Friday, February 09, 2007

What is the Threshold for Being Wrong?

A couple of years ago, I saw a documentary on Karl Rove that explained how he began to hone his tactics in political discourse (a YouTube search has not yielded the clip). In this documentary, the biographers - many of them his friends - explained that Rove always thought he was right. That he was thoroughly convinced of his own position, and that he wouldn't take that position if he wasn't convinced.

Fair enough. I'd have to say that I feel the same way. If I'm not necessarily convinced of something, I'm not going to argue for or against it.

The show went on to explain that in his high school (or college, I can't recall) debate class, Rove would often use intimidation tactics on his opponents. If they showed up with a few index cards worth of notes, he would show up with a box of index cards. They would bring two boxes, he would bring four. Eventually he wheeled a dolly full of boxes of "notes" into a debate before someone put a stop to it - but Rove knew the value of psychological warfare, and it is something he has continued to refine since. As a marketing person myself, I have to admire him as a kind of mad genius. As a person who'd like to think that discourse doesn't have to sink to suck levels, he makes me ill.

Because that's the rub, isn't it? If you're really so convinced, why bring the boxes of cards? One could argue it's a tool in the overall debate, but wouldn't a true master of discourse be able to convince his opponents through - I don't know, logic and reason? Perhaps it was all that Greek philosophy I studied and the Platonic dialogues I read, but when I listen to an argument for or against something, I'm sure as fuck going to weed out the psychological warfare elements (doubly so since as a marketing schlub I recognize them) and cut to the actual reasoning behind the position. And if you can't explain that, what good are you?

Which brings me to the point of this post. What exactly is the threshold for being wrong? At what point can you throw away the psychological warfare and your smug self-satisfaction that you've used to belittle and denigrate your opponents, and admit "hey, maybe this isn't the way to go after all." After your "slam-dunk" WMDs aren't there? After you realize that labelling people who aren't on board with you destroying civil liberties as "traitors" isn't working? How about after the levees break, and the help that you promise doesn't come?

Most recently, it's been two attacks on the opposition that have raised my eyebrows. As the Democrats have already done more in the first month they've been in Congress than the Republicans did in the last six years of controlling the legislative and judicial branches of government by raising minimum wage, how do Republicans respond? With rational discourse? No. They accuse (falsely) Barack Obama of attending a radical Islamic school, and accuse Nancy Pelosi (also falsely) of trying to traipse around the country in a plane that it turns out was requested by Homeland Security?

What exactly is the threshold for being wrong? When does the psychological warfare end? How many "Barack HUSSIEN Obama LOL" jokes are we going to have to tolerate before enough is enough? When will people demand that the boxes of index cards be put away, and we finally return to civil discourse in this country?

I think a lot of people are getting tired of those boxes, and more and more people are seeing them for what they are. And that's really the sad part about warfare, psychological or otherwise: you need to keep providing bigger and bigger boxes. And when you can't anymore, it's time to sit down and settle things like civilized human beings - by talking it over.

5 comments:

Jon said...

Whereas they would say:

It's time to sit down and settle things like civilized human beings - by TAKING it over.

Roger said...

Rhetorically speaking, Jason, the stupidity stops once people stop being persuaded by it.

The master-rhetor (if that is what you mean) doesn't simply employ logos, but also uses ethos and pathos. Ethos being the way you establish authority and pathos being...well...you know the appeal to emotion.

Republicans use both ethos and pathos extremely well. I talked with my class about this when we were studying rhetoric in my class. Republican arguments tend to rely on pathos primarily--i.e. "Isn't it stupid that people are making a war on common sense--that is Christmas" or "Aren't you pissed that Muslim terrorists destroyed the WTC?" Sometimes, they appeal to ethos--like George W. Bush's attempt to seem like he is simply a common person when we all know that he's one of the rich elite.

Sure, logos is used by the democrats. But without pathos and ethos, no one really cares. We can all sit around and watch An Inconvenient Truth for days upon days and agree that it is an accurate depiction of global climate change. Without a mass movement showing people just how dire this situation is (i.e. movies by Hollywood depicting the horrors of extreme climate change) no one is going to do anything about it.

That's why Democrats, by and large, do not move people like the Republicans do. I would call the Republicans the master rhetors, and the Democrats a bunch of intelligent people who don't know how to appeal to their constituents except in times when the majority of people realize that many conservatives are greedy assholes.

So, I would disagree with your definition of the master rhetorician, and I would say that your college experience in philosophy definitely made you think that logos was the only, or should be the primary, means of appealing to people. Plato tried to institute this as against the Sophists who taught rhetoric (i.e. logos, ethos, pathos). And, in a society where the only people who count are wealthy, cultured and philosophical, we could have appeals made only in logos. But in a society where those who vote aren't always as educated as Plato's dream state in The Republic, people have to learn to use other means to sway the electorate.

Jason said...

I don't understand - I said that Karl Rove was a "mad genius" for exactly the reasons you described (albeit in Common English.) How is my post any different from your comment, aside from wishing that people would focus more on "logos?"

And frankly, Hollywood has been making big-budget global climate change disaster movies for a long time. See: Waterworld, The Day After Tomorrow, The Postman, and any variety of forgettable made-for-TV flicks. Those movies have a history of losing money and receiving poor reviews. Are you really arguing that the way to convince people that global warming is a threat is to make Waterworld 2?

As we say in the "borg capitalist collective," methinks you should lay off the kool-aid.

Leeann said...

no, actually, those movies are popular because people don't actually believe in them. they are marketed like sci-fi epics (like Mad Max, Beyond Thunderdome)--where the heroes, in some way, triumph at the end of the movie. We really don't have effective post-apocalyptic films anymore (if we ever did). most actually reinforce the conservative mantra-"times may be tough, but dammit we're Americans and we'll come out on top." Consider the following from Frederic Jameson's new book on Science Fiction:

"[C]ould not the omnipresence of apocalyptic fantasies in American culture be read as an indication that somehow we have "given way on our desire" or betrayed our desire at a fundamental social level? That is, these visions simultaneously allow us to satisfy our aggressive animosity towards existing social relations, while imagining an alternative (inevitably we always triumph in these scenerios, even if reduced to fundamentally primative living conditions... a fantasy in itself), while also not directly acknowledging our discontent with the conditions of capital (it is almost always some outside that destroys the system, not direct militant engagement)."

So, there isn't a sense in these movies (i.e. Waterworld isn't helped by scientists, rather by some utopian promise of 'dry land'), the same with the Day After Tommorow, which imagines that Mexico will help us and we'll just take over their country. There is no film today that addresses the human possibility of thinking through a disaster in a scientific way that could educate people effectively about the dangers of climate change. Except Al Gore's movie, and who wants to watch Al Gore anyway. Didn't he lose the election in 2000 because he was a snore? that Al Gore? ;)

Of course not, but that may be how Gore is remembered among people today...

Roger Whitson said...

actually, that last comment was from me and not LeeAnn.