Saving Pvt. Journalism, Pt. 3
FFT: Afghanistan: Opium, War, and Strategy

Repost: Rational Discourse and Persuasibility

Originally posted 17 June 2003 Also being reposted at my temporary lair.

Part 4
Though it stands on its own, you can also think of this as the fourth installment of Saving Pvt. Journalism. I have been wanting to do this for some time, as it lies at the heart of the great experiment that is America.

The founding fathers took part in, and encouraged, a concept known as rational discourse. Since there was not the mass entertainment of today to occupy them, there were discussions and presentations held at dinner parties, gatherings at taverns and other public places, and even at theatres. At such times, discussions and news of the latest scientific theories, philosophy, thought, and more were presented, discussed, and considered. Even those who could not read the written word heard, learned, understood, and took part.

The exchange of ideas and information was the heart of the process. Through discussion, those present learned the news, examined the implications of same, and took part in a sometimes vigorous exchange of ideas.

This tied into the very radical idea that this bunch of rich white guys held dear: namely, that individuals were capable of making informed decisions and ruling themselves. This idea, as with the concept of rational discourse, came from Europe and intellectuals and revolutionaries there. There is some debate as to whether the concept of rational discourse as practiced in the New World matched that of the old, but such discussions – while interesting – are largely irrelevant.

What matters is that the idea as practiced here by the founding fathers and those who came before them, became a cornerstone of America. The way it is supposed to work is that news, ideas, and concepts are brought forth on the public stage by one means or another. This is presented to the audience, and from that audience individuals examine, interpret, and discuss. Some individuals do so in a way as to create positions, or presentations on what “it” all means and what it might mean to society. These positions are then debated and discussed, and all who hear, read, or are otherwise exposed to them can formulate their own opinions and act on same.

The key points are and were the presentation of the facts as facts, the discussion of same, the formulation of positions, and the debate and decisions reached through sound consideration of same. It may be thought of as debate on a grand scale, but a key component was rational presentation and rational discussion. Then, as today, it was known that you will never convert an ideologue of any type, and as such extremist positions were more or less excluded by consensus.

As I stated earlier, the exchange of ideas was the heart of the process. The soul of the process was the ability to change minds. It was expected that when presented with facts and information that showed a position to be untenable, that the person presenting it would concede such and change positions. All positions, popular or not, were expected to take part in this process, and abide by this unspoken rule. This was the model followed by many of the founding fathers, and as such became the example held up to the country.

This is a very fine concept, but in practice it can and does fall short. Even in the days of the founding fathers, it was sometimes honored in the breach. I urge you to read some of the writings of Jefferson and others to get a better feel for this.

This form of rhetoric is one with which I was raised and taught. I also quickly learned that it is not terribly well followed today, or any day for that matter. It is difficult, requires not merely thought but thoughtful consideration of ourselves and the world, and it requires effort. You must be knowledgeable, seek more knowledge, take the time to be informed on current events and the like, and have a high-degree of self-honesty.

Yet it was still a core part of my beliefs, but recently there was some discussion by author John Ringo that caught my attention. He recounted and amplified on the concept of persuasibility as presented by former professor and current author John Barnes. Dr. Barnes states categorically that much of his presentation is nothing more than classical rhetoric, but if so it is an excellent summation of same.

It also is a very clear example of what I feel rational discourse to be about. Rather than try to distill it down, I am with his permission going to quote the key points as he presented them to me.

“Where it is: The obligation of persuasibility is a moral and ethical obligation that flows from the enthymeme of reciprocity, which in turn is one of the quasi-logical structures of informal logic. It is therefore itself enthymemic, so it's more firmly rooted than a mere preference or value (like the rules of baseball, driving on the right, "the Backstreet Boys suck", "patriotism is good", "all you need is love") but less so than an empirical law or a mathematical theorem.

What it is: the obligation of persuasibility is the requirement that if you enter into a dialogue with another person or persons, your purpose will be not only to refute their arguments or to convert the arguer, but to consider their arguments as candidates for your own belief. That is, you will not reject the possibility that it may be your mind, rather than theirs, that needs changing; or in utilitarian terms, the greater good may be for you to be persuaded, rather than them.

What it ain't: Although, obviously, if someone converts, they were persuasible, the other side's not being persuaded does not prove that they violated the obligation of persuasibility -- it may be, for example, that you made a poor case. It is perfectly possible for people to disagree throughout their entire lives while still upholding the obligation of persuasibility. (Indeed, it is likely).

Why it matters: because ethically, two people who have placed themselves under mutual obligation of persuasibility can co-participate in a political and social order peacefully and of their own free will. The obligation of persuasibility is thus a possibility condition for liberal democracy. The areas in which the obligation of persuasibility holds, within a given society, are the ones where society can be both individually free and socially ordered. Or, as I used to put it to my class, tell me how much of the obligation of persuasibility your society is willing to undertake, and I will tell you how much peace and freedom you're going to get.”

To me, this is the heart of rational discourse as practiced in the colonies. It may or may not have been the correct interpretation of the continental philosophers of the day, but is built on the foundations laid by Aristotle and still taught at that time. The sad state of education today is a topic for another day.

That said, there are some things that will invalidate rational discourse/persuasibility. Again quoting Dr. Barnes, the things that do this are:

“1. communications aimed entirely at conversion; that character on your doorstep in the cheap suit, who is not there to find out what you might think about God or God's nonexistence, but to deliver a single-sided message and try to knock down your objections. 2. communications aimed entirely at expression (or maybe "venting" is a better word, since the legal term 'freedom of expression" covers much that is intended to be persuasive), e.g. shouting "Nigger" into a bullhorn on a crowded city street, 3. communications whose purpose is to dismiss any need to listen to the other side (e.g. ad hominem, sponsor boycotts, a habit of characterizing the other side as morons or dupes), 4. therapizing speech (treating the other person's opinion as a symptom of disease or vice), 5. listening solely to refute, 6. some kinds of extreme relativism ("that might be right for you but it's not right for me"), 7. apathism (the position that the other sides' distinctions are without differences).”

John Ringo also brought up a concept that deserves mention, because it is an area in which rational discourse/persuasibility has no bearing. This is the concept of a “religious” belief, i.e. one that is held on a matter of faith such that no amount of evidence, data, or other will change it. These are beliefs that can be core to a person, or are simply such that they will not be discussed or modified. A former co-worker and I discussed this point at some length in some rather fun discussions, and the term we had settled on to describe such was “prejudice.” For such beliefs are just that, they are subjects on which a preconceived opinion exists that is not subject to rational discussion or debate.

We all have such, and they can be a religious belief, a political belief, or simply an opinion on a current event. I have certain prejudices regarding space, including the fact that we need to be out there, that no amount of discussion will change. In terms of events, it is a prejudice with me that we did a good thing in Iraq, and that having been home sick and watching it live on TV that day it is my prejudice that my government committed murder at Waco. I have facts to back both assertions up, but these are not topics in which I will engage in rational discourse, but rather conversion discourse.

The press, as opposed to The Media, was intended to play a crucial role in the process of rational discourse in America. It was to be a means of providing the news, the facts which needed to be considered by one and all. It was to provide a means for disseminating the differing positions that were generated, along with the discussion of same. It was to allow a means of disseminating what was distilled from this, so that some form of consensus could be presented, or at least what decision had been reached by the government and why.

Through this, there was presentations by the press, by pundits, conversion messages by individuals or groups, and again news of the decisions reached. It is a critical process, and is key to ensuring and expanding our freedoms, as well as continuing the great experiment that is America.

It is also the concept upon which I founded this blog, with the hope of encouraging thought, discussion, and more. It is why I can and will delete comments that fail of the test of persuasibility. If you want to convert, attack and destroy, fail to provide facts and citations: go start your own blog. I am very pleased that I have thus far only deleted one comment. It gives me hope for the blog, the concept, and for America if not the world.