Sunday, April 06, 2008

Part II: Classical Values

A recent post at Classical Values A Man With Real Experience, referring to Al Gore and his 1988 comments about Vietnam had layers within layers once I started to think about it. Gore’s comment had injected a mild note of disagreement into the standard VN narrative, remarking that the South Vietnamese people certainly regarded what they were fighting for as freedom. He had softened the disagreement with a half-dozen references that showed he still believed the prevailing progressive narrative, but there was this little discordant note. Simon picked up on that note, relating it to our current situation and how the antiwar crowd cannot manage to acknowledge even that much these days. I commented in the thread
…There is an enormous problem with this approach. It is a social nicety used to preserve relations with the person you are disagreeing with. It is excellent for use with families, friends, and colleagues. It is a dyadic and small-group strategy. As a persuasive strategy with large groups it is much less effective. The people listening to you agree that you have a point and that you're a wise a good person, but the balancing act you just went through undermines the impact of your claim, and memory of it erodes…

We use Gore’s tactic when persuasion can be very gradual, but damage to a relationship can be the work of a moment. We do not so much disagree as send up a caution flag.

I had originally complained that a politician’s use of this tactic was deceitful. He gets to tell everyone present that he agrees with them, but also gets to pose as a person who sees many sides of things – one who has been fair to other points of view and has considered them. So when he kicks them in the balls you know they deserved it. The audience, meanwhile, receives no real challenge to reevaluate their position. They can even pretend that they have reevaluated their position in that instant. They go on as before, thinking themselves wise and the politician evenhanded. Better yet, the politician is on record as having considered an alternative POV. Even his opponents might be impressed that he has at least heard them clearly.
Tricksy politician. False.

One layer deeper, I look at the tactic a soupcon more kindly. The current audience receives the near-indiscernible disagreement in the context of being patted on the back a dozen time. Yet in this age of rancorous debate, the single comment can be taken out of context and sent out into the world: “Even Al Gore says…” A communist can be made to look libertarian, a libertarian communist, and anyone can be made to look stupid or evil.

It's still not honest, but it's more understandable in that context.

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