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

Obama 22: Conditions for an Israel-Palestinian Peace Process 05.03.13

Obama 22: Conditions for an Israel-Palestinian Peace Process 05.03.13


Howard Adelman

Two weeks before his inauguration, Israeli ground forces invaded Gaza. Barack Obama, America’s first African-American President, was inaugurated into office on 20 January 2009 two days after each side in the Gaza War declared unilateral ceasefires and a day before Israel withdrew its ground troops from Gaza. In the United States, Obama inherited a disintegrating economy, the implosion of America’s financial institutions, rapidly rising unemployment, the collapse of the housing market all alongside a dysfunctional health system with by far the highest costs in the Western hemisphere, decaying infrastructure and an educational system that was of middling rank. Obama had two long wars to wind down and a war against al Qaeda to win. Iran was going nuclear and North Korea already was and continued to flex its meagre muscles in threatening ways. China was becoming a rising military and economic power. Pakistan, a nuclear power, always seemed to be on a razor’s edge of imploding. And these were just the problems that were in the headlines. Who would expect Obama to take on the challenge of advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?

Obama ignored the signs and the warnings. He surprised many with initiatives on other fronts where there had been few expectations. He had campaigned on a shift to Asia, but a wide assault on various problems in Latin America and the Caribbean had not been anticipated. As President-elect, the only foreign leader he met was Felipe Calderón of Mexico. The first foreign visitor he invited to Camp David was the President of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. He then welcomed President Michele Bachelet of Chile and President Ălvaro Uribe of Columbia. Key cabinet members travelled to various Latin American and Caribbean capitals. Obama loosened travel restrictions to Cuba and entered into negotiations for postal telecommunications and migration agreements with the Castro regime. (Cf. Abraham F. Lowenthal (2012) The Obama Administration and the Americas, 2)

With initiatives of all kinds on various fronts across the globe in the face of the most horrendous problems on the domestic front, Barack Obama made peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a top priority. He appointed Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy. When Secretary of State Hilary Clinton traveled to Israel in March, she immediately got the backs of the government up when she denounced the settlements in East Jerusalem and demolition of Palestinian houses as "unhelpful". Netanyahu responded by saying that resumption of negotiations and freezing of settlement activity would be conditional upon the Palestinian Authority recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. On 12 April, Mahmoud Abbas phoned Benjamin Netanyahu to officially restart the peace negotiations.

Obama then antagonized the Israeli government further in his speech in Cairo on 4 June addressed to the Muslim world where he called for a final settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on a two state solution and declared that settlements were illegitimate and undercut the possibility of peace. Finally, Obama got a positive result. Netanyahu in a speech at Bar Ilan only ten days after Obama’s Cairo speech endorsed the two state solution based on a demilitarized Palestinian state, but insisted that Jerusalem had to remain as the undivided capital of Israel. The Likud Party, that historically had opposed the two state solution, had officially and publicly reversed its longstanding position.

The parties seemed very far apart and discussions did not proceed from where Olmert and Abbas left off. Netanyahu refused to cede the major settlements, insisted on a united Greater Jerusalem, rejected any right of refugee repatriation and demanded a demilitarized Palestine. Abbas insisted on the green line being the borders and that not one centimetre of the West Bank would be ceded to Israel, demanded territorial contiguity between Gaza and the West Bank under Palestine sovereignty, insisted that the right of return be recognized and rejected any settlement building even for organic growth within the existing settlements. Nevertheless, on 23 August 2009, President Netanyahu announced the resumption of negotiations in September. After Barack Obama arranged a three way meeting with himself, Netanyahu and Abbas on 22 September, all sides announced that the negotiations would be re-launched. Abbas had conceded without a formal settlement freeze. Netanyahu had agreed to a two-state solution. They were still far apart but at least they were talking and a goal was in sight.

However, in Shakespearean terms, events in nature seemed ominous. Climate change threatened the future and increasingly violent storms seemed to adumbrate an ominous end as well as raise emergency costs and infrastructure challenges of its own in the interim. The world seemed cursed by fire, earth, air and water. The worst bushfires in Australian history took place in February killing well over a hundred people. Devastating earthquakes struck in Italy (6 April), New Zealand (15 July) and Samoa (29 September) the latter resulting in a tsunami. While Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the United Nations on 24 September 2009, introducing himself as the Prime Minister of a Jewish state just a day after the President of Iran’s anti-Semitic rant and denial of the Holocaust, and while he boasted of his state being at "the forefront of many of these advances, in science and technology, in medicine and biology, in agriculture and water, in energy and the environment" standing for a future of hope against nostalgic and often fanatical efforts to resurrect a dormant past, after challenging the international community to "stop the terrorist regime of Iran from developing atomic weapons, thereby endangering the peace of the entire world," and confronting the seeming unteachability of mankind and the United Nations as it hypocritically prepared to condemn Israel for attacking Gaza in self-defence against Iran-sponsored missile attacks, as the United Nations prepared to condemn Israel for violations of human rights based on an error-filled and unjust report, Ondoy Typhoon began to strike the Philippines killing almost 500 over the next few days. On 25 November in Saudi Arabia of all places the 2009 Jeddah floods swept hundreds of cars and people to their death right in the midst of the Haj. Talk about auspicious signs!

Except for East Jerusalem and construction already underway, on that same day, 25 November 2009, Netanyahu finally imposed a settlement freeze for ten months. In fact, an informal de facto freeze was even put in place in east Jerusalem. Obama thus far seemed to have succeeded beyond almost all expectations.

All this took place against a domestic economic collapse in the United States in which both Chrysler (30 April) and General Motors (1 June) had filed for bankruptcy protection, North Korea had tested its second nuclear device, the protests against the rigged Iranian elections were being quashed, Pakistan was beset with one firebomb after another beginning with the horrific attack against the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore on 3 March to the 28 October Peshawar bombing that killed 117 and wounded twice that number. Recall the year ended with the 28 December suicide bombing of Shias in Karachi while observing the Day of Ashura.

Events were not going well in Iraq either from bombing throughout April to the 19 August bombings in Baghdad that killed over hundred and injured over 500, to the 25 October bombings that upped those casualty rates by 50%. At least the 8 December bombing casualty rate from bombings in Baghdad had receded to the ordinary horrors of 19 August.

However, on the Israel-Palestine peace process, 2010 would prove that everything put in place in 2009 was for naught. There were American outbursts over constructions projects even though they were in the heart of existing settlements that would eventually be involved in land swaps. On 31 May 2010, the Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla with a loss of nine lives was denounced as a massacre by both President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Abbas met with the Arab League in July and said that Palestinians would once again revert to violence if the Arab states would agree to invade Israel. The situation seemed to be getting worse. The period of the freeze was being squandered and the two sides seemed to be getting further apart. Yet Hilary Clinton in August 2010 still opined that a peace agreement could be in place in a year. Finally, in September 2010 direct talks were initiated.

Hamas tried to sabotage the talks by resuming attacks on Israel. But the talks were imploding on their own as Netanyahu would only extend the freeze if Palestine formally recognized Israel as a Jewish state and Abbas replied that not only would he not recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition of resuming peace talks but would never recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The U.S. kept offering further incentives such as security offers and military aid to get the talks back on track but all efforts failed and the Palestinians went the UN route to seek recognition of a Palestine state.

Both sides were embittered by the experience and more distrustful of the other side. The United States which had staked so much political capital on the effort was thrown under the bus by both sides. So why would the U.S. once again commit its political capital, in increasingly less supply, to resurrect the peace process in 2013?

The situation since 2009 had radically changed. Netanyahu, though emerging from the elections with the largest number of seats, his combined total with Lieberman’s party only came to 31. Netanyahu had been severely weakened. Israelis were disinterested in the peace process and only Tsipi Livni campaigned to make it a priority but won only seven seats. Israeli society in the meanwhile was growing richer and more prosperous. As the Israeli government continued to fill in settlements for strategic reasons, Israel was on the verge of self-sufficiency in energy because of tremendous reserves of fossil fuels discovered in the past few years.

If the domestic economic situation, other than the growing disparities between the rich and the poor, made Israel feel more secure, the immediate neighbourhood had deteriorated considerably. An increasingly unstable Egypt has shifted from a cold ally to a frozen foe headed by a leader of an Islamic party with a relationship with Hamas and a record of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist assertions. In a protracted two year civil war, the president of Syria, Bashar Hafez al-Assad, certainly no friend of Israel, seemed on his way to eventual defeat as Syrian rebels captured the northern city of Raqqa and, in imitation of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square in Baghdad almost ten years earlier, toppled Hafez al-Assad’s Bashar’s father’s statue in the provincial capital of the north. Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamist rebels in Syria allied with al Qaeda captured the long-range Scud missiles in a military complex in Deir al-Zour and also swept the Syrian army from their posts on the Golan Heights. Except for the West Bank and Jordan, Israel was surrounded by implacable enemies – Hezbollah on the north, now Jabhat al-Nasra on the north-east, Hamas in Gaza on the south-west and an increasingly Islamic Egypt in the Sinai.

As Israel was weaker in political security, and stronger in economic security, its military security had become precarious. Iran was closer than ever in operating its centrifuges to produce weapons grade nuclear energy. Turkey had slipped from a friend ten years earlier to an implacable foe unwilling to reconcile over the Gaza flotilla incident. Israel seemed more vulnerable than ever and more dependent on American goodwill as Europe became increasingly shrill in opposition to Israel. Since Obama could do little on the domestic front in dealing with the recalcitrant Republicans, he was freer to turn his attention to international affairs and the Israel-Palestine issue itself. Obama hated being a loser and had a record of picking himself up and trying even harder a second time. But this time it was unlikely he would lead with his chin.

President Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, as I have shown, have not enjoyed the best relationship as leaders of two states that are ostensibly allies. To rehearse Bibi’s resentments, in his first year of his first term, Obama visited Saudi Arabia and Egypt but had no time for Israel in his first itinerary to the Middle East. The two leaders have differed over settlement policy. Bibi demanded that Obama draw a red line in the sand with respect to Iran’s nuclear program; Obama demurred. Bibi visited the White House in March 2010 and was left stewing in his seat when Barack Obama went off to have dinner with his family. Further, Obama refuse to have his picture taken with Bibi. Bibi tried to audition as Mitt Romney’s campaign manager by holding a tremendous welcoming reception for Romney during the presidential campaign.

In the recent Israeli elections, Bibi’s joint party with Lieberman managed to only muster 31 seats. Moderate Likudniks like Benny Begin and Meridor had been driven off the electoral lists and Bibi had an even more extreme right wing party to his right led by Naftali Bennett with 12 seats. Bibi is considerably weaker while Obama, with no election facing him, is much stronger. If Obama is going to face that group down, he will have to come with strong words and a very big stick.

Bibi announced that as a priority he wants to restart the peace talks with the Palestinians and his first announcement of an agreement with another party was with Livni who ran on giving the peace talks first priority. Though Obama virtually ignored Israel during his re-election campaign, he did appoint Senator John Kerry as his Secretary of State and Kerry has unequivocally said that he is determined to get an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. The first trip he announced about going abroad was to Israel. After speaking to Benjamin Netanyahu on January 28th, Barack Obama then announced that he too would be going to Israel on March 20th. Obama would also be visiting Jordan and the Palestine Authority.

However, most Israelis and Palestinians simply don’t believe that peace is possible. Israelis do not want to repeat the mistake of Gaza. Palestinians do not want to see years and years of further negotiations as Israeli settlements expand and strengthen. Israelis do not want to risk an existential threat from the Judean Hills. While both sides believe the other is now genuinely committed to a two-state solution, the two state visions of the two sides are not congruent. Abbas sees Netanyahu as committed to a Palestine state made up of three truncated Bantustans, one north of Jerusalem, one south of Jerusalem and one in Gaza with wiry links between them. Netanyahu sees Abbas as committed, not to a Palestinian and a Jewish state living side-by-side in peace, but to a Palestinian and a bi-national state living side-by-side until the Arab birth rate and Jewish emigration allow a re-amalgamation.

Obama will keep his word and will not be coming to Israel and Palestine to impose a solution or even to offer a bridging formula. What will he bring? Lots of negatives! To Netanyahu, he can reaffirm that America is drawing down and shrinking its military but Obama is prepared to offer a security agreement with Israel that will include American boots on the ground. He will also be able to offer firmer guarantees that America will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Obama will want to know what he will get in return. Netanyahu will have to bargain with Obama.

Obama will tell Abbas that the American economic belt is shrinking and the American public is no longer willing to make personal and collective economic sacrifices for the Palestinians unless they firmly and formally are committed to peace with a Jewish state. "Since the establishment of limited Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the mid-1990s, the U.S. government has committed over $4 billion in bilateral assistance to the Palestinians, who are among the world’s largest per capita recipients of international foreign aid." (Jim Zanotti, "U.S. Foreign Aid to the Palestinians," Congressional Research Service, 18 January 2013) That aid was contingent upon Palestine fostering stability, prosperity, and self-governance in the West Bank in peaceful coexistence with Israel and committed to a genuine “two-state solution”. The United States has already held back allocated funds when Abbas, against American wishes, went and asked UN endorsement and recognition of Palestine as a state and admitted Palestine as a non-voting state member to the UN, holdbacks that have weakened the economy significantly.

"Annual regular-year U.S. bilateral assistance to the West Bank and Gaza Strip has averaged around $500 million, including annual averages of approximately $200 million in direct budgetary assistance and $100 million in non-lethal security assistance for the PA in the West Bank. Additionally, the United States is the largest single-state donor to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)." As the USA moves towards fossil fuel independence in the next few years and is less susceptible to pressures from the Gulf States, Obama may ask what Abbas is willing to offer in return for continuing US economic life support since lack of progress toward a

politically legitimate and peaceful two-state solution could undermine the utility of and American public support for U.S. aid.

After all, in the absence of Israeli-Palestinian peace and because of Palestinian pursuit of

international support for statehood contrary to American clearly expressed wishes, and given Hamas’s heightened role in Palestinian politics, Obama could signal that lasting aid has become fragile over and on top of existing Congressional holds.

Tomorrow: Tactics as a Strategy

[Tags Obama, Israel, Palestine, peace process}