Would You Rather Impress Socrates or Kim Jong Un?
Dialogue Gorgias Socrates visits a famous rhetorician and interrogates him about the nature of his skills. Over the course of the dialogue Gorgias The Rhetorician admits that his primary skill is Persuasion, and that the skill is inherently useless because it produces its effects independently of reason and with no regard to right or wrong. Having persuaded the rhetorician that persuasion is useless, Socrates moves on with his ironic search for a teacher who can teach him about goodness itself.
Thousands of years later, Scott Adams used a series of tweets and blog posts to accurately predict that Donald Trump’s persuasive powers would make him president, and allow him to accomplish things that were previously deemed impossible. Drawing on his corporate experience, cognitive science, and the curriculum of a hypnosis class he took in the 90’s Scott accurately broke down every technique the president used to win the election and to get his way after being inaugurated. Scott’s explanations were persuasive enough to convince me that: 1) persuasion can be taught in a technical manner, and 2) Donald Trump’s success is the result of employing persuasive technique.
Like Socrates, Adams admits that persuasion has no fundamental relationship to goodness, but opts (in public at least) to accept the inability to know right from wrong as a human limitation, rather than risking his life to quest after it.
Yesterday, I was content to reconcile these two positions as differences in preference. Today, I feel compelled to interrogate Socrates as to whether or not rhetoric (persuasion) has inherent value. First let’s watch this movie trailer in which Trump combines every technique Scott Adams has ever described in to a virtuous persuasive artifact.
Socrates, criticizes persuasion because it doesn’t aspire toward an objective standard. In the medical field, doctor prescribing a balanced diet doesn’t choose the ingredients according to opinion but according to what promotes health. In contrast, the persuader imitates a pastry chef or a pornographer, and simply tries to find a combination of ingredients that the consumer will find pleasurable. In one case independent reason seeks an outcome that will improve the client, and in the other the client is left at the mercy of his own preferences and might be harmed or not depending on what he happens to desire.
Trump’s video is clearly crafted towards Kim Jong Un as an individual, and seeks to entice Kim using both his noble desires, such his sense of solidarity with his fellow Koreans, and his neutral and ignoble desires, such as his sense of self preservation and his desire for luxury and entertainment. The positive and negative messages are like “the treats and blows given by an animal trainer”, and seek to induce Kim to move towards peace without attempting to change him.
If Socrates had made the video, it might have forced Kim to realize that his current life is a fraud, and that the only possession worth having is a mind cleansed by contemplation of truth.
Contact with Socrates, might not denuclearize the peninsula, but it would treated Kim’s soul like bitter medicine. Not that Socrates didn’t understand persuasion, he simply chose not to use the amoral skill, even when on trial for his own life.
This summit has shaken me a bit because in this narrow case, Trump’s method seems to produce a more desirable outcome than the one recommended by Socrates. Is persuasion is a force for good because it brings opinions into closer alignment? I’ll lay out my argument and let’s see what you think.
People tend to differ in the degree to which their opinions align with truth. So in general, whenever persuasion is used, one party likely to be “more right” on the matter in question. Therefore, in general whenever persuasion brings opinion closer together the result will be that the influenced persons opinion approaches the persuader’s.
Furthermore, on most subjects, the number of experts is small and so is the number of people who stubbornly hold onto bizarre opinions. The vast majority of people fall in the middle and hold the best opinion that their limited understanding of the issue and personal biases will allow. In a situation like this, when people use persuasion on a large scale, overall opinion will tend towards truth. A good example of this is how much harder it is to believe in Leprechauns today than it was prior to the internet.
Finally, doesn’t persuasion’s unreasonable nature may work in its favor? The more a belief is based on rational knowledge the harder it is to influence irrationally. Somebody with no knowledge of chemistry is equally persuadable that neon is highly flammable or inert. A chemist will never be convinced that neon is highly flammable no matter how many videos you show him of happy homes full of children being demolished by “neon gas leaks”. This means that people with beliefs that align strongly with truth will be far less influenced than people who believe nonsense.
Doesn’t this mean that persuasion is a process by which extremely bad beliefs are moved closer to the average while the most correct beliefs are untouched? If so, persuasion is a force for good in society even if it has a neutral effect between individuals.
In the Republic, Socrates suggests that his friends examine the nature of a just human by expanding the nature of a human into a metaphorical city, so that they can more closely observe the constituent parts. Perhaps, we could observe the value of large scale persuasion in society by observing our metaphorical self. With a smaller model we can see the effects of persuasion on a more accessible time scale and decide what the long and short term effects are.
Isn’t it true that people typically attempt to influence their own behavior through self persuasion? For example, don’t people who eat a special diet for heath reasons, intentionally fight off occasional cravings for bad food by imagining terrible consequences if they break their diets? Don’t such people often insult, or praise themselves to get the desired effect? Wouldn’t many people give in to irrational cravings and die if not for this form of self persuasion? In contrast, isn’t it much less common for somebody who craves healthy food to insult and cajole themselves into eating garbage or into harming themselves in any way?. Isn’t such behavior sufficiently rare that we call it a mental illness and treat it with medication?
Based on the way I answered these questions, I’m forced to conclude that persuasion is a positive force, both in the self and in society. I can’t deny that it’s tendency is to make relatively bad opinions better, while leaving relatively good opinions unaffected.
However, I can’t refute Socrates’s claim that persuasion isn’t a skill that improves anything, because skilled persuasion is equally applicable to situations where the persuader is right or wrong. My final conclusion is that persuasion isn’t an inherently useful, but an advantageous human behavior which benefits the species overall, and which can be more effective based on talent and practice. So while I may not have refuted Socrates, I have vindicated Scott Adams, and also discovered the reason why a skilled persuader is sometimes called a “suck up”.