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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. --Pablo Neruda

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Losing Logical Love of Lithwick

If my heart weren’t already completely committed, I might see if Dahlia Lithwick would have me.

I read a piece like this, and I’m keen to get into her bed head mind. On so many things, she says what I want to say, only better, in fewer words, with more panache.

That said, the end of that particular article is unusually disappointing. In contrasts to what I’m used to from my usual dalliances with Dahlia, she winds down by going all “tempered debate” on me. Talking about the balance between security and civil liberty, she seems to suggest that what’s really needed is more dispassionate analysis and reasoning. Even-handed debate is fine, as a method toward some end, but as a goal in and of itself, it’s just plain milksop.

To what end, dear Dahlia? To what end?

The worst thing about my lust for Dahlia's wonderful mind and surgical writing, though, is that the source of my love for her is the very source of our mutual rhetorical failure. She, for all her ardent intellectual passion, falls into the same rhetorical trap that kicks dolts like me to the curb all the time. When given a rhetorical battlefield, we choose the weapon we think most powerful: reason. Why do we think it most powerful? Well, because it persuades us. It is the sine qua non of argument winners.

Our problem is that most people aren't built that way. Reason isn’t a weapon to which our rhetorical opponents are very vulnerable. A reasoned battle may be the only one we think is worth winning, but the crowd is baying for something much more visceral.

This has vexed me for a long time. The Republican right wing figured out, long ago, that you don’t have to be right to govern, in a democracy. You just have to be popular. And popularity is an emotional outcome, not the result of a debate. The debate club, the history club and the chess club can out-reason the most popular kids in the school. And they can also hang out alone on Saturday night. We may think with our heads, but the vast majority of us make decisions further south.

And that’s why emotion is so powerful. The head will find reasons to follow the heart's inspiration.

Me and Dahlia, no matter how smart she is, won't often win the audience vote in a popularity contest. We go for reason. Our opponents go for the gut.

For the last five years, the Bush administration has deployed powerful appeals to big emotional symbols (freedom!) and to fear. There has been little clear reason and even less evidence in support of reason. While it's true that it's all wearing a bit thin on the American public, now, it has taken five years, and some of the most extraordinary stretches of credibility imaginable just to convince a majority to question the bald assertions of the emotive rhetoric. Virtually ignoring reason and precedent, no-holds-barred set of emotional assertions has enabled this administration to "justify" torture, to curtail habeas corpus, to spy on its own citizens, to wage war without just cause.

For five years, while I was at McKinsey, I taught consultants about communication strategy. These were folks who had always succeeded at everything they'd ever tried, especially in the realm of the mind. They were the valedictorians of all our high schools, and Suma Cum Laude in every degree thereafter. In a training course aimed at new consultants, I used to set up a simple exercise in which their pristine logic was unable to deliver a result. The lesson was obvious: You're going to need more than analytics and logic to move your clients toward a result they really believe in.

Though that course went on to address all the non-rational elements of communications strategy, and how winning rhetoric -- written or spoken -- actually persuades, I don't seem to have learned my own lesson.

I simply can't watch this administration butcher the facts and manipulate Americans' frayed emotions without reaching toward my scabbard for the sword of superior reason.

And Karl Rove (Bush's top political strategist) just laughs and laughs and laughs. By the time I've got my reasoned argument out, he's on to his next fear-baiting, gay-bashing, stem-cell-baby-killing image.

* * *

Here are just a couple of examples of what I mean:

Condaleeza Rice recently compared the US Civil War and the Iraq War, but not in the way that you'd think. She was making the point that folks probably wanted out of the Civil War, too, but that it would have been wrong to allow slavery to continue. She deepened the offense of her illogic by saying: ''there were people who thought the Declaration of Independence was a mistake'' as well.

It's a good rhetorical gambit for Americans who would never want to be seen abandoning the sacred example of the Declaration. And she's certainly right that as many as two thirds of colonists probably did not actively support the Declaration. But it just absolutely makes me furious because Rice is smart enough to know she's being completely illogical.

She's making a famously invalid logical construction:

People thought X was false. X turned out to be true.

People also think Y is false. Therefore Y is also likely true. (Or, more gently, "Therefore, we should also consider Y plausible.")

It's just absolute bullshit. But putting people on the wrong side of the Declaration of Independence is powerful.

(There's also, of course, the irony that the Declaration of Independence was a document intended to cast off a foreign overlord. So, not a great analogy for her to pick in relation to our presence in Iraq.)

Another example that still has me pissed off, because it is part of the President's ongoing campaign to normalize torture.

In an interview with Matt Lauer on NBC's Today show (video at OneGoodMove), Bush responded to questions about "waterboarding" -- the practice of holding someone under-water until they're about to drown -- by saying:"I'm not going to talk about techniques that we use on people. One reason why is that we don't want the enemy to adjust."

Lauer then challenged Bush's assertion that all such techniques were legal, asking, if so, why they had been done only in secret CIA prisons set up in foreign countries. And Bush repeated the evasive soundbite:

"I'm not going to talk about techniques. And I'm not going to explain to the enemy what we're doing."

Sounds reasonable, right? Gotta give the President some privilege, some scope in fighting the terrorists, and he's got to be careful. Except that it's illogical bullshit trashed by the most obvious facts.

Anyone who reads the newspaper has known for years that the US has used waterboarding, snarling dogs snapping at genitals, electric shocks, and other forms of torture. If the "enemy" was going to adjust in response to that information, they did it years ago, when they hung "Never forget Abu Ghraib" banners on their walls. So just answer the damn question.

I don't think my logic in these two examples can be faulted. I also don't think it would persuade a single one of the President's ardent supporters.

And that's why my rhetoric is still on a losing streak. This game just isn't about reason.


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