In competitive policy debate we have an argument called E-Prime, that we ought not use “to be” and its conjugations because the verb implies a solid static meaning when such rigidity is rarely accurate. The famous example is, “The runner is a woman,” when discussing some of the former Olympic champions that were revealed to be cheating and/or hermaphroditic.
This argument is not particularly persuasive and is used mainly when there is not a sophisticated negative strategy available. However, as I age I am come more and more to believe in a variant of the argument. I tend to dismiss declarative statements as statements of fact and instead see them more as wish-fulfillment. This is easily seen when people talk among themselves. I cannot help but cringe a little when someone says, “I have a high threshold for pain” or the classic “Homey don’t play that.” Homey does play it and wishes he didn’t, hence his enthusiasm for the distancing move.
So when I encounter Che’s famous statement about the revolutionary being “guided by great feelings of love” I have to snort-laugh a little. Che wants the revolutionary to be guided by love. Revolutionaries want to be guided by love. In my experience though, they are not. Meeting many of the activists that partook in the Battle for St. Paul I believed that many of them were rather disaffected artsy kids that were angry for whatever reason. This is not to say that those kids are impartial to the sufferings they rallied in support of, but to attribute that concern as the guiding principle is wish fulfillment. Che’s declaration also serves the classic us/them trope of rhetoric. If ‘we’ are the ones guided by love then ‘they’ are by definition not guided by love. Regardless of accuracy this move is moralizing and hence more affective.
Elbaum (89) gives another example of this happening. When discussing why 1960s radicals were drawn to the communist regimes despite the human rights abuses Elbaum says the evidence of abuses were not considered credible because the sources dismissing the abuses were also the strongest critics of US imperialism. Much scholarly research is still concerned with the power/failures of persuasion (and evidence) and why people continue to believe something in the face of clear evidence (I contend this is the question central to Marx’ opus). To me the answer seems obvious: persuasion only works on the choir, affect is what matters most. The continued neglect of this is an act of wish fulfillment: scholars wish it weren’t so, they wish people could be persuaded.
The failure of debate is probably best treated by popular pundits than by academics. Arianna Huffington’s most recent book (Right is Wrong) is about this very breakdown in society. The August recess and the town halls aptly demonstrate this lack as people were vocal about Obama being the next Hitler. Barney Frank dismissed one of his constituents aptly and appropriately when he said arguing with her would be like debating a kitchen table. Sadly Frank was only partly correct: debating with anyone and not just her. I suspect most of us in this community are either atheists or not moved by religious appeals, but there is a certain genius to the “What Would Jesus Do?” slogan. If Obama had couched reform as the right thing to do instead of being about containing costs (a proposition open for debate, obfuscation and fear tactics) then we would be seeing a very different public dialogue right now. Obama has a good story. He defeated Hillary and McCain on the back of that story. But that story has since disappeared and now he is President Wonk. Even The Shrub understood this.
With this approach to persuasion one then has to ask, one being fond of theory and nuance, “what then of theory and nuance?” After all, why do distinctions matter if the crowd merely follows the cool kid? This question also comes into the easy criticism of my theory: what constitutes “cool” and how does it exist beyond the grid of intelligibility? Clearly, coolness is not exogenous and independent of rhetoric. Being able to talk about theory, after all, is cool to come people. I will own this blindspot as this balancing act I am not yet able to account for. Ultimately though, my question is about how to organize and recruit.
Theory and those discussions are important, but only after someone has been recruited into the choir. Until then we, as organizers, ought to be concerned with being model people (not necessarily the same thing as role models). We need to be people our targets want to be, want to be around, and accepted by. Once that level of affection is achieved then the theory is important. So, trying to explain why capitalism is predatory and it is not just a problem of predatory lenders is important but only affection is achieved. This model leaves many ambiguities and does not help close many of the difficulties of the organizers, after all, when has affection been achieved? Is this person more receptive and hence more affected by an ability to cite authors? In short, what motivates this person? The traditional persuasion model is still applicable, but how applicable? My answer is to listen, not to what she says she wants but how she describes others. The magic is in the audience’s observations not the audience’s pronouncements.
Elbaum, Max. (2002). Revolution in the air: Sixties radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che. London: Verso Books.