Monday, April 23, 2012

Whither The Power of Persuasion?


"If you grab them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow."
The latest round of evo-bio noggin-scratching concerns the possible genetic predisposition toward specific political directions. Typically enough the theorists are more nuanced in their presentation than are the chattering classes covering the discussion. With that caveat in place, I'll get on with my own overly-simplistic observations and thoughts.

1) It may be a by-product of my genetic makeup, but I'm somewhat skeptical toward claims of genetic determinism. The human capacity for change, or transformation, is remarkable, yet remains largely ignored. Why? What is required for beneficial change to occur?

2) What happens when persuasion does occur? Or: when can it be rightly said that you have, in fact, been persuaded? I'm thinking now of David Mamet's recent "conversion" to right-wing conservatism. It strikes me that while the central concerns of his rhetoric may have shifted, the rhetoric itself has not. On those occasions when he bothered himself with left-wing values, he defended them with as much (or as little) skill as he does his current preoccupations. His activity remains the same: rile up an audience primed for controversy. And yet he believes he's undergone a sea-change. What, if anything, has actually changed for him? The question also applies, I think, to the late Charles Colson, who, in the early '90s, "shuddered to think" what he may have become had he not gone to prison, but who nevertheless relapsed to his earlier habit of deep political mischief.

3) I can think of political issues on which I've shifted support. I've no doubt I'll shift some more, as I age and observe and participate in democracy. I have occasionally been persuaded by an argument. But, more often than not, changes in opinion occur by experience, or encounters. Still, I rely on rhetoric to relay that encounter to others. This trait is unlikely to change.

There was a line of Stoics who mulled over the possibility of determinism (or "fate"), yet concluded that even if human existence was a web of cause and effect it still behooved the individual to make the morally acceptable choice, even if that "choice" was an illusion. The argument appeals to me (see: 1)), so to that end I forward you to this meditation on the means of persuasion, as practised by James Baldwin, when he beat William F. Buckley in debate.

5 comments:

paul bowman said...

Now hold on, you pair Mamet and Colson and let Schaefer pose there, lapels in his hands, as citable source? You have a way with a punchline, my friend.

Rory A.A. Hinton said...

And as fate would have it, Baldwin even did it in Buckley's version of an all-too-British accent. Well played, sir.

Whisky Prajer said...

Paul - I honestly deliberated as to how many ironies were worth pointing out. Grateful to have you make my job easier. No, Schaefer is very much in the same tub as the butcher and baker. I'm grateful for the links, if still bemused (or wearied, depending) by the tone.

ARTIS said...

The irony of pointing out ironies.

paul bowman said...

Oh, I saw you were making a face alright! Felt I only owed it to you to start yelling from the gallery.