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Reading, Reason, and the Politics of Belief

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If all our reading is tendentious, directed, how can we change minds?

There’s no shortage of information out there, plenty of it exposing the US imperial project and its crimes, yet this weekend we’re treated to the spectacle of the right wing blogosphere getting all excited about CMPC-2003-006430 – a decade old Federation of American Scientists document with an Iraqi preface.

Why the excitement? Because they’re only interested in information that supports a position they’ve already taken. And they hope to bend this text to that cause.

Clearly providing new information can’t help in a situation like this.

Of course, those of us in the other camp also read in the same way. We also get excited, hopeful on the basis of little information — of course, some of this is sheer desperation.

So how can we hope to change hearts and minds? What kind of intervention using words, images, and ideas can succeed in such a polarised and non-rational situation?

Firstly, abandon the reliance on logic and reason.

Secondly, realise we’re trying to change attitudes — hearts and minds — and this is not about reason, but faith and aspiration; belief is a support, a prop, for a lifestyle choice. “I believe this because I perceive myself as this kind of person” is the true nature of political partisanship in America today, not a disagreement about facts or policy.

Where can we find successful examples of such an approach? In the Christian religion and its rhetorical tradition.

For example, logic and reason are failing for two reasons — this has become an argument about faith — individuals know what they believe and want to believe, so reason can’t help. Secondly, some of the most sophisticated tools for understanding language, faith and reason — the analytical tools of structuralism and deconstruction, have been appropriated by faithists to demonstrate the failure of, and the faith at the basis of, reason: e.g., in the intelligent design (ID) debate, the standard uncertainties of science are used to undercut science and reason, and promote a fable.

This is not new. Augustine’s City of God famously deployed the tools of classical reason and rhetoric to undermine the classical tradition, partly by exposing the unreason and faith in authority at its heart. He undermined the humanist values of the ancient world and showed why faith and submission to authority was a ‘reasonable’ choice. (And that good careers could be pursued in this new world.)

Augustine and the group of bishops he represented (the group around Ambrose of Milan) believed that words and images in a ritual setting could be used to restructure the hearts of men; that human memory, and therefore personality, was structured in a way that was accessible and susceptible to the preacher’s tools; that the human mind could be reprogrammed directly by the Christian rhetoric.

There’s not much obvious encouragement in this line of thought — we know that our media, already in thrall to corporate interests and the war party, have long since subsumed reason to aspiration and image. And these techniques are well-known to the advertising and marketing industries. The faithists also have an instinctive understanding of this approach, unsurprisingly, given its history.

So, in identifying the tools we should use in this debate, I seem to have discovered they are already being deployed effectively by our antagonists.

This may not seem particularly useful, but at least it identifies the problem — the reliance on reason and evidence may be honourable and honest, true to ourselves, but it will not succeed.

But if we are faced with such a choice between honour and success, are we capable of making it?

Or in our hearts, would we prefer to fail with honour? To become just historical footnotes, impractical but true to our ideals, praised by the occasional historian investigating lost and stolen futures?

And not least because we know such success will take a form we do not recognise as an appropriate basis of a just society?

This is dangerous territory for other reasons. By examining and codifying such tools and techniques we run the same risk as Niccolo Machiavelli – the analysis itself providing a handbook for princes.

But it is a question we should ask, a choice we have to make. For in ignoring it, we make the choice anyway.

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About Chromatius

"You are not big enough to accuse the whole age effectively, but let us say you are in dissent." Thomas Merton. The Unspeakable.
  • http://jpsgoddamnblog.blogspot.com JP

    Great article! Although you took my inspiration, sort-of.. I was thinking of writing something about this but you’ve hit several points I was about to make :)

    I guess I should thank you for saving me the time!

  • nh

    is this inspired at all by the philosopher John Gray?

    he takes on this line of thought and concludes that all utopias will fail, because any society or political programme that claims to be based on ‘reason’ is really based on a faith in progress – a concept that is totally alien to our true human instincts.

    The real challenge is to ‘see correctly’.

    Pretty depressing stuff, all in all.

  • RedTard

    Do you ever consider that you might be just like them?

    The smug arrogance with which you claim to have reason and logic on your side is oddly reminiscent of Rush Limbaugh’s of the world.

    When it comes to politics there is not a right and wrong answer just differing worldviews. To believe that there is some ultimate right and wrong is to have faith, kind of like those ‘fundies’ your side seems to hate so much.

  • chromatius

    #2 – I don’t know his work, but think I take his point. It’s actually based on my own post-grad work on the circle of Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine.

    All reason and science is faith based, not least because of appeals to authority.

    None of us can really command our intellectual heritage – only parts of it at best – so we have to choose who to believe; i.e. whose authority to recognise – and it often comes down to little more than costume and convention.

    #3 – Touchy, touchy. And not even paying attention.

    This is about community and rhetoric, conversion and persuasion, and draws respectfully on Patristic writings. I thought it was pretty even handed. I say “this has become an argument about faith — individuals know what they believe”.

    I give examples from ‘left’ & ‘right’ (even though the article doesn’t consider them the core distinction here): “if all our reading is tendentious”; “Of course, those of us in the other camp also read in the same way. We also get excited, hopeful on the basis of little information”.

    Smug, probably not; arrogant, probably. Doesn’t affect the argument, though.

    “When it comes to politics there is not a right and wrong answer just differing worldviews.”

    Isn’t that implicit in my piece?

    “Firstly, abandon the reliance on logic and reason.

    Secondly, realise we’re trying to change attitudes — hearts and minds — and this is not about reason, but faith and aspiration; belief is a support, a prop, for a lifestyle choice. “I believe this because I perceive myself as this kind of person” is the true nature of political partisanship in America today, not a disagreement about facts or policy.”

    Sure sounds like it…

  • chromatius

    #2 – I did a little reading on john Gray. He seems to be one of these Anglo-Saxon philosophers who ignores certain strains of European thought (as did Berlin himself, who claimed he couldn’t make any sense of Adorno & Derrida). There’s a fine tradition of this in the UK and US, but it can mean we end up tracking the same ideas through different traditions and terminology.

    My reading was informed by those thinkers – Saussure, Bakhtin, Foucault, Derrida, Genet etc – so I use different terminology and precedents. and Although I admire what Foucault & Derrida tried to do with language, I don’t write that way myself, although I can be a bit too referential for my own good.

    Anyway, I have no problem with ‘value pluralism’ – I have been accused (by Marxian critics, among others) of a sterile, radical relativism which can lead to nothing useful. But I think it amounts to the same thing.

    I’d like to know what ‘see correctly’ means – I have been thinking lately about the moral imperative which drives my analysis, despite the moral relativism. I have seen a few academic articles, and have a half-written piece on the subject, but haven’t really followed it up yet.

    Depressing, sterile – perhaps, but these issues have to be worked through; no point ignoring it or we get nowhere.

  • RedTard

    It’s difficult to practice tendentious reading when it seems I haven’t mastered the basic practice. A couple of perceived attacks and the mind just shuts down I suppose.

    A more pointed question about logic and reasoning in the realm of social policy. Do they even exist? Are they simply imaginary overlays we use to conform the basic facts to out preconceived notions while stroking our own egos? By abandoning logic and reason are you selling out your values or simply dropping the blinders and entering the real debate?

  • chromatius

    I suspect both. And I suspect many don’t want to:

    “But if we are faced with such a choice between honour and success, are we capable of making it?

    Or in our hearts, would we prefer to fail with honour? ”

    And we also have the cautionary tale of David Horowitz.

  • Baronius

    “This has become an argument about faith”

    What “this”? The debate about the Iraq War?

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    Chrom, I didn’t find anything about Horowitz on that link to your site. But I will say this. When typing Horowitz in the dark, my fingers moved one key too far to the left and accidentally typed out ‘giri’, the Japanese word for honor. Is that a sign?

    Dave

  • chromatius

    DN – it’s there; part of a discussion about the Clauswitz and Lenin dicta ‘politics is war by other means’ and ‘war is politics by other means’. And how David Horowitz used them in his ‘The Art of Political War’ and ‘Full Contact Politics’, formulating his culture wars strategy. Here’s one aspect of it:

    According to Horowitz, Politics is war conducted by other means. In political warfare you do not fight just to prevail in an argument, but to destroy the enemy’s fighting ability… In political wars, the aggressor usually prevails… You cannot cripple an opponent by outwitting him in a political debate. You can do it only by following Lenin’s injunction: ‘In political conflicts, the goal is not to refute your opponent’s argument, but to wipe him from the face of the earth.’…

    Politics is a war of position. In war there are two sides: friends and enemies. Your task is to define yourself as the friend of as large a constituency as possible compatible with your principles, while defining your opponent as the enemy whenever you can.

    In fact, the name of my blog – no contact politics – is a direct response. It used to have another (overlong, incomprehensible, too clever) title built around those dicta, but when I realised what Horowitz had done, I renamed it to no contact politics. The linked article is where I explained my reasons.

    All of which reflects deep anxiety about the alternatives I discuss above – which we might broadly characterise as a rhetoric of irrational manipulation v. reasoned argument, lifestyle aspiration v logic, success v. honour.

  • chromatius

    Baronius – yes, but only as part of a broader discussion about political persuasion and partisanship, which I address here in terms of early Christian rhetoric and conversion.

  • http://alienboy.wordpress.com/ Christopher Rose

    Dave, “giri” is also Spanish for stranger…

  • nh

    chromatius –

    on John Gray

    ‘it can mean we end up tracking the same ideas through different traditions and terminology’

    yep, i hear that – ditto noam chomsky the few times he comments on this kind of stuff. Both tend to have a scientific, evolutionary understanding of reality which is at odds with people like foucault and derrida, who are dismissed as ‘willfull obscurification’. I think it boils down to different and ultimately irreconcilable concepts of power, but i haven’t thought it through all that much…

    Grays idea of ‘seeing correctly’ is rooted in eastern philosophy. There is no ideology or value system worth following, because our ‘instinct’ and ‘will’ will always win out, and, the destructive force of human nature will take control and any period of co-operation will only ever be temporary.

    To ‘see correctly’ is to witness these delusions and destruction with an open mind. This wisdom can be gained through contemplation, the highest form of mental activity we have.

    It can certainly make for depressing reading, and some confused courses of action. Personally, i think there is more to political engagement than merely watching our government bomb innocent people and put it down to failings in human nature.

  • chromatius

    One of the things I admire in writers like Foucault, Bakhtin, Genet, the post-structuralist Marxists and to a lesser extent Derrida, is the attempt to understand power and authority is driven by a moral or political sense of something like outrage. Anger.

    It’s a long time since I did this stuff, but a bit of web cruising turned up a couple of people talking about the concept of ‘critical resistance’, which I think is a philosophical attempt to understand how a radical relativist position (re: reality, science, morality, authority etc) can still have a moral point of view, and be driven by moral outrage.

    Of course, obviously they do. But how to reconsile it philosophically?

    Rather than accepting ‘seeing correctly’, I think I’d still go with Bahktin et al: we all see differently, but the dynamics of our combined seeing creates that which we see – or rather, that which we are able to see. Just as our combined talking and thinking, the dialogic assertion of values and meanings into words and symbols, creates the logosphere of thought, word and meaning.

    And we have to understand all that if we are to find levers for change. Not just throw our hands in the air and say it’s too complex. As so many academics do. (I’m a software developer these days – I believe it’s modelable.)

    And be aware the tools will have a life of their own, will also define elements of our world, and will be picked up and deployed by our antagonists.

  • nh

    yeah – incidentaly im not arguing for ‘seeing correctly’, i just haven’t found anything better!

    I think that the ability to understand power is an intrinsic product of consciousness – it works to our advantage in terms of survival and that is probably why we have it. Personally this kind of analysis makes a lot more sense than anything ive read by foucault or derrida, though i have to admit i haven’t read that much of their stuff, because i dont understand it.

    In terms of political action I dont think you will find an all encompassing philosophical framework that supports what you do. I suppose you just have to keep going, even without ideology. what you can do is pick your cause carefully and go into it with a clear head. perhaps that is the real meaning of ‘seeing correctly’…

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