[Paleopsych] NYT: Op-Ed: Is Persuasion Dead?

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Sat Jun 4 22:55:12 UTC 2005

Is Persuasion Dead?
New York Times Op-Ed, 5.6/4

[I don't think the situation was any different in Mr. Mencken's day, or even in 
the day of Assurbanipal. St. Paul, I'm now reading in The Acts of the Apostles, 
managed to be persuasive with very few words and little hauling out of 
independently-verifiable evidence.]


    Speaking just between us - between one who writes columns and those
    who read them - I've had this nagging question about the whole
    enterprise we're engaged in.

    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.

    The politicians and the press didn't kill off persuasion
    intentionally, of course; it's more manslaughter than murder.
    Persuasion just isn't relevant to delivering elections or eyeballs.
    Pols have figured out that to get votes you don't need to change
    minds. Even when they want to, modern media make it hard. They give
    officials seconds to make their point, ignore their ideas in favor of
    their poll numbers or showcase a clash of caricatures, believing this
    is the only way to make "debate" entertaining. Elections may turn on
    emotions like hope and fear anyway, but with persuasion's passing,
    there's no alternative.

    There's only one problem: governing successfully requires influencing
    how people actually think. Yet when the habits of persuasion have been
    buried, the possibilities of leadership are interred as well. That's
    why Bill Clinton's case on health care could be bested by savage
    "Harry and Louise" ads. And why, even if George Bush's Social Security
    plan had been well conceived, the odds were always stacked against
    ambitious reform.

    I'm not the only one who amid this mess wonders if he shouldn't be
    looking at another line of work. A top conservative thinker called
    recently, dejected at the sight of Ann Coulter on the cover of Time.
    What's the point of being substantive, he cried, when all the
    attention goes to the shrill?

    But the embarrassing truth is that we earnest chin-strokers often get
    it wrong anyway. Take me. I hadn't thought much about Iraq before I
    read Ken Pollack's book, "The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading
    Iraq," a platonic ideal of careful analysis meant to persuade. It
    worked. I was persuaded! So what should we conclude when a talent like
    Pollack can convince us - and then the whole thing turns out to be
    based on a premise (W.M.D.) that is false?

    If serious efforts to get it right can lead to tragic errors, why care
    about a culture of persuasion at all? On one level, everyone needs a
    good rationalization at the core of his professional life; mine holds
    that the struggle to think things through, even when we fail, is

    But beyond this, the gap between the cartoon of public life that the
    press and political establishment often serve up and the pragmatic
    open-mindedness of most Americans explains why so many people tune out
    - and how we might get them to tune back in. Alienation is the only
    intelligent response to a political culture that insults our

    The resurrection of persuasion will not be easy. Politicians who've
    learned to survive in an unforgiving environment may not feel safe
    with a less scripted style. Mass media outlets where heat has always
    sold more than light may not believe that creatively engaging on
    substance can expand their audience. But if you believe that meeting
    our collective challenges requires greater collective understanding,
    we've got to persuade these folks to try.

    I'm guessing Ann Coulter isn't sweating this stuff. God willing,
    there's something else keeping her up nights. In the meantime, like
    Sisyphus, those who seek a better public life have to keep rolling the
    rock uphill. If you've read this far, maybe you're up for the climb,

    E-mail: [2]mattmiller at nytimes.com; Matt Miller writes a monthly column
    for Fortune. Maureen Dowd is on book leave.

[Again, what is book leave?]

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