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

Obama4.Obama as OK.1.02.13

Michael Grunwald informed his readers that “the percentage of those who thought it [the stimulus package] had created jobs was lower than the percentage of Americans who believe Elvis is alive.” (“Think Again: Obama’s New Deal” Foreign Policy Sept/Oct 2012) A slight exaggeration! A quarter of a century after the death of Elvis Presley, more than 4 in 10 Americans remain fans, but just 7% think he may still be alive. (CBS NEWS, 11 February 2009) But about half of Americans do not believe that Obama’s interventions worked.

Pew polls showed that support for the auto bailout rose from 37% in 2009 to 56% by February of 2012. Those who thought the bailout was bad for the economy declined from 54% to 36% of Americans. In contrast, the bank bailout is still denigrated by over 50% of Americans. Supporters only number 39%, 1% less than two years earlier. (Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 23 February 2012)

Support for the stimulus package declined by 1% to an even lower figure than support for the bank bailout, but the disapproval rate also fell from 49% to 41%. More telling, the numbers opposed to government regulation and intervention have increased from 50% in January of 2008 to 52% in February of 2012, though when the banking crisis hit in October of 2008, opposition to regulatory intervention dropped to 38%, though it popped back up to 43% three months later and hovered at just above that level for the next two years — receiving a further boost when the run for the nomination and the office of the president took place. In comparison, half the population supported regulations related to safety and the environment.

If Grunwald was wrong about Elvis, he was right about the stimulus package. Though an economic success, according a preponderance of economists, it was a political failure. If the Obama boosters are correct, why is the support so small and so fickle? Different polls appear to offer different statistics about the stimulus package. Gallup Poll data showed that 52% of those surveyed in January 2009 supported the stimulus package; 37% opposed, a number that declined a month later to 33% while the number of supporters rose to 59%. Whatever the accuracy of each poll and whatever the differences in methodology, polls are consistent in showing a very divided public concerning its attitude to government regulation and intervention and faith in its effectiveness.

Support for economic intervention depends on expectations. Will those interventions work? Did they in fact did work? The polls indicate a public divided. However, support for interventions increased over the last four years so that more people than ever believe in interventions, but never by more than a mere majority except when the society is in crisis mode (the Gallup Poll).

If polling reveals different perspectives that can seem contradictory, this is also true of academic studies. Although most studies suggest that the stimulus package really worked, on close examination the much smaller group of more sceptical studies also reveal that the stimulus may have worked. “While the optimistic studies do, in fact, support the conclusion that the stimulus worked, there is some reason to doubt that the pessimistic studies support the conclusion that it failed. Conley and Dupor [Timothy Conley at the University of Western Ontario along with Bill Dupor from Ohio State “The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act: Public Sector Jobs Saved, Private Sector Jobs Forestalled”] found a negative effect on employment and output but, as they concede and critics of the study have emphasized, their results are not statistically significant. Taylor [John Taylor of Stanford “An Empirical Analysis of the Revival of Fiscal Activism in the 2000s”] found that the stimulus did not increase government purchases significantly but, as Noah Smith argued, this result could be consistent with the stimulus increasing employment and output. Oh and Reis [Hyunseung Oh and Ricardo Reis of Columbia “Targeted Transfers and the Fiscal Response to the Great Recession”] found a small multiplier for tax transfers of the kind found in the stimulus package, but as they concede, their model produces estimates for key figures that are empirically implausible. Using more plausible figures produces a significantly larger multiplier, meaning the package was more effective than the model initially suggested. Due to these issues, I’m inclined to believe that the preponderance of evidence indicates the stimulus worked.” (Dylan Matthews, “Did the Stimulus Work? A review of the nine best studies on the subject”)

Most economists overtly support the Keynesian position and most of the remaining minority accede to the possibility that it did. Brian Barry and Anil Kashyap from the Booth School at the University of Chicago (hardly a hotbed of liberals) in their Economic Experts Panel drawn from a wide spectrum of outstanding economists from across the country, had Justin Wolfers conduct a survey (“The Secret Consensus Among Economists” 25 July 2012). In the survey, 92% agreed that the stimulus succeeded in reducing the jobless rate. Not one challenged the contention that the stimulus lowered the unemployment rate. Every one of them disagreed with the claim that tax cuts would yield higher government revenues. In contrast to public opinion polls, the consensus among academics is shocking.

Why the difference between intellectual expertise and the public? A reader of my Blog wrote me and said that he voted for Obama reluctantly. Why the reluctance? He believes in a measure of redistribution, believes in human rights and believes in a reasonable degree of necessary government regulation as well as capitalism, market economies, individual responsibility, initiative, energy and hard work. He implied that Obama matched his overall criteria for a president better than Romney — suggesting perhaps that Conrad Black was perhaps correct – that the reason the Republicans lost was that they ran with a mediocre compromised candidate. That is a possible explanation. But others are offered for the discrepancy between the huge gap between public opinion and that of the experts.

Grunwald blames the medium for not communicating the truth; they badly screwed up the story of the stimulus. (Grunwald interviewed by Aaron Gertler 1 November 2012 The Politic Yale Undergraduate Journal of Politics) Many Obama supporters blame the effectiveness of the repetitious propaganda and mythology propagated by both economic and cultural conservatives. Other supporters assume the responsibility and blame themselves for their inability and ineffectiveness in educating the public. Still others suggest that the problem may rest in a predispositional deeper ideology of Americans rooted in deep distrust of big government and big business, though the same public relies on the infrastructure and safety net of the former and shop at the big box stores and drive the cars and use the gasoline produced by the latter.

Others place the blame solely on the ineptness of the Obama administration. Jeffrey Stedfast, an Obama supporter, documented alleged failures in his Blog, “A Moment of Zen” in a piece called “Grading Obama’s Green Energy Stimulus ‘Investments’: Epic Fall,” and concluded that Obama failed to choose more winners than losers because of what George Will dubbed his “crony capitalism” under the widespread myth of dramatic climate change. Many strong supporters of Obama thought he had been weak on gun control, but Obama undercut that conviction in his inaugural address. Others thought he continues to be weak on climate change but are now waiting to see if he will follow through on the pledges in his second inaugural speech. Still others question his claims to be a bona fide liberal since he never kept his pledge to close Guantánamo and continues to use drones to assassinate alleged terrorists, sometimes killing innocent wives and children in the process.

Perhaps too many had unrealistic expectations. Whatever the case, these strong supporters cannot account for the discrepancy between the success in the effectiveness of the stimulus package and the scepticism about it since, whatever their criticisms, support for the stimulus among these cheerleaders remained strong, not only for the idea but for its effective and honest implementation. As the New Yorker (29 October 2012) opined in supporting Obama for re-election, the President “has been progressive, competent, rational, decent, and, at times, visionary…The President has achieved a run of ambitious legislative, social, and foreign-policy successes that relieved a large measure of the human suffering and national shame inflicted by the Bush Administration. Obama has renewed the honor of the office he holds.”

I suggest we look elsewhere for the key source of the problem of the discrepancy between actual performance and beliefs about the results among the public. My correspondent’s vote had nothing to do with whether the bailouts and the stimulus worked. Nor did it have to do with whether one was a Keynesian or a follower of Milton Friedman. His reluctance arose because he did not believe that Obama understood the essence of the American identity and its connection with individual responsibility and self reliance making Americans far less disposed to adopt the European welfare state. The source of the explanation may be found in the nature of identity politics in today’s America, but perhaps not in a fixed idea of that identity but in the process of change it is undergoing.

Identity politics is usually associated with whether you are black, white, Asian or Hispanic. But there is also an economic identity. In Canada, Medicare is part of the predominant Canadian identity. Faith in a single payer medical system is seen as integral to being Canadian. (Matthew Mendelsohn (2002) Canadians’ Thoughts on Their Health Care System: Preserving the Canadian Model Through Innovation, Queen’s University) Canadians are travelling in a reverse direction to Americans. They strongly believe in the collective provision of health care but are beginning to question it as an absolute and are moving towards a stronger sense of personal autonomy, empowerment and personal choice. Yet Canadians remain risk averse to any fundamental changes in the model lest the system begin to crumble. In America, the dominant identity shift is the reverse. It posits minimum government intervention. The dominant American identity has been that of my Blog correspondent, but most Americans have accepted the need for a government role in ensuring medical care for all.

“The economic narrative argues that minorities…are voting mainly their socio-economic interests, especially jobs, but also broader social government protections of education, health and the environment. This interpretation is supported by The New York Times exit polling data showing that lower-income Americans of all colors supported President Obama at higher rates than higher-income voters. As shown by the Pew Report, economic logic – a strong need for government protection – helps explain why minorities, women and singles voted for Obama and have long expressed more support for an activist government than whites, men and married people.” (Charles Derber, “The New America Is Not About Identity Politics,” Truthout, 31 December 2012)

Activist Government versus Reduced Government! The Republican economic right has blown it. They thought that they had finally won with Reagan. But they have demonstrated that they have lost their way, cannot see the Milky Way and have been rolling their dung balls in circles. Getting on a bandwagon of immigration reform to appeal to Hispanics will not save their hide. Barack Obama may appeal to the economic and community conservative losers and invite them to partner with him. He may offer the losers some compromise. But as long as they are licking their wounds, resenting their loss of pre-eminence, they will not be able to reach back.

Because many supporters of Obama felt he was too compromising with the ex-masters of the universe, they saw his offers of reconciliation as too weak kneed and his compromises on legislation as too generous to an enemy that refuses to recognize that it has lost. And those who felt that Obama was on the right side in caring for the needy and the marginal, on human rights and modesty, but still clung to the old economic identity, voted for him but held their noses. Both on his left and on his right he was distrusted. The issue was not whether the stimulus succeeded for them but how they could relate to this father of a born again nation. If they voted for him but still held their noses they thought that they would not have to undergo a radical identity shift.

A main reason approval of his record is not higher than his voting support is that there are very many who voted for Obama who do not yet like the economic identity they endorsed. If you add to this group those who want confrontation and total defeat of the former rulers of the universe rather than compromise, we find a group of dissenters who voted for Obama begrudgingly. These groups of dissenting supporters offset disaffected Republicans who also grudgingly voted for Obama; they acknowledge that Obama has done an acceptable job. The people who voted for Obama and the people who rank his program a success are not the same clusters, for the non-supporters who nevertheless acknowledge that Obama has done a reasonable job includes people who can read the scholarly conclusions accurately but continue to disagree with the new rising economic faith.

The lag between the shift of the moderate middle class Republicans is matched by the working class white males who are part of the cluster who voted for him and benefited from the stimulus but who are also wary of a larger government presence in their lives. (http://www.economicpopulist.org) As Conrad Black has noted, if people voted just from their economic interests (and their traditional identity politics), Romney could have easily won the election given the high rates of unemployment among Obama supporters. But they voted for greater protection by the state even though that greater protection may not have yet benefitted them directly. Many were not convinced his remedies would work but they had lost faith in the economic policies of the Republicans which had proven to be false.

I suggest that a key explanation for Obama’s approval rating not exceeding his vote total is that those who thought he was doing a reasonable job but did not vote for him offset those who voted for him but were still questioning the adequacy of his performance. Why does the economic right not recognize they have failed? Why are they engaged in such bitter warfare with the new reborn ideology of a safety net state which otherwise leaves economic leadership to the free market, but one that is regulated and insured to prevent disasters? Why are the cultural conservatives equally bitter as they too shrink in power such that, even in combination with the economic conservatives with whom they actually share very little, they cannot defeat the new rising ideology. I still have to show that the old identity politics is dead since so many have credited identity politics for Obama’s win and growing support. I shall try to show that the new and emerging American identity that is replacing these old identities is NOT a regression back to the New Deal identity Or racial identities Or ethnic identities, but a new emerging cultural identity against a host of receding ones.

[tags Obama, USA, President]