Skip to main content

The Withering of Persuasion

November 29th, 2022 | 9 min read

By Ian Olson

What are any of us doing when we take up our avatars and handles to enter into fights on Facebook and Twitter? When we post links and frame them with incendiary remarks as though sharing the link was itself a checkmate against those with whom we disagree? What characterizes the discursive space—the space which has aggressively expanded to encompass nearly the whole of our lives, and requires nothing to participate save login credentials—in which an alarming amount of us nourish our senses of self and of tribal belonging?

Many of us would say we are trying to persuade people who disagree with us, but the means we tend to employ tell a different story, one of dismantling the humanity of our Others and aiming to shame them for their stupidity or moral crudity. Appreciation of subtext is hardly necessary: the surface of our disagreements is replete with the badges we brandish to establish our vastly superior reasoning. Our descriptions of what transpired in these exchanges inadvertently reveal our true intention, for we speak of “destroying” someone’s argument or “owning” our opponents and overlook how that militant language betrays our real interests. We are not invested in persuasion: we want to obliterate dissenters.

And of course this cannot literally be done with impunity, so we rely on words instead to remove the contaminants and the defilement they bring from the commons. We aim to purge the space in which words describe occurrences of all with which we disagree so as to restore some threatened sense of spiritual hygiene. We are vigilant to keep serpents and desecration out of our garden-temples. But unlike Adam we have not been charged with doing so: we take it upon ourselves to police the “sacred” which serves and undergirds our sense of self. For no matter how secular one may avow their outlook to be, the demand that all recognize the hallowed preeminence of that gravitational center organizes their life religiously.

But recognition is not enough. Increasingly, we will settle for nothing less than others’ submission to that gravitational center and project our ambition onto that cirrus wisp we gravely invoke as Reason, thus enabling ourselves to ignore how we ourselves are at stake in the rhetorical combat. And there are mercenary markets out of which one can build an arsenal of quotes and links to own the libtards or the normies or whoever it is upon whom our selves agonistically depend for their existence. The Discourse is a zero sum game in which I am right and all others must either prostrate themselves in abject capitulation or be symbolically eradicated.

Consider Timothy Egan’s piece in the New York Times in which he forthrightly admits that the suppression of his opponents’ speech is requisite for his views to triumph. And such a thing is perfectly reasonable to him because the rightness of his views justify whatever means prove necessary to assure their triumph. It is distressingly common among liberals of this type to believe their commitments to be so self-evidently true that argument is simply a waste of time. It is not that conviction itself is bad: rather, the type of certainty that can countenance coercion or the elimination of dissent is tyrannical and, more to the point, uninterested in persuading anyone.

Sometimes the complaint is made that patient efforts to argue in good faith, while well-intended, are mostly a waste of time as they are not likely to be persuaded. On the one hand this is unduly cynical, while on the other, there is a level of realism here which is a welcome respite from unduly roseate pictures of human nature. Awareness tends to accomplish little, as millions of consumers’ unironic reception of Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad attests. We may know slave labor produced these items, but the commodified symbols Integrity and Justice are marketed in and through them and the fetishistic allure of obtaining these symbols outweighs our professed principles.

Furthermore, tacit within this point is an assumption which inadvertently sheds light upon those who hold it, namely, that they are reasonable, aware, and properly concerned to an extent that represents the bare minimum required for serious engagement. With this in place it simply follows that their opponents are too entrenched in their position to be reasoned with, and when that conclusion is reached, even tacitly, we inevitably arrive at, “they cannot be reasoned with because they are too stupid, too wicked, or both.” And additionally, they are not worth attempting to understand. If that is the assumption that impels any of us, we are invisibly presuming a superiority on our part which will be just as intractable as what we characterize as our opponents’ resistance to rationality.

The difficult thing is that this is a sensible judgment to reach in some instances. After seeking understanding of the other’s perspective, framing matters according to shared premises and convictions, and offering evidence for a different interpretation of x, you find this individual is intransigent and simply will not budge on something that is fundamental in terms of moral integrity. In this case, move on. Go elsewhere. This person has sunk costs in error and what you are bringing to the table is not sufficient to reel them out.

Where this goes wrong is in issuing such a judgment on a more capacious scale. The conclusion, the people who believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen base that belief on false premises and bad judgment follows from an assessment of truth conditions and fits available evidence. What does not follow, however is, whereas I do not believe that because I am rational, motivated by the common good, and willing to listen to the facts. Once this conclusion is reached, a dualism is established by which you and others like you are the rational good guys and your opposites are the irrational, unpersuadable bad guys.

Again, it may be the case that some people we encounter are unpersuadable of this or that point and are culpable for moral wrong, but the self-affirming dismissal which freezes any and all persons who meet a small number of criteria into static, binary categories is a Manichaean error. It cannot create concepts or relationships which can affect good on any scale that publicly, substantively matters. It only reinforces the egocentricity of those performing the dismissal and arbitrarily constricts the domain of action to some parochial party line.

After all, how many people must be persuaded to make the effort worthwhile? If the answer is “all” such that near-total persuasion is the only justification which makes it worth the effort, then why not just admit to ourselves and to the public that the only thing we are actually interested in is appealing to our base to stroke our collective ego? It would be more moral to concede that we are not actually interested in challenging the givens which shape our time and place and are only here to dunk on them and to make ourselves look good.

It serves us well to treat Reason as disinterested, thereby depicting logic as necessarily aimed towards our point of view or our party’s. This in turn allows us to treat our commitments as the obvious endpoint of rational thinking and to depict ourselves as simply following the course of logical thinking. If someone was truly rational, they would be right where I am as— of course— that is the only reason I am here.

But an emphasis on this type of rationality, one which presents itself as The Only True Rationality, tends to ignore the presence of commitments and plausibility structures which necessarily attach themselves to the process that is thought. It is widely assumed that if you or I are being rational that we will dispassionately examine claims and evidence without regard for the consequences, as though our drives are capable of suppression given adequate familiarity with and use of logic.

It is true that fallacious reasoning often— perhaps even routinely—comes into play when interests and commitments appear to be threatened. But the problem with contrasting such motivated reasoning with “logic” is one of terminology masking ideology. Is such a contrast itself motivated reasoning? It would be one thing, surely, to respond to fallacious reasoning with the claim that it is invalid logic. But there is something suspicious about disavowing the use of logic altogether by a person or group of persons arguing against a claim of yours. Does this not construe a picture of logic and illogic meeting on the field of battle, the pure and true contesting against its opposite? There seems to be a veering towards rhetorical strategy which may be unconscious but is itself wielding persuasive power in the argument above and beyond “logic,” purely considered.

But reason and logic are not synonymous. Logic is a formal representation of the process of thought in various domains, such that set theory operates according to a logic that simply is not binding on soccer. Analogously, while exegesis and hermeneutics are related to one another, exegesis is an activity of which hermeneutics describes its attending principles. Accordingly, one may reason about a matter without invoking any logical principles or self-consciously recognizing the rules being followed as they reason.

In its application, reason, ratio, calculates the distance between what is given and a specific end. As such, there is no detached reason, the proper use of which brackets out one’s passions and prior commitments. There is only rationality fitting to one’s goals. Instrumental reason can guide the prosecution of an object but cannot itself overrule an object. “All my means are sane,” Ahab asserts in Moby-Dick, “my motive and my object mad.”

Similarly, all of us engage in many different kinds of activity which deploy different modes of rationality appropriate to their object. We speak colloquially of reason as though one and only one mode of reasoning was applied to every type of action we undertake, as though chess and lacrosse and criminal forensics were all governed by the same rules. In actuality, for much of what we do each day there are several games being played more or less simultaneously. And when we presume this One True Rationality we do so convinced we are all playing one and the same game at all times. But we are quite happy to swerve between rules and their application when it suits us. Consider Kyrsten Sinema’s claim that attention to her body language in her infamous thumbs-down vote is sexist, and then remember that body language is admissible when it is determined that Bernie Sanders must be reprimanded for an imagined slight.

The only substantive hope for public discourse is, first, for the illusion of disinterested, abstract Reason to be unmasked as a myth. For so long as Reason conveniently supports my party’s program and never my opponent’s, so long as my motivations and objectives are presumed to already be in accordance with Reason and disagreement with them is owing only to opposition to Reason, then Reason is little more than a cipher for in-group bias, a wax nose able to accommodate my interests, whatever they may be. And worse, when those with whom one disagrees are understood to be opposed to Reason, what could they possibly believe or suggest that could be worthy of consideration?

Second, we must disabuse ourselves of the presumption that it is others who must be persuaded of what is true and good. Our aim should never be to simply persuade the Other. We must also seek after persuasion regarding the premises which go unchallenged by us and our ingroup: we must admit that our givens are also in need of reexamination and refinement, of fine-tuning and recalibration when the abrasive surface of reality proves it necessary. Persuasion demands we be honest with ourselves and others about the limits of what we know and how we know it. It demands we acknowledge that people sometimes have defensible motivations for the bad decisions they make, and that the historical fact of those decisions does not overrule the possibility of those motivations arising out of real need.

And that is why most of us are in the wrong, even when we articulate something true. The crucial thing is not any single piece of argumentation which can demolish another position, it is in the cumulative effect of this effort and that to refine what is already understood. The discovery of new applicability of what we already know. Learning the impact something we already acknowledge has had upon others. Learning that an element of our history which had no calamitous effects upon us has brought harm to others. We cannot keep presuming that we already know enough about x and simply have to do whatever it takes to make those boneheads over there acknowledge x. The truth of a thing demands action fit with its truth. There is entirely too much “knowing” at present which, despite having ample opportunity, does nothing to alleviate or change the situations about which it “knows” and instead preserves the conditions which provide the “knower” with a basis for their empty gestures.

It is not that we know nothing, or that what we know is subject to radical disintegration if we are not militant enough in the face of flat-earthers and COVID-deniers. It is that what we know may be true, but it is never all the truth that is. It is never a perspective-less vantage upon the truth of a thing. Other parallax views may see the same truth, or may illuminate something about the ground upon which we stand to which we are too close to apprehend. There is something— something— about our opponents which demands recognition because it is true. But so long as each day in the digital commons is little more than that week’s proscription order and its consequences we can rest assured we will accomplish nothing more than high-fives and likes from our in-group.

There is little incentive in our formation for the cultivation of either wisdom or humility. But as Eliot wrote in “East Coker,” “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire/ Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.” What we know, we can be sure we can yet better understand, and some things we know we will discover really amounted to only a slight improvement upon nothing. There is no secret faction among us born with the set “All True Knowledge,” latent in their skulls, none born with the equipment which gives them alone undefeatable rationality. We must be persuaded that along with those with whom we disagree, we ourselves are also in need of persuasion.

Mere Orthodoxy is a reader-supported publication. Support our work by subscribing to our print edition.