I Am Displeased with Political Memes: A Title in the Form of an Understatement

I Am Displeased with Political Memes: A Title in the Form of an Understatement

Note: the topic of this post is rhetoric. I don’t think I have anything new to contribute to the topic here, mostly because I’ve been preempted by Aristotle by ~2,400 years. The scaffolding for my discussion does, in fact, come from Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

Second note: this essay was directly motivated by current political discourse, although I am always generally concerned with its topic, not just when provoked.


Americans are divided about a lot of things—always have been, always will be. This is perhaps most apparent in our politics, and most recently (and perennially) in debate about gun policy. I have specific thoughts about gun policy, but my point here isn’t to address them, it’s to address how I approach discussing them: I tend toward essays and discussion, and avoid memes.

In general, whenever I enter a debate/discussion on politics or philosophy, I am worried that I am tricking myself, or being fooled by my own cognitive biases. For example: I worry that, in the face of disagreement, I will slip into defending my point to win, rather than to discover the actual truth, regardless of whether that is my point. I also worry that I am not aware that sometimes, despite using the same words as someone else, we might mean very different things (the phenomenon of “talking past each other”).

It becomes difficult to monitor oneself for all these things in middle of a discussion, especially if the other interlocutors don’t share the same concerns, so most of my improvement in persuasion and discussion has come from building good habits over time, rather than policing every thought in the moment. The habit that has been most helpful has been writing my thoughts down, and discussing problems in an extended fashion with others. I avoid cultivating the habit of meme sharing (whether on social media or in person by repeating certain kinds of soundbites).

Assuming that I am confident in my knowledge of something and attempt to persuade others to my point of view, I will be using rhetoric, the art of persuasion. It is a neutral tool that can be used to amplify both good and bad messages, which is why I have the concerns in the above paragraph.

There are three components to rhetoric:

  • Ethos: the trustworthiness of the speaker
  • Pathos: the emotion inspired by the speaker
  • Logos: the logic of the speaker

Each of these functions differently, and they all have varied effects depending on your audience. But I think it’s clear why each of these is a component of rhetoric. You won’t be persuaded by someone you don’t trust, you will have a hard time being persuaded by a dull speaker, and you will dismiss a speaker who lacks facts.

I am most concerned about striking the right balance between these three things in my own rhetoric. My tendency is to focus too much on logos and ignore pathos and ethos—but I’m aware of this tendency, so it doesn’t rule me.

But based on its contents, it appears that many individuals’ (and certainly most highly visible individuals’) contemporary political rhetoric is heavily unbalanced, with a severe over-reliance on pathos/stirring up emotions. In this kind of speech, logos is largely relegated to insignificance.

Persuasion only through pathos is dangerous, because if you get in the habit of only playing on emotions, and others get in the habit of being overly swayed by their emotions, everyone is sort of playing Russian roulette. Sure, emotions are persuading people now, but there is no guarantee that they will persuade people tomorrow (especially with that dang hedonic treadmill). It also means that everyone gets used to not dealing with facts, the province of logos.

In a world where everyone relies on pathos to persuade, facts cannot save you. That last part is scary, but it is the world we partially live in, and the world that the majority of us built.

Given all of this, I approach political persuasion with caution. But I also have a clear goal: mitigate the effects of pathos, and restore the use and reliance upon logos (sorry ethos, you will come up in another essay).

This means that I am generally suspicious of all political memes on social media—and given recent events, everyone should be. Memes, based on their nature, are ill-equipped to deal in facts. They have to be pithy and hit you somewhere in your emotions, whether those are pleasure or pain. Facts are best understood in context, with explanation—this is done with the mind through essays and books, not memes.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why memes are persuasive; it’s easier to send and share funny pictures than it is to get all your friends to read a particular book or long essay. I just don’t make memes the focus of any contemporary political persuading I do—to do so prioritizes pathos, and marginalizes facts.

Because I’m concerned with my own rhetorical propriety, I will maintain and cultivate my habit of long-form thought in reading, writing, and conversation. And because I don’t like what I see in the average use of political rhetoric, I think everyone should take a hard look at their own use of rhetoric if it is over-reliant on stirring up emotion, especially with memes. It is easy to share a meme (again, this doesn’t have to mean sharing a picture, it could be a political slogan or something else), but good political discourse isn’t easy, and there’s no way around that.

But, of course, rhetorical skill is not good if you never deploy it. Speaking up can be hard.


This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

Discussing Politics is Like Discussing Calculus

Discussing Politics is Like Discussing Calculus

This is a companion post to another I did. In both, I’m working to explain the mental tools that have helped me approach politics better in conversation.


Imagine the following scenario: you’re talking with a new acquaintance about politics, and then they say that first little thing that indicates that the two you are not on the same side of any number of political divides. Damnit, you thought they were smarter than that.

You gingerly submit some disagreement, hoping to correct their error, but it seems like they are—somehow—unconvinced. Their stated reason for remaining so actually reveals that they were dumber than you thought!

An hour later you’re still talking, and have gotten nowhere because this uncultured swine / this coastal elitist can’t see the obvious points that you do. They can’t be convinced. But that’s just how some people are—they bury their heads in the sand [insert a disparaging comment about Obama or Trump here, depending on who you are].

I have witnessed an innumerable number of encounters that follow this pattern, and, sadly, have also participated in them. Some last for ten minutes, some stretch for hours into the night. In any case, they tend to be counterproductive, and are the reason that many people try to avoid discussing politics in mixed company.

But I love politics, and political philosophy. I think they’re fascinating, and, despite anyone’s opinion about the palatability of discussing them, those fields determine how our world works. Politics is both interesting and directly related to how we can live our daily lives (just try not paying your taxes and see what happens). What’s not to love?

Apparently, so many things. So many things are not to love.

Because I enjoy discussing politics, I usually bring it up when others wouldn’t, and I usually proceed onward with the conversation when others would have heeded the signs reading, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” But, after years of discussion, I think both my rhetoric and its content have improved dramatically. Like many activities, practice and refinement have improved my ability to discuss politics with a variety of people. Also like many activities, I can still improve.

One of the products of that improvement is an analogy. It has helped me to shed my frustration when I encounter political disagreement, even when it is based in ignorance, and has radically transformed the way that I discuss not just politics, but many subjects.

The analogy: politics is like calculus. Discuss it in the same way. And now here is a small dialogue about that:

Narrator: You’ve just completed your first year of calculus, and it is relatively clear to you (just pretend). You bump into a friend on the college quad, and sigh that you’re glad to be done with the class.

Friend: “Oh, which final did you just finish?”

You: “It was for my calc class. It was a lot of hard work, but it paid off—”

Friend: “Calculus? Ugh, how’d you get stuck with that? Was it a requirement?”

You: “No, I like it, I took it voluntarily. I’m actually an English major.”

Friend: “I’m an English major too, but I chose it so that I didn’t have to take any math. Calculus especially. All that 2x+y, and then find the value of y, just makes me want to jump out a window.”

You: “What? That’s Algebra. Calculus is the mathematical study of continuous change, like—”

Friend: “It’s all the same stuff. Algebra, Calculus, whatever.”

Narrator: You, our calculus fan (keep pretending), are likely now in a state of confusion and frustration. Clearly your friend has no idea of what calculus is, or the differentiation (ha) between the different branches of mathematics. You want to correct them. You want them to know what you know. You are very frustrated not only by their mistaken assertions, but the fact that they are assertions. How could this person be so confident in their ignorance??

After you return to your dorm room, you recognize the absurdity of your initial reaction. You were ready to dump an hour of your life into convincing your friend that calculus was different than algebra. You wanted them to know what you know, and for them to see the light.

But for your friend to know what you know, they’d have to understand mathematics as well as you do, and you have a firm grip on Algebra, Geometry, and Calculus. If they don’t even have a firm grip on Algebra, it’s foolish to think that you could endow them with your knowledge in an hour. Or even a year. Any conversation about mathematics would have to start with the arithmetical operations, and then move on from there. You now spread out on your bed, utterly overwhelmed by the task. It cannot be done. Your friend is doomed to innumeracy. The dummy.

END

 

I think it’s pretty clear that most people would not be able to learn the contents of one branch of mathematics in a short conversation, let alone several. If you set about trying to do that, you’re only setting yourself up for failure. Lesson: you can’t teach someone calculus in one hour, or even several. If you truly want them to learn the field, you have to first teach them all the prerequisite knowledge they’d need, and then begin on calculus—and this is assuming that you have some buy-in from the other person. It would take a dedicated effort from both of you over an extended period of time.

So why do we assume that we can teach someone else about politics in one hour, or even several? (Part of me thinks it has something to do with the idea that political philosophy/politics, a “humanity,” is not like physics, a hard subject, and everyone can take a very amateur crack at politics and come up with good results, but that’s a different essay.) Assume you have advanced knowledge of political theory, and a large amount of knowledge about current political events. Further assume that you encounter someone with neither of those things, who asserts something that contradicts your own thoughts. I bet this has happened, and I bet your reaction is one of frustration, and some version of “I must relieve this poor knave of their ignorance.”

Although this reaction is understandable, it can benefit from the reflection of our calculus student: it is unreasonable to think that you will be able to transfer years of hard-won knowledge about politics to another person in a short conversation. It is also unreasonable to start the conversation at an advanced level, and expect someone without any knowledge of the field to be able to engage.

If you want to have that conversation at all, you have to recognize the lessons of the calculus student:

  1. The conversation must start by establishing basic knowledge, definitions, and premises. Don’t come out of the gate asking what someone thinks about a complex piece of jurisprudence or legislation. Ask about basic ideas, like what the word “government” means to them, and hash that out. Or find a way to analogize more complex ideas in a simple way that doesn’t sacrifice key aspects of the complexity.
  2. One conversation is not enough. For someone to learn and understand advanced concepts in a field they’re new to, they will likely have to work for years. Your expectations about what one conversation can do, therefore, should be set accordingly.
  3. Being frustrated that a newcomer to a field of thought can’t meaningfully agree with your analysis of one of its advanced issues is…not helpful. Obviously, they won’t be able to do that. Getting frustrated helps no one.

When I keep the calculus analogy in mind, my political conversations go much better. And because they go better, I become more well-practiced. The more well-practiced I become, the better they go. You get it.

Now, I understand that politics as a field has different issues and is conceptually distinct from mathematics. Our society also has relatively stable agreement on what is “right” in math, where it doesn’t in politics. Even so, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a “right” in politics. The moral there is that sometimes you’re the calculus student, sometimes you’re the student’s friend, and sometimes you’re somewhere in between. You’ll have to be circumspect and on your toes to try to determine which you are.

If you discuss politics with someone, and you think you’re in the position of the calculus student, be gracious and patient—but still check for holes in your own knowledge. Maybe you do actually understand the field, but maybe you only know how to manipulate its formulas, rather than derive them.

If you think you’re the friend, be attentive and inquiring—but don’t agree with something until you understand it. Just because you’re new to the field doesn’t mean you’re dumb—intelligence and knowledge are different things.


This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

Political Persuasion, or: The Art of Automobile Acquisition

Political Persuasion, or: The Art of Automobile Acquisition

I’m a big fan of political philosophy, and also a big fan of discussing politics (in addition to sex and religion). These are some of the most interesting topics that humanity has to deal with, but many people deliberately avoid them. As a result, they stay mired in a base level of unpracticed knowledge and rhetoric, and when they do venture forth to opine on political events (usually around presidential elections in the US), it’s a shitstorm—that’s the technical term.

I think that many people then generalize the high tempers and short fuses of politics at its most partisan to all of politics and political philosophy. Their usual experiences are ugly and potent, and so they retreat from sustained, meaningful political contact. The small amount of work (reading, discussion, thinking) that should be happening all the time never gets done, and so political discussions are chained to the floor of their potential. If you don’t practice something, you won’t improve. Political discussion is no different.

But this kind of description and meta-analysis of political discussion in modern America can only go so far. Therefore, I have written a dialogue to take me the rest of the way.

 

Alistair has decided to purchase a new car, so he heads to the local Lamborghini dealership, where he meets Clementine the salesperson.

Alistair: You have so many fine automobiles here. I’m almost tempted to buy two instead of just the one I came here for.

Clementine: Well don’t let me stop you from buying two if you really want! Which model do you want to see specifically?

Alistair: The Huracán, my good woman.

Clementine: As you can see, this year’s model—

Alistair: I’ll take it!

Clementine: Oh, wonderful, let me just—

Alistair: Whatever it is, no need! I can pay in cash right here.

Clementine (looking Alistair up and down): You mean a check? Surely you aren’t carrying $200,000 in cash on you?

Alistair: No check. I’ve got the cash.

Alistair pulls out a $100 bill and slides it into Clementine’s hand. Clementine wonders if she should call the police now, or wait until this plays out a little bit more.

Clementine: I’m sorry, what am I supposed to do with this?

Alistair: It’s for the Lamborghini Huracán right in front of us.

Clementine, sarcastically: This whole $100 bill?

Alistair, unfazed: You can keep the change.

Clementine: Sir, if this is a joke, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.

Alistair, offended: What do you mean? I came here with my money, now give me the car!

Clementine: You either need $200,000 to hand me right now, or you need to be able to handle an amortized payment schedule for a higher amount. If you can’t do either of those things, you need to leave.

Alistair: Do you know how long I’d have to work to be able to just drop $200,000 in one go?

Clementine: Probably a lot.

Alistair: And as far as a payment plan goes, I’d be on the hook for years. Do you really expect me to continually pay for this thing, even as interest increases the loan’s principal and the car depreciates?

Clementine: I clearly do not expect you to pay anything.

Alistair: I can’t believe this! This is outright thievery! I’m calling the police!

Clementine: Oh my god.

END

 

Before I say anything else, I’ll say this: money is political persuasion and knowledge, and the Lamborghini is you changing someone else’s mind about a political issue.

Clearly Alistair doesn’t understand how purchasing expensive sports cars works. You can’t just walk in there with whatever money you happen to have on you and expect them to give you a car. It is near-universal knowledge that Lamborghinis cost a hefty six-figure sum, and also that the Lamborghini people don’t let you drive off the lot with one unless you’ve paid for it somehow.

My question then: why do people think they can persuade others of their political views if they haven’t put in the time to develop their knowledge and their powers of persuasion? Like buying a Lamborghini, changing someone’s mind about politics is not an easy thing to do.[1] If you don’t put in the work by yourself, whether to earn money or to learn and refine your political rhetoric, you don’t get the Lamborghini/politically persuaded person.

Keeping the Lamborghini in mind has mitigated a lot of frustration that I’ve had in the past when discussing politics. Honestly, most of my frustration was the result of incorrectly rating the difficulty of getting someone to change their mind about a political issue. In order to do that very hard task, I have to: (1) spend a lot of time by myself, reading and thinking and maybe writing. (2) talk with people a lot. Both of these things build up my stores of political knowledge, my understanding of political philosophy, and my ability to persuade others with my rhetoric.

It would be dumb of me to not do any of that work, and then walk up to someone and expect to change their mind pretty much then and there. About as dumb as expecting to be able to purchase a Lamborghini Huracán for $100.

I also like the Lamborghini metaphor because it places much of the responsibility on the individual who wants to do the political persuading/get the car. Many times, individuals blame the person they’re speaking with for being too dumb or too stubborn to submit to clearly superior political reasoning. I’ve seen many of these conversations, and have unfortunately also been a participant in some.

If you want to persuade someone in politics, you have to do a lot of work—like, however much you’re imagining, that’s not enough. Not nearly. Keep going—nope, still not enough. In many cases, it’s probably not the other person who’s being dumb. You probably just aren’t approaching the conversation correctly for lack of introspection and preparation. I know this was the case for me, and, based on my conversations with others, it is for them as well.

A good starting point for improving political rhetoric is this book.

Do the work. Earn the knowledge and rhetorical power. Then you get your Lamborghini.[2]

 

 

[1] There are exceptions to this, but those would require an extended metaphor—I’m pretty sure what I’m getting at is clear with the base-level metaphor.

[2] For a variety of reasons, it’s definitely possible for you to not be able to convince someone, despite being fully prepared. But I think people overestimate how often that is the case, simply because they fail so often at persuasion for lack of preparation and mistakenly believe that they failed because the other person was dumb/stubborn.


This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.