I wish this space weren’t called a “blog,” because I’m beginning to suspect I’m not a particularly good blogger. Bloggers work quickly, and I don’t. Bloggers post things that are short, pointed, definitive in their intents, easily extracted and passed on.
I tend to circle one target before deciding I was interested in another one all along, breaking off my landing pattern and starting all over again. I have eleven different posts in some state of completion, none of which really cohere or satisfy.
All of which is to say, I’m not sure where this one is going either, but it’s time to get this puppy on the ground because we’re running low on fuel.
It is Easter Sunday. I don’t observe the holiday, so for me it is like any other Sunday, a quiet morning of reading and writing. I’ve been preparing for tomorrow’s academic writing class where we’ll be exploring persuasion. It’s a topic I’ve covered many times in many contexts, in many different ways, including my earliest days when I thought it might be useful to do a Jeopardy-style competition on logical fallacies: I’ll take Red Herring for $200, Alex.
That approach, I believe, was rooted in the notion that in information there is wisdom, that if we could get a handle on the words and terms -- ethos, logos, pathos -- the concepts -- ad hominem, straw man, appeal to tradition, slippery slope -- we could become skillful persuaders. My job, as I saw it, was to pass these things down, these pieces of information dressed up as knowledge, and that in doing so, I was benefiting my students.
I had a reverence for these books of terms, these guides (one of which had a name so close to my own) that clearly knew so much more than I did. They held secrets that they were kind enough to share, and I in turn would share them with my students.
This approach has evolved over the years. Now, instead of filling my students’ heads with terminology, we come at the topic inductively, thinking about how persuasion “works,” asking them to examine when they are successfully persuaded, or when they’re able to persuade others. We start by picking apart real-life scenarios, like for instance trying to convince your parents that you should be allowed to go on spring break to the beach, or study abroad in Florence, or your friends that you should go to the movie you want to see, as opposed to something else. Through this process, we are generally able to unravel the not-so-mysterious mechanics of persuasion.
You can locate many of our in-class findings in traditional composition textbooks, for example that effective persuasion combines appeals to both logic and emotion, or that good persuasion targets the needs, attitudes and knowledge of specific audiences. Others you cannot. In substitute for the list of logical fallacies, several years ago a student put it something like this: So what you’re saying, is that when someone is telling us things they say are true, that we need to have our bullshit detector turned on.
I like my current approach to persuasion. It seems to work pretty well, much better than the days when my students could rattle off the definition of argumentum ad antiquitum, but still managed to violate the principle repeatedly in their essays on why fraternity hazing is a good thing. The evolution of the way I teach and talk about persuasion in class has been natural and gradual, happening in such a way that I can’t say I even noticed it, even necessitating just now that I go back to ancient class prep notes to see that I used to do it very differently.
For the ten years previous to this one, I’ve been too busy teaching to really think about why my approach has evolved, but thanks to a semi-forced, semi-sabbatical, which finds me for the first time with only one section of students (as opposed to four), I’ve had the pleasure of considering the work I do, and why I do it this way.
I think I’m learning something. I think I may be tinkering with my approach to persuasion yet again.
In 1965, James Baldwin debated William F. Buckley at the Cambridge Union Society, Cambridge University. The topic of the debate was, “The American Dream is at the expense of the American negro.”
At the time, James Baldwin was well-established as a prominent writer and civil rights figure, having published Notes from a Native Son ten years previously. Buckley was the still-young editor/founder of National Review, still to become the “father of modern conservatism,” thanks to his famous proclamation in his own magazine that, “A Conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling 'Stop!' He’d prominently come out against desegregation in the pages of his own magazine in 1961.
At the Cambridge event, after some introductory arguments from a couple of the fellows, Baldwin delivers his remarks. The video is worth watching in its entirety to appreciate, at least visually, the size of the deck that seems stacked against him. The entire audience is white, looking very much like…William F. Buckley, who sits in his famous reclined nonchalance, that could and maybe should be read as arrogance.
Baldwin delivers his remarks slowly, somehow seeming both passionate and cool, like jazz. He is mesmerizing, as shown by the camera cutaways to the audience that sits rapt.
It almost seems unfair, a distortion, to excerpt Baldwin’s remarks because as a work of rhetoric, it surpasses even the best of Martin Luther King or JFK. In the opening, he acknowledges the trap of segregation for the segregationists, that what he is discussing is a fundamental inequality born of an unjust system in which individuals are only actors:
“The white South African or Mississippi sharecropper or Alabama sheriff has at bottom a system of reality which compels them really to believe when they face the Negro that this woman, this man, this child must be insane to attack the system to which he owes his entire identity.”
He then makes deft use of the 2nd person in order to draw a circle around the experience of being black in 1960s America:
“In the case of the American Negro, from the moment you are born every stick and stone, every face, is white. Since you have not yet seen a mirror, you suppose you are, too. It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6, or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.”
A small ripple of laughter coursed through the Cambridge fellows at that moment. A laugh not of amusement, but recognition.
Baldwin shifts to the first person, reminding the audience that the man in front of them is indeed part of this “you”:
“From a very literal point of view, the harbors and the ports and the railroads of the country--the economy, especially in the South--could not conceivably be what they are if it had not been (and this is still so) for cheap labor. I am speaking very seriously, and this is not an overstatement: I picked cotton, I carried it to the market, I built the railroads under someone else's whip for nothing. For nothing."
The Southern oligarchy which has still today so very much power in Washington, and therefore some power in the world, was created by my labor and my sweat and the violation of my women and the murder of my children. This in the land of the free, the home of the brave.”
Baldwin hammers the “I” in his delivery in the first part. The final lines of this passage are delivered in some combination of sorrow and disbelief.
Baldwin then returns to his theme that black America is not the only group being destroyed by this system:
“Sheriff Clark in Selma, Ala., cannot be dismissed as a total monster; I am sure he loves his wife and children and likes to get drunk. One has to assume that he is a man like me. But he does not know what drives him to use the club, to menace with the gun and to use the cattle prod. Something awful must have happened to a human being to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman's breasts. What happens to the woman is ghastly. What happens to the man who does it is in some ways much, much worse. Their moral lives have been destroyed by the plague called color.”
Baldwin finishes with this:
“It is a terrible thing for an entire people to surrender to the notion that one-ninth of its population is beneath them. Until the moment comes when we, the Americans, are able to accept the fact that my ancestors are both black and white, that on that continent we are trying to forge a new identity, that we need each other, that I am not a ward of America, I am not an object of missionary charity, I am one of the people who built the country--until this moment comes there is scarcely any hope for the American dream. If the people are denied participation in it, by their very presence they will wreck it. And if that happens it is a very grave moment for the West.”
Baldwin received a standing ovation from the very white, very British audience. The announcer says in the video that he’s never seen such a reaction at these events before.
Perhaps it was brave of William F. Buckley to rise after Baldwin’s speech and take the opposite proposition, though it was likely far braver for Baldwin to accept the invitation in the first place. History has not provided a transcription of Buckley’s remarks, but in the video we can see that he scores some debaters' points with some citations to authority and statistics. He garners laughs with a clever line or two. As compared to his 1961 editorial, Buckley’s stance is already moderating, as he never implies that blacks are savage and uncivilized as he does in that document.
In the end, the Cambridge Union Society took a vote on the proposition: “The American Dream is at the expense of the American negro.” The yays outpolled the nays 540-160.
Baldwin in a rout.
From the score, it is clear that Baldwin, at least in this instance, is the superior persuader. But why? I’m tempted to say it’s because he’s “right,” but I’m pretty sure there’s a logical fallacy whose name I can’t remember to cover that notion.
If I am going to talk to my students about persuasion, what am I going to take from Baldwin? From Buckley?
For one of the alleged historical wise-men of our culture, history has shown Buckley to have been wrong about just about everything, including his stance on civil rights and desegregation. These are just some of the highlights:
"It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists."
"General Franco is an authentic national hero."
"The Beatles are not merely awful. They are so unbelievably horrible, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art, that they qualify as crowned heads of anti-music."
Buckley was a fine speaker, an intelligent man, a man of breeding and manners, but he was slaughtered by Baldwin that evening. Time has similarly slaughtered some of Buckley’s other arguments, some of which he acknowledged himself, regarding his past support for segregation, or later on, the Iraq war.
We don’t know if he ever changed his mind about the Beatles. Somehow I doubt it.
And while Buckley may have changed his mind on these issues, the legacy of his original, unrevised arguments remain in the backlash against Trayvon Martin that suggests, grotesquely, that an unarmed seventeen-year-old boy is somehow complicit in his own shooting death. We see it also in this recent, racist screed from John Derbyshire, a contributor to Buckley’s National Review, all the way up to this final disgrace.
Buckley’s vision for the world, the stopping of history, seems re-ascendant these days, the attempts at rolling back women’s rights, the possible reversal of progress towards universal healthcare. Even from the grave, Buckley seems to have more pull on the debate than Baldwin.
But that shouldn’t be the case, 540-160.
I’m recognizing some of the shortcomings to my approach to persuasion. I am growing less pleased with it because I recognize that what I am teaching are techniques, moves, strategies. These strategies are winning ones, at least as measured by their effectiveness, the need to secure agreement among the audience. Rush Limbaugh remains successful because he understands and speaks to the attitudes of his audience, attitudes people like me find somewhere between distasteful and disgusting.
In class, as our discussion about how we persuade audiences, we often recognize that when it comes to persuading audiences, one of our great motivators is fear, and people like Limbaugh, or John Derbyshire, or the commentators posting in support of Derbyshire’s bile demonstrate this power by reinforcing the fear of the other. By preaching division they gather believers around them, finding some strength in their numbers.
I feel like I am arming my students with powerful weapons, but worry that I’m not helping them figure out where to aim them, or when to pull the trigger. My guidance is not complete.
In digging around the Internet for this piece, I stumbled across a site that collects the famous quotes of famous people, including both Buckley and Baldwin. These are some of Buckley’s:
"Back in the thirties we were told we must collectivize the nation because the people were so poor. Now we are told we must collectivize the nation because the people are so rich."
"I won't insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said."
"I would like to electrocute everyone who uses the word 'fair' in connection with income tax policies."
"I would like to take you seriously, but to do so would affront your intelligence."
"It is not a sign of arrogance for the king to rule. That is what he is there for."
"Truth is a demure lady, much too ladylike to knock you on your head and drag you to her cave. She is there, but people must want her, and seek her out."
"Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor."
"Be careful what you set your heart upon - for it will surely be yours."
"Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated, and this was an immutable law."
"I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain."
"I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."
In these lists, I believe I see a difference between these men. One of them seems attuned to Buckley’s notion that truth is a “demure lady” that we must “seek out.”
Hint: it isn’t Buckley.
Why was Buckley so wrong so often? Why do Baldwin’s words resonate with as much force as they did more than 45 years ago?
I believe it is because while Baldwin’s remarks display all the skill and moves of an expert persuader - the attendance to audience, the acknowledgement of their needs, the combination of both emotional and logical argument - his argument has something Buckley’s does not in that it is not rooted in attitudes or beliefs, which are varied and changeable, but values, which are widely shared and immutable.
Buckley opposed desegregation because he believedthat white culture was civilized and superior, that black Americans were savages. Because he was not arguing from a position of values, he was wrong. Later, when his beliefs were changed by the evidence in front of his face, he was forced to amend his position. Why do we need "evidence" that a human being indeed shares our humanity?
Baldwin reminds us that America is the land of the free, the home of the brave, that all men are created equal, that we are here to pursue life, liberty, happiness. He reminds us that while these values are powerful and timeless, our understanding of how they may be best achieved, the conditions under which they can be fostered change all the time.
Baldwin won…Baldwin wins because he reminds the audience of what we share, what we hold in common, rather than that which divides us.
In some ways, this may seem like a dark time for the notion that we are more alike than different, particularly if we pay even cursory attention to the current political or talk radio climate, but there is one issue that seems to advance inexorably against this tide: the right of people in love to marry regardless of their sexual orientation. In May 2010, Gallup found public opinion opposed to same sex marriage 53% to 44%. A year later, those numbers were reversed with 55% supporting the rights of gays and lesbians to marry. There appears to be accelerating recognition of something else James Baldwin once said, “Everybody's journey is individual. If you fall in love with a boy, you fall in love with a boy. The fact that many Americans consider it a disease says more about them than it does about homosexuality.”
I can only believe that this is happening not because we are sliding into some kind of hedonism as the "anti-marriage" forces (that label is not a misprint or mistake) would have us believe, but because more and more are being reminded that the sanctioning of two people declaring their love for each other is consistent with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
So when we talk about persuasion in class, while we will still unearth its moves and mechanics, we will also talk about the foundation beneath everything we do, our values, and that the best and most lasting persuasion is simply the act of reminding people of what they already believe to be true.
Once found, truth is no “demure lady,” she is a lightning bolt.