It’s hard to feel like there’s a point to public writing at the heart of Trump’s ascendancy. Certainly there’s no point to even trying to speak to self-identified conservatives who have aligned themselves with Trump: the will-to-power mendacity and moral vacuity melts anything like honest engagement like a butterfly tossed in a furnace. But it is not merely Trump and his followers. When is the last time you can recall seeing anyone who was meaningfully persuaded by arguments or evidence that contradicted or challenged a belief or position they had previously articulated? When I see people telling me that the only way to deal with people who hold dangerous, untrue or morally bankrupt views is to engage them in a persistently reasonable way, to have a dialogue, I can’t help but think that this is just another untrue idea. Or at least it is a kind of religious dogma by self-anointed rationalist thinkers. It is not an evidence-based proposition about how people shift their values or come to hold new thoughts or ideas. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about people with whom one has personal or familial standing or total strangers, whether this is about a neighborhood or a nation. What passes for reason and evidence among educated readers and writers often feels as if it is just a value system local to them, and no more likely even so to lead to thoughtful changes in perspectives or beliefs among them. I feel no more likely to persuade a person who is in every respect a peer to change a view they have committed to, no matter how strong my arguments or evidence might be, than I am to persuade a stranger with completely different values and social location. And yet, I feel I am persuadable: that I change what I think about specific issues and arguments quite frequently in response to what others say and argue. Perhaps I am wrong even about myself; perhaps this is an unearned vanity. If I am right, then it feels as if I have chosen the worst strategy in Prisoner’s Dilemma: vulnerable to persuasion in a world that increasingly sees persuadability as a vulnerability to be exploited.
Tim, I feel you. Boy do I feel you. Indeed, so strongly do I share this sense of pointlessness that a few months ago I withdrew a book proposal because I could see no reason to write in the face of the current maelstrom of wrath and bullshit. But then, a little later, I decided to write that book after all. Why?
Certainly not because I think that “the only way to deal with people who hold dangerous, untrue or morally bankrupt views is to engage them in a persistently reasonable way, to have a dialogue.” Most people who hold such views are indeed unpersuadable in the absence of some fairly dramatic intervention in their lifeworld, some experience that forces a rethinking. In the ordinary course of rhetorical events, I have no means of reaching them.
Nor are they interested in reaching me — and by “they” I mean people on the extremes of the right and left. What such folks share, generally speaking, are the following traits:
- a deep commitment to the political power of social media
- a preference for saying the same things over and over and over again
- a belief in the usefulness of either intimidating or humiliating dissenters
There’s nothing to be gained by engaging with people who share those traits.
But I console myself by thinking that there aren’t as many of them as hanging out on Twitter might make you think. There are reasons to believe that many Americans are more politically complex than is commonly believed, and you don’t have to be a Beltway centrist to think so. (It’s odd how many commentators seem genuinely afraid of anything that would give aid and comfort to centrist politics, and who conflate an awareness of political complexity with a commitment to centrism.) Those are the people I want to write for, and listen to; and both acts are worth doing whether there are a great many of them or whether, like Milton, I will have “fit audience though few.” The clan of those who, like Tim, are “vulnerable to persuasion in a world that increasingly sees persuadability as a vulnerability to be exploited.” My people.
And then: writing is what I do. I don’t know how to be a not-writer. Maybe no one will read this book, but I think I have to write it anyway. Saith the Preacher, “In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good.”