Chocolate and Gold Coins

Monday, June 06, 2005

Preaching to the Choir

Are most pundits merely preaching to their own choir? Almost all of the readers of a particular political blog agree with the politics of that blog, so says Matt Miller in a New York Times editorial:

Is persuasion dead? And if so, does it matter?

The significance of this query goes beyond the feelings of futility I'll suffer if it turns out I've wasted my life on work that is useless. This is bigger than one writer's insecurities. Is it possible in America today to convince anyone of anything he doesn't already believe? If so, are there enough places where this mingling of minds occurs to sustain a democracy?

The signs are not good. Ninety percent of political conversation amounts to dueling "talking points." Best-selling books reinforce what folks thought when they bought them. Talk radio and opinion journals preach to the converted. Let's face it: the purpose of most political speech is not to persuade but to win, be it power, ratings, celebrity or even cash.

By contrast, marshaling a case to persuade those who start from a different position is a lost art. Honoring what's right in the other side's argument seems a superfluous thing that can only cause trouble, like an appendix. Politicos huddle with like-minded souls in opinion cocoons that seem impervious to facts.

Read the full thing.

I don’t agree that this polarization of thought is a new phenomenon associated with blogging. Blogging only reveals this inherent polarization of thought. There was never a time where people’s minds were like putty to be shaped by the clever oratory of a brilliant thinker. Most people have their politics pretty well defined by the time they reach adulthood, and all the reasoning in the world will not alter their views.

In one sense, this is depressing, and in another, not so bad. I think it is somewhat reassuring that most people have a natural immunity against the rhetoric of politicians. Otherwise, a clever but unscrupulous politician could persuade a nation to do very bad things. Admittedly, he might be able to persuade half of the nation to do very bad things but the other half will be very much opposed to it.

If you are a pundit, you cannot persuade many people. You might persuade a few people who basically agree with you on most points about one point they would ordinarily disagree with. No matter how clever your argument is, most people will ignore it if it doesn’t correspond to their preconceived political notions. So the pundit is most persuasive when he is perhaps least sure of his own arguments, because it’s when he is unsure then his views and his followers views aren’t already carved in stone.

But this is the question: if logic cannot move our political (and economic) views, where did they come from? Our parents had a big influence on us. But many views come about simply to rationalize behavior we already exhibit. For example, if you have had many casual sexual relationships, you might think that causing an unwanted pregnancy is not the moral sin the Catholic Church would say it is and maybe abortion is not so bad. Behavior drives your view of morality and politics and not the other way around.

Let me give you an insight about my own political and moral views and how I came to have them. This is an excerpt from a letter I sent to Keith Burgess Jackson (I haven’t read his blog since because I didn’t agree with his politics):

I basically believe in non-violence (which would make me a sort of liberal).

I hate guns. I oppose the death penalty. I don't eat meat and I don't wear leather if I can avoid it. I believe we should only attack countries that have attacked us (I supported the military action against Afghanistan because they were allied with Al Queda but I opposed the invasion of Iraq). I abhor torture. I also oppose abortion.

You might think that this is a good example of someone adopting a political philosophy and choosing my stand on the issues accordingly. But that isn't how it happened - it never happens that way. I kind of accidentally fell into most of these positions, began seeing a pattern, and enforced some order on the rest of these positions.

For example, I used to support the death penalty until I lived in Minnesota where they don't have it. Then I realized that the death penalty was unnecessary. My view against the death penalty harden when I learned that many people have been freed from prison because of DNA evidence when they were falsely convicted beforehand. Some of these people could have been executed.

I remember changing my mind about abortion when I was a teenager. I was in speech class and a frizzy haired girl who I thought must have been one of those damn liberals - (I was less liberal then) shocked me by giving a coherent speech against abortion. I never thought about it before but I thought that if a woman thought she should not be able to have an abortion - even if she were raped - maybe I should think about it more. What I decided was that even if we sure about the humanity of the unborn, if were even slightly unsure – suppose 1% unsure - then lots and lots of abortions add up lots of expected deaths.

I didn't become a vegetarian until I met my wife. She's from India and was not comfortable eating meat. I decided to give up some meat (beef and pork). Then I gave up poultry. Then I gave up fish. Then I gave up wearing leather (for the most part). But I did not marry my wife with the notion that her beliefs might fit into some non-violence philosophy. Also, my views on economics are based primarily on my education at the University of Minnesota, which are not liberal at all. My economic views are more-or-less classic free market libertarian.

It is just chance that the liberals got stuck defending abortion and the conservatives got to attack it. It could have been the other way around. I remember in the 1970's many Republican supported abortion rights because it fit their view of getting the government off of the backs of individuals (both father and son Bush supported abortion rights in the 1970's). Some liberals thought that the little fetus was a creature we must protect and defend like anyone else. But the National Organization of Women (NOW) changed everything. They insisted on abortion rights because they didn't want society dumping on them. Their view on abortion was the NRA's view on assault rifles - they wanted the option and they weren't going to let politicians take away that option. The NOW was strong in the Democratic Party - the rest is history.

So don't be so sure that your view on abortion or any other political view stems directly from a set of principles. Your views came first, the principles later.

By the way, it was this letter that I forwarded to Amit Varma of India Uncut that convinced him that I should be a blogger. He was able to persuade me of this in the end. If any pundit can persuade, Amit can.


  • I was thinking about this very same topic yesterday! People use their reasoning abilities not to find the truth, but to justify their already made up minds. (And I stole that from someone else, but I forget whom.)

    By Anonymous Half Sigma, at 3:04 PM  

  • "If you are a pundit, you cannot persuade many people. You might persuade a few people who basically agree with you on most points about one point they would ordinarily disagree with."

    Actually, going along with this, if you REALLY want to persuade people, the way to do it is to PRETEND to be on their side when you really aren't.

    For example, suppose you are a conservative and you want to persuade liberals? What you do is create a blog where you PRETEND TO BE A LIBERAL. You bash Bush a lot ans write about how stupid he is. Then you build up liberal capital which you can expend on criticism of liberal ideas.

    I think that, as an experiement, every blogger ought to try to do a fake blog where they pretend to be on the opposite side of the political spectrum in order to learn how the other side thinks.

    By Anonymous Half Sigma, at 3:09 PM  

  • Hi Half Sigma
    Pretending like you're the enemy so you can subvert the cause from within...Karl Rove would love it!

    Maybe your calling is in politics. You seem to have a mind for it.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 7:34 PM  

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