The Death of Persuasion

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“The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think.”Edwin Schlossberg (Designer, author, artist)

As someone who has been writing blog entries for several years now, I’m disheartened by how little room there seems to be in everyone’s gestalt for opinion modification.  Increasingly, it seems that we pour our cherished beliefs into our minds as one might pour concrete into a mold, let them set, and then refuse to contemplate the slightest adjustments, regardless of evidence to the contrary.  Given humanity’s creative reasoning powers, we have the ability to evaluate subjective things from a variety of perspectives, but it seems we have exchanged rational thought for rationalization, using our minds mainly to reassure ourselves that our positions are the only ones worth having.  Looking at a variety of views and understanding how someone might come to a different conclusion is at the heart of open-mindedness and nuanced thought.  But most importantly, it’s the path to getting things done; once you grasp other perspectives, you can seek ways to blend them with your own in the hopes of finding the compromises required for progress.  Rather than contemplate such subtle shadings for the greater good, however, more and more people freeze their ideas and only listen to those with the same shaped ice cubes.

You just have to take a look at your own Facebook page to recognize the truth of this:  Any major event in our world will be sifted through the filters of your viewing history so that your “suggested” posts reflect opinions with which you already agree.  That your friends also tilt in the same direction as you and thus share more friendly ideas is hardly earth-shattering, but it’s becoming easier and easier to avoid any and all counterpoints to our hardened ideas.  Recent events illustrate this clearly.

Hillary’s emails were a hot topic for months, but once the FBI and Justice Department determined not to prosecute her, the propaganda machines for both sides shifted into high gear with hyperbolic pronouncements:  Either, she’s a bald-faced liar or an unfairly persecuted leader who did nothing differently than Colin Powell.  Or, she got away with traitorous security breaches, unless none of the emails were actually classified and this is just another trumped up (get it?) attack.  FBI head, James Comey, should be characterized as a pillar of non-partisanship and integrity, but he’s also a political hack who sold out for continued employment under the next Clinton administration.  And then there’s Attorney General Loretta Lynch who betrayed America when she spoke to Bill Clinton just prior to the FBI’s decision although she left the decision totally in Comey’s hands and has been a paragon of impartiality.  It’s enough to confuse anyone.  Belay that, nobody’s confused in the least because we read nothing but things which support our predispositions.

Even areas that supposedly show a variety of opinions fail to provide much help.  When you look at the comments accompanying the stories covering these events, each contributor writes with definitive certainty on Clinton’s guilt or innocence.  Evidence is scant or non-existent; even the links provided as “proof” come from sources perceived as biased and/or public relations fluff.  Party affiliation has always played a role in how the truth is perceived, but today how you identify yourself (liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat, red, blue, or whatever) dictates your stance before you’ve even considered what few facts can be ferreted out from the tidal wave of opinions stated as absolute truth. If it comes from MSNBC, you know as you’re reading the headline what stance will be taken; just as you don’t even have to waste time scanning anything to know how Fox will be shading the issue.  Actually, you don’t have to see or hear much at all to know how various supposedly “fair and objective” news outlets will be spinning a particular story.  When reporters identify their employers, you anticipate their bias to such an intense degree that you barely listen to the partiality you know is coming.  And should you accidentally happen upon something that clashes with your bubble world, you can immediately find the opposite tact from one of your more “reliable” sources.

Police are evil, racist executioners because several black men have been shot with little justification; police are heroic saints who are the only ones standing between us and anarchy after eight are killed in Dallas and Baton Rouge.  Guns must be better controlled since unbalanced people are able to obtain them with ease; we need fewer gun laws since if more citizens were armed, these tragedies could be prevented by sharp-shooting regular folks.  Black Lives Matter; Blue Lives Matter; All Lives Matter. I could write the lead stories for just about anything as long as you tell me for which audience I will be manipulating the facts; objectivity has become only as objective as any specific target audience will tolerate.  I’d be willing to bet that somewhere there is a lone reporter making a lucrative living writing under different names for both right and left wing groups. If ISIS has taught us nothing else, it’s that no matter how pernicious and evil your message is, there are some angry, deranged people out there who will buy into it.

Which makes it hard for anyone to persuade others to any position except the extremes.  And when you’re preaching to your particular choir, it’s no more difficult to sway your altos than it is to get your mom to say the scribble you colored when you were three is a work of art.  Once you have a detail or two about the author (political affiliation, for example), you are freed from having to consider his ideas—you know that the limited-government columnist will be some “right-wing nut job” and the progressive essayist can be dismissed as some “Kool-Aid-drinking libtard,” depending which way the wind blows you.  Everything has become prepackaged and pre-thought out for us to minimize distracting ourselves with having to forage through the jungle of competing ideas which might force us to reconsider the wall we have built around our prejudices.  (Mexico will be forced to pay for that wall, of course.)

The danger is how easily manipulated we have become.  That prospective wall builder has capitalized on playing to specific aspects of his constituency to become a Presidential candidate of one of the two major parties.  That would have been impossible twelve…no, four years ago, given the amazingly inappropriate comments and stances he has taken.  But with that media wall built solidly around our preferred websites and news channels, it’s child’s play to tailor your current events consumption as specifically as you wish, ignoring or dismissing any conflicting evaluations as easily as you determine which version of CSI or Law and Order you won’t watch.

We are now in the most significant political season I can remember at the Presidential level—McGovern vs. Nixon might be the second largest divide between two candidates (followed closely by Johnson vs. Goldwater).  But this time, we plow ahead without any sense of balance or interest in determining positions and approaches.  Objectivity is in short supply, which might be why both candidates are setting records when it comes to unfavorable ratings from voters. (Here’s one poll that has Trump and Clinton each with almost 60% negative views from voters.  And then there’s my favorite: 13% of these people would prefer a meteor to destroy the Earth rather than either nominee’s becoming President.  It can make you nostalgic for the days when “Deez Nuts” was polling at almost 10% in Minnesota and North Carolina as a Presidential candidate.  At least that seemed funny at the time.)

With important events being controlled by our next President (Supreme Court nominees, international relations, various “police” actions around the world, and trying to work with a very partisan Congress, to name a few), it would make sense for all of us to study the positions of these two carefully and objectively, weighing their past accomplishments, experiences, temperaments, and (if you must) pants suits or hair before deciding.  The same holds true for the less glamorous but more important state and local elections.  You’ll have to work much harder to get information on your town mayor or councilperson as they get hardly any coverage, especially when we have Donald Trump’s university or Hillary Clinton’s embassies to obsess over, not to mention the aforementioned barriers we’ve built within our information sources to keep such unsexy races away.

If I can’t persuade you to do anything else pertaining to your accessing information, I would suggest that you force yourself to read the opposite of what you think at least one-quarter of the time.  Go to Google news, for example, type the subject of your story, and then scan the leads to find all the ways various “experts” and sources are reporting the story.  (Yes, you can watch videos in addition to reading, for those of you less thrilled with one of the best mental activity humans can do.)  Taking the email story, for example, you could read “House Republicans Should Focus on Solving Problems, Not Hillary Clinton”  followed by “Hillary’s Dirty Emails: A Guide” to get you started.  If your reaction is to wonder how both those stories can exist at the same time without the threat of anti-matter coming in contact with matter which would lead to a galaxy-destroying explosion, as Scotty often warned Kirk, then you’re old like me (“Captain!  She can’ae take any more…she’s gonna blow!”).  But you also might be catching on to the scam of our “click-like-comment” world where attracting attention to justify advertising costs has become more important than reporting truth.

Yeah, you’ll probably have to sort through more material to find enough facts to come to your own, more-informed conclusions, but it’s time for all of us to reclaim the challenging yet significantly better habit of thinking for ourselves after we have considered many different ideas. It takes longer to do that, but we all might wind up in a better world for the effort.

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3 comments

  1. Pingback: Time to Ignore |
  2. Jeanne Slinker

    You make a valid argument for the way far too many people obtain information and what they base their political positions on. I would encourage people to not just read opposing opinions, but to also look for a news/information source that provides independent links to where they source their information. Did the source post a quote from someone, and if so, did they post a link to the full statement and not just a small portion of said comment. Do the sources you are reading link you to another blog or to separate source such as a true copy of a legal document, a valid transcript of a congressional inquiry, or does it simply state an opinion and no source to validate their statements.

    I follow facts as much as I Canada. When Mr. Trump tweeted a meme that stated something about the majority of white people were killed by black people, I went to the FBI statistics to check that, and his meme was utterly bogus. When Clinton claimed she did not send confidential or classified emails over her server, I decided to go to the video and transcript of the FBI director being grilled by congress where it is made clear by the director himself that the 3 emails in question were not clearly marked, a couple were marked and should not have been, and that it would have been very easy for Mrs. Clinton to have missed the very small and partial markings. Somehow this bit of info is rarely mentioned by anyone in the media.

    I have watched and researched politics for twenty years and have learned early on how distorted so much of our journalism is these days. It is so important to fully research any issue…go to the actual legislation of a bill, see who really voted, how they voted, and look to the amendments of a bill in order to get the full picture. Go to actual full videos of speeches, don’t simply listen to a 20 second sound bite. Read history. Most issues have a long historical record, have connections to other issues, and can be very complex. If we want to make solid decisions on who we vote for, we need a hell of a lot of information.

    It is far more than just listening to the other side. It is fact finding from sources who link you to official records, video, etc., and reviewing those sources and following them to even more information. It takes time, which m any people don’t have or don’t want to spend.

    • jamescrandell

      You’re absolutely correct that your methods lead to better information and improved understanding. You are correct as well that most people will never do them. That’s why I do think that encouraging everyone to do something possible has more chance to resonate with people. I would also point out that some of us were able to find the same information as you more quickly through reliable on-line sources. Why people don’t have the time for trying to understand our complex society given all the supposedly “time-saving” devices we now find indispensable would lead us down another intricate study where the pop psychologists offer mental doritos instead of nutritious food for thought. Has our world gotten so complicated that we can only specialize in a very limited arena and have to trust other specialists in all the other important areas where life-impacting decisions have to be made? Is it any wonder that somebody (idiotic though he is) like Trump appeals to some many because he claims to have easy solutions to all the world’s ills?

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