"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

You Are Expecting Something OTHER Than Aristotle?

In this morning's mail, we got a message from Think Tank Boss's Boss about how "to convince conservatives and libertarians to communicate in a way that connects with [...] the 85% of the population with IQs below about 115." The wording seems to imply this 85% needs to be connected with because they're NOT conservatives and libertarians (i.e. they're liberals or independents), which would also imply that ONLY 15% of the population ARE conservatives and libertarians.

Interesting prospect. (I'm not even going to touch the issue of IQ and political inclinations.)

BUT, what I thought was more interesting about this email, in conjunction with the above, was this quote by Important Person (the gist of the email was that were were supposed to mount and frame it):
People are not reasoned into action, but rather are inspired by tangible, concrete, emotional rhetoric.
Well, yes ... Okay ...

But not very original.

In fact, Aristotle said something similar in the 4th century B.C. What he says, in Book I of the Rhetoric, before devoting almost the entirety of Book II to pathos -- the skillful manipulation of emotion for the purpose of persuasion -- is
Before some audiences not even possession of the exactest knowledge will make it easy for what we say to produce conviction. For argument based on knowledge implies instruction, and there are people whom one cannot instruct.
We taught watered-down Aristotle in the freshman comp courses at Grad U., but students at least came out, if they were instructable enough to have passed the course, with a minimal conceptual understanding of the rhetorical appeals ethos, pathos, and logos, along with the basic skills to apply them in their writing and recognize them in the speech and writing of others.

And that's not a bad take-away from a course. A successful democracy needs rhetoric to function. It needs leaders who can speak effectively. But, perhaps more importantly, it needs citizens who can know how rhetoric shapes the messages. how it influences what they read, see, hear, think, and feel.

While Aristotle devotes such a large portion of his text to persuasion through emotion, he also affirms what Important Person quoted by Think Tank Boss's Boss implies -- that is, that getting through to people by reasoning is better than moving them by emotion, BUT, because the former is so rarely truly possible, virtuous leaders will have to rely on emotion to persuade the people of what is Right and Just.

However, Aristotle also asserts,
It is absurd to hold that a man ought to be ashamed of being unable to defend himself with his limbs, but not of being unable to defend himself with speech and reason, when the use of rational speech is more distinctive of a human being than the use of his limbs.
And that's where the difference lies. Yes, Aristotle acknowledges, "there are people whom one cannot instruct," but these are only "some audiences," not 85% of the population. The rest of us, according Aristotle, should learn how rhetoric works, not only so that we may manipulate (for their own good!) those who are incapable of listening to reason but so that we can "defend" ourselves against those who would use it against us to achieve ends that may be neither good nor just. Indeed,
If it be objected that one who uses such power of speech unjustly might do great harm, that is a charge which may be made in common against all good things [...] and above all against the things that are most useful, as strength, health, wealth, generalship. A man can confer the greatest of benefits by a right use of these, and inflict the greatest of injuries by using them wrongly.
Ah, but who decides what is the "right" use of these? Maybe that's where we're stuck today with the conservative/liberal divide. We can't agree on fundamental issues of right and wrong: Are education and health care rights or privileges?  How do you define a "person" for purposes of the right to life or the right to give money to politicians? Economic growth is good, but are there some corporations, financial institutions, that are "too big to fail"? What should the relationship between business and government be and who should decide?

Important questions deserve sustained and serious and open public debate, not soundbites. In my comp classes, I always used advertisements to introduce the appeals. It was always so easy and yet such a revelation when students saw how ads worked to persuade them to want things.

Politics has become, overwhelmingly it seems, about the advertising.

I do not think Aristotle would approve.

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