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