Explainers

Over at NRO, Jonah Goldberg’s got a piece up on “Clinton Nostalgia”.

Clinton, a political prodigy of the first order, loved the human side of politics. He listened to the hoi polloi more than he listened to the Harvard faculty. It made him a less consequential but more democratic president.

Meanwhile, Obama’s “People of Earth Stop Your Bickering” aloofness often makes him seem exasperated with the country he leads. He doesn’t seem to care what the people think. If voters disagree with him, that’s their mistake.

He’s lost — if he ever had it — his appetite for persuasion. Oh, he can explain things just fine. But there‚Äôs a difference between explaining your position and selling it. Clinton, the consummate salesman, understood the difference.

It seems a bit unfair to single out Obama on this one; lots of people seem to think that the way to demonstrate the rightness of a position is to slowly and patiently explain it, so that others will be compelled to abandon their previous beliefs and adopt new ones based on irrefutably airtight logic.

This is foolishness. Explanation has its place — indeed, it’s vitally important — but it is only a part of persuasion, and it’s a peculiar kind of arrogance to assume that the part can substitute for the whole.

Reason

Reason and logic are great, but, as I may have remarked before, they can’t take you very far; the line of indisputable inference that you can draw from observable reality isn’t very long. Even disciplines such as mathematics, which enjoy the luxury of resting upon rigorous (and choosable) definitions, and are not necessarily troubled by connections to physical reality, contain many conundrums which have proved resistant to reason, and provably contain questions which will never yield to it. As for philosophy, economics, and similar disciplines: perhaps the less said, the better. For example, economists can’t agree on many questions of macroeconomic policy — such as whether the 2009 “stimulus” package was too big or too small — despite extensive academic training, a supposed devotion to academic rigor, and unshakable confidence in the soundness of their positions.

Delusion

It’s part of the human condition to nurture a not-entirely-realistic self-image, and this often extends to the fetishization of rationality; we like to believe that we believe what we believe because of cold, dispassionate, indisputable reason and careful observation of objective reality.

This is bunk. If it were true, everyone would agree with you. If you really believe this, then you must also believe, of everyone who disagrees with you, that:

  • They’re emotional, irrational nitwits. Not like you. Or,
  • They’re lots dumber than you are. Or,
  • They’re ignorant.

Given that outlook, it’s not much of a surprise that you have so much trouble convincing others, is it?

Explanation

The preceding bullet points do seem to underly a lot of modern discourse; oftentimes a “reasonable discussion” between two people consists of slow, patient, respectful explanations of why the other person’s views are ridiculous, ill-founded, irrational, silly, and could only be held by an uninformed, dim-witted, hysterical boob.

Surprisingly, such discussions rarely go well. Usually both parties end up offended at the implication that they’re uninformed, etc., but — even better — both usually end up exasperated that, despite their best efforts, their self-control, their reasonableness, their interlocutors simply won’t see how wrong they are.

Persuasion

Persuasion is never about attempting to bully the other man into agreement through “indisputable” argument. Explaining your position is well and good, but you should never expect such explanation to serve as more than background information. Persuasion is about respecting the other man’s human nature, and creating a situation in which he wants to agree with you.

This might strike you as dishonest, since (see above) we all like to believe that we are, and always should be, guided by reason alone. You might try thinking about it this way: The other man’s viewpoint is (probably) no less founded in logic than yours is, he certainly doesn’t see yours as more reasonable, and the question under discussion probably can’t be conclusively resolved through argument anyway. Also, it’s just bad manners to, implicitly or explicitly, call someone a big dumb jerk.

This is why, though I make an (often unsuccessful) attempt to avoid all argument, I make a particular effort to avoid explainers. Life’s too short.

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