidation which sometimes extracts knowledge, but perhaps as often or even more often merely extracts what the torturer wants to hear. Evidence given under oath or verified by science are also not part of rhetoric itself, but merely methods of providing material for the art of persuasion. External factors may be used to assess the quality of evidence offered or the integrity of the person offering the evidence based on his or her character, but these are not guidelines on how to persuade, but about the conditions that will make the art of persuasion more likely to lead to assent.

In that regard, the character of the person offering the evidence may be critical. But it is also true, as can be seen in the relationship between Trump and his followers that believers in Trump will simply disqualify evidence offered by critics who insist he is not telling the truth, and then use the criticisms to reinforce their beliefs. What is intended to falsify is inverted to become evidence to verify prior beliefs.

Therefore, contrary to what Aristotle believed, credibility may not be, and most often is not, a factor in enhancing persuasion. It may be a consequence of what we already believe rather than a condition of forming a belief. Thus, if the liberal press is considered an enemy of the people, the columnists will lack credibility in the eyes of Trump supporters whatever their stellar records as journalists and interpreters of events.  That is why cited examples, just as in the case of the character of the speaker, can be used to reinforce confirmation bias rather than undermine it. We argue by offering examples. However, we should argue by questioning the examples on offer. It is best if arguments are not used to confirm what we already believe, but as a tool to try to falsify what we think is true.

There is another very different conviction that leads us into error. Socrates believed we should start with the premise of our ignorance. René Descartes urged us to begin an inquiry by initially doubting anything that we could not immediately believe to be certain. But the process of developing false convictions is not undermined by scepticism, but reinforced by knowledge. The more knowledge we have and the more knowledge seemingly at our disposal, the less we are inclined to question what we know. We must reverse the starting point – not starting with a tabula rasa, but by acknowledging that the more we know, the less we can trust. Further, contrary to Aristotle’s belief that we should start with self-evident truths, we must start with the conviction that no proposition entailing choice is self-evident. That is a characteristic only of the analytic propositions.

Ask yourself how a toilet works. Ask yourself why sleep is beneficial. Most persons will offer an opinion and many with considerable certainty. There are a myriad of questions about day to day knowledge of working and operating something – especially if the activity in question is direct and rather simple and very familiar operations – where an assured answer will come forth which, on further inquiry, can be shown to be totally erroneous. The take away: the more we know, the more we must distrust that we know. Familiarity should breed scepticism.

Finally, the more our friends and associates agree with us, the firmer we hold to such beliefs. Hence the expression: different groups live in different bubbles and only listen to what confirms previous biases. What we must do is use groups to question, not reinforce, our beliefs and to use a network of thinking to develop sounder grounds for a conviction.

Let me end with a story. It appeared in the latest Tablet in Mark Weitzmann’s essay, “Is the Shoah Memorial in Paris Home to a Racist? The troubling case of Holocaust historian Georges Bensoussan, on trial for ‘incitement to racial hatred,’ pits French anti-racists against anti-Semites.” As will be discussed in a subsequent blog, the latter conclusion after the depiction of the case, that it “pits French racists against anti-Semites,” is a mistaken description.

The essay begins: “This is a story about permissible and impermissible ways to use words in post-terror France.” The premise of Georges’ editorial work at the Shoah Memorial in Paris was that the genocide of the Jews was a result of collective cultural history rather than an anomaly. The book that brought him to notoriety was called, Les Territoires perdus de la république. In it, principals and teachers testified that anti-Semitism, sexism and racism were rife in the banlieues of Paris among students from North African Muslim countries. Was this an exercise in Islamophobia or a revelation of a new cultural source for anti-Semitism? Jews and Muslims lined up to defend Georges, but political correctness produced a whole host of accusers. Events outstripped the debate as anti-Semitic incidents mounted in both frequency and severity.

As Georges publicly denounced this new source of atavistic anti-Semitism, quoting a source described as an Algerian sociologist to reinforce his position, he insisted that, anti-Semitism among North African Muslims “is suckled along with mother’s milk.” The expression became a plain for fierce intellectual battles and eventually for charges being laid against Georges for what we in Canada term “Islamophobia,” especially when the very sociologist he cited, Laacher, denied he had said or implied that there was any “biological” system of transferring anti-Semitism from one generation to another. Further, he resented the use of a metaphor to summarize his findings which were about the persistence of anti-Semitism passed on from parents to children by using the term “Jew” as an insult.

Let me quote from Weitzmann: “in French the same word – la langue
designates both language and the physical organ.” “Language,” Laacher told me, “is the collective component through which the individual expresses himself. It speaks us as much as we speak it. And it never speaks randomly; it is always meaningful. As we are spoken by the tongue, collective values and feelings, what we call a culture, is being passed on. Of course, this includes the passing on of negative feelings and passions such as hate.”

If the metaphor is at all accurate, then what is passed on through a mother’s milk cannot be expelled; it is part of your very being. If, however, it is part of a language code, human beings are capable of altering that code. Further, Laacher resented being called an Algerian since he was born in France and even needed a visa to do his research in Algeria. The irony was that Georges, a Jew, was born in Morocco. So Laacher filed a libel suit against Georges.

Only in France one might say, only in the land that worships clear and distinct ideas, only in the land where intellectuals are mostly wedded to a world of Truth versus Falsehood, to status in the intellectual world, to explaining events rather than puzzles, a country where indubitability is the holy grail, a country plagued by the disease of French intellectuals of confirmation bias, a country where intellectuals glory in displaying how much they know rather than the greater ignorance that accompanies greater knowledge, a country that celebrates intellectuals as stars and celebrities instead of recognizing that all good thought as well as bad is reinforced by a collective enterprise.

In other words, in the use of words, in the display of rhetoric, whether about words themselves or about wearing a headscarf, France is culturally disposed to oppositional intellectualism rather than dialogue and conversation. There are, of course, many exceptions. Emmanuel Levinas stands out as a prominent example. But the condition is deeply rooted in the French cultural fabric.

This may help explain why two scholars, who are 99% on the same side, would come to intellectual and legal blows. Or it may not. For they smoked a peace pipe over their differences, only to see the matter taken up by a Muslim institution, CCIF, the Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en France.

Empirical investigation may point to a totally non-intellectual and non-cultural cause of the dispute. But the controversy hopefully both takes us away from the land of Trump while revealing the destructive work of rhetoric and the tools of persuasion while, paradoxically, extolling the positive value of rhetoric. Further, it will serve to introduce two forthcoming blogs, one on Islamophobia, where I will return to the Georges versus CCIF legal dispute when the government took up CCIF’s complaint and charged Georges with “incitement to racial hatred.” I will also write a second blog on anti-Semitism to understand how rhetoric can both confound as well as clear up gross misunderstandings, and how anti-Islamophobia may possibly be connected with anti-Semitism as the League Against Anti-Semitism and Racism. France’s B’nai Brith, joined the battle, initially backing Georges, but eventually joining CCIF in the suit. Only in France!

I cannot apologize enough on behalf of all philosophers and intellectuals for how absurd the world really is.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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