Monday, July 26, 2004

They're Politicians. It's What They Do.

I always find discussions about how to manipulate people a bit chilling. But there is, I think, a real point to it, and it is a valuable occasion for philosophical thought.

Medieval Muslim philosophers did extensive work in looking at rhetoric and poetics as logical disciplines. And one way they were able to do that was to look at various arts having to do with language and divide them according to the sort of assent to which they are geared. There was demonstration (scientific assent), for instance, or dialectic (probable assent). The type of assent they associated with rhetoric was imaginative assent; and this was a pre-intellectual impulse toward or away from something. A good way to think of the difference between imaginative assent and the various sorts of intellectual assent is to think of a glass floor There's one in the CN Tower here in Toronto; you can see a long, long way down. Now, intellectually you may know that the floor will hold you. But imagination, i.e., your 'sensory processing', leads you to feel a dissent or dissonance at the idea of walking on the glass floor.

Another way logical disciplines are divided is by their purpose. Rhetoric's purpose is to persuade; it is necessary as a logical discipline because of our social nature, the complexity of practical life, the need for practical action, and the limited time and resources we have for investigating every single issue. Thus, Avicenna and Averroes in essence regard rhetoric as a shorthand logic, suitable for acquiring the sort of assent that leads to practical action, in cases where the other disciplines can't (again, for practical reasons) be used. As Jean Buridan, who, like many of the Christian medievals, was influenced by them on this score, says, rhetoric and poetics are a moral logic, i.e., a logic for use in the buzz and rush of actual human practice.

While they didn't put it quite this way, the logical structures to which rhetoric appeals are associative (this is one reason, I think, why Hume's emphasis on principles of association became so influential - it spoke to the rhetoric- and practice-related interests of Scotland at the time). This is related to Lakoff's 'framing'.

But this all suggests, I think, that Lakoff is simply wrong when he says that one party understands framing and the other doesn't. Politicians who didn't have at least a rough feel for framing would be politically incompetent and would tend not to get elected; you have to influence people to an imaginative perspective to be an effective politician at all. I think Lakoff may be thrown off by his own example of taxation. The reason people are affected so much by the phrase 'tax relief' is not that it sounds good and is said a lot (although that may contribute) but because it triggers associations that are already there. When people hear it, it doesn't sound suspicious, because Americans, even many progressives, don't feel taxation to be a blessing; at best they feel it to be, as Lakoff calls it, following Oliver Wendell Holmes, to be "the price of civilization." But prices aren't, as we normally think of them, blessings and benefits. Which sounds better: high price or low price? High cost or low cost? And which tax payment would make you more comfortable: $10 or $100? The reason 'tax relief' catches on so easily is that we are all (including progressives) already primed to think of taxes as a burden - even if we think of it as only a light burden, or a burden worth having. And doesn't it sound good to be relieved from a burden? Doesn't it feel like not having to pay as much would be a nice thing, if you can get it? The problem is not that progressives or Democrats haven't framed the raising of taxes properly; it's that they have to deal with frames already in place, with the associations already common. It catches on because, given the associations in place, people are relieved to be paying less tax. You could call taxation "noble sharing," and in the long run in our society all it would do is give nobility and sharing a bad name. It would be treated as an outrageous euphemism. The effect would be exactly the opposite of what was intended: it would turn people off, not on; it would trigger imaginative dissent, not imaginative assent. Taxation is a misleading issue; we can't conclude anything from it about who is better at framing. (And what's up with Lakoff's 'strict father' and 'nurturant parent' models? Does he only study people who like big government?) And, I think, a close look at Democratic party issues will show, as it would show for any political party with large popular support in any nation, a very good feel for framing. It's rhetoric; no party can have influence without it. (It's also why philosophers need to work on the issue of political taste.)

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