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.Powered by Sidelines