Learning the Techniques of Persuasion
Against a background of coal miners in hard hats, Donald Trump signed a measure a week ago that rolled back a last-minute Obama regulation restricting coal mines from dumping debris into nearby streams. Patricia Nana, a Cameroonian-American, insisted that, “If he hadn’t gotten into office, 70,000 miners would have been put out of work. I saw the ceremony where he signed that bill, giving them their jobs back, and he had miners with their hard hats and everything – you could see how happy they were.” Pictures are worth a thousand words, they say. The reality: the regulation would have cost very few jobs that would more than be compensated by new jobs created through the clean-up of the streams.
The Washington Post on 21 February 2017 reported this as “an example of the frequent distance between Trump’s rhetoric, which many of his supporters wholeheartedly believe, and verifiable facts.” These supporters at a Trump rally in Florida received their news regularly from Fox News and right-wing radio. Those interviewed were aware of what they read and what they saw, but knew virtually nothing about topics embarrassing to the president, such as the recent resignation of Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, because he lied to the Vice-President. If they knew that, they knew nothing of the broader charge, that he spoke inappropriately, frequently and possibly illegally about lifting the sanctions on Russia with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, before Trump was even president. Some did not even know that Flynn had resigned and had been replaced by Lt. General H.R. McMaster.
One cannot win an effort at persuasion unless one has access to the other side. Even then, what is said will be filtered through a set of beliefs largely resistant to the information and arguments being put forth. And we are not speaking of Donald Trump himself or his immediate acolytes. We are talking about the Trumpists, the true believers in his entourage who voted for him and would vote for him again even after a month of chaos and mismanagement.
Do not attempt to practice the arts of persuasion on Donald Trump, on his acolytes or on the true believers that are his followers. There are plenty of others who cast ballots for Donald Trump who do not approach issues with a pre-formed mindblindness. The first rule: select your targets who may possibly be open to listening to the case you wish to bring. But such a rule creates its own problems. Do we end up only talking to those who share our bubble? Do we retreat to our “safe spaces”? Does that reinforce intolerance and even deeper misunderstandings, especially with the almost total breakdown in the consensus, led by the president, in respecting the media and in engaging in civil discourse? There is no longer even a consensus on the civility expected of a president.
Even when dealing with those more malleable than the ardent Trump supporter, there is a problem in conducting discourse within the larger climate of fear and suspicion. In his Florida rally, Donald Trump may have stoked that fear by referring to a non-existent event in Sweden the night before, but what he did see and hear was an author, Ami Horowitz, who claimed that statistics on rape and violent crime in Sweden had increased since the large influx of foreigners in 2015. Don Lemon on his CNN show interviewed the author and challenged both his misuse of statistics and his conclusions, but without another expert present, the interview disintegrated into the interviewee insisting that what he claimed was true while Lemon kept offering evidence and arguments for its false representation of the situation in Sweden.
A quick subsequent review of some authoritative evidence from Sweden indicated that Don Lemon was much more accurate than his guest and supposed expert in representing rape and violent crime rates in Sweden. What had been offered was hyperbole and distortion by pointing to a one year spike and ignoring the overall pattern of declining rates of violence and sexual assault. Even when there were outstanding examples of violence, as there was two evenings ago, the riots looked tame compared to those that have occurred frequently in American cities. And they are much rarer, one about every second year. In these cases, Middle Eastern refugees were involved.
But there was no rape. There was no violence – though one police officer was slightly injured. When there is violence, the perpetrators were much more likely to be right-wing extremists than immigrants. Swedes seem to know this and a majority continue to support the intake of refugees and migrants. Nevertheless, Trumpists insist that there is a media conspiracy to cover up the incidents of rape and violence in Sweden.
However, even if we have some glimpse of what we face in the world of persuasion, how can we use our rational and communicative skills to best effect? When we try to persuade another, do we first attempt to establish the facts or, as the ancient Sophists did, focus on arête or virtue, on values of the highest order – excellence in other words? If the latter, what rhetorical and philosophic techniques are required? Or do we set aside argument and discourse altogether and instead opt for authenticity, opt for giving witness to what you believe to be true as opposed to the claims of the Other.
Mel Gibson’s totally unsubtle and sometimes saccharine Hacksaw Ridge, with the most gruesome and graphic scenes of the maelstrom of war I have ever seen, tells the “true” story of a conscientious objector, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), as the true believer and saint-like figure who served as a U.S. medic in the war against the Japanese in Okinawa. He won the highest award for bravery, the U.S. Medal of Honor. Doss volunteered to serve, but given his faith (he was a Seventh Day Adventist) and promise to God, he would not bear arms. In Gibson’s interpretation, this superhero combined an open-hearted approach to life with steely determination to defend his beliefs.
Some of his fellow soldiers viewed that as cowardice and bullied and beat him. His commanding officers treated his behaviour as disobedience and undertook an effort to have him court martialled. But through witnessing to his faith, through his unqualified brave actions in battle, he proved them all wrong. He did not use argument to defend his case, but he did need an order from a superior officer in Washington that conscientious objectors serving as medics need not bear arms. But most of all, he needed to prove they were wrong and more than did so in repeated acts of outstanding bravery in rescuing his fellow soldiers.
There are other ways to win arguments than with words and arguments. There are also other ways to lose arguments regardless of one’s skill with words and reason. Does the payment of money in exchange for such teaching these skills corrupt the process as Socrates proclaimed as he sought to establish the pursuit of Truth, Wisdom and Courage as the superior values for a warrior and aristocratic class? After all, Trumpists and anti-Trumpists often insist that supporters or opponents respectively are being paid to be there. And senior executives of companies may indirectly be paid for touting the Trump presidency when they attend his “job” rallies because the company benefits from the positive publicity and the president promoting their products and their commitment to America. It is not they who have to pay off the president but the president who may be paying them off for being touts for himself.
Modern universities, though periodically invaded by corruption, have overwhelmingly proved the falsity of Socrates’ claims and shown that guaranteed wages and the principle of academic freedom have overwhelmingly protected the independence of scholars and scientists in both their teaching and research functions. By and large, responsible media outlets, and even irresponsible ones, have largely succeeded in drawing a line between the sources of their ad revenues and their news and editorial content. It should not be presumed in advance that material influences trump intellectual ones.
We have also learned that, contrary to Socrates, knowledge is not a single craft, but a multiplicity of tasks each with its own specialized vocabulary, techniques, objects of study and standards for assessing results. There is no singular path to knowledge. There is not even a singular Truth with a capital “T.” There is a difference between being a sage and being a scholar or research scientist. Most of the latter are not sages, as much as they may contribute to the advancement of knowledge.
In the ancient Greek world of Socrates, rhetorical skills were valued more than parsing arguments and evidence in a written work or stringing together depictions in a coherent way in a story or a novel. The latter was exemplified in the movie, Genius, the biopic of renowned Scribner’s editor, Max Perkins (Colin Firth), and his exuberant unboundaried novelist, Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law). Look Homeward Angel and Of Time and the River were, arguably, both made into coherent, readable and popular novels because of the concise effort of editing the logorrheic outpouring of the poetic prose of the American Walt Whitman of the twentieth century. In a book culture, arguments and evidence in science and scholarship, or narrative plots, themes and characterization in fiction, must be coherent to facilitate communication.
This is not the case where alternatives to persuasion are used. Incoherence, boring and meaningless repetition of phrases, body language and snorts or their equivalents in tweets, may be used to confound coherence and disparage criteria such as truth and consistency. When the message requires audience fragmentation, traditional and legacy media with standards of correspondence to facts and coherence in presentation must be regarded as the enemy to be undermined and debilitated. Following Donald Trump’s rant as an excuse for a news conference last week (16 February 2017), in a tweet the next day, he dubbed the news media “the enemy of the American people.” In the original version, he wrote: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @CNN, @NBCNews and many more) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people. SICK!” Given the grammar and style, he should have written sic! The illogic was best exemplified when he dubbed the leaks about his election campaign’s links to Russians authentic, but the reporting of those leaks, “fake news.”
We have four different groups in contention, however, not two. There are the modern scholars and scientists, journalists and writers who, like the ancient Sophists, adhere to standards of reasoning and establishing evidence, to techniques of differentiating truth from falsehood. In the other corner are the modern cynics, the dogged or dog-like (κυνικός – kynikos) celebrators of fame and fortune, of strength and power. Modern cynics are the very opposite of their Athenian predecessors – Antisthenes and Diogenes made famous in Plato’s dialogues. The latter became ideologues who insisted in turning the rigour and discipline of argument into an ascetic life style. Trump and his followers have replaced rigour and discipline with incoherence and rants.
The modern version of ancient cynicism are evangelicals with their narrow adherence to ideology. Paradoxically, they unite with modern cynics because both disparage rigour in thought and use of language. The two groups are united in a single camp because of their opposition to the use of reason and reflection, attention to facts and follies, as a method for establishing truth. For contemporary cynics as ideologues as well as cynical inversions of those ancient practitioners, Truth is either revealed or it is whatever I believe. It is not something to be pursued.
In addition to the Sophists, there is a fourth group. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. From very different perspectives, they were philosophers. Like the ancient cynics and their modern evangelical ideologues, they believed in Truth with a capital “T”. Like the sophists, they believed Truth, along with the virtue of Justice, could be established by adherence to the principles of reason, of consistency in argument, of correspondence with facts and of coherence in weaving it altogether. Unlike the sophists who revered the techniques of rationality and made no claims about an ultimate revelation, these philosophers believed that they could reveal that Truth and uncover the principles of Justice through reason alone.
The partnership of sceptical sophists and rational philosophers, Camp A, opposed the members of Camp B, the union of believers in sincerity and goodness of human motives and actions (evangelical ideologues) with the contemporary cynics of disbelief and insincerity who regard human motives and actions to be fundamentally base. Linking the evangelical ideologues and the contemporary cynics are the economic ideologues who believe human motives are strictly self-interested, but, like the evangelical ideologues, have constructed an ideology, materialistic rather than value-based, indifferent to facts and arguments that predetermine how the economic order is to be constructed.
The question then is when there are no rules of discourse, when frameworks trump dialogue, how do the members of Camp A persuade those who belong to Camp B? The members of both camps speak the same language with the same grammatical rules, but the rules of logic and the rules of falsification differ dramatically. They are not shared. At least by the core members of one camp versus those of another. That is where one finds an opening in the gaps between the core and the periphery and in the divisions among the sub-groups in Camp B. Before one can take advantage of those openings, it is necessary to establish common grounds for Camp A.
In the next blog, I inquire into what we can learn from ancient Greeks caught up with the question of persuasion.
With the help of Alex Zisman