Thursday, October 16, 2008


I did not watch last night's Presidential debate. In truth, I did not watch much of the second debate, either. I had a simple reason for this: I have already made up my mind. I do not think I am alone; many other people long ago decided what they will do in this election. No soaring rhetoric, personal barb or quaint turn of phrase will sway me one way or another. Nothing could make me turn Republican, just as nothing could make a Republican turn Democrat. Political affiliation in the United States is as intrinsic as personality. Neither candidate could have said anything to sway anyone last night. People know who they are. No televised words can alter that.

Several weeks ago, I wrote that convictions are blinding. That maxim holds especially true in the political arena. When a person holds strong political convictions, he is immune from persuasion. You could spin the deftest, most subtle and logical arguments, but they would have no effect on him. You could put on the best salesmanship in the world, but it does not stand a chance against conviction. If a person decides he does not want to buy something, nothing you say will change his mind. People are stubborn in their beliefs. That is why the "art of persuasion" is highly overrated. Persuasion only works on people without convictions. To be persuaded, you must have some doubts, or at least some confusion. But when you have convictions in some regard, no rhetoric will ever phase you.

Still, we try to learn how to persuade people. In high school, we learn how to write "persuasive essays" and "argumentative statements" in order to convince our readers that we are right. In law school, we learn how to write "persuasive briefs" and how to make "persuasive oral arguments" to convince higher authorities to accept our positions. We honestly think that we can master "technical persuasive tools," which in turn give us a magical power to change people's minds. This is a pernicious myth. When we write or speak to others, our audience already knows what it believes. Either our rhetoric matches what the audience already believes, or it does not. We can only hope to change minds when our audience has some doubt. But again, when people have convictions, they have no doubts. Therefore, it is futile to try to persuade them against their convictions.

Justice Antonin Scalia recently published a book entitled "The Art of Persuading Judges." He argues that there are certain technical "persuasion skills" that can change a judge's mind. This made me laugh out loud because Justice Scalia is the last person who would ever alter his convictions in the face of rhetoric. Justice Scalia, like every other Supreme Court justice, has definite views about every constitutional issue that comes before the Court. If a case involves the death penalty, Justice Scalia will vote to affirm the conviction. If a case involves racial discrimination, Justice Scalia will recite his theory about a "colorblind Constitution" and find no racial animus. If a case involves habeas corpus, Justice Scalia will rule against foreign enemy combatants. These are his convictions. If Patrick Henry, Cicero and Daniel Webster combined to form the perfect orator arguing the case for the opposite conclusion, Justice Scalia would not be impressed. He knows how he will rule because he has a definite view about the issue. He cannot be persuaded.

Justice Scalia cannot be persuaded for another reason: He believes he is smarter than the people arguing to him. In case after case, he excoriates attorneys who dare to make arguments for positions he rejects. In other words, he would put himself in an inferior position if he allowed himself to be persuaded by another person. Persuasion, after all, implies that one person makes another person abandon his previous belief and accept a new one. To abandon one's belief, one must necessarily acknowledge that one previously held the wrong position. Justice Scalia could never do that. He always holds the right position, and no one will convince him otherwise.

In fairness, I do not limit my criticism to Justice Scalia. Every other Justice has definite views on issues, and it is easy to predict how they will react to cases involving those views. Supreme Court justices have abiding convictions. For that reason, I wonder why the Supreme Court even bothers to hear oral arguments one way or the other. They will not convince anyone. It is just a bunch of wasted breath.

American voters scarcely differ from Supreme Court justices when it comes to convictions. At the risk of endorsing stereotypes, there are certain unalterable opinions that typify both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats, for example, do not object to welfare programs for the poor. By contrast, Republicans despise all support for people who do not work at a "regular job." It is impossible to craft an argument to convince either side to abandon its position. John McCain can argue all he wants about scrapping welfare, but he will not change a single Democrat's mind. Similarly, Barack Obama can argue all he wants about spending more money on "green industry," but he will not persuade a single Republican to accept his position. That is why it does not make sense to watch another debate: Neither candidate will say anything to change your mind. Perhaps the only reason to watch another debate would be to loathe the opposing viewpoint and revel in one's own position. But this has nothing to do with persuasion or logic; it has everything to do with mere emotional stimulation.

If persuasion is a futile endeavor, why do so many people attempt it? There are two reasons. First, there are some issues on which people truly do not hold a belief. In commerce, for example, people do not hold beliefs about products they do not know. To that extent, a salesman can advocate one product over another, taking advatage of the listener's ignorance and lack of belief. In that case, persuasive tools can sway the audience to the speaker's position. Second, there are issues about which a person may hold a doubtful belief. For example, a person may have an intuitive sense that someone committed a crime. But when a defense attorney steps forward with strong evidence that the suspect did not commit the crime, the listener will come over to the suspect's position. In other words, doubtful belief invites persuasion.

Still, there are so many issues about which people have no doubt at all; rather, they have convictions. In those circumstances, persuasion is truly quixotic. Put another way, persuasion is useless against convictions. And in political discourse, people hold the deepest convictions. If that is true, why bother having a debate in the first place?


SteveW said...

I find, like you, that the art of persuasion is overrated. However, I do find that people are often capable of being persuaded. Often what is presented as a "conviction", as you say, is merely an opinion that has been formed without any data or logic (I'll call that a sub-conviction).

When I have been successful in persuading, I find the following conditions are present: 1) that through questioning I figure out the underlying conviction driving their sub-conviction, 2) I demonstrate how their sub-conviction is inconsistent with their conviction, and 3) time passes such that the person thinks about it and convinces themselves.

Granted, a debate format rarely has the time or procedure for the above, but it can be helpful in my opinion. My main problem with debates as they are is that our political candidates are in fact not intelligent people, and they largely spew just talking points that were written by someone else and that they don't even understand.

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

That is an interesting idea about "sub-convictions." You are right that some convictions are more abiding than others, and it is possible to break a "sub-conviction" if you show that the person made it on the basis of poor, incomplete or inaccurate information. And you are absolutely right about "talking points" in debates. Are our candidates unintelligent? Or do they merely know that the audience is unintelligent, and simply give them what they want?

I am intrigued now about "sub-convictions." Are they present more in commercial circumstances or political ones? How about religion or morals? I find it is much harder to persuade in those areas.