Not the Monthly Post

A Rhetorical Education

Quite a bit of the discussion on this blog and its predecessors has focused on controversial issues, the kind of thing that causes rhetoric to fly fast and thick.  Given the themes I like to discuss in these essays, that could hardly have been avoided.  Ours is an age riven by disputes, in which debate has taken over much of the space occupied by physical violence in less restrained eras. (How many people died in the struggle that put Donald Trump instead of Hillary Clinton in the White House?  During most of human history, that wouldn’t have been an ironic question.)

Yet this contentious age has an odd feature, and it’s one I’ve referenced more than once in recent posts on this blog:  the fact that the vast majority of the rhetoric deployed in the disputes of our day is so stunningly incompetent.

Consider the way that any widely discussed issue these days is debated: say, the squabble over legislation now before Congress that would make web hosting firms and content providers liable for illegal content posted by third parties. The supporters of the bills in question insist that it’s all about stopping online sex trafficking, and anyone who opposes the bills as written must be in favor of sex crimes. The opponents of the bills, for their part, insist that they’re just an excuse for censorship, and anyone who supports them must be trying to destroy the internet.

Set aside for the moment the substantive issues involved—they’re real and important, but not relevant to the theme of this week’s post—and look at the rhetoric. Both sides have chosen the strategy of flinging over-the-top accusations at those who disagree with them. That strategy’s familiar enough these days that nobody seems to have thought to ask the obvious question: does it work? If you yell at people at the top of your lungs, insisting that their disagreement with you amounts to support for something awful, and they know perfectly well that they don’t support the thing you’re accusing them of supporting, are they likely to change their minds and agree with you?

Of course not. If you try to persuade people using that tactic, they’ll dig in their heels. What’s more, they’re right to do so.  When supporters of the bills insist that everyone who disagrees with them is in favor of sex trafficking, opponents of the bill know perfectly well that this is a lie, and a hateful lie at that. When opponents of the bill insist that everyone who disagrees with them wants to impose censorship on the whole internet—well, you can do the math just as well as I can.

Of course it’s not just this one issue that gets the dysfunctional rhetoric just mentioned. These days, it’s frankly hard to find any issue that doesn’t. What’s more, when well-intentioned people try to point out the problems with this failed rhetorical strategy to one side or the other, what normally happens is that the side thus challenged responds with a tirade about how we shouldn’t even be expected to talk to those awful people who disagree with us, because those awful people are just so awful. Why? Because we say they are, that’s why.

Out on the far end of this particular scale are a flurry of relatively recent scientific studies that purport to prove that it’s impossible to convince anybody of anything. One that I find particularly enticing took a group of people who’d voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election and showed them a video in which an earnest talking head explained to them at length why they should have voted for Hillary Clinton instead. By and large, the Trump voters thus catechized responded by doubling down on their support for Trump.  The media that reported this study, and the Clinton supporters who discussed it in earnest tones while it cycled through its fifteen minutes of fame, insisted that this proved that “those people” were immune to reason.

Au contraire, it proved that “those people”—and a great many other people as well—are immune to incompetent rhetoric when it’s rehashed for the umpteenth time. By the time the election was over, after all, everyone in the United States who didn’t spend 2016 hiding under a rock knew all the arguments in favor of and against each of the candidates, and the vast majority of them had made up their minds well before the election. Running through a set of talking points yet again, when the election was over and voters for the winning side still had to pinch themselves from time to time to be sure they weren’t dreaming and their candidate really had won, was never going to get a favorable reaction. If Clinton had won, and somebody sat down a bunch of jubilant Clinton voters and showed them a video where an Oklahoma farmer wearing overalls and a MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN hat had tried to convince them that they should have voted for Trump instead, how much of an impression would that have made?

Of course there’s another side to the same issue. The earnest talking head telling the Trump voters that they should have voted for Clinton was far from the first earnest talking head these same voters had heard from. Do you recall, dear reader, the earnest talking heads who insisted that economic globalization would mean lots of well-paying jobs for working class Americans? How about the ones who insisted that if working class Americans ran up huge debts to get university training, there would be plenty of jobs waiting for them when they graduated? How about the one in the White House who insisted that Obamacare would mean lower premiums for everyone, and everyone would be able to keep their existing plans and physicians? If you don’t remember these, be assured that millions of Americans do.

It shouldn’t have taken a scientific study to point out that if you lie to people often enough, they’re going to stop believing anything you say. Yet this straightforward point somehow eluded a vast number of people in the wake of the election. What’s more, it still eludes an equally vast number of people on both side of the political fence—the manufacture of self-serving nonsense is a bipartisan industry these days, after all.

We can sum up the issues here in a very simple way:  nobody involved in these debates has even the rudiments of a rhetorical education. That phrase—a rhetorical education—covers more ground than a cursory glance might suggest, and a look back at certain phases of history will help make sense of what that involves. It will also help explain how we backed ourselves into the corner we’re in just now, and how we might get out of it.

The intellectual activities of any culture, ours very much included, tend to swing back and forth on a timescale of centuries between two competing ways of understanding the world. We can call these abstraction and reflection. Abstraction is the belief that the world around us obeys a set of laws that can be known by the human mind.  Intellectual activity in an age of abstraction therefore focuses on abstracting (literally, “drawing out”) those laws from the buzzing, blooming confusion of the world we experience.

Abstraction is confident and expansive, and it thrives in eras of expansion—economic, political, imperial. It seems obvious in such eras that the kind of intellectual activity that matters is the kind that focuses outward, on the world that human beings experience, and aims at reducing that world to order, number, system.  It’s a very successful approach, up to a point. Because people on the intellectual cutting edge in ages of abstraction direct their attention outward to the world, they tend at first to pay close attention to the fit between human ideas and the world those ideas are intended to explain, and the resulting explanations work—again, up to a point.

Over time, though, the successes of abstraction result in vast systems of thought, perfectly rational and interconnected in every detail. Bit by bit, without ever quite noticing that this is what they’re doing, the practitioners of abstraction end up studying their own systems of thought under the illusion that they’re studying the world. Grand overarching theories that explain everything take center stage, until thinkers at the cutting edge dream of a day not far off when everything that matters is known for certain. Greek philosophy inspired such dreams; so did medieval scholastic theology, and so does modern materialist science.

But the day when everything makes sense never arrives, because the more comprehensive the theories become, the less they have to do with the world human beings actually experience. Outside the narrowing circles of the intellectual elite, it becomes impossible to miss the fact that the supposed universality of the world-theories of abstraction has been obtained by excluding countless things that don’t fit. Some of those excluded things are bits of data that contradict the grand theories, but some are much vaster: whole realms of human experience are dismissed as irrelevant because they don’t fit the theoretical model or the methods of inquiry that a given age of abstraction happens to prefer.

This also has unwelcome practical consequences. In ages when abstraction predominates, politics and economics become subject to the same notions of abstract reason that guide intellectual inquiry, and policies are proposed and enacted on the basis of abstract rules, without any attention being paid to the way those policies actually work out when applied. The result is pretty consistently catastrophic. Sooner or later you end up with a situation in which most people, and especially most people in positions of political, economic, and intellectual authority, are faced with disastrous and widening gulfs between the world as defined by their preferred set of abstract rules, on the one hand, and the world we actually inhabit on the other, and the only way out—well, we’ll get to that in a moment.

You know your society has landed in that particular fix when every controversy of importance is treated as though it’s a contest between competing ideas, not a struggle between contending human beings. Politics—real politics, in every society that has ever existed and will ever exist—is always about who gets what benefits and who has to pay which costs, but you’d never guess that from the language used in politics in an era when abstraction has run as far as it can go. No, what you hear in such eras is a contention of abstract concepts in which the mere grubby realities of who benefits and who pays never get mentioned. Of course they’re still central to the political process; it’s just that they’re shrouded in layers of taboo that rival anything the Victorians wrapped around sex. Sound familiar? It should.

The only way out, as I was saying, is to realize that all those fancy abstractions are ideas in the minds of human beings, not realities out there in the world of our experience. That’s when an age of abstraction gives way to an age of reflection. Where abstraction faces confidently outward into the world, convinced that the human mind can grab truth by the short hairs and drag it into plain view, reflection faces ruefully inward, realizing that the human mind has no business making grand pronouncements about the universe when it hasn’t yet come to grips with itself.

Reflection is rooted in the recognition that ideas are human constructs rather than objective truths about nature, and that the only thing we can be sure of is the blooming, buzzing confusion of everyday life. “What actually happens?” becomes more important than “what is eternally true?” Personal, tacit knowledge rooted in example and experience comes to be valued above abstract universal theories—and just as abstraction earns respect in its early days because of its successes in understanding the world, reflection earns respect in the corresponding situation because of its successes in managing the world. (Reflection also runs into problems in the long run, of course, but we’re a couple of centuries away from that eventuality, so can leave it for now.)

The change from abstraction to reflection thus involves a significant shift in intellectual priorities. As the golden age of Greek culture gave way to the silver age of Roman culture, the core studies of the earlier era—logic, mathematics, physics, and speculative philosophy—gave way to a different set of core studies—literature, history, jurisprudence, and ethical philosophy. Trace the shift from one of these to the other and you’ve got a good measure of the different themes that guide the two approaches. In the same way, as the intellectual culture of the high Middle Ages guttered out in a fog of intricate scholastic reasonings that offered no guidance to a world ravaged by the Black Death and cataclysmic political strife, the first stirrings of the Renaissance took shape among those who embraced what they called humaniores litterae—the “more human studies” of history, literature, the arts, and the first stirrings of what we now call anthropology and sociology. Alexander Pope spoke for that vision when he wrote:

Know then thyself! Presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.

The humaniores litterae of the Renaissance offer a particularly useful model here, and it’s one that bears directly on the theme of the first half of this post, because those “more human studies” took rhetoric as their central theme. Say that in today’s intellectual context, and everyone tends to assume that this means that what they studied was how to convince people of falsehoods, or something not too far from this. Right there you see the gap between the abstraction that dominates contemporary intellectual culture and the reflection that might just offer a constructive way out of abstraction’s blind alleys. People in an age of abstraction reliably tend to think that the truth of a true statement sticks out all over it like knobs, and only falsehoods need to be passed on by means of rhetorical devices.

Not so. In the world we actually live in, as distinct from the world portrayed by the latest fashions in abstraction, truth is a very rare commodity. What we have instead are claims about truth, which are made by individual human beings, and the reasons why those human beings make those claims sprawl across the notional landscape from reason to emotion to the crassest forms of self-interest. Every one of us is influenced by reasons of all these kinds—those who don’t admit that self-interest plays a role in their beliefs about what is true, in particular, are either lying to themselves or just plain lying—and when we encounter a claim about truth, the processes by which we accept it or reject it are complex, nuanced, and personal.

This is where rhetoric comes into the picture. We can define rhetoric for the time being as the art of persuasive communication. Each of the substantive words in that definition is there for a reason. Rhetoric’s an art rather than a science; this means, among other things, that the personal dimension is paramount, and that what matters about it is specific performance rather than universal applicability. It’s an art of communication; this means, among other things, that its personal dimension embraces the subjective needs, wants, and experiences of the audience as well as those of the performer. It’s an art of persuasive communication; this means, among other things, that a successful performance of rhetoric changes the way its audience thinks, feels, and therefore acts about something.

What this means, in turn, is that rhetoric as practiced in the style of an age of reflection becomes a way of knowledge.

If you are going to persuade anyone of anything, after all, you have to understand the reasons why someone might be moved to believe that thing—and this means you have to understand why you believe that thing, so you have to understand just how much of your own belief depends on the varying pulls of reason, emotion, and self-interest. If you are going to persuade anyone of anything, what’s more, you have to understand the reasons why they believe something other than what you want them to believe—and this quite often means that you have to come to terms with the fact that their beliefs may be as well-founded as yours, or (to sharpen the same point a bit further) that your beliefs may be as poorly founded as theirs.

That doesn’t mean, as partisans of abstraction like to insist that it must mean, that you have to treat every belief as though it’s equal to every other belief. What it means is that you have to come to terms with the richly human context in which claims about truth are believed and disbelieved, and recognize the same factors at work in your own beliefs and disbeliefs. It means that you have to grapple with the fact that nobody has privileged access to truth, no matter how frantically the privileged like to claim this for themselves.

One consequence of this more human approach to questions of truth and falsehood is that it opens up a space for compromise and toleration. Of course the partisans of the two contending forces in contemporary cultural life—and have you noticed that it’s always two and only two such forces, both claiming that there are no options other than the ones they offer?—treat compromise and toleration as blasphemies against their hallowed notions of abstract truth. As noted toward the beginning of this post, though, that hasn’t worked particularly well in practice. No matter how devoutly the various warring sides wish that the other side would simply go away, that’s not going to happen; we can go trudging blindly ahead toward the kinds of cataclysm that similar wishes made all too real during the twentieth century, or we can learn from our history, and recognize that those who won’t live together will probably end up dying together.

A rhetorical education offers a way toward that recognition. It involves a great deal more than may be apparent at first glance—nearly everything, in fact, that is embraced by education in general.  In the posts ahead, we’ll talk about what that implies and how it can be pursued here and now, by individuals, families, and small groups, outside the context of abstraction-ridden educational institutions. Fasten your seatbelts and grab the oh my god bar; it’s going to be a wild ride.


In other news, Shaun Kilgore of Founders House Publishing now has autographed copies of my novel Retrotopia for sale; the working plan is to have me autograph some of my other Founders House titles as time and circumstances permit. Interested? Read all about it here.


  1. There’s one line in particular in this post that I think needs to be hammered into people’s heads: “if you lie to people often enough, they’re going to stop believing anything you say”. I’ve lost count of the number of times that, in a debate with someone, I’ve stopped listening once it was clear my debate partners were happy to lie if they thought they could get away with it….

  2. “…your own belief depends on the varying pulls of reason, emotion, and self-interest.”

    By reason, emotion, and self-interest, are you referring to the appeals to logos, pathos, and ethos? A long time ago at university, studying graphic design, one of our professors taught us about rhetoric and tied it to the creation of visual imagery. Our class got a couple of semesters of practical rhetorical training in which we tried to create combine text and image together (according to the different rhetorical appeals and using the various tropes and schemes) to make visual material which was meant to persuade an audience. Since leaving the graphic design industry a number of years ago, I’m a little rusty at it now. I’m very much looking forward to this series of posts!

  3. As a case in point: my failure to successfully persuade a sufficient number of my fellow council-members to allow front yard vegetable gardens under certain conditions. I realize that I had attempted to “read” the situation and fashion a reasonable compromise, and then to address the various objections in a (semi-)methodical way, but that I had not come to grips with the specific issues that each of the “no” voters had in mind. (These issues, I do know, vary significantly from member to member — some are just “no”, some are “but my neighbor might grow corn”, some are “but there was no positive recommendation from the Plan Commission”, some are unknown.) I don’t have to convince every one of them; I need to convince two more than are already supportive of the issue. There is a difference between logic and persuasion — and I still need to fully digest that lesson.

    One that note, I’d like to say a quick “thank you” to JMG, Nastarana, gkb, Will J, and Cary, who offered encouragement — and a friendly whack on the head — in the wake of my despondency the other day. It is a long-term job, making these changes, and I lost a bit of perspective in the immediacy of the struggle. The work continues!

  4. Will, exactly. One of the things I found most entertaining about the yells of outrage that followed Trump’s election was the way that talking heads in the media spluttered with outrage about how people weren’t just believing what they were told by talking heads in the media. Nowhere was there any reflection on the yawning gap between what the talking heads said and what people outside the privileged coastal bubbles in America witnessed every day in their lives and their communities.

    Jbucks, no, I’m drawing a different distinction, to stress the huge role of self-interest in the creation of belief, and more generally to focus on the experience of the individual. Classical rhetorical theory (the source of the distinction among logos, ethos, and pathos) has a lot to offer, but it’s not the angle I want to address here. Think of your own experience when you encounter a belief that’s new to you. You respond to whether it makes sense, on its own terms and in the context of your wider understanding of the world; that’s reason. You also respond to how it makes you feel, on its own terms and in the context of your own emotional life; that’s emotion. Finally, you respond to what accepting that belief will cost you and what you’ll gain from it; that’s self-interest. All three are always present in every act of belief or disbelief, and thus present in every rhetorical interaction.

    David, excellent! And of course that’s exactly it — figure out what the other members of the council need and want to see in the proposal, not in general but in terms of specific details for each one of them, and you’ve got a measure that can pass. Does that mean you may need to compromise? Sure — but if it allows at least some people to grow at least some vegetables in at least some front yards, you’ve moved the situation in the desired direction and can work from there.

  5. Well this is exciting. My first attempt at a profession involved studying literary criticism. You’d think that would be a reflective sort of discipline but I noticed very quickly that practitioners spent most of their time concocting theories and then shoving as many works of fiction as they could through them to prove a point that had no practical consequence. It was sort of like making sausages. You had a machine with a casing, and then you proved the merits of both machine and casing by filing it full of ground up novels. After a while it all became very samey but not especially illuminating. In fact, non-systematized, undisciplined discussions about the characters in novels, the lives they lived and their ultimate destinies turned out to be a lot more interesting than the processed variety.

    Ultimately, I became a lawyer, which you would expect to favor abstraction. Certainly there is a lot of rule-making. But the application of law is always constrained by facts, and because you are forced to contend with fact patterns and the effect of the rules on actual human experience, it is a surprisingly reflective occupation.

  6. Its an interesting perspective living in Ireland. For example if a bridge build in the 1700’s is only wide enough for a single car, the Irish will just add a stop light (or not ) so that people take turns, whereas in the US, they would tear down the bridge to make it wide enough for 4 cars at least. Philosophically this is reflected in peoples attitude toward politicians.. they are all pretty much assumed to be untrustworthy but the election systems allows you to vote any combination of local people so you get a interesting mix when discussing any topic of interest (currently the 8th amendment prohibiting abortion). Not so much yelling though I still don’t see the discussion on what works which would be refreshing…

  7. Now, this is an example Brother John of why I have been such a avid reader of your blog and own so many of your books. You find interesting things of real import and give me an education on them. Kudos.

    One of the things you mentioned gets far too little attention (at least I think so) and that is trust. Trust is like the invisible cement that holds a culture or society or nation together. I see some more thoughtful people say that we are losing it but they never mention that it is entirely reasonable for a sizable portion of the populace to have lost trust in our institutions.

    I would maybe submit that even the art of persuasive rhetoric is a tad premature for some of our institutions. (I’m looking at you Washington DC and you elite media) They will need to regain the trust of those they betrayed before any amount of sound rhetoric would be effective.


  8. Auntlili, jurisprudence is always a major field of study in periods of reflection — Roman legal scholarship was a major intellectual field, and the legal scholarship of the Renaissance and the early modern period laid the foundations for the systems of government we have today — so I’m not surprised at all.

    Jbucks, you’re most welcome.

    Monk, nope. We’re going to be focusing on rhetoric as it functions here and now, in your life and mine — and especially in our own thinking and communication. (By all means read Cicero if you like, but his speeches won’t have that much to offer our inquiry.)

    Jaznights, keep an eye on the rhetoric that surrounds the 8th amendment, then, and see how much sense you can make of it by using the points we’ll be discussing here.

  9. JMG,

    There’s another big example of getting caught lying: a union at my university has gone on strike, and the university has been lying to people about what its about. The union, meanwhile, is being more honest, and has been far more willing to discuss the matter with people. Needless to say, a lot of people are quite sympathetic to the union who otherwise would oppose them.


    Good to hear you plan to continue and I’m glad we could help!

  10. This post reminded me of a personal experience during the past presidential election. An acquaintance of mine on Facebook wanted to hear who others were voting for. A female acquaintance of both of ours mentioned she was voting for Hilary because she couldn’t imagine her two daughters growing up in a sexist environment which Trump was sure to create. I responded that I also have a daughter but my fears of the environment becoming more sexist under Trump were much less than my fears of nuclear war with Russia if Hilary had won. The poster reacted with a response to the extent of “how dare you try to persuade a DECIDED VOTER.” I was flabbergasted, especially since the original poster had wanted conversation and had in the past regaled me with the virtues of a democracy.

    It served as a reminder to me that the privileged don’t just have to be those who gain millions from the system but also those who gain other benefits from the system. That sort of reaction, especially of HRC supporters is probably part of the reason that study was done to see how Trump supporters are “born that way.” This is quite a scary reaction since it is a step in the direction of genetic superiority. Certainly leftist scientists are working on ways to prove this point now!

  11. Well said! The economics profession is an interesting (and extreme) microcosm of the tussle between abstraction and reflection, with a generally strong bias toward abstraction. Indeed, the level of abstraction in the profession during the postwar period has been so extreme that understanding of the importance of externalities was almost completely lost–with catastrophic results for our environment and society. Latterly, behaviorists (who came from outside the profession) have cast a useful and critical light on the basic axioms underlying economic theory. Unfortunately, to quote Keynes, “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, [remain] the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back”

    …indeed, of quite a few years back. To cite one recent and remarkable example, supply side economics has reared its head again after 30 years…

  12. Ethos – ethical appeal, credibility, etc.
    Pathos – Emotional appeal
    Logos – Logical appeal

    Part of ethos is asking who doing the speaking? Trying to discredit Donald Trump’s ethos is what the Democrats seemed hell bent on during the election; in that… he is a reality TV star and has no background in politics, what could he possibly know? But incompetence isn’t an ethical value – So there is also an emotional appeal in this as well, pathos.

    I agree with Derrick Jensen’s assertion that it takes ten years to change your mind. If it takes ten years to change their mind, it imagine it’ll take a major life event to change what they believe. Eight years of President Obama is sufficient time for people to do so and I think part of the reason Trump won. With rhetorical argument I don’t think it’s as important to change someone’s mind as it is getting a bunch of people to act together in a rational way. I believe this as good a reason as any for keeping church and state separate. Changing someone’s beliefs has been tried again and again throughout history and usually ends in a pile of corpses. If people can’t compromise then head bashing is inevitable.

    I’ve mulled over bringing up the abortion debate as a rhetoric example for about fifteen minutes and decided I’m really afraid to touch that debate with a hundred foot pole. I’m for the right to chose, but trying to argue that gets really lengthy and the arguments that’ll fly both ways become predictable. No matter what someone says I’m not changing my position. No matter what I say to someone – They may not change their position. Now I feel arrogant for saying this, but I think team choice has the high ground because there are so many special circumstances that one size fits all is not applicable. Trying to vanquish/curtail the choice side is to absolute. In my mind arguments that proceed further than that point are just petty. idk

  13. “It means that you have to grapple with the fact that nobody has privileged access to truth, no matter how frantically the privileged like to claim this for themselves.”

    Nietzsche has a great quote about this that is expressed in his unique style:
    “Truth is not something that one man has and another man has not: at best, only peasants, or peasant apostles like Luther, can think of truth in any such way.  One may rest assured that the greater the degree of a man’s intellectual conscience the greater will be his modesty, his discretion , on this point.  To know in five cases, and to refuse, with delicacy, to know anything further .  “Truth,” as the word is understood by every prophet, every sectarian, every free thinker, every Socialist and every churchman, is simply a complete proof that not even a beginning has been made in the intellectual discipline and self control that are necessary to the unearthing of even the smallest truth.”

    The pervasive idea that there is an “objective truth” we can access is such an assumption in modern thinking that it really changes your view of the world when the illusion is dispelled. Of course people also tend to then go to the opposite extreme with postmodern relativism, which doesn’t really solve anything either…

  14. I think the most interesting and memorable assignment I was given as an undergrad English Major was in Professor Murphy’s class on Milton at Cal State, Hayward as it was then called. He gave us a handout consisting of about a hundred or so devices of medieval rhetoric, 95 percent of which were pretty esoteric, with outlandish names. Then he told us to select any 100 line segment from Paradise Lost and spot as many uses of those devices as we could find. It was a speech-writer’s paradise, but it also made one a better speech listener!

  15. This is useful and important reflection ; ). As I read the blog and comments I keep coming back to the fact that BELIEF is an issue in itself, probably worthy of a whole series of blogs, especially due to the fact that they ARE based on reason, emotion, and self interest. The beliefs of a Nazi German or a 19th century KKK member had considerable consequences. Does thi s have any bearing on a discussion of Rhetorical Education (which I do BELIEVE is important)?

    As always, thanks for all you do.


  16. William, good. That’s why it’s essential for a rhetorical education to begin with reflection on what one believes and why one believes it; you have to be honest with yourself before you can be honest with anybody else, and honesty is the only basis on which trust can slowly be rebuilt.

    Will, bingo. I bet there are issues of self-interest deeply involved in this.

    Prizm, yep. What you contemplate, you imitate; the left is so deeply fixated on Nazism these days that it’s unsurprising that some of them are beginning to sound as though they think that liberals are the genetically superior Herrenvolk and that there has to be a final solution to deal with the untermenschen who voted for Trump…

    Karen, economics — especially macroeconomic theory — would make a perfect poster child for the problems with abstraction run amok. Among the most striking symptoms of this is the way that nobody wants to talk about who gets the benefits and who pays the costs if a given economic policy gets enacted…

    Austin, I’m not using that set of distinctions, so why are you dragging it in here? The distinction I use, as already noted, divides motives into the categories of reason, emotion, and self-interest, and — as I’ve already noted — that last category is crucial just now. As for Derrick Jensen’s claim, maybe it’s true for him, or for you, but it’s certainly not true for me, and I’ve watched many other people change their minds about important issues over the course of a single conversation.

    Djerek, excellent! Yes, exactly — and recognizing that postmodernist relativism is just as vacuous as belief in one objective truth is a crucial step. Off beyond both those mistakes lies a much more interesting territory…

  17. Could you give a brief explanation of how reflection gets into its own kind of trouble, the way you hinted at?

  18. @ JMG

    Encouraging the art of rhetoric is surely a good thing, but I fear you will never reason anyone out of something (over to your viewpoint) that they were never reasoned into in the first place. (Nor, as the Hopi saying goes, can you wake someone up who is only pretending to sleep.) Political involvement seem to have devolved into finding the team that at least claims to support your existing hatreds, fears, scapegoats, etc., and simple cheerleading from that point on. Very little to do with reason at all.

    For rhetorical persuasion to be effective, you’d probably have to abolish the internet, for a start.

  19. “the two contending forces…”

    I see what you did there.

    On the topic…

    I’m having the uncomfortable realization that I’ve rarely ever convinced anybody of anything. I’m rather good at preaching to the converted. The viciousness of the last few years has also forced me to become rather good at verbally defending myself– times were I didn’t know what to say when someone called me a Nazi.

    At the same time the extent and the power of Trump Derangement Syndrome is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, dwarfing the previous two rounds of Presidential Derangement by an order of magnitude. I stopped early on trying to convince anyone to agree with me about him, and have focused on trying to convince people that I voted for him for reasons other than having woken up one morning and decided to become a bigot. Still haven’t made any headway, with anyone.

    @ AuntLili–

    “I noticed very quickly that practitioners spent most of their time concocting theories and then shoving as many works of fiction as they could through them to prove a point that had no practical consequence.”

    From a former English major, the work of Northrop Frye comes to mind…

  20. Superb post John.

    In Britain we saw a similar theme in the Brexit debate with the Remain side in particular struggling to comprehend that folks who voted Leave might have their own economic self-interest and values guiding that decision.

    On the subject of globalization, I see widespread clutching of pearls by media and economists over the imposition of trade tariffs. It seems to me that this horror of trade tariffs is a kind of theology by our globalized economic elites which ignores the class/economic interests of those who promote this ideology.

    It will be fascinating to watch how this plays out over the next decade or so. The current Brexit debate in the UK is based on the assumption that trade tariffs would be a disaster for the UK economy. I am not sure and wonder if a transition to a more self-sufficient economy might be a good medium-long term thing for the UK.

  21. Do you plan to arm us with rhetorical weapon that can combat the perceived self-interest that encourage the short sighted to engage or join in divisive identity politics? Assuming one is among those willing to ignore the ethical value of individual rights, and the rational/historical consequences of authoritarian rule why would one give up an inch of ground to rival identity groups? In 2018 it’s as if we’re engaged in a game of political Texas Holdem where the outcome of every issue is perceived to be winner take all, losers go home bankrupt; all players at the table failing to recognize that zero sum games are not the only games in town despite in fact non-zero sum games are the only reason they even have a table to sit at, and cards to play with.

    I like the notes you hit in this piece JMG, the ideologies driving public debate are so far abstracted from the material realities of the world that the people don’t even register that their on bored navigation system is sending them right over a cliff in 200 yards, too bad their faith in the “navigation system” is greater than their faith in their own eyes and gut screaming out “hit the brakes!”

  22. I think the widespread lack of a rhetorical education is intentional, yet another tool of control over the masses. Dissent as ineffective, because the tools to express it have been as widely removed as possible.

  23. Hello JMG

    Could you briefly outline what the problems are that Reflection runs into in the long run?


  24. You talk about a shift from logic, maths, … to literature and history. Two separate questions, if I may:

    1. How do you see the role of art during this shift?

    2. In terms of education, will that mean a renewed interest in humanities and social sciences a a counterpoint the current STEM fad?

  25. Kind Sir

    Thank you for another excellent essay.

    “and have you noticed that it’s always two and only two such forces, both claiming that there are no options other than the ones they offer?”

    This seems to be connected to the two party system of the anglo american countries .
    I have lived in countries with lots of political parties, and debates seem to be more open. Or more chaotic, depending on your taste.
    I wonder what comes first. The two party system or the “two options only” worldview.
    Chicken and egg?

  26. You ask if over the top rhetoric works, and mean does it convince somebody who isn’t sure or disagrees. You’re right that it doesn’t. But nonetheless it does work in that you were looking at the wrong goal. We are now in times of base elections. The goal of this form of communication is to convince those who already agree with you to do something: vote, go to a rally, or of course, give money. It doesn’t always work of course, but it does frequently enough accomplish the goal.

    One other thing, the idea that people can’t be convinced has been tested using much less heated subjects than whether to support a political candidate. Global warming deniers have been showed evidence and they leave even more convinced of their denial. I think it has been tested also on issues even less contentious than that.

    So I would claim that it isn’t just the yellers that are the issue here. A large percentage of the population only responds to base motivations, not rational discussion, at least on any issue that they are at all polemical about. It has become a feature of our culture for a significant percentage of the population. The rot that leads to decline does not only live at the top.

  27. The relevance may not be immediately obvious, but bear with me.

    Near the end of Kurt Vonnegut’s “The Sirens of Titan”, society adopts what I’ll term Visual Socialism (Vonnegut doesn’t give it a name), whereby good-looking and attractive people have to make efforts to uglify themselves so as not to have an unfair advantage over the rest of us.

    Chiming with that, I distinctly remember a newspaper report some years back, stating that some feller (or it may have been more than one) had been deported from Saudi Arabia because he was too handsome. The authorities had feared he might create emotional havoc among Saudi women. (I don’t blame you if you don’t believe this; I struggle to believe it myself. But I didn’t dream the report. There was no suggestion that the chap had done anything wrong.)

    Anyhow… what I’m leading up to, is the thought, that we probably haven’t come to the end of the history of ethics, and that means, the process whereby what seems insane to one half-century becomes de rigueur in the next. If it isn’t Visual Socialism, it’ll be inter-species marriage, or votes for computers, or whatever. Something that seems as crackers to us as what we’ve got now seems to an old fossil like me.

    Now for the relevance to rhetoric:

    Any shift in ethics must involve a shift in assumptions. But – here’s the crazy thing – so far as I can tell, changes just happen because people jump from one platform of assumptions to another. Each platform can be justified by the assumptions that support it, but that does nothing to justify the transition.

    Your stress on the importance of rhetoric is direly needed because it’s the only way to attempt the construction of an over-arching argument that might bridge the void between one set of assumptions and another.

    It may not always be possible – the two sides being far too evenly balanced. Arguing about how to interpret the US Constitution, for instance, will always see-saw between literal and contextual schools of thought.

    Sometimes the new over-arching concept is traceable, however. Racist ideas which sprang from observations of differences in technological know-how between black Africans and white Europeans were rendered obsolete by the rise of environmental science which showed that there were non-genetic reasons why Africans hadn’t evolved European-style guns, factories, etc.

    But if an over-arching argument is not found, then it should be agreed that the matter has not been resolved.

    Sorry if all this sounds too obvious, but I almost never hear underlying assumptions discussed, which is strange, given all the current clashes of ideas.

  28. “That doesn’t mean…that you have to treat every belief as though it’s equal to every other belief. What it means is that you have to…grapple with the fact that nobody has privileged access to truth, no matter how frantically the privileged like to claim this for themselves.”

    I like this whole post, but I especially like this paragraph and the one right before it. I’ve definitely seen people claiming that almost every belief is equally valid and then sputtering a bit when I bring up something like female genital mutilation or child marriage or divine right, but I’ve also seen people (usually relatively privileged) going at it from the opposite side and insisting that we’ve finally gotten it right this time and that we can’t really address deep systemic problems in our society or even conceive because none really exist.

    This post describes the issues I often have with both approaches in a really articulate way. Thanks for writing, JMG!

  29. JMG
    “… two such forces, both claiming that there are no options other than the ones they offer?—treat compromise and toleration as blasphemies against their hallowed notions of abstract truth. “

    That seems very true of politics in the USA, but perhaps is less relevant elsewhere, in particular in China? I’m not sure how to describe Britain just now. ‘All over the place’, might just cover it.

    Back to the West more generally. The concept of ‘utility’ – an attempt at rationally quantifying outcome in its social context – seems to have failed despite its appeal of technocratic usefulness in governance and social and civic infrastructure management. ‘Politics’ might then be supposed to be a kind of subordinate corollary. We have seen rather vividly a masquerade of technocratic competence in the financial sector apparently trumping politics. (Even when the 19th C concept has worked, public health, suffrage etc. “the use of a conceptual fiction in a good cause does not make it any less of a fiction”; in A MacIntyre’s After Virtues).

    I would say that another big failure is advertising, and with it the failure of ‘consumer choice’ and finally of public discourse. The glaring gap with real experience seems to me a recipe for terminal confusion. So I can’t even believe my lying eyes?

    Phil H

  30. You mean the distinction between ethos, pathos and logos? I wasn’t aware I was making distinctions. I thought I was just defining three classic greek words related to rhetoric. As for that last paragraph…. idk As for Djerek’s comment yes I agree that there isn’t always one objective truth which is why I prefer positions that allow people choice.

    Going back to Derrick Jensen, he once postulated that you have to start with first principles. Water, food, air, shelter, etc. seem as good a place as any for the basis of a philosophy. It seems rhetoric and the stories we tell about ourselves can’t deviate too far from physical reality. William talked about how we don’t trust out politicians. How can we trust our politicians when the world they describe and the world we experience are so disconnected? People today experience industrial culture and not the natural world. To make matters worse, industrial culture doesn’t value clean water, land, etc. Thus the only solutions politicians can put forth that will speak to the population, earning their trust, would be solutions aimed at fixing industrial civilization. Which I think most of us agree is a non salvageable situation. As long politicians try to fix something that can’t be fixed, I don’t think people will trust them.

  31. Agreed. I earned a PhD in economics (macro) from the deep end of that pool, then want on to neoliberal bastions in DC and Wall Street. I spent years flying at 30,000 feel of abstraction before pulling myself out of that daze. It’s been both invigorating and humbling (to put it mildly) to realize that most of what I thought I knew was plain wrong–or at the very least, extremely limited.

    Economics offers a powerful way of framing questions–a useful intellectual discipline for contemplating the power of incentives. However, abstractions cannot be allowed to disguise basic facts. So many people are now losing faith in its predictions and prescriptions that it’s pretty much taken as given that those who still promote them are acting out of self-interest.

  32. Great post, JMG. In just a few paragraphs you’ve identified a major issue in my life – I’m a humble reflectionist living in an abstract world. I’ve always considered myself somewhat skilled at the art of compromise, but I’m sure the posts ahead will be very useful.

    At the risk of straying off-topic, I believe some of the conflict we observe today is related to agendas (i.e., mainstream media) and the difficulty in separating facts from opinions. It seems the emotional ploys to tug at the heart strings come first, then the clarifications trickle out later as the headlines fade. One striking recent example was the Treyvon Martin shooting in Florida, where pictures of 13 year-old baby “Trey Trey” appeared early on, and CNN covering up the head injury that George Zimmerman suffered with their logo when displaying the picture of his arrival at the police station. It was until much later that pictures of Martin at his proper age (17) surfaced, along with him holding a gun and giving gang signs online, as well as the fact he was in Sanford because he had been suspended from school for possessing a burglary tool, a marijuana baggie, and finally for truancy. All in all, the case against Zimmerman should never have gone to trial, not that the Florida officials suffered any backlash. Just my opinion, and possibly not rhetorically persuasive….:-)

  33. Dear John Michael Greer,

    Thank you for this post, and I look forward to reading more of what you have to say about rhetoric.

    Re: incompetent rhetoric. I cannot help but wonder if, in large part, this stems from so many people, whatever their levels of education (and in many cultures, not just the US), having spent so much of their time watching television. Ostensibly any given TV show is about this or that or thus but, behind almost all is the great corpoporate maw of what I would dub BL:AB, that is, Bottom Line: Advertising Bucks. The TV watcher who has just come into the kitchen to wash the dishes, say, or plopped down on the sofa after work, and so switched on the TV, probably does not want to come into minute 17 of an artfully made argument. Better snippets o’ Oprah! Better blastlettes o’ Sean Hannity! I mean to say, so much “political discussion” on TV has devolved into the sort of thing where, if you have to get up and go to the bathroom, you won’t have missed anything of any substance– and this is by design.

    And in so may ways it’s worse now with social media. I note one of the above comments that mentions an attempted political discussion on Facebook. FB wants attention and clicks, BL:AB. As with TV, it’s a corporate intermediary with incentives that do not correlate with civic health, and that would certainly include the general quality of rhetoric. Keep it short, kiddos! Otherwise it’s “TLDR.” Keep it likable! Else you’ll likely get muted. But anyway, maybe FB, in the wisdom of its BL:AB-oriented algorithms, didn’t show your first, second, or seventh post to the people you thought it did…

    I’m old enough to have learned a good long while ago that in most cases when someone says, however nicely, “What do you think about thus-and-such?” they are not literally inviting me to serve up my authentic answer, nor to subsequently enter into any thoughtful discussion, but rather to engage, and as quickly as possible, in a little thought-jig I might term, “How Right & Good & Smart We Are & How Wrong & Evil & Stupid They Are,” ba-boom, yay, yay, clap, clap.

    But to conclude on a happier note: your blog is a veritable oasis in many ways. Thank you.


  34. “A successful performance of rhetoric changes the way its audience thinks, feels, and therefore acts about something”…sounds an awful lot like “a change of consciousness in accord with will!”

  35. JMG, you totally nailed it when you wrote:
    “…or we can learn from our history, and recognize that those who won’t live together will probably end up dying together.”
    Thank you for this essay – looking forward to the rest of your posts on this subject, and to all the great discussion that’s sure to follow.

    Also – some days ago I received my copy of ‘On the Shadow of Ideas’. Beautiful! Looking forward to reading it when I get some relative peace. Thank you!

  36. One very major lesson I have had occasion to learn over the course of Saturn’s recent sojourn through Sagittarius is that hard reality is more important than not only fantasy, but also than the words, images, and symbols that act as substitutes for reality. The Internet is good at teaching this lesson to those who would learn it, I dare say.

  37. I’ve noticed the “Resistance” is never satisfied with a crique of Trump’s policies -something on which reasonable minds might disagree – there has to be ad hominem attacks as well. Sometimes I see a critique that I think has merit and should have ended short and sweet only to see a “piling on”. They have to call him a Nazi, a Cheeto, make fun of the First Lady, call him an idiot, etc. Of course the Obama haters did exactly the same thing for 8 years and you can go back a ways finding bad behavior with each changing of the guard. Talk about unpersuasive rehtoric.

  38. Sven, nope. 😉

    Sgage, I disagree. The conviction that you can’t reason with people, that rhetoric can’t work, is probably the most significant stumbling block in the way of learning rhetoric, and it’s also not true — as I noted to another commenter, I’ve quite often seen people change their minds about really significant issues over the course of a single conversation, and in a fair number of cases, these were things they hadn’t been argued into believing.

    Fuzzy, up and down. Autoimmune conditions are like that.

    Steve T., heh heh heh. (Which does not equal 15.) No question, Trump Derangement Syndrome is even more extreme than Obama Derangement Syndrome or Bush Derangement Syndrome; I’m still trying to figure out why.

    Forecastingintelligence, got it in one. All the yelling about the horrors of trade barriers conveniently fails to mention who profits from free trade and who pays the price for it. That’s one example of the way that frank talk about self-interest has got to find its way back into our political and cultural conversations.

    RedRed, I plan on doing something subtler than that, although one consequence is that you’ll end up well armored against hostile rhetoric and well equipped with sharp-edged weapons of rhetorical combat. My goal is the same goal that guided the proponents of those humaniores litterae back in the Renaissance: to show people how to find common ground with the people they disagree with, and get conversations started, so that all sides can stand down from the current state of armed conflict and begin exploring the possibility of positive-sun games. It worked then, and it can work now…

    Synthase, I’m sorry to say I think you’re right. All the more reason to hand out rhetorical monkey wrenches for people to chuck into the gears of the system…

    SMJ, nope. 😉

    Tiago, I should have included the arts in general on the side of reflection. As for the STEM fetishism, exactly, but that’s not going to happen in existing educational institutions — they’re stuck in a vision of education that amounts to manufacturing cogs for corporate machines, and will resist to the bitter end any attempt to return to the concept that education is meant to produce mature, thoughtful, well-rounded human beings.

    DropBear, interesting. Since I’ve only ever lived in the US, I wasn’t aware of that — one of the many reasons I don’t claim to offer solutions valid everywhere in the world.

    Dean, notice the binary you’re using here: arguments can be characterized either as rational discussion, or as base motivation. I suggest instead that all arguments, without exception, include reason, emotion, and self-interest, and that there’s as much “base motivation” in arguments from the left as in those from the right — and furthermore, that it’s precisely the fact that the left pretends that its own self-interest is never an issue that has played so large a role in the dismissal of its arguments by so many Americans today. We’ll be discussing that more as this sequence of posts proceeds — but I’d encourage you to reflect on the difference between “the arguments we like to use didn’t work” and “no argument can possibly work.” These sentences are by no means interchangeable…

    Robert, excellent. I suggest that the reason nobody talks about underlying assumptions is that in many cases, they won’t bear discussing. Savage contradictions between publicly held beliefs and the underlying assumptions guiding behavior are an old story, to be sure, but it seems to me that they’re more common and more drastic these days than most people want to admit.

    Spicehammer, you’re welcome and thank you. Exactly; “there is only one truth and I own it” and “there are no truths at all” are both extreme claims, and fall relatively easily. In between the two extremes is the place where we all actually live.

  39. “economics…would make a perfect poster child for the problems with abstraction run amok. Among the most striking symptoms of this is the way that nobody wants to talk about who gets the benefits and who pays the costs if a given economic policy gets enacted…”

    As far back as a junior high school debate I had in 1964, when I was assign to debate why the US has immigration at all, I came to the conclusion even 50+ years ago, that it’s real purpose was to modulate wages.

    This was sugar coated with, “give me your tired, your hungry yearning to be free…..yada,yada…”

    The old industrial oligarchs of the time always wanted cheap labor. If women in the US stopped having large enough numbers of children to ensure an over supply of (cheap) labor, the industrial oligarchs could pad the different with immigrants. Just turn the spigot in any employment class.

    Tell me what sectors where wages were rising too fast and that sector could and was flooded with excess labor under the emotional guise of humanitarianism. Except, back in the day, for the medical profession and lawyers of course. Those sectors were too strategic and intellectual difficult for immigrants to master properly and so were never flooded into that sector of the labor force.

    Emotion and ethical ‘virtue signaling’ to mask over blatant financial self interest of the ruling class of the time.

  40. Phil H., as I’ve said rather more than once, my comments are based on what I know, which amounts to what’s going on here in the US. Things may well be different elsewhere!

    Austin, sure. And in what way were those definitions relevant to the discussion under way here?

    Karen, it’s precisely to bring the tools of abstraction back into touch with the real world that eras of reflection arise. Fixing economics would actually be fairly easy; all you’d have to do is insist, at every turn, on having economists defend their claims against the evidence of the real world — so that, for example, when IMF economists insist that their Washington Consensus austerity packages bring prosperity, everyone responds by saying “That’s not what happens in practice,” QED, end of discussion.

    Drhooves, that’s why it’s so crucial to pay attention to the power of self-interest. The media aren’t objective; they have specific agendas, economic, political, and cultural, deriving partly from the class background of the people in management, partly from the for-profit nature of media as it currently exists, and partly from the rapprochement between media conglomerates and political interests.

    Millicently, yep. That’s precisely why I write essays that are the last word in TL:DR, and then open a space for comments where civility is enforced and long thoughtful discussions are encouraged. A lot of people are sick to death of the monkey-chatter that passes for thought and conversation these days, and — well, there’s that Gandhi quote: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

    RPC, why, yes, it does, doesn’t it? 😉

    Patricia T, you’re welcome and thank you.

    Mister N., true enough. Now that Saturn’s in his rulership in Capricorn, the sign of hard work, it’s time to apply that logic in practice and roll up our sleeves…

    Christopher, true enough. I probably have to talk sometime about the role of status panic in that — and of course there’s also the inevitable backlash against the cult of mandatory niceness that’s dominated the public behavior of the privileged for several decades now. People in the middle classes here in the US are desperate, frantic, climbing the walls, with the desire to hate and hurt somebody, and still feel good about themselves. Trump gives them what they’ve longed for, which is another reason I expect him to win reelection at a walk.

  41. Dave, ding! We have a winner. Exactly — and along the same lines, it’s not accidental that so many middle and upper middle class Americans support unlimited immigration and the offshoring of jobs; that enables them to get their consumer goods and services at lower prices. Of course there are other reasons for their support of those policies, founded on reason and emotion, but self-interest always plays a role.

    Sven, 😉

  42. With regards to Trump derangement syndrome, I view it as a reflection of a very nasty case of cognitive dissonance: the left pretended to hate the political consensus in place since Reagan, but actively opposed attempts to tear it down. Now that’s coming down, and in a surprising number of cases Trump’s policies are those the left claims to support. The cognitive dissonance of hating someone for doing what you claimed you wanted to do is triggering some crazy outbursts.


    The university wanted to remove all protections for the pension and make it such that they could change the pensions as they saw fit, and argued that since they had no plans to do anything the union was overreacting. The union refused, since if the university was truthful then the rules for how to change pensions was irrelevant. All in all, it’s a very strange situation.

  43. @ JMG,

    “The conviction that you can’t reason with people, that rhetoric can’t work, is probably the most significant stumbling block in the way of learning rhetoric, and it’s also not true ”

    I don’t have a conviction that you can’t reason with all ‘people’, but in my experience there are some people you can’t simply can’t reason with, regardless of your rhetorical skill. Surely you have met people like this?

  44. I have a good friend who has toiled for decades in the Media Racket of LA. Every single job he has had in the last several decades, he has hung a small framed quote of Hunter Thompson on the wall of every office he has had. He slightly paraphrased it to fit his particular field.

    “The {TV} business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”

    He came to the conclusion years ago that whenever you see something stupid and illogical and irrational happening, anywhere in this country or in Life in general, it’s because someone is making more money having it stay stupid, illogical and irrational than fixing it to be intelligent, logical and rational. It’s pretty straight forward.

    He claims if you reverse engineer any such situational travesty you happen upon with this insight in mind, the true nature of the event will be revealed as a financial self interest. It almost never has anything to do with emotions or logic or ethical or competency considerations.

  45. I was a shy girl in a family that etc., etc. In the 9th grade I signed up for a speech class, hoping to overcome my terror of speaking (I couldn’t even use a phone), but it became immediately clear that the class was aimed at boisterous confident yacky-mouths, not me. So, engineering school it was, where “rhetoric” meant BS, pure and simple. I’m looking forward to much much more from you. Still painfully shy, but hoping to speak yea even before nations. Do you have any recommendations on books on the subject? (As for the painfully shy thing, I’m just gonna have to accept it.)

  46. Re: Liberals wanting a “Final Solution for the untermenschen who voted for Trump” . Until recently I would have said this was an exaggeration. However, last week, my entirely sane and sober father went on a tirade in which he outright said that a group of Trump supporters my mother had been talking to earlier were “dumb” “goddamn racists” who “deserved to all be shot” (with their own guns, as he later clarified). I was so shocked by this that I literally had no idea how to respond. The biggest danger of incompetent rhetoric that the incompetent rhetoricians will turn to means other than rhetoric to achieve their political goals.

    I’m sure Ratko Mladić would have preferred his victims commit suicide of their own accord, but he and those who follow in his footsteps today are always more than happy to assist them if it comes to that.

  47. JMG, great essay. Now I was thinking about “objective truth”…I used to take that expression very seriously, until one day I realized that while there may be an objective truth, or a particular set of objective truths, or many objective truths, there’s no way for a human being to know with certainty that he has found it. Yes, that limitation includes this statement, and that’s not a contradiction, thank you very much.

    That said, how does one lives when so many act on the belief that there are objective truths within their reach? I’m still struggling with that particular problem. For you see, the kind of moderation and civility in public affairs that reflection (and a conservative disposition) enacts is…well, nothing short of revolutionary these days, and viewed by many as utterly alien.

  48. 🙂 I just thought I’d put the three terms forth as they were central to a Jr. Year writing course I took, when we talked about rhetoric. I admit I still think like a college student.

    @AuntLili – I would like to build on your metaphor of modern literary theory as a sausage maker…. While I was in college, I was officially a double major. English and Environmental Science. However, in practice I knew I could only finish one of them. What I found in the English courses I took was rather than my peers would not read the whole book, they’d only read parts of one, or freely admit they only read the spark note versions. But because they understood the literary theories they could still produce good essays by using snippets of each book. I mean if modern literary theory is like a sausage grinder, it doesn’t matter what you put in, you’re going to get some kind of sausage out the other side. Put half a book in, maybe a few pages…. you’ll get the small sausage but it’s still a sausage… kinda defeats the purpose of actually reading a book cover to cover. Reading a book cover to cover should force some real reflection… “sameyness” as you put it would seem to be like the abstraction JMG talked about in this weeks post.

  49. This post reminds me of a post from your old blog, “Scientific Education as a Cause of Political Stupidity”. Archive link for posterity’s sake:

    The practitioners (on either side) who are engaged in over-the-top rhetoric are not even aware that they are engaging in rhetoric. In fact, they would deny it, rhetoric is an evil tactic used by Nazis. They are merely “fact checking” y’know, their opponents are unmoved because they’re facist deplorable denialist bigots. 😉

  50. Nevanell, thank you.

    Will, hmm. That seems plausible; I’ll want to brood over it for a while. As for the university, yeah, that sounds about right.

    Sgage, that depends entirely on what you mean by “reason with.” If you mean “convince to change their point of view to yours on the spot,” of course — but that’s far from the only point at which reasoning can aim, and often by no means the most useful. I’ve yet to meet anyone who was willing to talk to me at all who couldn’t, by dint of attentive listening, proper signaling, and appropriate questions at appropriate moments, be brought to a place where the two of us could talk reasonably about something, find at least a few points of common ground, and clear up at least a few misunderstandings about our points of disagreement. That’s a huge step, and is followed tolerably often by significant changes of opinion — usually on both sides. We’ll discuss this in more detail when we get to the nature and purpose of dialectics.

    Dave, your friend has spoken the Unspeakable Truth. One of the virtues of talking openly about self-interest is that it allows such things to be negotiated. If person A wants something, and can get it in a variety of ways, and some of these inconvenience person B a lot less than others, person B can very often negotiate with person A so that both sides get more or less what they want — but only if “what I get out of it” can be talked about in so many words, Lacking that, it’s a mess.

    Patricia, I don’t have any book recommendations. I’m working here off a combination of my own experiences and a lot of reading in odd corners of scholarship about Renaissance culture. I hope it proves useful to you!

    Boris, I’ve heard way too many far left activists over here insist that “the problem of whiteness” can only be solved by the abolition of the “white race.” It really does resemble the tirades of a certain iconic tyrant rather too closely…

    Bruno, we’ll be talking about that. The very short form is that “alien” and “revolutionary” are words of praise in this context!

    Austin, fair enough. I apologize for jumping on you; I expect to see a lot of people try to push the discussion back to logos-pathos-ethos, and especially the latter. The reason that’s a bad idea just now is that arguments from ethos — “you ought to listen to me because I’m a X” — have been used to death here in the US in defense of the most sordid kinds of crass self-interest: these days a claim of authority is almost always camouflage for an attempt to pick your pocket. Thus we need to focus, not on the abstract nature of arguments, but on the concrete reasons why people believe things: reason, emotion, and self-interest — you can translate those nous, thymos, and epithymia if you prefer your terms in Greek…

    Carlos, why, yes, you may notice some further similarities as we proceed. 😉

  51. “…rhetoric as practiced in the style of an age of reflection becomes a way of knowledge.”

    What an intriguing statement. With your preceding points about art, communication, and persuasive communication, I thought back to my class in graduate school that led to a book on semiotics – signs, symbols, and meaning – in Beethoven’s music. Certain musical elements became topoi – signifiers – that communicate beyond their rhythm and notes. Horn calls, for instance, evoke the hunt and a particular socioeconomic status. Slow-moving, chordal passages evoke hymns and religious connotations that involve tradition and authority. Fugual sections evoke the excesses and learned culture of the Baroque style. The audiences of the time knew tacitly what the musical content was meant to connote.

    Assembling these musical signs together artfully created layers of knowing…the pure musical information, the symbolic connotative information, and the rhetorical information created by the interplay, opposition, and/or layering of the musical elements. (Baroque and Classical composers created rhetorical musical structures as well, and there are several treatises that address this for those who are interested – Johann Mattheson, for one.)

    Thus, looking inward at the form and content of the music – reflecting on it – is a way of knowing.

  52. No worries 🙂 – It seems like such a small step to go from the ethos to “you ought to listen to me because I’m a X” — and I’ve heard you use that phrase half a dozen times but it literally just clicked in my head that it is a form of ethos. It is a large step, no; it is an awkward step. And establishing credibility is exactly what I was trained to do in my college writing classes. It’s why I majored in Environmental Science…. to speak authoritatively on the matter… that would be a form of ethos building. I think I’m going to have to reflect on this for a while.

    My immediate thought by this humbling is, ethos is the promise of a career today. I am an ethos addict.

  53. @Karen, who said: “So many people are now losing faith in its predictions and prescriptions that it’s pretty much taken as given that those who still promote them are acting out of self-interest.”

    Are you familiar with the work of Nicholas Nassim Taleb? He’s an economist whose new book, “Skin in the Game” has as its target all those who make their various prescriptions as econo-gurus without having any skin in the game — that is, without assuming any risk themselves, so that if things go down, they don’t.

    Now, I don’t know about his own particular economic proficiency (as I’m not economically literate myself), but he seems to have enough of a keen philosophical and ethical sensibility to back up his own provocations. At the least, it would be nice to have such a watchdog (if he’s the “real thing”).

  54. Since you are already braced for folks to try dragging things back to the three greek key words, and especially ethos, I am going to do just that. But be patient because I am going to try to do so in a way that doesn’t fall into the trap you were on about.

    A defence of ethos. Surely when ethos hangs its hat on one of our debt bought title dispensors it is of little merit, and I too see how often the right hand holds a deploma before ones face and the left picks the pocket. But, at least grant a small survival of ethos in personal consistency. For instance, if discussing climate change I would not attempt to make ado of my vast academic acheivements, even if I had any, but several people have given me their ears when they observed that only one person at the climate change rally did not arrive by car. Truly it is a small example, and not a cheap way to win rhetorical points. How many hypocracies in my live would I need to purify to be granted general audiance? I would die in such purity! But, the areas of my life where I can call on personal experience and example, tie to topics of discussion where I have a certain trump card. And where my ethos is tarnished I can feel a diminishing of rhetorical capacity; where I have screwed up most royally my voice must be more subdued. Ethos as taught, of maintaining bonafides is pretty well worn out, but the ethos of maintaining a consistent is mint unused still in the packaging! Not lying to an audiance is also a matter of ethos.

    Fair enough that you don’t want to follow the old trinity. In fact I am much more excited about the prospect of you making your material on rhetoric as origional and different as you can manage! But, I with defend the hill of ethos if it is used skillfully, and not copying the argument from authority that some resort to.

    On another note: Also abstraction goes off the rails from forgetting the particular, until it become generalizations about generalizations, about generalizations….. it zooms too far out to see anything at a living scale. So, simply to consider a crude reversal of that, reflection might be prone to zooming to far in, to the rich depth of the intricate passionate present, the feel, taste, and vibe of being here…. falling into obsession with this or that part of the lived world, falling into a game play of wits and quips, and failing to look up, and to calmly coldly take in perspective.

    Last one: I certainly see folks as being very changable in their ideas. I grant that certain people have certain ideas that are really deeply rooted; but this is generally because that idea is doing something important! Even if it is very strange to the outside observer. I recall being all to cunning in argument and persuasion back in my teens, and as a rabid atheist at the time I argued several theists out of their settled positions. The change never lasted, because in both memerable cases the experience was so violent and unpleasent that they soon went to, a modified, theism. In fact I was deeply changed from the cases I have in mind, and for years have dulled the edge on my wit, not wanting to cut so deep. Considering the matter from a different angle, my reasons for being so argumentative were suspect and related to my own emotional needs; which is likely why when this transformed someone else the whole situation was generally unpleasent.

    To change a persons ideas you have to meet them, touch them, its a fleshy thing. Those studies that tried to move people’s opinions like objects. If you try to treat people like objects to be moved they tend to behave like this kind of object.
    Which is why modern debates often look like this:

  55. I feel like there’s something to be said about a midpoint here. We need to understand both the similarities that connect us as human beings (or a group), but also the many different viewpoints, goals, and experiences that we all have. Literature does this well by drawing on themes and concepts that abstraction dug up and then makes it reflective by adding a unique and personal story overtop of the abstraction, therefore saying something personal about an abstract “truth”. So ultimately, a good novel says something subjective about truth and life and what it means to be alive/human, while making it relatable to a particular audience (note: this doesn’t have to be everyone).

    Good rhetoric on the same hand would recognize the different viewpoints, goals, and experiences of an opposing side (or audience), but know enough about what makes humans (or at least the humans in the audience) similar in order to persuade an individual or group.

    I like your points about belief, because if there is no objective truth that’s true for everyone, then yeah, it’s really about what you believe to be true based on experience. Like you said, “This is what’s happening.”

    One of the troubles we get into is when “this is what’s happening” turns into “this is what always happens” when that isn’t the case at all.

    Or when “this is what’s happening to me” is translated into “this is what’s happening for everyone”, which is also not the case.

    One of the downfalls of being human is you can only concentrate on and experience so much from one perspective. You shine your flashlight on one little corner of existence and claim what you think you know, and believe, and feel.

    The great thing about communication (in literature, in debate, in art as a whole) is the ability to reach beyond your own experiences and hear from others. Each book a flashlight. Each conversation shining more light onto what it means to be human/alive for different people, what drives them, what their goals are, what they enjoy, what they want, what they need, what they’ve experienced, and how they perceive things and events and other beings.

    And oftentimes, the first barrier to get over is yourself and your own narrow understanding of the world. To allow yourself to be open to hearing from others, especially those who challenge everything you’ve seen and experienced by your own flashlight.

    And there’s a balancing act between being open, but not letting yourself be pulled. To have discernment in seeing how, with knowledge of both lights, you both can benefit, compromise, and work together.

    While keeping in mind as well that sometimes the audience is the earth, or non-humans, too. Our actions, which our rhetoric inspires, doesn’t just impact humans (or even our immediate audience we are persuading sometimes), but ripples outward. Depends on the issue at hand, I suppose, but…something to keep in mind. The impact of good rhetoric (for better or worse – did you persuade your audience on something that benefits you both, but at a great cost to another group?).

    – RMK

  56. Hi JMG,

    The age of Abstraction leads me to Upton Sinclair and his prescient comment:

    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

    And from that observation we see many unwilling to learn or reflect on anything new, preferring instead to have their biases, opinions and abstractions validated.

    Gut instinct suggests it will take decades to centuries to unwind present behavior. By that time, we will be far into the great unraveling, when surviving climate change and struggling to survive will put all abstractions to the test.

    Look forward to the elaboration in upcoming weeks.

  57. I remember no political or religious discussions with or between my parents. Some generations are passive this way, otbers absolutelycrazy. Maybe it will cycle back with current crop of kids being reasonable. I think kids will see the suffering a d just sigh at such futility and always be ready for a sensible compromise witn most anybody. My brothers and me have lots of strong, contradictory opinions. This is very civil war level, no acceptance, no compromise. A house divided from lincoln a d franklin’s quote of hanging together or separately come to mind. Ijust thinm these things have to work themselves out. Experience is everything. Words mean less tnan feelings bejng worked through. Opicz like race, abortion, gun control, job exports, healthcare probably have to hit extreme rock bottom before people hit a compromise. Certain incidents occur like florida shooting and thn banks boycott NRA or firebombings of abortion clinics get peple disgusted or racially people just get used to one another. All takes time. There arealways new issues. Big compromises take generations then hold till peole tke it for granted and start tearing t apart, not realizing how hard that was to manage in the first place in terms of blood, sweat and tears. Rhetoric is good tool though, a start.

  58. This post and the one Carlos linked to are making me think about an epic 4-hour Facebook argument I had yesterday about Jordan Peterson. It was basically this, repeated over and over until we both got tired:

    My friend: “All Peterson says is that serotonin is proven to make you happy and standing up straight is proven to increase serotonin. His book is full of citations. SJWs are irrationally mad because they don’t know how to science.”

    Me: “You don’t understand the is-ought distinction. When people connect facts to opinions they have reasons for doing so which demonstrate their values. It’s always legitimate to critique someone’s values.”

    After the debate finished I kept wondering to myself why I had failed to teach my friend about Hume’s is-ought distinction. It eventually occurred to me that my argument was less persuasive because I was sticking so closely to logical flow. In effect, even though I thought I was offering him “the objective truth” provided by Hume’s analytic philosophy, in fact I was still talking at cross purposes with him and missing opportunities for genuine compromise.

    Which brings me to a point that may have general validity for readers of this thread (hopefully?). The most recent understanding of how scientific proofs work comes from the Duhem–Quine thesis. Any hypothesis will always have other hypotheses behind it. We can imagine this as something that extends beyond the is-ought distinction. So when someone says, “serotonin is proven to make you happy, so stand up straight,” there are more assumptions lying behind that connection. In fact these are the statements written in the rest of Chapter 1 of Peterson’s book. So, to expand:

    “Serotonin is proven to make you happy, like in lobsters. When lobsters are happy, they become socially dominant and all the ladies like them. And that’s what we’re all after in life. So stand up straight.”

    What Quine says is that when a scientist makes an argument, she is not just talking about the data she acquired and the conclusion, but she is implicitly including countless in between steps as well, both consciously and unconsciously, and those in between steps matter just as much as the actual conclusion. So “happy lobsters get the ladies” is not just a funny anecdote, it’s actually part of the logic that people who accept the full argument will now apply to other aspects of life.

    These hidden in-between steps are what often get people who disagree with you to become angry at something you don’t think you actually said. Without a conciliatory attitude, we are unable to see the logical steps that we are taking which someone else might object to. Which is why I have to agree with the statement, “feelings matter more than facts.”

    By the way, in response to drhooves’ comment I’d like to recommend this video which attempts to do exactly what I’m talking about here by giving as many in-between steps as possible regarding the Trayvon Martin case. If you like British accents you will probably like this video.

  59. Good morning John,

    Do reflection’s problems come from it ultimately becoming disconnected from lived experience by focusing on an ever smaller subset of it, as opposed to abstraction being done in by trying to grasp it all?

    Also, your definition of rhetoric sounds surprisingly similar to your definition of magic. Taken literally, it IS magic restricted to conversation as its only tool! Which makes me think: would not a society declaring itself as rational avoid rhetoric because of how similar to magic it is? Would it not in fact fear rhetoric for this reason?


  60. Since your reply to me yesterday about how I mistakenly attributed logos, pathos and ethos to a statement in your original post, I have sat back for a while and cast my mind over a few recent debates I have had with people I know and sure enough, the three ‘flavours’ you described in your reply to me are all there.

    The distinction between the factors (reason, emotion and self-interest) makes it much easier and clearer to see the three pulls, as you put it, in many of these arguments and also in my own beliefs. Sometimes they compete, sometimes they are complementary.

    Also, the notion of self-interest illuminates many situations I have been in the past in debates. With one relative, for example, I notice that we keep having very similar debates, he keeps going over the same topic again and again with familiar rhetoric and making the same points. With him, it’s almost like his self-interest in the argument is simply to let off steam, not really even to win, it’s simply because of either fear or anger deep down which needs to be expressed in some way, rather than an actual debate where we both learn from it. Upon reflection, I am not as emotionally invested in this particular debate as he is, nor in terms of self-interest does the outcome matter to me all that much, so I think I am probably trying to argue mainly on terms of reasoning. At least I hope so. Next time I talk with him, I will try to take a different slant, and frame my arguments in terms of the emotion and self-interest on his part which I sense is at play, and see if that works any better.

    It made me realize that simple venting is a commonly found motivation for engaging in arguments.

  61. Great post John. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard a politician say, “We need to get our message across better”. No, the message has been heard loud and clear, and the voters simply don’t like/believe your message anymore! I don’t know if there is any space in this topic for ‘groupthink’, where the political parties become enclaves for an ever smaller group of people thinking exactly the same thing, simply re-enforcing their own beliefs between each other that what they think is right, IS right, whilst simultaneously becoming ever more distant from the world in which the majority live and experience.

  62. This post was very timely for me, JMG. Yesterday morning, there may have been someone in my office (and she may have looked an awful lot like me) who stood up in a small team meeting, shook her fist at the sky, and said “As God is my witness, this madness must come to an end! Stop whipping out your phones and checking people’s use of a specific word before they even finish answering the question you asked! Stop nitpicking what anyone has to say before they can finish answering and sidetracking them from the topic in question to win some kind of imaginary points! This incivility must end!” And the rest of the team may have stared at me — I mean her — with wide eyes and open mouths.

    This was prompted by the fact that we were one hour into our workday and half the department of 20 had insulted the other half by asking questions and then treating the answers like the utterances of mere fools, and then acting shocked and hurt when the people answering the questions reacted badly to their ploys. It used to be just one or two coworkers who did this and I can’t understand how it has spread, especially since nobody enjoys being on the receiving end of it. By 4 p.m. I felt like the spot marked with an X where the accident happened.

    To say that I am overjoyed by this new series of posts would be a tremendous understatement. If I am going to keep my sanity in the current environment, I’m going to need help — and I am grateful beyond measure that you are offering it.

  63. @ patriciaormsby

    One book on rhetoric that I can warmly recommend is Dierdre McCloskey’s IF YOU’RE SO SMART, THE NARRATIVE OF ECONOMIC EXPERTISE

    It’s brief, brilliant, and very amusing.

    Also, for learning how to string together an argument in a speech before a group, whether large or small, Toastmasters is an excellent resource. There are chapters throughout the US and many other countries.

    Good wishes,


  64. @ sgage Re: your comment

    Yes indeed, there are some people who cannot be reasoned with, at least on certain subjects and behaviors: to take but one example, people suffering from frontotemporal dementia (FTD) will often refuse to bathe, no matter what you say, no matter what the consequences. (And, alas, it turns out that we may have a blooming epidemic of this form of dementia due to so many people having battered their brains for so many years with drugs, whether illegal or as prescribed by their doctors.)


  65. John

    In terms of rhetorical framing of an argument, I’m not sure that Sessions could have done a better job of ginning up the opposition and, ironically, boosting the credibility of the Calexit proponents. Of course, to whom is he really speaking?

    Admittedly, I’m viewing this from afar in the Midwest, so perhaps I am mistaken as to its impact. Is there anyone in the community on the ground in CA that could comment?

    Out of curiosity, what was your opinion, John, of the various Framers as rhetoricians?

  66. An interesting corollary to this discussion might be the parallels of abstraction vs. reflection to objective vs. subjective reasoning, and inductive vs. deductive reasoning.

    Most people have no idea how these shaped Greek, Roman, medieval, renaissance ages.


  67. “People in the middle classes here in the US are desperate, frantic, climbing the walls, with the desire to hate and hurt somebody, and still feel good about themselves. “

    Trump, Obama, Bush, Clinton Derangement Syndromes, they all have common cause and have built upon each other these past decades as we approach Peak Everything.

    I still believe, in the physical sense, that the Axis Mundi of Peak Everything is the Master Secret Sauce: Fossil Fuel, but the real underlying culprit is Peak Complexity. Little study has been done to highlight the symbiosis between Progress (a cult) and the self limiting core nature of complexity itself.

    The US middle class, what’s left of it, is having a psychotic break because it is properly intuiting, at least on a subliminal level, that The Party is Over.

    The US middle class can sense it crawling under their collective skin, they can smell it in the wind, and they can feel it in their bones.

    Peak Complexity is the kibosh, the death cap, of Progress.

    That is what underlies the disproportional over reaction to Trump’s election. W Bush the Lesser started a war of aggression under false pretenses, something we tried and executed the real Nazis for, which resulted in the death of a million or so Iraq civilians, a clear war crime in my book, and yet the Left did not call for Bush’s head on a stick with the vehemence they now howl at Trump for, even to this day.

    One of the first side effects of self delusional defense against the inevitable decline of Progress is Virtue Signaling.

    Make that Triggered Snowflakes Virtue Signaling (TSVS)

    Progress is melting on the alter of Diminishing Returns, like the present Wicked Witch Hunt of the West.

    There’s gotta be an App to Stop it!

    There just has to be, don’t you see!

    If you don’t see, you must be a Nazi or something!

    Peak Everything is the fulcrum of our present epic age teeter totter between Abstraction and Reflection.

    We are at a Phase Change in history.

    The low friction Ice skating of easy expansionary Progress is melting into the Liquid of desperate high friction dog paddling in the sea of rapidly contracting Diminishing Returns.

    The lack of compromise in public debate is the manifestation of that Panic.

    It’s like an aged and elderly Dorothy living alone in the Flyover States, decades later, reflecting that it’s damn hard living in Kansas after you’ve been to Oz.

  68. Doesn’t this abstraction/reflection paradigm run parallel to the distinction between deductive and inductive reasoning? I was taught what those terms meant in college (or likely HS) and realized immediately that my intellectual or psychological makeup would steer me toward the former. Hence the appeal to me of one of the most abstract epistemological disciplines. But I also recall learning that both approaches were essential and best operated in tandem if one wanted to understand the world clearly. I would go so far as to say I was taught the dangers of relying solely on one or the other.

    It didn’t take even a year at the IMF to realize that the organization operated on the basis of “diplomacy” (and dogma) not financial analysis. I was shocked, briefly, and left. On Wall St the realpolitik was more immediately obvious, indeed brazen. I appreciated the “honesty” of the internal dialogue, but not the appalling dishonesty and disrespect shown to clients. Another departure ensued, leaving me more shaken than the first time.

    Despite my earlier training, it was only when I left all that behind, moving further and further afield of those professions, did it become obvious that the rhetorical devices used in both worlds (which were, of course, quite different) relied on a similar kind of self-serving abstraction. I didn’t see it sooner because I like abstract ways of thinking, but now will be suspicious of such forever. The turn-off is now so great there’s a risk my pendulum will swing too far in the other direction…

  69. I’m finding your distinction between reality and abstraction overlapping with our family discussions. We use the term “in theory” when pointing out how the something is supposed to work. When we studied biology and got to genetics, the textbook made a distinction between Mendellian genetics which was what was observed in reality vs. the science of the genome and how much more advanced we are now. So in theory by knowing someone’s genome we know who they are exactly, and so can diagnose and fix people accordingly. At least this was the promise I recall being loudly trumpeted with the human genome project.

    However the text book left out epigenetics and how a person can carry a gene for a disorder or trait but it doesn’t “turn on”. I used the genetic test to try to find a lost ancestor. I then downloaded the raw data and ran it through a site called It took my genome and matched it against all the scientific studies and told me about myself. Only 20% of the human genome is known what it does and it couldn’t tell me what eye color I have. It could tell me what eye color genes I carried but which one got “turned on” one has to see in reality, not in the genome. While the genetic analysis did confirm some things I knew health-wise, it wasn’t that revealing overall.

    The louder the experts say “we know for sure” the more I ignore it.

  70. We used the Rhetoric Alive Book 1 from Classical Academic Press this year to formally study Rhetoric. It starts each chapter with an excerpt from Aristotle’s Rhetoric, and has two example speeches from different eras to analyze at the end of each chapter. The exercises are to recite a selection of speeches or poetry paying attention to different techniques. Its a text book meant for a half year of study in a classroom.

    When we finished it, it spurred a great discussion about how textbooks ruin things. By their very nature they must break down subjects in pieces to be explained so that students can be tested on knowledge of the pieces. Knowing the pieces doesn’t make one fluent in the whole. We finished the book no more capable of persuading someone on a given topic than when we started. Disappointing to say the least.

    For fun we watched the first ten minutes of the speeches of the presidential candidates for the last election: Trump, Cruz, Bush, Rubio, Clinton, and Sanders. Trump was the only one we could pay attention to and watched for 25 minutes. We noted where the media edited the speech to make him sound a certain way. It was quite sinister how most media channels did it. The remaining candidates said their very practiced words written by very smart people and it just drifted through one ear and out the other. None of us believed that they were saying anything of that the candidate himself or herself believe. With Trump we watched for so long because we really didn’t know what he was going to say. Sure it was unpolished, and he repeated himself, but I was persuaded that Trump was determined to work for this country.

    So this rhetoric or persuasion isn’t a formula of specific items to check off, but what then is it?

  71. One more comment about people persuade and not ideas alone…..I can’t help but think of the presidential campaign slogans.
    Trump – Make America Great Again (which he still uses regularly)
    Clinton – I’m with Her
    Bush – Jeb!
    Sanders – A New Political Revolution Starts Now (or something like this)

    I still get a fit of giggles every time I see the Jeb! logo after Trump’s nicknaming him Low energy Jeb.

    Trump’s opponents were running a campaigns trying to feature their candidate as a personality we needed to support. Trump was a TV personality who was running a campaign of ideas to make the country better. Trump’s style as unconventional as it was, destroyed 16 Republican candidates campaigns (Kasich, Cruz, Bush, Carson, Rubio, Gilmore, Fiorina, Christie, Santorum, Huckabee, Paul, Pataki, Graham, Jindal, Walker, Perry). Now he has remade the Republican party to follow him and the “Never Trump” are rare.

    So how can Trump have done all that and we still can’t get anyone to listen to Peak Oil and Climate Change?

  72. Hi JMG,

    Thank you for this post. As an interesting aside to your argument, I was recently listening to a podcast with the historian, Niall Ferguson. He was pointing out that our current social environment had more in common with the 16th Century than the 19th or 20th. In his argument, the advent of the printing press and printed material had allowed the more rapid spread of information and ideas comparable, though far slower, to that of the internet today. This created new information networks that broke with existing hierarchical/centralised structures. Apparently, these information networks naturally self-organise into self-supporting and self-referential groupings, i.e. echo chambers, until such time as society adjusts to the technology.

    @Thiago and JMG
    Re: Art and STEM.

    My sister studied Art and Art History whereas I went into Information Systems Engineering. Obviously there has been a fair bit of sibling banter concerning that over the years 🙂 and she would say that Art will do what it has always done, act as a commentary on the society in which the artists exists.

    As for STEM, I am continually surprised when I ask fellow techies what they do outside of work. Whilst many will follow tech hobbies, just as many will follow art, or religion, or music, or hill walking, or any number of non-technical pursuits. There are countless engineers who believe that you can be a rock star too 🙂

    I think rather that resistance to change will come from those with the most to lose, those who profit or gain power from the current set up. Financiers, politicians, owners of for profit educational establishments, etc. Most technies would probably welcome the chance to become more of a Renaissance Man (or Person for the more PC). After all, how many of those who started the scientific revolution were polymaths, well schooled in the reflective arts?

    (Does a rhetorical question actually qualify as rhetoric?)

  73. @Dropbear
    Two party systems.

    Have you ever noticed how the media of two party states describes the politics of multi-party states – Inefficient, chaotic, unstable?? Most of the time, these states seem to spend more time trying to build coalitions to rule than actually ruling. Strangely, you see more actual politics (in the horse trading sense) in those systems than in the two party systems, its just focussed on trying to decide who’s who in power.

    As a purely cursory examination of the differences between the two, it seems to me that those with two party systems saw democracy arise slowly over time as two groupings – those descended for the property owning powers (nobles/kings/merchants/etc) and the non-owning (commoners/workers/etc). This led to quite concrete identities forming around these two poles, in essence those who support the current power structure and those who want to change it. Those countries with multi-party systems seem to have achieved democracy over a relatively short period of time (e.g. revolution or colonial abandonment) and the party that won didn’t spend long enough as a single grouping for that grouping to establish itself as a single identity, so it fractured back into its original separate units.

    Even the two party systems aren’t completely two party, they just have dominant groupings that anyone that wants a chance to rule, knows to join. That’s why you see the power and policy struggles within the parties as often as between them. Idealists join the minor parties and try to shape some of the political conversations. Well, that and keep an eye out for a dominant player that has lost contact with its base, so that it can undercut it.

    The exception seems to be the US, which kept its two party system through explicit regulation designed to prevent the splintering of the political system. Even that saw a Mercantile (Whig) party replaced by a Labour (Democrat) party with the rise of organised labour as a power centre.

    I think that the “two options only” worldview is far more likely to be a reflection on the absolutist, abrahamic religions, than the political structures. If you have a culture permeated by a simplistic and authoritarian, Good/Evil concept, then its pretty likely that a politician will try to use that as a tool of persuasion.

  74. @Karen
    Re; economics

    I once tried to have a conversation with a friend’s girlfriend, who was an economist. She stopped me very early on to explain that she was a micro-economist and didn’t follow the stuff I was trying to ask about. She then added “Of course, micros think macros are all insane. They’re trying to study economics without people, which makes about as much sense as studying politics without people.”. Which, I must confess, made me laugh 🙂

  75. Well I don’t think I ever suggested that the left is not using base arguments. It is, and even more so every day – because in the current degraded climate it works. Republicans used them to take power in recent years. As to what you asked me to reflect on – I do need to reflect on that – that came out of – um – left field for me and no response jumped out. Food for thought on my next hike. Thank you.

  76. HI JMG,

    Thank you for another interesting post. I’m trying to wrap my head around what rhetoric could actually be all about, as you have alluded to it for a while now without fully elaborating on its meaning. I’m guessing it’s not just a straightforward collection of tips for persuasion, which one can simply read and master overnight, so to speak. I’m also guessing it’s not a collection of elaborate Jedi mind tricks one can use to bend their opponent’s will over to their side. So what could it be then?

    I’m taking a closer look at that little word ‘truth’, which seems to conceal much. To me, it seems as if what is true for me changes as my state of consciousness or being changes, through my work in attempting to gain greater self-knowledge. Things that were very much true for me in the past have become no longer true in the present, so I can start to see how my idea of the truth is just a constructed thing. In addition, my very memories of myself seem to change as I move down the path towards self-knowledge, and my truth correspondingly changes. As I’m trying to learn, the work of self-knowledge seems to be about resolving the errors in my thinking, or more accurately, the blockages in my perception of my Higher self, as being cut off from my Higher self has been influencing my perception/construction of what is true. If that is the case, people with different states of consciousness would have different concepts about what is actually truth, depending on where they are on the path of self-knowledge.

    I’m guessing that this is because at a certain level of perception or state of consciousness, one’s Higher self is connected to the World self or soul, the level where truth may start to approach a degree of universality (although I do realize the concept of universal truth is a very slippery slope, and one which I’m still contemplating). As I have been noticing, things I thought I needed in one state of consciousness start to evaporate once other states of consciousness are reached. An example that comes to mind here is my perceived need to accumulate money, status or power, which may apply to the Trump or Clinton supporters as well. In a certain state of consciousness, it becomes clear that this comes from my need to try to gain a feeling of security, which is in turn based in some way on a feeling of fear of loss of my identity. Once the Higher self is contacted, fear begins to lose its grip to a certain extent, and the need to protect the lower self starts to have less overall importance. Of course we all still need to eat, but I’m starting to see that one’s approach to fulfilling that need changes in different states of consciousness, in a way that’s very hard to put into words.

    In a conversation then, I’m theorizing that an individual with perception or consciousness of his or her own Higher self could somehow (through rhetoric?) steer or guide their ‘opponent’ into a corresponding perception of their own Higher self. If that is correct, then their perceptions of truth would also come more into alignment. This would then make it easier to arrive at compromise or consensus, as what they both feel that they need is at least more similar than it would be if one of the parties didn’t have this access to their Higher self. Fear would start to have less of a foothold once the path to the universal truth of the World self becomes open to consideration. Somehow, through this change in mode of perception, the binary of opposite, irreconcilable points of view would give way to the ternary that both parties are actually working together for a common goal.

    I do realize that this whole argument is based on a concept of universal truth at a certain state of consciousness, which is something I’m not really sure I can defend right now. I’m just trying to see it a bit more clearly, through thinking and writing about it. Hopefully it relates in some way to the direction you were heading in your essay.

  77. Dear David Note, I am convinced that at the present time the American upper classes favor a generous immigration policy for the purpose of keeping housing prices high. Most of the American oligarchy no longer makes stuff, so real estate is where they expect to make fortunes. Then of course the upper servant class (soi-disant “professionals”) must have its servants.

    I am finding that self-interest can be negotiated at least in small ways among my working class peers, but the negotiations seem to proceed better on a non-verbal level, which I think spares people’s pride. They don’t have to look like they lost something, they just tacitly agree to put up with something like a no spray yard on a case by case basis. And, there is something about work, thoughtfully directed effort resulting in completed useful projects, which seems to automatically command respect. That in turn puts one in a better position to (tacitly, non-verbally) insist on right to grow what one wants in the back yard, or walk and park the car and so on. I am noticing now that it is the left which is shrilly demanding cultural conformity from all of us for the purpose of keeping its’ minority and immigrant army employed. They might not actually come out and say you are a wicked so and so if you don’t shop at Walmart, but the implication is there.

    I am getting a very bad feeling about the hateful anti-Trump rhetoric. First, because the angry so-called left is in fact an aggressive war party. Way back at the time of the Vietnam War, “the resistance” was anti-war. Second, because the hate Trump crowd seems to be working itself up to an extreme means justify the ends stance. I rather think the “threat” of RW gun owners will, the upscale left is about to convince itself, have to be countered by employing the murderous South American drug gangs as their private militia. Notice how upscale leftist governments (the Obama administration, the Brown governorship in CA) maintain a strictly hands off policy towards the private marijuana plantations which are ruining public lands and local communities throughout the west.

  78. Recently encountered a shining example of abstraction taken too far on a geopolitical forum I frequent. A user wrote several paragraphs about how utterly unthinkable it is that American unipolar hegemony will come to an end and that China might want to challenge America, so of course neither one will ever happen.

    The fact that both things are already happening apparently matters less than the fact that he couldn’t think of a single reason why they should ever happen.

  79. What a coincidence. In an effort to educate myself, I picked up this book “Mastering Logical Fallacies: The Definitive Guide to Flawless Rhetoric and Bulletproof Logic” by Michael Withey.

    The book is fine as a casual primer. I recommend it with some qualifications. Given the language and preponderance of cartoons, the book is clearly aimed at a high school or college freshman readership. If you are looking for something very serious, this is not for you. There are brief 1-2 page descriptions of various fallacies with a suggested comeback tactic at the end. The ‘just walk away’ strategy is offered a number of times. 🙂 Structurally, I would have preferred if similar fallacies or rhetorical tactics had been grouped together rather than being scattered throughout the book. After reading, I am more aware of sneaky rhetorical tactics when listening to pundits, politicians and even friends (though I don’t think that last group is conscious of what they are doing).

  80. I think a lot about the polarization that over the top rhetoric exacerbates. I started my youtube channel in part to deal with this because I saw a lot of people on both ends of the political spectrum talking past each other. However, it seems that the content with the most outrageous titles etc. gets the most clicks. So there is a tension between getting heard and saying something worth listening to. I have so far managed to resist the temptation to use incendiary rhetoric, but I certainly feel it and see how it drives a lot of electronic media. Though I admit that my video titles sometimes skate the line.

    Here is my best contribution to the subject of rhetoric itself. It is also one of my least clicked on videos despite despite it being one of my favorites. It addresses a sentiment I have expressed in the comments here before; why judging ideas and actions makes a lot more sense than judging individuals for all involved.

    Here is the text version.

  81. The internet in particular is an area with so many weird shades of grey that at this point it’s almost impossible to navigate without crossing a line somewhere. Sometimes the boundaries don’t become clear until you tumble into a life ruining pitfall somewhere. I belong to the awkward generation who was too old when the internet came about to be conditioned to it, but too young to have the sort of worldly experience necessary to apply that sort of thinking to it and a lot of the lines between what’s acceptable and what’s not still make no sense to me. I could easily see tighter regulation of the internet being a boon if for no other reason than that it would put clear rules in place and make it much more difficult to get thrust into the ugliest parts of the internet underworld and face a wide array of consequences as a result of a completely innocent Google search.

    That does lead me to one question: in your post last week, you mentioned your attitude and responses towards people who download your own books. I have bought every book of yours that I have read, and always buy directly through the publishers when the publisher has a website so you don’t get jilted by the Amazon discount. But I have, on occasion pulled up the Google Books previews of your books if I am for any reason away from my copy but need to reference a specific page. I did some research on Google Books as far as legality and it seems that they are considered legitimate and legal but have garnered some controversy from publishers and have had a few lawsuits which have so far come out on the side of Google Books. In other words technically legal but in that weird grey area so much of the internet falls under, it’s also usually one of the top results that I get in any bit of research I do for anything right under Wikipedia so isn’t something I’d never questioned as anything other than an ordinary search tool. I am not entirely certain of your attitude towards Google Books or where that falls under your attitude towards theft (especially since I have only ever done it with books I already own a paper copy of and Google Books only gives partial previews rather than the full text). I haven’t suffered any ill effects or lack of results from any of the work I’ve done with your books (I’m glacially slow and courses designed to take 9 months to a year typically take me 5-7 years but that’s me with spiritual work in general), but I thought I should probably drop 20 dollars in your tip jar and let you know just in case.

  82. It occurred to me that Abstraction is the mental correlate of Extraction—that Abstract thinking encourages one to relate to the material world as a muddy mess from which one must pull out and refine objects of True Value. So, says I, what is the comparable concept that goes with Reflection? It must be an ‘In’ or ‘Im” (immanence? Not exactly…) and it must be a ‘Flex’ bending, turning.

    Well! I shall not subject you to all the permutations and perplexities of the search for a word to describe the concept I wanted; suffice it to say that our Latinate wordgivers were not much interested in turning back, turning in, folding, giving in a little, replacing, or renewing in any way that requires turning aside from the direct onward march. (Forward, men!) After roundly condemning Roman Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision, I went on questing. The best of the lot included: ‘Inflexion’ (nuanced meaning); ‘Restoration’ (store up again) ‘Perdure’ (by hardness, strength); Preservation and Conservation (keep guard, defend). Note that we are still mostly in military mode here.

    Anyway, from ‘flex’ I bevowelled to ‘flux’ and here I made a discovery. The number one definition of the word ‘Influence’ is: “An ethereal fluid held to emanate from the stars and to affect the actions of humans.” The number 2 definition is “An emanation of occult power held to derive from stars.” Then we get into spiritual and moral force exerted by humans, yadda etc. This is Webster’s 10th edition, not some obscure medieval tome. I was gobsmacked. It is not exactly what I was looking for, but by gum, it is good enough for gubbiment work. I also thought it might be of interest in a discussion about rhetoric and how to make friends and influence people.

  83. There’s a name for a mental system of abstraction that has lost all connection to reality.

    There’s also a name for doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.


  84. @Denys: I doubt any actual researcher on genomics would dare say we understand the human genome! Only people who make a living from selling clients their personal genomes.

  85. I have one other point to make, and I will use experiences related to the current bill in Congress to change internet law: I oppose it as currently written, since it very likely will lead to lots of websites just not moderating at all, due to a stupid loophole.

    A tech blog I follow is writing articles about the effects it will have. I have completely given up commenting there since the forum is hardly moderated, and too many people won’t look past the part where I say I support more moderation online. If they really wanted to stop the bill they should try to find all the allies they can. We can fight later, but for now, we could be allies, if only they weren’t so focused on purity…..

  86. @JMG – “No question, Trump Derangement Syndrome is even more extreme than Obama Derangement Syndrome or Bush Derangement Syndrome; I’m still trying to figure out why.”

    Well, partly because neither Obama nor Bush acted as if they expected federal law enforcement agencies to be their personal tools, demanded that businesses fire people who opposed their beliefs, suggested that people who failed to clap for them might be committing treason, or shortly thereafter mused that maybe America will have a dictator-for-life someday….

    I voted for Bush in 2000 but regretted it after he signed off on torture camps, extrajudicial detention of thousands of innocent Muslims, and the Iraq war. But he didn’t seek to be a populist autocrat. When he took office despite losing the popular vote, he didn’t rant about millions of imaginary nonwhite illegal votes and create a shambolic commission to try to suppress opposition votes. He didn’t publicly demand that private businesses kowtow to his dictates. He didn’t go to rallies and incite crowds to bellow their hatred of groups and individuals he disliked. He did not blatantly use his position to funnel money into the coffers of the Bush family. He tried to uphold the dignity of his office and to appoint (mostly) semi-competent people to fill important positions. Oh, and he was capable of learning enough and sticking to one opinion long enough to get things done.

    What we have now is not within the bounds of normal, and in my book, the damage Trump is doing to our democratic institutions outweighs his few useful actions a hundred times over. Frankly, I don’t understand how you, JMG, do not share that opinion. Just a few years ago, you warned us of superficially appealing authoritarian populists who might crop up just about now. Aside from the total lack of environmental concern, doesn’t Trump fit the Fred Halliot bill pretty well?

  87. Some of the Trump Derangement Syndrome may be, in effect, religious in nature. Many liberal women seem to view Hillary as a demi-goddess. This would help explain why TDS is so much stronger than other political derangement.

  88. @ Nastarana

    Point well taken about current immigration policy not benefiting the manufacturing sector, what sector? Where?

    US Real estate (actually Unreal Estate) is a massive bubble poised to pop.

    Interesting I had uncles who fought the Germans in Europe in WWII. They said at the end, the rubble was still bouncing and smoldering when they left for home in the US. The German post war leadership made a conscience decision to re-industrialize and still do to this day, they never stopped. The US, as a conscience decision decided in the early 70’s, around the time the US went off the gold standard and on to the petro fiat currency regime to DE-industrialize. The Chinese and the German’s can’t believe their luck not having a strong competitor in the US. Awesome!

    Now the Military Industrial Matrix can’t get critical parts and resources at affordable costs that don’t come from China, a large potential opponent. Well played sirs, well played.

    How delicious is that?

    The US is a Sociopathocracy not a Democracy.

    Sociopathy being loosely defined as absolute Self Interest at any cost with no Conscience.

    The US has virtually no industrial base relative to Germany and China as a result of conscience decisions for the ruling Sociopathocrats.The so called US Political Class, both parties, for the past 40 years have sold their own citizens out for their own Self Interest and that of their ‘betters’ in the Sociopathocratic Class.

    Their motto?

    Justice for Just Us

  89. And onto a “third way” with this pithy and also beguiling commentary that is most relevant in most of the so-called “developed nations”: “What work needs to be done?” instead of “where are the jobs?” Never addressed in political or media circles for sure, but also seldom in bars and union halls. Exceptions like the cooperation between ex-tar sands workers and First Nations people working to install solar electricity infrastructure that alleviates some of the monopolist corporate options we all assume are permanent and thus inviolable. Or again, the many communities around the world, and increasingly numbered in the so-called “developed nations”, that are taking back their infrastructure systems like electricity and water that had been privatizing a la Thatcher and the Washington Consensus through the IMF, World Bank, and CIA.
    On a more personal level though, given what I see as where you are going with the lessons to come, I guess that the next time someone “insults” me about the breadth and depth of my girth, even though they may intend to be invested in my health and longevity, I am not going to be permitted to respond (to those whom I see as not caring about my health) that “I would rather have my big gut than air between the ears!”. A true thought-stopper for sure.

  90. The US ‘industrial base’ consists of weapons, artistically devoid movies, more weapons, genetically modified ‘food’, movies full of weapons and finally some phone Apps to tie it all together. I try not to pay too much attention to it, it just feeds it’s hubris.

    So I often take breaks from all electronic and print media in order to wander in the wildness, yay like real trees and stuff, so I miss a lot of current events.

    So when a friend told me of the latest Elon Musk PR stunt, I laughed so hard I almost spit out my trendy Venti Double Ristretto Nonfat Organic Chocolate Double Dutch Brownie Frappuccino extra Hot with Foam and Whipped Cream and Cinnamon Dusted with a shot of Amaretto Upside Down and Double Blended.

    I had to use a credit card to finance a drink that upscale and it’s a hard order to yell across a coffee bar.

    Anyway, as a child in the 50’s I always remember being promised a flying car by now.

    Ahhh Progress, 2018 seems like a Pure Sci-fi destination to a little kid of that day.

    Instead of my flying car, Elon Musk has bestowed upon us mere mortals a car shot into orbit instead.

    Talk about mixing insane metaphors.

    Imagine John Cleese of Monty Python fame coming out as Musk’s PR flak and announcing the Blessed Event to the World by saying something like, “for all you crying titty babies and tossers out there whining about your deprived lives in the present modernity…. there, up there, we’ve finally delivered your flipping flying car, quit your privileged sniveling, you snotty faced heaps of parrot droppings and shut your festering gobs you twits, your type makes me puke, you vacuous toffee nosed malodorous ingrates!”

    So there, the .0000001 percent have produced Real Progress once again, shooting a car into orbit = flying car!

  91. JMG, many thanks for this introduction. I sure look forward to ride you’re taking us on!

    Reading this first instalment reminded me of Jonathan Haidts book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”. Haidt is a social psychologist whose field of study is human morality, and the book is a well-written and well reasoned introduction to his “moral foundations theory”. But I found it most interesting as the story of how the author, coming from a typical liberal academic background, learned to understand how people have different tastes in morality, and that there are some very good reasons for this.

    Haidt’s book was also personally relevant to me. Reading it made me realize how my own moral intuitions are very much conservative, explaining why I never felt completely at ease in the mostly liberal political circles I’ve frequented. With your exposition here I understand better why I still hesitate to leave those circles altogether: liberal values don’t make me *feel* good, but I reason that a healthy amount of personal freedom makes for a better society, and I know from personal experience how important that can be.

  92. Hi JMG,

    I’m really looking forward to this series of posts. Here’s why: over the past couple of years, I have realized that the “elite” education I received left me essentially ignorant of the basics of classical logic and rhetoric. To make matters worse, this is the condition that 99.9% of Americans find themselves in.

    C.R. Patino’s comment last week in the open post about the mechanism for loss of knowledge being the loss of a living tradition, rather than the actual loss of information, really resonated in this area for me. Put another way, if everyone in a community is ignorant in a subject, it makes it that much harder to become educated and pass along the information to the next generation.

    I have been trying to gain some better rhetorical skills recently, and one of the best resources I have found is David Fleming’s encyclopedic tome, Lean Logic. Even though it is a bit of a sideline to the main purpose of the book, the discussions of rhetorical fallacies are helpful and clearly presented.

    One difficulty is that pointing out rhetorical fallacies has to be carefully done in order not to alienate the person you are trying to convince. In my work life, I often have to convince people to go along with my recommendations even though most of the time I don’t really have the executive power to just give commands. It takes cajoling, reasoning thing through collaboratively, and a certain amount of will.

    My own attitude is that a lot of study and practice is going to be required to develop these skills, so this upcoming series of posts is coming at just the right time. I’m very interested to hear what kinds of self-directed learning methods you recommend!

  93. @Denys

    No real expert ever says: “we know for sure.”

    This is simply the Fox and the Hedgehog. Hedgehogs always sound certain because they know One Big Thing. Foxes always sound a bit uncertain because they know lots of things, some of which are contradictory.

    Hedgehogs get the press because lots of people want certainty, they don’t want to be plunged into reality.

    @Gabvin Harris


    Re: Haidt

    The three charts on pages 297, 302 and 306 are the payload.

    I liked the book so much I hunted up his web site. There are several people plowing the same field.

  94. JMG – I am looking forward to hearing more about rhetoric over the coming weeks. I am, as I said, fond of an argument, especially the kind of argument that helps me figure out what I think about the topic.

    you said above: “You respond to whether it makes sense, on its own terms and in the context of your wider understanding of the world; that’s reason. You also respond to how it makes you feel, on its own terms and in the context of your own emotional life; that’s emotion. Finally, you respond to what accepting that belief will cost you and what you’ll gain from it; that’s self-interest.”

    This looks interesting enough do an exercise using the above to examine recent encounters..

    As Jaznights said, in Ireland we are currently debating the prospect of whether to repeal, via a referendum, a foetal personhood provision (known variously as the “8th Amendment” or as “Bunreacht na hEireann Article 40.3.3”) from the constitution, inserted there by a previous referendum in 1983.

    Here are two strands of rhetoric I encountered within the last few days.

    1) I recently attended a pro-life meeting in my hometown to see if I could understand what was going on in people’s minds. The meeting was very focussed on the lives, humanity and separate self-hood of foetuses and the cruelty of abortion methods, and the importance of gaining votes “for life” in the referendum ballot box.

    a) sense: I have no disagreement at all with the proposition that a foetus is alive, human, even beautiful. Or that it has a right to life, in the sense we all do – to live as long as we are physically capable of doing so and not be deliberately killed. However my wider understanding of the world admits of a bigger picture. Namely that every foetus is alive within the body of another human person, the existence of whom is being largely left out of the picture these people are presenting to me. In their zeal to win votes for “life” (ie to save the foetal personhood amendment) they are telling me that regardless of my reasons, if I do not vote the way they recommend, I will be voting for AND abetting murder.
    b) feeling – I don’t like how it feels to be pre-emptively called a murderer. I feel attacked. I also feel constricted, as if in a tiny room with no exits.
    c) gain & loss – were I to accept their belief (that a foetus should have equal rights in law to the mother who bears it) I cannot see any gain for me, nor can I see gain for human life (which is also a value for me). I can see loss. Loss of autonomy. Loss of legal and political personhood should I be pregnant. Having to carry a piece of nanny state surveillance and duty within me, legally separating the foetus growing in my body from myself throughout a pregnancy, andlegally withholding from me the power to consent to any medical interventions considered necessary by any medical person whatsoever.

    2) I then found myself embroiled in a different rhetorical conflict, this time with pro-choice people. I encountered what seems to me to be an anti-choice argument being proffered (apparently) in defense of a woman’s right to choose.
    It was phrased thusly: (Caps mine)
    “Engaging in sex is taking the risk of pregnancy and, IF THE WOMAN DECIDES not to have an abortion, THE MAN MUST PAY [child support]”. The discussion that followed contained numerous iterations of the meme “men who do not want to be fathers can choose not to have sex”. ie a man’s right to choose ends at the choice of whether to have [consensual] sex or not.

    a) sense: I have two children (both in accordance with my will in the bearing of them). I have had many, many more than two occasions of enjoyable, consensual sex. If I thought every occasion of sex I ever had was tantamount to entering into a lifelong contract of motherhood, I probably would have foregone what has been a very significant part of my life, and failed to deepen important relationships, and been unable to enjoy the intimacy of same.
    b) feeling – having my joy stomped on.
    c) gain or loss – If I believed that it is ok for a woman to make a decision that has lifelong consequences for a man, which he is powerless to refuse, then I would have no standing to argue that it ISN’T ok for a man to make a decision that has lifelong consequences for a woman, which she is powerless to refuse. I would lose the capacity to make any pro-choice arguments – in which I have a profound stake. Also, sex. I would lose the power to take pleasure and intimacy from non-procreative sex.

    These are my initial findings. I will try this schema on the more of the rhetoric I encounter in coming weeks and see what comes of it.

  95. Laurel, I want to read that book.

    Austin and Ray, the issue I’ll be making as we proceed is that in today’s America, arguments based on ethos are self-defeating. Partly that’s because people on each side of the various divisions have precisely opposing ideas of what makes a speaker credible — for example, the various class emblems (fashionable physique, educated style of speaking, well-groomed facial expressions, total submission to the cult of mandatory niceness) that people on the left treat as signs that someone should be listened to, people on the right treat as signs that the speaker is yet another liberal talking head shoveling nonsense at them — but there’s another matter. In today’s America, a really quite frighteningly large number of people are obsessed with the notion that something or other will give them the right and the power to tell other people what to do — and as a result, in today’s America, an even larger number of people react to arguments from ethos by automatically rejecting the claim being made. I’ll get into this in detail in an upcoming post — quite possibly the next one in this sequence.

    RMK, excellent. Exactly — and one very effective form of rhetoric takes the same approach as literature, by presenting personal narratives (“this is what happened to me”) as a way to help people who see the world in different ways understand that their own experience isn’t a universal. One of the reasons my writing is moving more toward fiction these days, in fact, is that this can be an extremely effective but also unthreatening way to address certain issues.

    ProleNoMore, granted — but the sooner at least a few of us make the leap from abstraction to reflection, the easier it will be for others to jump the same way when circumstances force them to do so.

    Um, Gandalfwhite, was your keyboard acting up or something? Some of those typos took me a good several moments to untangle…

    Avery, good. Feelings matter more than facts, and self-interest matters at least as much as feelings. We’ll be getting to this as the discussion proceeds.

    Migrantworker, magic was rejected in the early modern period, at a time when reflection was fashionable and abstraction was just beginning to hit its stride, so I’m by no means sure your proposal works historically. That said, yes, there are important parallels and lots of common ground between magic and rhetoric; we’ll talk about that as things proceed.

    Jbucks, thank you. As for venting, no question — some of my essays, as you and others have no doubt noticed, are extended exercises in venting, for that matter.

    Averagejoe, yes, exactly! Groupthink is something we’ll be talking about, too, so it’s not at all out of place to bring it up.

    Maria, delighted to hear that, er, someone in your workplace is standing up for basic decency. I’ll see if I can hand you some useful ammunition. I wonder, though — there’s got to be a book or something out there about the utterly dysfunctional habit of using every human interaction as an opportunity to put other people down; finding something of the kind and mining it for talking points might be a good strategy. Do any of my readers know of such a book?

    David, I suspect that like most people on the rightward side of the political spectrum in the other 49 states, Sessions would fall on his knees and thank God with a heart full of gratitude if California were to leave the Union, or alternatively, if it were to be ravaged by Federal troops the way Georgia was in 1864. He may have had those possibilities in mind when he opened his mouths. As for the leaders of the Revolutionary era, why, they varied in their rhetorical capacities, as most people do; all of them, though, benefited hugely from a way of education that took rhetoric seriously.

    Dtrox(etc.), yes, and there’s a lot of interesting ground to be covered along those routes, but they aren’t particularly relevant to the discussion I want to begin here.

    Dave, you may be right that the limits to growth are ultimately what’s behind TDS. Hmm…

    Karen, no, it’s a distinction at right angles: important and relevant, but there are deductive and inductive approaches on both sides of the abstraction/reflection border.

    Denys, the fixation on theory, in science as in rhetoric, is very much an effect of an overemphasis on abstraction. We’ll be approaching things in a different way, and with any luck, making more headway. As for your comments on presidential slogans, thanks for this — you’ve given me a world-class example of the failure of arguments from ethos in our time. Bush and Clinton both ran ethos-based campaigns — that’s short for “Look How Wonderful I Am!” — and Bush got trounced in the primaries, as Clinton would have if the Democratic party hadn’t cheated outrageously on her behalf. Meanwhile Trump and Sanders, who ran campaigns based on policies rather than personalities, both came out of nowhere to dominate the campaigns.

    Gavin, that’s interesting to hear. I don’t run with a lot of techies, and so didn’t know about the after-hours habits you’ve mentioned, and the only tech geek (cough, cough, Microsoft squillionaire, cough, cough) I know of who fancies himself a rock star is so bad that he has to pay his employees to attend his performances. (I was told this by one of the employees in question.) Still, that’s promising. As for rhetorical questions, yes, they have a place in rhetoric, and you used one quite effectively there.

    Dean, just one of the services I offer. 😉

    Stefania, good. You’re asking useful questions, and at this stage that’s far more important than coming up with any particular answer. I’ll offer you something to chew on, though. You asked “what is rhetoric?” That’s an extremely useful question, not least because you then jumped right on past two unproductive answers. You’re right that it’s not a collection of tips for persuasion, and equally right that it’s not a set of Jedi mind tricks for forcing people to agree with you. Both those assume that rhetoric is about power; what I’m suggesting instead is that it’s about knowledge instead. One more hint: every rhetorical act takes place in some form of conversation: overt or covert, immediate or delayed, it’s always a response to something someone else has said, and calls for a response in turn…

    Valenzuela, excellent! And of course it never occurred to him to ask a few patriotic Chinese citizens to explain to him why they think it can and will and should happen…

    Greychickadee, thanks for this. Some such basic guide is a helpful tool for one part of the work ahead of us.

    Greg, thanks for this also. Yes, that’s a crucial point.

  96. Avery said:

    “In fact these are the statements written in the rest of Chapter 1 of Peterson’s book. So, to expand:
    “Serotonin is proven to make you happy, like in lobsters. When lobsters are happy, they become socially dominant and all the ladies like them. And that’s what we’re all after in life. So stand up straight.”

    Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t read Peterson’s book. This is not remotely an accurate summary of any part of it.

    What he actually says in the book and in many videos is that being low in the social hierarchy tends to make people unhappy and being high in it vice versa. This is hardly a shocker for a social primate species. And since most people do in fact want to be happy, it’s not unreasonable when writing a self-help book to advise them to do something as harmless and possibly helpful as improving their posture. It’s not a real rule. No one is going to stop you in the pursuit of slouching if you really want to.

    He does discuss elsewhere in his lectures what it is that people seek in life. What precisely it looks like depends on the individual personality among other things. He describes meaning as an embodied phenomenon that can only be discovered through interaction with the world around you, self-awareness and in which your conscience communicates with you and it in turn learns through your experiences, like Jimini Cricket in Pinocchio, or the Individuality learning from the Personality’s incarnations.

    He has described people as constantly communicating to each other that ‘you are not yet the Redeemer, you’re not yet all you could be’. Becoming that is one way he might describe what “we’re all after in life” ultimately. Now, you could quibble with that. Our Personalities are after much baser goals like seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. And how many of us are consciously seeking to become all we could be? If we don’t consciously know we’re after something, does it still count or not? And are our souls after the same thing as the rest of us?

    But the idea that what we’re all seeking in the end is to fulfil our potential (whatever that means…) is neither original to him (and he doesn’t claim it is) or new. And it has nothing whatsoever to do with getting girls, happiness or social status. He just doesn’t treat things like the latter as base, petty or irrelevant – because he’s a psychologist, not a life-denying mystic.

    I don’t know how you’re going about identifying his values by the way. Surely you’ve had the common experience of discovering how little you understand of your own values or those close to you? Yet you think you can work out those of a complete stranger? And you can’t evaluate a book without knowing the personal values of the speaker? That should leave you unable to learn from anyone, if you pay attention.

    To haul this comment back onto topic, if rhetoric requires understanding the other person’s position, it must surely require the humility to accept that that knowledge will always have limits.

  97. JMG,

    This type post is what I live for, and why I follow you.

    Full disclosure (as they say): I really miss the Archdruid format…. I understand why you abandoned it, but it was easier to get to this pointed part of your thinking… not like now.

    You are YOU (get it, thank God, and keep going) and your thinking requires sideways (from my perspective – sometimes – from my perspective) – but getting the buried the “Good stuff” is harder under your new format…. You should consider a split between the philosophical and the other…

    Realizes the impossibility and retreats



  98. Dean Myerson,

    You said, and I guess that would make you an example of the problem in last week’s post:

    “One other thing, the idea that people can’t be convinced has been tested using much less heated subjects than whether to support a political candidate. Global warming deniers have been showed evidence and they leave even more convinced of their denial. I think it has been tested also on issues even less contentious than that.

    So I would claim that it isn’t just the yellers that are the issue here. A large percentage of the population only responds to base motivations, not rational discussion, at least on any issue that they are at all polemical about.”

    Hoo boy. So you think they have actually proved something dark about human motivation, and that people operate out of base motivations and are impervious to rational discussion, if they happen to disagree with you, who are of course right, and cannot be wrong!

    So now I am a denier and have base motivations, and cannot be persuaded by reason. It cannot possibly be that the arguments against global warming seem to me to be stronger. It has no part of reason that I am persuaded that CO2 is not an important greenhouse gas. It cannot be that even the thousands of scientists who have dissented actually have any scientific reasons. It cannot be that a very, very, very young science on an extremely complex issue has any possibility of being in error.

    And it doesn’t occur to you that when people who perhaps are actually (however mistakenly!) persuaded by what seem to be good scientific arguments are told that if they adhere to what they think and don’t change their minds when presented with “evidence” that they are unreasonable, base beings, that this might make them even more disgusted and roll their eyes and leave shaking their heads?

    Funny though, that while I have tried multiple times with multiple people to discuss global warming, none of them have been able to do so. I mean, they emotionally simply cannot tolerate talking about it with someone who doesn’t already agree. I find this pretty astonishing and I am not sure which side is the nonrational one.

  99. The State of California is Not Amused about being sued by the Department of Justice over its sanctuary state law. More and more, I think Calexit is a question of when, not if.

    But if the Golden State does secede, the liberal establishment that has been running the show might have a major internal conflict on their hands considering that earlier this year, dozens of California counties voted to secede and form the State of New California.

    And how long before we see Hispanic activists in the Southwest resurrect their attempt to secede from Gringostan and form the new nation of Aztlan? An old Chinese curse about living in interesting times comes to mind…

  100. Meanwhile, the failure of mimesis among a growing number of young whites continues.

    Perhaps instead of hand wringing and virtue signaling over the growth of the Alt-Right, people might want to consider why it is that so many young people and not just whites have become alienated to the point where they are willing to openly embrace extremist ideologies, even those that are widely demonized by society. How many recruits for Daesh went down the path towards radicalization for the same reasons that have led so many white teenagers and young adults to embrace the Alt-Right?

  101. JMG, yes, sure, I’m eager for that discussion. As for rhetoric as an instrument of knowledge…well, it allows you to pierce and dismantle arguments, so it can be used to analyze, piece by piece, a particular discourse, leading to better understanding of it – and of its flaws. What’s there not to like?

  102. Hi JMG,
    Your essay brings to mind a Black Man who used to seek out members of the triple-K in the Deep South and befriend them–Dangerous work to be sure! Do you remember his name?
    Anyway, through these friendships, at least a few of them left the K’s and began to see Black people as people. Was this an example of well-applied rhetorical skills?

    I had two neighbor families in my previous neighborhood who did not want to have anything to do with me because of perceived differences in our politics. Since talking was generally not possible, I waited for opportunities to help them in some way. One neighbor started talking with me eventually, and the other one doubled down on suspicion and distrust.
    I am hoping that rhetorical skills will help me in my ongoing fence-mending efforts!

    Thanks, Dave Note, for the awesome Hunter Thompson quote! I have already changed the text to read “Pharmacy Business,” found a suitable picture of a sad dog in a smock at the pharmacy counter, and taped it up for the inspiration of my co-workers. 😉

  103. For many years now our public discourse has been based on power projection and propaganda. Out of hubris no one is trying to convince anyone of anything, rather just beat them down, and so there has been no need for rhetoric.

    I recall during the Lessor Bush administration watching the neocons in action, and realizing that anyone who opposed them in the public sphere who had any genuine interests in the functioning of the society, or any moral or ethical limits as to how low they were willing to go had already lost any battle before it had begun. Their neocon opponents apparently cared only for power and had no interests in the functioning of this society, or believed their own interests were protected by association with privileged groups or other nations. Anyone who attempted to resist was bullied, attacked and discredited, and if it was felt that public support was needed then that was what propaganda was for – overwhelming reason with emotion, information overload and confusion.

    This last bit is important, in that the best way to disable a communication channel is to jam it with noise. That’s exactly what is happening with the Internet, where there is so much noise no one can believe or trust anything they hear.

    I believe that the Trump phenomena was initially a part of internal battles among elite factions. Eventually though Trump tapped into the massive unrest of what became his supporters, and while he’s no populist he was smart enough to recognize and use that power base. He was able to tell them what they wanted to hear, which is probably distinct from rhetoric, but it worked and now we’re kind of stuck here. It turns out that neither the elites or the populace have any of the skills of rhetoric you’ve discussed, thanks to the failing of the education system and decades with no examples to emulate. Combine that with a lack of the skills of introspection which would allow people to understand their own reasons, emotions, and self-interests, and all we get is the kind of base grunting you see today.

    If enough people would read your essay perhaps that would offer a way out, but lacking that I don’t see how it corrects.

  104. JMG:

    Speaking of rhetorical techniques, I can’t help but feel that you’ve defeated a straw man version of the “more information reinforces existing biases” thesis. The Clinton/Trump thing is hardly the most credible study that has demonstrated this effect. For a more solid demonstration, see e.g.:

    “People who hold strong opinions on complex social issues are likely to examine relevant empirical evidence in a biased manner. They are apt to accept “confirming” evidence at face value while subjecting “disconfirming” evidence to critical evaluation, and, as a result, draw undue support for their initial positions from mixed or random empirical findings. Thus, the result of exposing contending factions in a social dispute to an identical body of relevant empirical evidence may be not a narrowing of disagreement but rather an increase in polarization. To test these assumptions, 48 undergraduates supporting and opposing capital punishment were exposed to 2 purported studies, one seemingly confirming and one seemingly disconfirming their existing beliefs about the deterrent efficacy of the death penalty. As predicted, both proponents and opponents of capital punishment rated those results and procedures that confirmed their own beliefs to be the more convincing and probative ones, and they reported corresponding shifts in their beliefs as the various results and procedures were presented. The net effect of such evaluations and opinion shifts was the postulated increase in attitude polarization.”

  105. I’ve been watching the climate chaos scene for many years.

    Two basic approaches: Modeling vs Data
    (Abstraction vs Reflection)

    In one corner we have the Modelers, nerd types locked in a university cellar for years on end, very pale pallor, vitamin D supplements, they’re usually let up on the ground floor once a year for the Christmas party.

    All theory, all abstraction, all the time.

    When the Data doesn’t match the Model, they kick the Model around a bit, poke it with a sharp stick occasionally, then declare that the Data wasn’t measured or gathered correctly and the Data is wrong.

    In the other corner we have the Data measurement in the field. This crowd has beards and rugged suntanned complexions, lots of real muscles from tromping endless around the globe actually measuring stuff. They don’t need vitamin D supplements and always have scheduling conflicts that prevent them from ever showing up for the Christmas party.

    All Data, “What actually happened?”, all the time.

    When the climate models don’t match the actual measured Data, the model is always Wrong. Period.

    An Abstract view of Climate Modeling is divorced from actually measuring climate stuff changing in real time and space. ‘You’re livin’ in your head’ as the expression goes.

    Over the last 10 years or so, the gap between the models and actual measured data keeps getting predictably larger towards catastrophic climate change, i.e. the jet stream slows down and breaks up into giant hula loops instead of spinning fast like a halo around the poles.

    So much so that the climate Data school, the “What actually happened?” people who actually measure the climate in the field and plot it, have taken to mocking the climate model crowd as always having to use the phrase ‘faster than expected’ in every single apologetic report they issue about dire runaway climate news which their models failed terribly to predict.

    An example, a piece of ice shelf the size of Delaware let’s say, is reported as breaking off Antarctica and it was Nowhere in any climate model or if it was, it was predicted to happen 50 years from now.

    But it actually just inconveniently happened, like Now. It’s hard to ignore or challenge it’s actuality if you’re a climate Modeler, you can see it from orbit with the bare eye.

    So the Modeler (Abstract) folks are increasingly being embarrassed and painted into a corner by the Data set folks. The Modeler (Abstract) folks have reports that always start with a headline like, “Climate Scientist Modelers were shocked to report that climate Event XYZ happened ‘faster than expected”. hahaha

    This is such a joke now the it’s the equivalent excuse for your climate model being wrong, yet again, in the bad direction, that the climate Modeler (Abstract) folks might as well say, “The Dog Ate My Model (TDAMM)”.

    The real world Data folks, “What actually happened?” is crushing the Abstract Model makers and the Modeler are getting very pissy about it. They actually want to cut funding for the “What actually happened?” Data folks so no bad news will ‘harsh their model mellow.’ The Abstract crowd is more willing than ever now to drown the “What actually happened?” Data baby in the bath tub.

    There’s even a website to rub the Abstract Modelers noses in it.

    So Abstraction vs Reflection is alive and well in climate chaos circles.

    And it ‘s beginning to look like the folks ‘Livin’ in their heads’ won’t hesitate to terminate the “What actually happened?” crowd with extreme prejudice.

  106. This line of discussion brought to my mind a really fundamental question: why DO we have conversations, especially about national and/or global issues? The actual impact on the evolution of those issues may be infinitessimal (which is not to say “nil”), but the impact on our immediate relationships may be enormous. Hence, global issues can provide a template for interpersonal games of virtue-signaling (promoting group cohesion), and conflict-enhancing (setting of boundaries around the local group). If you really want to make progress on a local issue, such as front-yard vegetable gardens, I suppose you need to bury any “relevance to contentious global issues” as deep as possible.

    As an active ham radio operator, sometimes I wonder how to explain its appeal. I haven’t seen this argument anywhere else, but sometimes one just needs nerd-to-nerd contact, even if it’s about nothing, just to prove you’re alive. Of course, there are the official reasons: it builds technical skills, and can be useful in emergencies (like the hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico). But it’s also a sort of fraternity, the rites of initiation being FCC exams, which can transcend the abstractions of politics. (See for more on ham radio…)

  107. The American postmodernist philosopher John David Ebert recently posted an interesting analysis of Late Western culture and intellectualism on his blog Cultural Discourse, from modernism to post-modernism to what he calls hypermodernity. Like our host, Ebert is a scholar who cites Oswald Spengler (along with CG Jung, Rudolf Steiner and Arnold Toynbee) as a major influence on his thinking, but has different interests and goes off in different directions. From Ebert’s description of the trajectory of Western thought and pop culture, it appears as though we are in the process of transitioning from an age of abstraction to an age of reflection, with post-modernism and hypermodernity as extreme overreactions to the excesses of a cultural worldview based on abstraction. In the long run, these are all merely phases in the Long Descent of the West.

  108. Eric, when the legal challenges over Google Books were first settled, I contacted them and set the parameters under which my books can be used by them. Everything of mine that appears on Google Books is there with my explicit approval and legal permission, so you’re not violating anything if you look something up there.

    Gkb, good. To my mind the corresponding concept to reflection is recycling!

    Jasper, funny. No, not a coincidence at all, in my view!

    Will, fair enough. As for the frantic pursuit of purity, no question, that’s a massive issue, and it’s a very common one when abstract ideas are treated as more important than messy human realities.

    Dewey, funny. You known when I called Republicans on their over-the-top behavior not long after Obama was inaugurated, they responded with the same sort of laundry list of awful things they claimed Obama had done. I suspect there’s more going on here than a reflection of the actual behavior of the politicians in question!

    Fuzzy, I’m sorry to find that the most embarrassing example of Hillary worship — the notorious essay on LennyLetter that proclaimed that she was “light itself” — has been taken down. That is to say, you may have something there…

    Bruce, not at all. There are times when a snappy comeback is the appropriate response — but is that the only resource you have to hand? I hope not.

    Dave, oh dear gods. I have that John Cleese image permanently affixed in the relevant corner of my brain!

    January1, thanks for the recommendation — I’m not familiar with Haydt’s book. With regard to conservative moral intuitions, if that’s what works for you, by all means; I’d just like to see more people remember that moral intuitions are how you guide your own behavior, not tools for imposing your will on others, as so many people seem to think!

    Samurai_47, the crucial point — and the one that’s almost always neglected these days — is to start with your own opinions, and subject them to the sort of analysis too many people reserve solely for other people’s. Pointing out logical fallacies in other people is less useful than learning to spot them in your own thinking. Fallacies are like carbon dioxide — it’s a lot easier to encourage other people not to produce them if you’ve cut your own production first!

    Scotlyn, fascinating. So you’ve got a parallel situation, with both sides saying “well, if you have sex, then you relinquish your right to choose” — and just differing as to who loses that right. Hmm…

    Felix, hmm! Thank you for this .

  109. The book is Musical Meaning in Beethoven: Markedness, Correlation, and Interpretation (Advances in Semiotics) by Robert S. Hatten. He has written additional books on other musicians, but I have not kept up, having moved on to other vocations since that particular grad school experience. Enjoy!

    I look forward to your forthcoming comments about reflection and additional posts on education. Reflection unlocks knowing but in excess and without good information flow, risks trapping a person as well.

  110. Jamieson, so noted, but the new format is working better for me than the old one did. We’ll see what happens as things proceed, though.

    Simo, fascinating. Thank you.

    Felix, in my novel Retrotopia, one of the bits of offstage business was that the Republic of California was in a state of perpetual civil war. I still consider that the most likely outcome of California independence.

    Bruno, the thing people don’t like is that you have to start by doing that sort of analysis to your own beliefs, and a lot of people find that acutely uncomfortable.

    E. Goldstein, I don’t recall his name either, but I’ve read the story and it strikes me as a very constructive way to handle such things.

    Twilight, that seems to me like a very sensible analysis of the Trump phenomenon. As for how we get out of this corner, I’m going to try one approach — the revival of rhetoric as a way of knowing. History has another approach waiting in the wings: when societies get into this kind of state and nobody persuades them to stand down, you get civil war or the equivalent, and after enough people have died and enough destruction has taken place, people are sickened enough by it all to back away from the stupidities that got them there. I hope it doesn’t come to that.

    Picador, thanks for this. I don’t read the psychological literature — given the current state of the replicability crisis, that’s probably a good thing! — and thus drew on the study that got into sources I do read. I’d point out, though, that there’s a world of difference between pointing that people with strong beliefs do in fact have strong beliefs, and judge sources of data on the basis of their congruence to those beliefs — something rhetoricians in ancient Greece knew quite well, of course — and insisting, as so many discussions of this sort of research has done, that existing biases are by definition impenetrable. I’d also point out that in heavily polarized social issues, such as the one the study you cited dealt with, the impact of repeated previous exposure to the other side’s arguments has to be taken into account; so do confounding variables such as class markers, which (as I noted above) elicit very different reactions from people depending on their own class standing and sociopolitical views; and so, as I also noted above, does the fact that most Americans are used to being bombarded by superficially plausible lies, and react accordingly.

    Dave, yep. I got the same thing in a small way from a lot of peak oil pundits back in the brief heyday of the peak oil movement; I was making accurate predictions based on history, they were making inaccurate predictions based on abstract theories, and their response was to wish that I’d shut up and go away, not — heaven forfend! — to recognize the flaws in their theories and stop making the same mistakes eternally.

    LatheChuck, I figure we have conversations because we’re social primates, and the political issues et al. just get dragged along for the ride!

    Felix, interesting. Thanks for this.

    Laurel, many thanks. Reflection has more risks than that, but we’ll get to those in due time!

  111. JMG – “So you’ve got a parallel situation, with both sides saying “well, if you have sex, then you relinquish your right to choose” — and just differing as to who loses that right.”

    Yes. And pointing out the parallels between the arguments got me blocked by several “pro-choice” people and admonished by several others as to how I should not be drawing equivalence between the risks of pregnancy and the risks of (say) labouring to earn an income.

  112. Since so many people seem to think no one’s mind can ever be changed, here are a few examples.

    I changed my mind about the death penalty. I was born and raised Texan and I still believe that some types of criminals are impossible to ever reform and are too dangerous to ever release back into society, and I still brlieve it’s more humane to kill them than to imprison them for life, and that it reduces risks tothe rest of the population.

    HOWEVER, in college I learned that the single most powerful predictor of whether someone received the death penalty was whether the defendant had a public defender instead of a hired lawyer. That single statistic changed my mind about whether we should actually use the death penalty in the real world as it exists today. We do not execute the most dangerous criminals, we execute the poorest criminals. This is not justice at all.

    Later in life, I learned a friend of my family was on death row and later pardoned for a crime he never committed. This confirmed it for me, humans are too imperfect to administer the death penalty, at least for now. (Granted, I do understand other people may have different ideas about acceptable margins of error in dealing with crime and punishment).

    My second example is of myself changing the mind of my boyfriend at the time. He had fallen for the “America is the free-est nation on Earth” propaganda, and I slowly, patiently, methodically went through his entire basis for the belief “What is freedom?” Etc. It was long and emotionally exhausting for both of us, and though he agreed with me in the end, he wasn’t particularly happy about it. We reached a pseudo-compromise, which was the US is freer than a lot of countries, but Europeans do enjoy a more free society since they don’t have slavery, do have democracy, and also have lower incarceration rates (which was actually my point the whole time so it wasn’t really a compromise).

    I have engaged in arguments like this multiple times. This is what I’ve learned:

    You always have to startby gaining trust, and then by starting from where they are. So if you want to talk to a Republican, you start out agreeing with Republican points of view. You will make faster progress if your arguments against the one Republican thing you want to refute are also of a Republican nature (talk about how pollution infringes upon the basic freedoms of the Americans who fish in that river). I find that I can talk to anyone, but I can only change a stranger’s mind a little bit, but Ican change sometimes drastic things in the mind of someone who loves and respects me, BUT if I do it will be LOOONG and gruelling argument and it will take a small toll on the emotional connection.

    There is a another way, and that is to not try to change any mind, but to do the ethical thing and only mention it when it comes up in conversation (it will) and you will find that it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks because you are changing people’s behavior as they emulate you. Not everyone will, but some people will, and you will be pleasantly surprised by who does it. That’s my favorite. Once a certain percentage do it, the balance shifts and the people who don’t do it become the weirdos. It’s great.

  113. My two friends who suffer the most from TDS, as in when I log into Facebook, then have posted 10-12 things a day against Trump all during the election and his first year in office, don’t live in a permanent home in the US. One is retired and drives around in a camper so he doesn’t have to pay taxes I guess. The other works overseas teaching the children of Americans working for the government. They both let it be know how disappointed they are in the voters of the US that they elected this orange buffon and they could never buy a home here and live here. How dare we make the US look like idiots to the world!

    There is no talking to either person in a rational manner. It truly is some kind of psychotic break with reality!

  114. You say expressing self-interest helps with negotiating. Well then we have the best president ever! Trump is the most selfish president we’ve had in a while and honest about it. His campaign was “Look at all the things I’ve gotten for myself in this country. I want our country to have nice things too and not be made fools of anymore.” Every time he puts American citizens and America the county interest’s first, every economist says “this is the end of everything”, which signals to me that my family and town will benefit and he is on the right track!

  115. Hello JMG-
    When considering histories patterns, I wonder if in times of transition between abstraction and reflection small groups of individuals form and coalesce in order to bring about the transition, and that is in fact what people experience as “progress”. It is movement out of necessity- for survival. The old belief system can no longer supply the glue that holds the social structure together, so it must change- or it falls apart on its own. Some sort of social catalyst brings new form out of the chaos.

    Your essay also brings to mind the notion of fractal mathematics. Repeating patterns that differ in relation to scale. Zooming in and out between the small and the very large, but the fundamental structure, the “truth”, is the same regardless of the scale. Very mind altering experience when one is made conscious of the shifting of reference position. Beautiful as art also, when the abstract numbers are converted to a visual expression. Also, deeply related to the forms and structures of nature.

    Another important point is humans are pack animals, subject to the rules and regulations that entails. Our current crop of pack leaders are proving themselves unworthy of our obedience and following. This confusing transition period we find ourselves in is the reshuffling of leadership positions. Lying is directly related to poor leadership qualities. Once lying becomes the dominant means of maintaining group cohesion, breakup is around the corner. Violence becomes more prevalent, which guarantees the breakup. Its the pattern of small human communities coalescing into larger structures, only to disintegrate into smaller units once again. This is basic primal stuff. The pack is held together by dominance and the ability to provide food and sustenance. The current elite are playing with fire if they cannot supply jobs and a meaningful place in the social order. It will happen one way or another.

    One last thing that seems important when considering this flow between abstraction and reflection is the idea of embracing chaos, or how that complexity is perceived and approached. It seems to me, in our current troubling situation, that individuals are not provided with the tools and social mechanisms to deal with that chaos. The hubris of our leadership, whether political or scientific, or religious for that matter, is the doubling, tripling, down on the certainty of worldview. That somehow, they know the truth and cannot let go. It reminds me of a story pertaining to trapping raccoons. The trap consists of placing a shiny object in a container with a hole in it just big enough to allow the raccoon to slip its hand/paw into it to grasp the object, but too small to extract both object and paw. Apparently, the raccoons brain is unable to overcome the desire for the object and realize freedom depends on releasing it in order to extract itself from the trap.

    The mark of a healthy society, or individual for that matter, is the ability to stay out of both physical and mental traps. Back to the pack idea, people are looking for calm, assertive leadership. What form that takes is currently up for grabs.

    I’ll turn 56 this year, and from my perspective, it seems the post WWII American dominance is coming to a close, in the sense of political leadership rewarding or compromising with the working class for demands made after the war. The momentum from those events is creating the need for a new set of demands that need to be articulated, and well, demanded. Its going to take effort and skill to bring that about, which proper rhetoric is one important aspect. Its a confrontation of demands. That requires organization and solidarity in order to compete and a choice between social harmony or discord.

  116. Re: conversations between social primates – That’s a concise way to think of it! Not every conversation, though, is purely social, and we need to be conscious of the difference between “social speech” and “productive speech”. Now that we’ve seen that none of the countries that signed on to the Paris Accord on Climate Change have actually followed through on their promises, it appears that the agreement was more “social speech” than an actual contract to be executed.

    “But at least we agreed on what we should have done! I mean, if we could have done anything, that’s what we would have done. Wasn’t that worth something?” Well…

    Roberts Rules of Order should be recognized as a ritual to define the boundaries between social and productive speech. Unfortunately, it isn’t always used that way (or isn’t used at all).

  117. JMG & Tiago,

    In Rhode Island, we have STEAM: Admittedly, the motivation appears to be to create a better workforce, but from what I’ve been told by someone who is involved, the program hopes to teach things like critical thinking, intelligent decision making, and design thinking. You probably would not be surprised to hear how many people say “Don’t you mean STEM?” and are shocked (or even slightly annoyed) to discover that art has any place in the program.

    I don’t know if the STEAM program is an early example of a shift, if it’s a lot of nice talk and the Art & Design side will be ridden roughshod over in practice, or if it’s just another example of Rhode Island being a deeply weird place. 🙂

  118. Lessons of Rethoric! I’m really, really eager to read them!

    May I ask the permission (obviously putting the references to your blog) to translate this post in my language and publish it on my facebook page?

    We had very controversial elections here in Italy recently, and the “leftist” party (PD) members I know are still outraged by losing about half their voters in favour of a perceived “populist” party like M5S (five stars movement).

    Your post(s) coud give some insights that are really needed to calm (or maybe enlighten) them…

    Thank you

  119. John–

    Re Sessions and CA

    An excellent point. I had not considered the possibility that there might be intention to that effect (conscious or unconscious) on his part. I hope that we find a way to resolve our internal conflicts by some means short of the drastic cliff-edge we seem to be driving towards at full speed. These are not encouraging precursors.

  120. JMG:

    Bullseye again. I offer this to our little community:

    An Exercise in Dread

    1) Find audio and/or AV media featuring a charismatic popularizer of corporeal sciences.
    2) Observe this media for a short time. Then observe it again but this time transcribe what you hear on to paper. A paragraph or two could suffice.
    3) Look for plain logic. I mean propositions and syllogisms in simple logical terms that kids and the untrained could follow.
    4) Abandon all hope. lol.

    I did this a while back with a three minute long video of a Neil deGrasse Tyson monologue. Then I happened to look in a mirror and saw new gray hairs in my beard. I’m old enough for a little silver in my beard but that is no explanation for new and sudden graying!

    Now for a brief flash of odd.

    I recently learned some Anglo-Saxon. Just introductory basics… Since, weird events have happened and are still happening in and around me. Frankly, they’re wonderful.

    In your opinion could I have shaped a figurative and/or literal portal for new influences to enter my awareness by learning a dash of this high-powered OE?

    Is my OE, as a device, not as “noisy” as my English?

    Perhaps Beholding Wells,

    Saturn’s Pet

  121. JMG, you said, “You’re right that it’s not a collection of tips for persuasion, and equally right that it’s not a set of Jedi mind tricks for forcing people to agree with you. Both those assume that rhetoric is about power; what I’m suggesting instead is that it’s about knowledge instead. “

    Hmmm…lots to think about. So I’m guessing then, that one aspect of gaining skill in the art of rhetoric would require one to gain knowledge of humanity’s path of possible spiritual development. I think this could be distilled into a fairly identifiable and predictable pattern, and in fact, I would guess it already has been – the path back up the Tree of Life, for example, seems to describe this process of development. If one could master that kind of knowledge, one could start to recognize other people’s location (or state of consciousness) on that path, and target discussion and questions to that location. That would likely reveal a great deal about someone’s underlying motivations as well – the psychological reasons a person may be holding on to a particular point of view and how it may or may not be based on some kind of internal error of thinking about oneself or the world. As you’ve hinted at, the best way to gain this kind of knowledge would likely be to start by subjecting one’s own self to this sort of analysis, which could indeed prove uncomfortable! I suppose that without proper guidance, there would also be the risk of getting lost in an existential crisis, rather than gaining actual self-knowledge.

    You’ve mentioned in the past how people in many cases never learned how to think. To me, this is starting to mean that many people just can’t think at all! There are too many distractions, television and other media being the first of many things that come to mind, that lead the mind away from the possibility of reflective thinking and the corresponding self-knowledge. I’ve started to realize the importance of meditation as a tool for training the mind to be able to think; to hold focus and concentrate for anything longer than a few seconds is tricky indeed. Possibly, someone who is skilled at rhetoric would also be skilled at holding their focus, and they could use that to help someone else hold their own focus, and thus be able to think more clearly (or think at all) about themselves during the interaction. Sort of like shining a light…

    I’m hoping you’re going to actually tell us more about rhetoric sooner rather than later!

  122. One clear sign of the degeneration of abstraction is the attempt to cram obviously human activities like education into quantifiable abstractions. I am a physicist whose natural skills are in abstraction and quantification. But I also observe the world I live in, and the issues that we humans care most about can not be quantified like a Hydrogen atom. I like the phrase rhetorical education; If you pay careful attention to ideas, evidence, and people you are well on your way to a good education.

    A recent editorial at NYTimes ( addressed the misguided attempt to measure learning outcomes. You simply can’t quantify the educational process. The best educators reflect on how they think and what they have learned from individual students about how they think and propose curricula that will help students think more clearly about the topic of the course. Measurements of student learning offer such a limited perspective on what was actually learned that they are useless except as hints to a wise educator who has observed and reflected on the process the students went through.

    On a related note, I think that this outstanding essay may have necessarily oversimplified the swing between abstraction and reflection. Wise people have always done both. And the more human and reflective era to come will still be permeated by successful abstractions. They are essential to simplify thinking and to create devices and systems that work. There are syntheses of abstraction and reflection that often are very successful. Take the most successful basketball or baseball teams with their advanced analytics coupled with coaches that understand their players. You can’t win in the NBA or MLB without both. The error is assuming that more abstraction is always better. In politics this comes in the form of creating messages based on polling and demographics rather than creating messages based on wise understanding of people and what will pull people in the direction you want society to go. In education this comes in the form of creating curriculum based on multiple choice tests rather than by getting to know your students.

  123. Dot, I am a little confused by your comment.

    I wrote in my comment, “It’s always legitimate to critique someone’s values.” You wrote, ” Surely you’ve had the common experience of discovering how little you understand of your own values or those close to you? Yet you think you can work out those of a complete stranger? You can’t evaluate a book without knowing the personal values of the speaker?”

    I am not sure how you got from what I wrote to what you concluded about me. As the context may suggest, I meant “values” in the sense of what a writer finds good or bad, which may be a different definition of the word “values” from what you consider common. I believe that values are generally easily visible from what people choose to include in their books.

    For example, if I read a self-help book and the author has a long anecdote about wild bonobo communities where children are taught to avoid hierarchies and females avoid males who display aggressive behavior, as part of a chapter with a title like “Learn From Your Parents” or “Socialization Is Everything,” I would take it to mean that the author is a fan of the bonobos. The author may or may not believe that humans can imitate bonobos all the way, but “being a fan of the bonobos” is what I’m calling a value.

    I summarized Peterson as saying, “When lobsters are happy, they become socially dominant and all the ladies like them. ” You said, “This is not remotely an accurate summary of any part of the book.” What Peterson actually says in his book is that when you are socially dominant, “you are a successful lobster, and the most desirable females line up and vie for your attention.” You may find this statement in Chapter 1 of the book.

    You wrote that what Peterson actually teaches young men is “to fulfil our potential (whatever that means…)” and that, whatever this means, “it has nothing whatsoever to do with getting girls, happiness or social status.” I simply disagree with you. I believe Peterson provided examples of what it means to fulfill one’s potential in his book, and that this is appealing to its readers and also teaches us about his values.

    I am sorry for the derail. As I hinted at in my comment I am fascinated by people who take Peterson seriously and love to discuss it with anyone but I recognize that this is off-topic here.

  124. JMG
    As our man with a finger on the pulse of deep history (smile) – you have mentioned more than once the historical ability of Gaia to store excess carbon by triggering an anoxic event in the deep ocean – there is an interesting assertion in this week’s Science. Scientific rhetoric has its own formalities – one of which is that assertions should be accompanied by suggestions for test methods in the context of known backgrounds. (I described something like this for my own use as ‘keep writing it – results – down to see whether it makes sense’.)

    Quote : “Such an approach [the advent of biogeochemical measurements on profiling floats, coupled with dedicated field and modeling studies] is even more needed when considering the potential cascade of changes in a range of biogeochemical processes set in motion by the Southern Ocean nutrient trapping, such as a large-scale depletion of oxygen in the deep waters. Regardless of future findings from such studies, one consequence is already obvious. In the political debate, long-term consequences beyond 2100 urgently need to be considered.” [Emphasis added]

    Phil H

  125. @onething
    “Hoo boy. So you think they have actually proved something dark about human motivation, and that people operate out of base motivations and are impervious to rational discussion, if they happen to disagree with you, who are of course right, and cannot be wrong!”

    Well, that’s not exactly what I said. What I said was that providing some people with factual information gets an opposite response. This has been tested and shown. I don’t think this blog is the place to be debating the evidence about global warming, though if we lived in the same town and you wanted to discuss it over a beer I would be happy to do so. But in the past my personal experience I have debated this issue with numerous people: some approach it from a rational debating perspective and are enjoyable to debate, and some don’t. For the latter I don’t call them names, I just don’t continue the debate. And for those who think I might be overly partisan, the same dynamic does sometimes play out among those on the left, though I do not think it to be as frequent.

  126. With regards to Trump derangement syndrome, I think the answer as to which cause is making this round of Presidential derangement syndrome so much worse may very well be “all of them, and then some”. I think it’s likely over determined to the extreme.

    JMG/Goldstein/others interested,

    The black man who goes around befriending members of the KKK is Daryl Davis. He’s a musician and is one of the better ones (at least in my opinion)

  127. Thanks. I figured it was something like that, but the internet can be very confusing in that regard and I wanted to make sure I hadn’t accidentally exploited you in the process of trying to pull up a cherished quote from a book of yours while out at dinner with friends or some such.

    On to the broader theme of the post: one thing I’ve seen a lot of in discussions of the Trump Tariff situation is comparison the the Great Depression, and the Hoover Tariff increases. That comparison alone seems relevant to the discussion of rhetoric that you’re introducing, since it seems to point out another hole in contemporary thought processes. I recall from Kenneth Galbraith’s “The Great Crash” that at the time of the Hoover Tariff increases, the US was a major creditor nation and our trade deficit was one in which exports significantly outweighed imports. The result of the Tariff increase therefore, was that the several nations that were in debt to us, unable to take on the extra financial burden simply defaulted on their national debts which pulled out yet another Jenga piece in the US economy. Now, our situation is the exact opposite with a national debt in the trillions and a trade deficit dominated by imports. It seems to me, looking at that situation alone (and there are dozens of other hot button political topics today that you could make the same observations about), that the political ideologies that tend to get treated as hard, fast, and eternal facts of reality that are always appropriate regardless of the situation are ultimately more like settings on a thermostat than anything else with the needs of the situation sometimes calling for one over the other. That difference in mindset between thought-stoppers like “facts have a liberal bias” and that realization that sometimes a more conservative approach to a situation might be necessary seems to touch on the difference between abstraction and reflection. Of course, we’ve also discussed here the Barbarism of Reflection, in which that realization dissolves into the sort of relativism that renders all viewpoints equally meaningless. So it seems part of the challenge is breaking the fossilization of abstraction and opening the way for healthy reflection on the limits and applications of various viewpoints without falling so far into the barbarism of reflection that such discussion gives way to Sophistry.

  128. @Gavin Harris

    I think that it is not true that multi-party system generally spend more time building coalitions than governing, it’s just that cases where coalition building is difficult get a lot of attention. And it has been getting worse as the traditional parties have been offering fewer answers, leading to splintering.

    I also think that two party systems exacerbate partisanship. They don’t create it, but having only two options makes the system more clearly zero sum. In multi-party systems you can’t attack all your opponents because some of them may end up being your coalition partner.

    I see the newer multi-party democracies occurring in countries that more recently adopted democracy because they simply have more opportunity to use what’s new. The rest of us are kind of stuck with what was adopted a long time ago. Not all of us: both Australia and New Zealand have adopted some aspects of proportional representation in recent decades. And I think that the root of two parties in some countries was really royalty vs the barons. The former wanted the power and wealth while the latter actually controlled the land, which in those days was the only source of wealth. King John didn’t sign the Magna Carta with the peasantry, he did so with the landed gentry. This evolved into modern class politics later on (though Rome had it’s share of hardcore class politics too).

  129. Thank you for this; I look forward to seeing how this conversation develops! For the past few days I’ve been rereading the Well of Galabes blog and have been astonished to see how much I missed the first few times I read them, it has been instructive to give them a few more times over. I wonder what I’ll think when I reread this post in a few months or years, seriously. Often I have to reread what you write half a dozen times with time in between to digest the content. This invariably takes a bit longer than a week, so let me say on that I am very interested in seeing how this discussion develops.

    If I may, I have a thought on Trump Derangement Syndrome that I haven’t seen discussed. That is, it is a convergent phenomenon. That there are many factors interacting to create it, and to make it worse than other presidential backlashes of the recent past. Here are the factors I’ve been pondering as particularly relevant.

    1) The Balkanization of discourse into echo chambers: I think that this helps contribute to the rhetorical blindness you’ve been discussing, JMG, and helps to create increasingly extreme and bizarre rhetoric.

    2) The decline in education: Most of the so called Millenials were in school during the Bush and Obama years and it was the older generations that were freaking out. What, in part, makes this melt-down so pronounced is that the Millenials are part of the larger discourse now and are not as well trained in thinking, on the whole, as previous generations. So people now are less equipped for critical thinking.

    3) Video games: This is entirely an intuition, but for people who play video games and are “With Her” I imagine that Trump being elected felt like an epic game over. This I feel contributes more than is acknowledged to the current freakout.

    4) Loving Trump’s Hate: as you’ve noted JMG people all across the political spectrum seem like they want to hurt people for the sake of pure sadism. People on the left are deeply repressed on this issue, and I believe that Trump is triggering people’s repressed hatred to a hysterical, neo-Victorian degree.

    5) Bad Magic: You mentioned the binding spell on your dreamwidth account. From first hand experience the avant garde of the wealthy 20% is interested in magic, and is, I’m sorry to say, especially drawn to malefic workings. Perhaps the bored and comfortable want more drama and excitement? This differs sharply from the more conservative and working class folks, and especially Christians I’ve encountered, who tend to use really benevolent magic as a matter of course. Seeing my friends play around with malefic workings and seeing so much spring up like mushrooms after the Trump victory I think that, in part, this hysteria is explained by the raspberry jam principal.

    6) Revitalization: as I mentioned earlier I think that political discourse, especially on the social justice left, has degraded into ritual actions done solely for the sake of ritual. This I believe adds to the apocalyptic tone of Trump Derangement Syndrome.

    7) Babies raising babies: As discussed last week, the infantilization of the population of the United States is also operative here. Imagine people throwing fits like spoilt children, map that behavior on to the anti-Trump brigade and it is clear that they are throwing a tantrum. It is a highly verbose performance straight out of the terrible twos! Trump derangement syndrome is similar how to one baby cries all of them start crying. What I find the most disturbing about this trend is the degree to which inarticulate tantrums are being held up as sterling examples of real talk! With this being the best people can seem to manage we are seeing people scream and hold their breath on a literally national scale.

    Of course there are likely many other factors contributing to this issue, my point is to explore that many of them are combining in unique and interesting ways to make a new and distinct phenomenon.

  130. Dear Felix the Cat, I was living in California during the Bush II administration. It was my impression then that the entire West Coast was seriously considering secession, on the grounds of Why do we have to pay for their wars? I used to think public feeling then and there was similar to public feeling in the American colonies after about 1760. “Sanctuary cities” is a scam. IMHO, perpetrated by folks who want cheap labor, but there are other issues which the East Coast elites seem to disregard. The murderous illegal marijuana trade, for example, is one. It is no accident that the states in the forefront of legalization are mostly west of the Mississippi River. GMO is a big deal on the West Coast. Upscale restaurant owners and their diners don’t care to have their produce contaminated by chemicals, and organic farming in general is bringing in substantial revenue to all three states. Anti GMO activists in all three Pacific coast states don’t appreciate having their initiatives sabotaged, as they see it, by out of state manipulation of vulnerable parts of the electorate, and are not about to forget or forgive. Left and right are united in their determination to preserve public lands, opposition mostly comes from commercial interests and their paid mouthpieces. The attempt by a gang of out of state idlers to privatize the only substantial source of fresh water between the Colorado and Snake Rivers may have been celebrated by self-styled libertarians in places like Virginia but social media in Oregon was filled with complaints from RW types about how they didn’t think they should have to pay some billionaire if they wanted to go hunting or fishing.

  131. @MIchael Martin, and several others

    Other obligations kept me from responding to your comments on last weeks post and the very important questions you raised then. But I have managed to reply at last; you can find my rather long response there, if you are still interested.

  132. “One more hint: every rhetorical act takes place in some form of conversation: overt or covert, immediate or delayed, it’s always a response to something someone else has said, and calls for a response in turn…”

    Interesting! It sounds an awful lot like evolutionary principles, in which the thought processes, beliefs, and ideas of individuals change within the context of other peoples’ ideas and beliefs (as well as feedback from the physical world, assumedly). Hmm. If this were the case, then rhetoric also wouldn’t be about everyone coming to some agreement about a universal truth–of which there isn’t one!–but would be about people coming to widely varying beliefs about and mental models of the world they live in that allow for better and more successful living in the world. Or at least it would be a potential path to that?

    If everyone locks themselves into mental models that both fail to make sense of the world and put them at constant loggerheads with a significant portion of the population, that doesn’t feel very well-adapted. But if they come together and through reciprocal rhetoric–through conversation, in other words–work to change their understanding of the world and adapt it into forms that allow for greater understanding and cooperation, even to compromises in which multiple parties are satisfied to some degree and feel as though their lives have been made better, then that strikes me as better adapted. And, of course, that would change over time if a conversation continues, due both to the forming of new ways of understanding the world and to changes in the world (and participants in the conversation).

    It would also be, what? Fractal in nature? It would lead to different outcomes in different contexts? At different scales? For instance, a conversation conducted in my local community might lead to some very different compromises than one conducted at a national level. And a conversation with a specific person could lead to very different outcomes than a conversation with a different person.

    Is rhetoric necessarily mutual? It sounds like it is.

    And would the practice of rhetoric on someone help to push them toward use of rhetorical principles, as well, similarly to how consistently discussing possibilities outside of two binary choices can help to break another person out of their binary thought processes?

  133. I don’t enter a discussion with the intention of changing anyone’s mind. I simply try to prise their minds open a chink to understand that there is a different way of looking at things. In the process my own mind is also prised open etc. Surely a society which has many points of view floating around is a richer and more resilient one than one where everyone agrees, or pretends to.

  134. WIth regard to the psychology studies on the possibility of changing minds, I see a basic experimental design flaw: the lack of positive controls.
    In lab science, when I treat a sample with some pharmaceutical and nothing happens, I cannot conclude that the pharmaceutical was ineffective unless I have done at least two more tests:
    1. The same pharmaceutical, on the same day, from the same lot, must actually do something on some other known target.
    2. The same sample, on the same day, treated in the same way by some other molecule with a known effect should react as expected.
    There is actually a lot more to be done, but if you haven’t even done these two tests, most colleagues will refuse to listen to you relating your experimental woes.
    I have never done research in psychology and don’t know the best way to implement positive controls. Test No. 1 might be showing the instructional video to people who have never thought about the issue before. Test No. 2 might be some kind of conversation where at least a few people change their minds (interviewees or interviewers!). It may be very hard to find such positive controls, in lab science as in psychology, but as long as you don’t find them, you simply cannot be sure what your negative results mean.
    In lab science, you would certainly make the audience double over with laughter if you said: “After five years of fruitless efforts, I hereby conclude that these cells never react to anything in any way.”

  135. @ganv and all – Are you not aware of the Common Core Standards? Learning Objectives with measurable verbs? Bloom’s Taxonomy? The K-12 education has been broken into tiny measurable pieces for decades, none of it tied into any real world application.


    Standards: (This is a Common Core mathematics standard for seventh grade.)
    Know the formulas for the area and circumference of a circle and use them to solve problems; give an informal derivation of the relationship between the circumference and area of a circle.
    Use facts about supplementary, complementary, vertical, and adjacent angles in a multi-step problem to write and solve simple equations for an unknown angle in a figure.
    Solve real-world and mathematical problems involving area, volume and surface area of two- and three-dimensional objects composed of triangles, quadrilaterals, polygons, cubes, and right prisms.

    Objective: Students will compute lengths and areas of a classroom to create a blueprint of the classroom indicating the scale used. When finished, students will write a “sales pitch” to a person explaining why their blueprint is accurate and should be purchased.

    As you can see students are empty vessels waiting to be filled with the information from their teacher, provided in a logical, systematic way. Each piece is simple and defined and neatly builds on the previous information. Its a perfect assembly-line of information! What could possibly go wrong with such an approach?

  136. @Violet On the infantilization of the people of the US – I am jumping up and down screaming yes!!! This is such a key issue especially when paired with the victim card(s) people use. I have been so disgusted at all the brain scientists who have been marketing the idea that people are not mature until 25 at least and more likely 30. One more reason for people to lower their expectations of themselves and others and just hang out wasting their life.

  137. @JMG you said: “One more hint: every rhetorical act takes place in some form of conversation: overt or covert, immediate or delayed, it’s always a response to something someone else has said, and calls for a response in turn…”

    This is interesting, because, I’ve always thought of speech as a component of conversation – 1) it needs other people and 2) it is part of a dance with listening and response as its counterpoints.

    It has occurred to me that some of the “free speech” activists I’ve encountered lately, do not want to be part of a conversation so much as they want a pulpit, from which to speak, but not be responded to or spoken back to, but to an audience which “knows its place”.

    Speech is not a pulpit, so “free speech” cannot mean a “free pulpit” – well, not in my humble opinion, at least.

    Let us have speech, and listening, and response, and more speech, please. (And more listening…)

  138. @Robert Mathieson:

    “@Michael Martin, and several others

    Other obligations kept me from responding to your comments on last weeks post and the very important questions you raised then. But I have managed to reply at last; you can find my rather long response there, if you are still interested.”

    Thank you so much. I have read your response, and it fills in several “gaps” left by my own adolescent memories from that period of our history. In 1968, I was 13 years old, and I found the experience of my society exploding in my face to be quite traumatic. That experience led me to a fundamental mistrust of my society which ultimately led to my decision to expatriate.

    As for your evaluation of American history, I now believe that the founding document of America was neither the Declaration of Independence (which I now believe was co-authored by Thomas Paine as well as by Jefferson) nor the Constitution, but rather The New Atlantis by Sir Francis Bacon. In other words, America was always a controlled social experiment from the every start.

    Much to consider, and I thank you for it.

  139. In looking at this week’s essay and comments, I keep coming back to a book review I read most of a year ago:

    The gist of the argument is that reason evolved as a social tool. To quote the review:

    “reasoning is primarily a social, rather than an individual, tool. Here the purpose of reasoning is not inquisitive, but instead justificatory – we provide reasons to other people, and we evaluate the reasons provided by other people. The niche of reasoning is in the highly social world of human cooperative groups, a niche where it is highly advantageous to be able to transfer information and trust between individuals who are not kin”

    Digging through the on-line material, the authors have a series of testable hypotheses which mostly succeed. The take-home is that a number of “flaws” in reasoning as used by lone individuals are actually strengths when used in a social context.

  140. @Dave Note

    Modeling is a human enterprise, and subject to human foibles. In climate modeling, there are a variety of models which project diverse outcomes on different time scales. Which one is best? It depends on what you want to use it for.

    This reminds me of an old Pat and Mike joke (which tells you how old it was).

    Pat and Mike are recent immigrants from Ireland. Pat is watching Mike write a letter home.

    Mike finishes up with his exposition of how good it is here by writing: “And we even have meat for dinner twice a week!”

    Pat shakes his head. “Mike, you ought to go to confession for that whopper. We have meat for dinner every night.”

    Mike looks at him and replies: “I know that, and you know that, but if I put that in the letter, they’d know I was lying!”

  141. Avery,

    You said:

    “I summarized Peterson as saying, “When lobsters are happy, they become socially dominant and all the ladies like them.”

    No you did not. Nice selective quoting. Your summary was:

    “Serotonin is proven to make you happy, like in lobsters. When lobsters are happy, they become socially dominant and all the ladies like them. And that’s what we’re all after in life. So stand up straight.”

    Interesting that your partial quote omitted exactly the sentence that I most took issue with. I believe that kind of sleight of hand is called sophistry rather than rhetoric.

    I can well understand how you debated someone about this for four hours and I suggest the cause had less to do with your friend’s inability to understand the is-ought distinction that my five year old grasps and more to do with your patronizing attitude combined with lack of comprehension.

    I won’t derail the comments any further on this.

  142. @Millicently Lurking,
    Thank you for your recommendation. I’ve jotted down the title and author and will order with the next bunch pretty soon (two from the last bunch to finish). Toastmasters sounds like such a great idea, and I’m sure I could find a group in Tokyo, probably near Yokota Air Base (America’s 800 or so foreign bases do have their merits), but I am still too remote for that. I’ll bet they have a website with advice.
    Also, I realized I have a local resource, a former school teacher who loves to speak and has given me advice on how to structure a speech for the Japanese, which worked well. Also, the Japanese seem to value shyness and hesitance. It is possible my urge to speak plus some diligence in preparation would offset my disadvantages.

  143. @ JMG and others
    Shadow projection has been discussed in the past as part of the Trump Derangement Syndrome. I am quite certain my own shadow plays a large part in my intense dislike of Hillary. It strikes me that the people I believe Denys mentioned, that are out of the country, don’t like the fact that Trump could be seen as the poster child of “the ugly American”. So they may need to look at the Golden Golem of Greatness in themselves. I know among my acquaintances Trump is seen as the “white trash” of the wealthy, and I think his lack of “class” is one of the main things that rubs them raw.

  144. I’m definitely looking forward to these posts. At school I took to abstract academic pursuits like a duck to water, and so thought that I’d be set up for life. Then sometime in university, I realised that I basically knew an assorted selection of trivia – and worse, I was such a dilettante about it that there wasn’t even a particularly appealing job waiting for me in the salary classes, unless I wanted to spend 90% of my time being incredibly bored. I occasionally fantasise about suddenly waking up and finding myself, say, 14 again, and spending more time learning such things as gardening and people skills. I definitely feel like I need better skills in rhetoric.

    Strangely, I’m an eloquent writer, though occasionally lacking in the planning ahead aspects (I tend to write by the seat of my pants, which is probably why I have about ten times as many unfinished projects as finished ones), but as soon as you want me to talk to somebody in person or over the phone, I start forgetting what I was going to say, or I have a perfectly good point in my head and somehow it comes out all wrong and I just end up sounding stupid and unsure of myself.

    I tried to learn something about advertising and marketing, because I wanted to become self-employed in order to escape the 9-5 rat trap that lay ahead, but so far, a) I keep feeling slightly immoral at trying to sell people things, because the things I am skilled in are too abstract and I’ve not actually convinced myself that people really need to spend money on them, and b) my attempts haven’t really got me any custom anyway, so I must not be doing it very effectively. If I knew more about rhetoric, perhaps I could figure out what people actually want, and then maybe I’d know where to go from here.

    I admit that I feel envious of people who are naturally talented speakers. Also, there are few things I feel bitter about, but the failure of the UK education system to force me out of my teenage introverted-nerdy-loner comfort zone and give me some actually useful skills is one of them. I think we need a radical overhaul of the education system. We focus too much on STEM and academics, and I also think English lessons ought to include a larger section relating to speaking and dramatics. Plus I think we should be spending probably half the time teaching kids practical, manual skills, like gardening, cooking, and woodworking, rather than maybe a couple hours a week if they’re lucky.

    Here’s hoping I’ll manage to teach myself something useful about people sometime soon.

    Thanks for the great post as usual,


  145. I’ll just note here a couple of additional odd habits of argument I see more and more these days, particularly among Americans:

    1) Refusing to engage with anything but an obvious caricature of an opponent’s position. (Curiously, this behavior seems more common the higher you go up the social ladder.)

    2) Believing that finding a flaw in any point, however minor, defeats an opponent’s entire argument. (This one seems sadly universal.)

    I am not sure why this is. It seems self-evident to me that understanding one’s opponent’s values and interests is critical to, if not victory, at least a productive truce. And yet, as you (JMG) suggested, the truer the believer, the more indignant they tend to be at the idea of having to listen to the other side!

    I think people might be aware on some level of the fragility of their belief systems, and afraid of having them challenged. I don’t know. It doesn’t make most attempts at good-faith debate much fun, anyway. Let’s be thankful for the exceptions.

  146. The second point (I think of it as “thinking in zingers”) seems to me to have a lot to do with the dumbing-down effect of television, though.

  147. Thank you, JMG, for having the presence of mind to talk about rhetoric as it was practiced during the Renaissance. The discord in modern discourse is absolutely sickening. And if, as you say, rhetoric will be a valuable tool as the age of reflection returns, you can certainly count me in. I can hardly wait for the next post!

    As you said to ProleNoMore, “the sooner at least a few of us make the leap from abstraction to reflection, the easier it will be for others to jump the same way when circumstances force them to do so”, I see this as one of your potentially great contributions to the regaining of sanity in North American society. Many of us naturally reflective types have a devil of a time living in a world dominated by abstraction: if you can help us “ride the wave” of reflection via rhetoric when the fad for abstraction fades, you will be rendering a great service.

  148. Dean Myerson,

    I’m not quite sure, but it appears you missed my point, which was certainly not about the details of global warming. It was, rather, the complete and total assumption that those who disagree are wrong just as surely as water boils at 212 Fahrenheit, and that therefore one is free to begin figuring out what is wrong with them.

    You see, you said, “Well, that’s not exactly what I said. What I said was that providing some people with factual information gets an opposite response. ”

    But the problem here is that there really are many people who disagree on the interpretation of what facts we have at hand. What frustrates me about this type of comment, is that it makes for a blank wall, in which no true discussion is possible, as the one side has perfect and unassailable knowledge and cannot be wrong. How would you like it if you were on a discussion of global warming skeptics and they wondered how it was that when you were presented with the real facts, you seem impervious, and they begin to wonder if there is something wrong with how you function or with your motives?

  149. Another interesting essay I came across. Spengler, Christianity, the Alt-Right and much, much more.

  150. Don’t know how rightward I am, but I do live in a red state, and I just made another donation to Calexit. My ancestors fought to secede from the Union, and I’m an avid secessionista, and they and the cause they fought for will be vindicated once we have a successful secession. “As goes California, so goes the nation.”

  151. OK Dave Notes- that John Cleese imagined rant of Elon Musk’s space car sent me into a fit of gut splitting laughter like I haven’t done in I can’t remember when-You win a gold star from me for that. In these despondent times you made my day- actually you probably made my year- thanks a million!

  152. OT, but regarding why Trump Derangement Syndrome is so much more severe than the Bush or Obama versions, one author’s take is that literally trillions of dollars are at stake for the Swamp (which he calls the expendable “Outer Party,” the “Inner Party” being trans-national and multi-generational). (Christian-centric and oblivious to resource depletion, but worth a scan). At any rate, we have to first ask why the propaganda organs have been so overwhelmingly negative toward a duly elected sitting president. That sort of thing has always been reserved for people we are getting ready to bomb.

  153. @ Jessi Thompson – Mind if I point out that while you were talking about why you believe people can change their minds, you told several stories. You changed your mind because you gained new experience and the change wasn’t always absolute, ie your view on the death penalty at the end of your first story, isn’t dead set against so much as we humans are to imperfect to administer it. That is a more complicated view than it’s all one way or the other. How your stores kind of relate back to our talk about reflection and abstraction is, once you change your mind there is still a lot of reflection. It’s like changing of one’s mind requires stepping out of the mirror. And stepping out of the mirror is a story that brings a 2D object to being full 3D.

  154. @ JMG

    Re: comunication for future generations

    Do you think if any small piece of the huge amount of information we generate ans store every single day will last as much as the information “stored” inside the stories of the “savaged” and loincloth people in Australia?

    As usual, in the past the people that contact them treat their stories as “mythos” and “supersticions”, but recently they have found some of this very very complex stories describe in full detail some areas that were above see level 7.000 years ago, and now are submerged, or some volcanic eruptions of around 10.000 years ago that now geologist have confirmed. There are also a lot of stories about events in the stars and ine the sky that anthropologist and others scientist start to think are not “inventions” of “savage people”

    The life of this people is a “university of life” from their born to their death, with an amount of knowledge we cannot imagine, basically because we don’t , sorry, we cannot listen them, in fact our habit of the past was hunting them as ugly animals (for the english settlers) and after that send them to the school to teach them the “truth” about the world, and the right way to be an human being

    May be in 7.000 years from now there will be some australian aborigin tales about the Old Time when some “crazy pale people” almost destroy The People and all the animal and plants, before to be wiped out by “The Gods of Nature” and them the peace and calm return to the People and to the Earth again
    An small tale in the middle of thousand of others tales of this culture


  155. @Candace It could be the shadow self and Trump’s personality bringing it out. My friends with TDS would tell me Trump is crass, desires to be a dictator, and (my favorite) doesn’t think before speaking. I think that is media talking points and not the case at all. In my friend’s case, I think the core issue is my friends are very selfish people just like Trump is. Both friends have never been married or in any relationship that has lasted longer than 2 years. Neither have children. Neither have a home of any sort in the US, owned or rented, so neither have a community or pay taxes or take care of a piece of land. Neither interact with their family other than to visit for a week here or there. Their focus of life is their pleasure and showing off their travels on Facebook.

    Trump’s focus of his life has pleasure and status, other people be damned. He does what he wants, how he wants it ignoring the constant criticism. I think he uses his critics to propel himself forward, but that’s another topic.

    So yes, when we have a visceral reaction to another person, what there is to do is look within to discover what there is about ourselves we have been denying. However what Trump displays on the outside is not the issue for the people I know.

    The majority of my Facebook friends have been very anti-Trump all 2016 and 2017. That has now quieted except for the two mentioned above. I suspect once people got a paycheck adjusted with the new withholding rates and nice pay bump, they stopped complaining. The media told them the tax cuts were for the rich (theory and abstraction). They didn’t understand withholding rates changing and for those at salary jobs, those rates matter! I’m beginning to become thankful for the cognitive dissonance Trump is causing each and every day.

  156. Is it just me, or since Trump has become president does each week seem longer? It feels like there is more “news” than ever and he is a tornado of action. Pence visited South Korea Feb 9th during the Winter Olympics a month ago and it feels like 4 months ago to me.

  157. “You know your society has landed in that particular fix when every controversy of importance is treated as though it’s a contest between competing ideas, not a struggle between contending human beings. Politics—real politics, in every society that has ever existed and will ever exist—is always about who gets what benefits and who has to pay which costs, but you’d never guess that from the language used in politics in an era when abstraction has run as far as it can go.”

    But couldn’t the question of who gets benefits and who has to pay the costs also be viewed as a contest between competing ideas? For example, someone could argue:

    Group A should get benefits because of [reasons/ideas], group B should pay the costs because of [reasons/ideas]. And then someone else might argue that different groups should get different benefits and pay different costs because of different reasons/ideas.

  158. Thinking about the topic and this blog…..there is a something to make distinct about personal boundaries, assertiveness and personal standards. In standard public education, students and parents must accept the school standards as set by experts unquestioningly. If a family’s standards are different, they must seek schooling elsewhere. So we are told that our family standard is wrong if we have one, and actually why even bother setting one because experts have set one for you? Schools assert themselves into private family time with sports, homework, school events and all kinds of forms and emails.

    The shocking part for me about homeschooling is our determining our own standards, boundaries and being firm in those for ourselves. I could write a book about it and probably should.

    Schools offer no privacy to students, no minute to think for themselves, use a toilet alone, or get some quiet to read a book. We become conditioned to have others violate our thoughts and personal space. Bullies know they can do and say anything in schools, and often do. I think we expect being violated and the online social media world has provided this for us now that we are done with school. How often have you heard that a people have a problem saying ‘no’ to others? We are not allowed to say ‘no’ and when we do it is seen as revolutionary.

    JMG you here at this blog you asserted a boundary and standard for what is discussed in the comments. Over the years people have challenged this standard with a “how dare you”. People feel that they have a right to violate your standards, your space. People are not OK with other people setting a standard for themselves and boundaries. They always put it on others, as in “those people are toxic and need to be cut from my life”. Personal standards would look more like “I’m focused on having productive discussions on X topics and welcome those.”

    Another tie in, I went to an exhibit on PA Dutch Pow-Wow practices and rituals. Many were for setting a boundary of protection around a property or a person. So they knew hundreds of years ago that a boundary and standards are necessary to keep a person safe. Taking time to do the ritual stated the lack off one and reestablish it.

    Curious on your thoughts.

  159. Dear Dot,

    I’m afraid I must take issue with a sentence fragment. You used the phrase ‘life denying mystic.’ This must have to do with a definition of mystic. The religious fundamentalists do sometimes like to paint mysticism in a bad light, because they have something that the fundamentalists don’t understand and can’t access.

    My understanding of mysticism is that it involves a genuine experience of gnosis and thus is anything but life denying. I would consider such people as St. Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, Rumi or Haffiz to be mystics.

  160. @onething – Not trying to pick what you said apart – haven’t gone back to follow the thread.

    But your statement “the complete and total assumption that those who disagree are wrong just as surely as water boils at 212 Fahrenheit, and that therefore one is free to begin figuring out what is wrong with them.” strikes me as strange.

    It points out a problem with well established “facts”. Water does not ‘surely boil at 212 Fahrenheit’ in my kitchen. (I live at about 6700 feet). It is almost a ‘stereotype’. A goodly percentage of people would more or less understand your statement in one way but there are other interpretations. The level of understanding a concept has a lot to do with how a statement is interpreted. And that doesn’t take into account the overall context of the statement.

  161. @JMG

    Could you say a brief word on how cognitive biases dovetail with a Rhetorical Education

    Are logical fallacies the same as cognitive biases?

    I personally have a huge bias against breathing too much CO2. ;>)

    Humans seem prone to so many, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard.

    The Cognitive Bias Codex 180+ biases
    in an Easy Deluxe Graphic Mandala

  162. Disclaimer: I am not a formally trained PhD level psychologist. But I did provide research support and technical work for 5 such scientists over the course of 14 years. So far as a non-expert like me can tell the “opinion-fixation” experiments, as described, show precisely nothing at all about the people who watched the videos (i.e.,climate change, political Talking Heads). However, the experiments do show something about the videos—namely, that they are not convincing!

    To design an experiment about the people would be extraordinarily difficult and costly, requiring a huge sample base of randomly selected persons of varying age and other factors: demographic, socio-economic, religious, personality type (information processing differs by personality type) and more, with enough subjects in each class/group to generate sufficient statistical power to show any effect.

    You would also need a control group of similar size and mixed composition to whom you show a Mickey Mouse cartoon or some bland documentary (or a series of irrelevant commercials, or whatever) while the experimental group receives the Test video. Then you would have to reverse that and show the Test group the Mickey Mouse, the control group the testvid and run kappas for test-retest and inter-rater reliability because you would need to have different interviewers administer the post-viewing questionnaires, before and after the experimental event.

    If you use cheaper self-report questionnaires you will have to include a vast number of questions that have previously been proven to align with known Opinion Groups that elicit opinions on a variety of topics, including lie scales to weed out people who are trying to game the test instead of answering honestly about their own opinions. Also, you would have to ask minutely about each scene or statement presented in the video with a true/false/other value assignment, plus a Likert scale of quantifiable degree of agreement that slips in changes of scale direction and veracity. It would, in short, take so much more work than the simplistic design as you all have described.

    You might have to fool people into thinking that you were actually studying what makes people buy a Ferrari instead of a Ford. To understand which statements or images or voice tonalities or body language of presenters in the video were or were not convincing—oh, you might as well go off to Tierra del Fuego and study penguin behavior instead. You would be more likely to get the funding and obtain quicker, more accurate results.

  163. Since the topic is rhetoric and Jordan Peterson has been brought up I will link to his astounding interview with channel 4’s Cathy Newman. The entire interview is worth watching for Jordan Peterson’s masterful performance in which we can see a person well schooled in rhetoric easily out performing a person who only knows what JMG refers to as “incompetent rhetoric”.
    However, I have linked to the one instance in this interview where I think he failed. Not surprisingly it is the section of the interview that most people like to show. Peterson has turned the tables on Newman very badly and pointed out that she is doing to him, in that moment, what she has stated he does and should not be done. Moreover, he has pointed out that that particular thing is not only something they both do, but something that should be done. And then he says, “Gotcha”. Understandable given the hideous nature of the interview to that point but sad none the less.
    That would have been the point where he could have really driven home the idea that actually they agree. That both of them are on the same side of that issue. It could have been a true master stroke. But the “gotcha” was just too tempting.


  164. This actually is rhetoric. Good rhetoric.

    BJ van Look posted to the Bujold list:

    “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit.
    Wisdom is not putting one in a fruit salad.
    Charisma is being able to sell a tomato-based fruit salad.
    …it’s just salsa 😉

    BJ “

  165. L wrote:
    “At school I took to abstract academic pursuits like a duck to water, and so thought that I’d be set up for life. Then sometime in university, I realised that I basically knew an assorted selection of trivia – and worse, I was such a dilettante about it that there wasn’t even a particularly appealing job waiting for me in the salary classes, unless I wanted to spend 90% of my time being incredibly bored.”

    Because 90% of the time you were incredibly bored, solely delaying gratification for the currency of grades, without any intrinsic sense of achievement because you weren’t really learning anything, and after saving up enough grades to be allowed to go to a university where you expected to finally be allowed to learn something and meet people like yourself, realised it was too little too late, and began to suspect you were being strung along and ripped off. And always will be if you follow their lies, so concluded all salary class work will be just the same.

    AKA quarter-life crisis.

    You compromised without negotiation, not that you had much choice, focusing on the means until you forgot the ends. Lacking a clear route to a repressed goal, you became a “dilettante”, out of a fear of limiting your options to the wrong places.

    “Strangely, I’m an eloquent writer…, but as soon as you want me to talk to somebody in person or over the phone, I start forgetting what I was going to say, or I have a perfectly good point in my head and somehow it comes out all wrong and I just end up sounding stupid and unsure of myself.”

    Which indicates a fear to communicate for some reason, not a technical inability. Maybe you don’t feel it’s safe to speak the truth, or you fear being wrong because there isn’t a clearly right answer you can imitate, or you fear success because you don’t really want what you are forcing yourself to get. Or something else?

    And perhaps since once you’ve finished writing, since the next step is to share it, that may be why you don’t like finishing projects.

    “I keep feeling slightly immoral at trying to sell people things, because the things I am skilled in are too abstract and I’ve not actually convinced myself that people really need to spend money on them.”

    You are not other people! You don’t value your skills because you have them and don’t require them for your personal needs. Most people lack them yet some might value them more than you. You don’t know that. Trade is rooted in increasing mutual wealth by exchange. In bartering. Because people are different! It’s not zero sum.

    “b) my attempts haven’t really got me any custom anyway, so I must not be doing it very effectively.”

    Because your conscience required you to fail. You are unconvinced by “marketing” because you have a natural genius for detecting it, and resent it, so hate yourself for doing it. Gullible people find “marketing” easier, and people who are bad at spotting lies and manipulation are more likely to lie and manipulate.

    So don’t lie or manipulate. Not all trade is fraud. Advertising originally meant just letting it be known you provide a service. Like a Yellow Pages listing, not a TV commercial.

    “I admit that I feel envious of people who are naturally talented speakers.”

    It’s easy to speak when you have nothing original to say. And how do you know that they are naturally talented?

    “I also think English lessons ought to include a larger section relating to speaking and dramatics.”

    The national curriculum already requires it, and Drama is usually a compulsory separate subject until 14 in British high schools. But you were trained to do these things on other people’s terms, so you learned to only say what you think you are supposed to say, when authority gives you permission, not what you want to say, when you want to, on your terms. So your problem is you learned TOO well.

    “Plus I think we should be spending probably half the time teaching kids practical, manual skills, like gardening, cooking, and woodworking, rather than maybe a couple hours a week if they’re lucky.”

    If they don’t like school’s perversion of them, they’ll only hate and avoid those things more. And I’ll bet you still don’t like sports.

  166. @ Violet and Denys

    Infantilization thy name is SJW

    An olde axíōma for a young generation

    “thou harsh words doth but melt the Snowflake”

    We have quite the young bunch of toffs and yobs today compared to the Posse that rode in 1776.

    “……Many Founding Fathers of the American Revolution were less than 40 years old in 1776 with several qualifying as Founding Teenagers and Twenty somethings. And though the average age of the signers of the Declaration of Independence was 44, more than a dozen of them were 35 or younger…….At the time of the Revolution, they were all young. It was a young man’s – young woman’s cause.”

    At the time the Declaration of Independence was signed some of the Players:

    General Marquis de Lafayette, 18

    President James Monroe, 18

    Henry Lee III, 20

    Vice President Aaron Burr, 20

    Supreme Court Judge John Marshall, 20

    Nathan Hale, 21

    Alexander Hamilton, 21

    President James Madison, 25

    John Andre, 26

    General Henry Knox 26

    Naval Captain John Paul Jones, 28

    John Jay, 30

    President Thomas Jefferson, 33

    Abigail Adams, 31

    Major General Nathanael Greene 33

    General George Washington 43

    Most of the Officers in the American Continental Army and Navy where in their 20’s and 30’s

    Most of them had been, oh the Humanity!, ‘triggered’ by the British.

  167. Packshaud, thanks for this. I’d assign this essay as required reading for anyone on the left who thinks that delusional thinking only exists on the right…

    Scotlyn, I bet. I get accused quite regularly of “false equivalence syndrome” and “both-sides-ism” (I’m not making that latter up) for pointing out that a lot of people on both ends of the spectrum behave exactly like the people they hate.

    Jessi, many thanks for this! Yes, exactly — and yes, example is the the most powerful form of rhetoric. We’ll get to that as the discussion proceeds.

    Denys, er, acknowledging self-interest isn’t the sole thing to keep in mind, but at a time when so many people cover up their self-interest under layers of abstraction, being frank about who benefits and who loses is a way to make conversation possible.

    Scott, you’ve done a very solid job of summarizing about half the essential points I’ve been trying to get across in these essays! Thank you. 😉

    Lathechuck, good. We should probably discuss phatic communication again in the current sequence of posts — that’s the kind of speech that’s used entirely to communicate such things as membership in a common group or acknowledgment of status hierarchy. There’s a lot of it these days, including a lot of things that pass for meaningful utterances.

    Maria, that’s good to hear. Rhode Island’s deep weirdness is probably one of the reasons I’m finding it so congenial.

    Phitio, you certainly may. As a rule, all of my free online writings can be translated and reposted freely, so long as they’re done so intact and without editing, and my name and a link back to the original blog post is included.

    David, fasten your seatbelt; it’s probably going to be a wild ride.

    SaturnsPet, ding! We have a winner. One of the most enticing ironies in public life today is the way that so many self-proclaimed rationalists have turned reason into an object of worship, about which they utter things that make no rational sense whatsoever! As for Old English, every language reshapes the way you think — one of the many good reasons why it’s wise to learn more than one. Latin, for example, makes you think precisely: there are certain kinds of muddleheadedness that are easy in English that you simply can’t do once you’ve learned enough Latin. I haven’t studied Old English enough to be certain, but by the example of the best scholar of Old English I know of — that would be J.R.R. Tolkien — there seems to be something in Old English that, at least for members of Anglophone cultures, goes straight down to the archetypal. That may be what’s happening here.

    Stefania, good. I don’t believe, for what it’s worth, that there’s a single path that all of humanity has to follow; we diverge, and the further our own spiritual development takes us, the more we diverge. But that’s a matter for another conversation. As for rhetoric, we’ll take it one step at a time, in order to evade the booby traps that surround the subject just now.

    Ganv, the swing from abstraction to reflection and back is mostly a matter of cultural fashion. Of course we all do both, but in our collective conversations, sometimes one is emphasized more, sometimes the other. Right now we’re in a situation where abstraction is massively overemphasized and reflection doesn’t get its due — and the fetishization of quantitative measurements is one very good sign of the imbalance.

    Phil H., yep. I’m watching this closely, as it’s likely to have immense impacts on the shape of our future.

    Will, that seems entirely plausible.

    Eric, nicely put. You’re quite right, too, about the difference between the context of the Trump and Hoover tariffs. I wonder whether anyone has thought to look into the effect of US tariff policy in the 19th century, when the US was a net importer of manufactured goods…

    Violet, the practice (and skill!) of rereading, and close reading generally, is something I plan on discussing at some length as we go. As for your analysis of TDS, as I noted to Will J above, that kind of multifactorial analysis seems quite plausible — and so, to be fair, do the specific points you’ve raised.

    Joel, excellent! You get today’s gold star for catching the core implication of what I’ve begun to discuss: rhetoric is mutual. What you get when you don’t have that mutual engagement is what the ancient Greeks called eristic, the pursuit of discord for its own sake.

    Jill, I agree wholeheartedly. Monoculture is as destructive in opinions as it is in ecology.

    Matthias, hmm! That hadn’t occurred to me, but of course you’re quite right. Lacking a positive control, among other things, you have no way to determine that the failure to cause an effect is simply an artifact of ineffective experimental technique.

    Fuzzy, those I’ve talked to don’t generally hate individual men; it’s the abstraction Man that they hate. (Another downside of an age of abstraction is the way it fosters extreme emotions toward categories.) I wonder to what extent Trump has become the target onto which they project that abstraction.

    Scotlyn, ding! Another winner. Yes, exactly. Here in the US, in particular, there’s a vast number of people whose lives seem to revolve around their craving for some gimmick that will make people listen to them, and do what they say. Conversation — there’s a Greek word I’ll be bringing into the picture in due time — is a way out of that self-defeating trap.

    John, interesting. Since none of us was around to watch while reason evolved, I’ll refrain from either belief or disbelief, but he does seem to be pointing to some features of reason that are not usually considered.

    Candace, I’ve seen the class issue quite often myself. Trump is the candidate of “those people,” the working class white people who form the one minority that privileged Americans allow themselves to hate, so of course he’s offensive to the privileged!

    L, well, I hope it’s useful. For what it’s worth, I’m the opposite of a born speaker; I can speak fairly well nowadays, but it took a long time and a lot of hard work to get there, so there’s every reason to think you can do the same.

    Escher, I’m coming to think that your point is spot on: so many people can’t stand to have their beliefs disagreed with because they know at some level just how fragile those beliefs are. Partly that’s because a lot of us believe things that can’t be defended on any ground but raw self-interest, and that’s not something most people are comfortable discussing just now — but partly it’s also because most people these days have no idea how to defend a belief. They’ve been taught that mouthing the right words is all that matters — after all, what do you get good grades for in an American school these days? — and they’ve been taught not to think, so when they encounter disagreement, they panic. A little knowledge of rhetoric might help that a great deal.

    Ron, you’re welcome and thank you. Stay tuned!

    Felix, the link didn’t come through. Would you like to try again?

    Shane, you’re one of the people I think of when I reflect on the limitations of conventional categories of left and right.

    Patricia, add that to the status panic among the privileged and, yeah, it’s not surprising.

    DFC, oh, I’m sure people will tell stories about us in the far future, the way we tell stories about Atlantis…

    Denys, interesting. I’ve actually been finding the news rather dull of late: more of same, day after day. 😉

    Rationalist, sure, but as soon as that happens, people start trying to conceal the extent that they support this or that policy because of the benefits it gives them or the costs it pushes onto other people. Get it out of the realm of abstract principles and start talking about who gains and who loses, and a vast amount of self-serving cant becomes unnecessary.

    Denys, the old Pow-Wow doctors knew exactly what they were doing, and so do mages today who perform banishing rituals every day. As the proverb has it, “good fences make good neighbors” — and I, having the advantages as well as the disadvantages of Aspergers syndrome, have no trouble at all dealing with people who get butthurt about being expected to follow the house rules here in my virtual living room. I chuck them out the door, listen for their wails of self-important misery, and hand out beers to my welcome guests — that is, those who know how to respect limits.

  168. Dave, to my mind cognitive biases are overrated. We all figure out as children that the car at the end of the block isn’t actually smaller than the one right out in front of the house, even though it looks that way. Cognitive biases can be worked around in the same way — and it’s one of the basic tasks of any education worth the name to teach people to do this.

    Gkb, you’ll hear no argument from me. One of the reasons that experimental psychology is sinking fast into the quagmire of the replicability crisis is precisely that really complex questions are being assessed by way of really simplistic tools, and producing papers that are highly publishable but puerile nonsense.

    AV, yep. It’s precisely the “gotcha” attitude that makes so many people on the right so much less effective than they would otherwise be.

    Patricia, funny. Also valid.

  169. Coop Janitor,

    Are you really going to inform me that water boils at a slightly different temperature at elevation?
    Are you really suggesting that my meaning was not clear?
    I thought of saying as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, but of course, maybe it won’t.

  170. @ Denys, I’m delighted that you find the concepts helpful!

    @ Dave Note, that is fascinating. Part of the reason that I think Americans hate and fear the past and try to cover it up is because if it is taken as a measure the proceeding generations have been, shall we say, lacking.

  171. JMG, you wrote, “I don’t believe, for what it’s worth, that there’s a single path that all of humanity has to follow; we diverge, and the further our own spiritual development takes us, the more we diverge. But that’s a matter for another conversation.”

    True enough; I wouldn’t dispute that at all. Just one further thought and then I’ll leave it. Although we do all follow different spiritual paths, because of the interplay of universal forces (which affect us all), I think people will encounter similar types of situations along their path. I think that’s why systems like the Tarot, astrology, and geomantic divination work. If one could learn to recognize those forces and patterns at work in oneself and one’s life, one could probably start to see them in others too, which could likely be of use in a conversation based on knowledge. That’s the idea that I was trying to articulate.

  172. For some odd reason, the link that I provided with my last post doesn’t seem to have gone through, so here’s another attempt.

    The essay was really quite interesting and covered a number of topics including Oswald Spengler, Christianity, the Alternative Right and attempts by Spengler’s detractors to link him to the Alt-Right. While I have some serious disagreements with the author’s conclusions, it is well worth looking at.

  173. Hi JMG,

    I wonder if our culture is experiencing a form of partial solipsism right now. We are willing to concede that other minds exist, but we don’t really give them credit for being equal to our own. Maybe it’s from too many I-It relationships as you brought up not too long ago.

    I-It seems a good way to describe the basis of abstract reasoning you lay out in your post.

    I quite liked Whitehead’s lecture om the bifurcation of nature in which he argued that all of our understanding of nature is based on abstractions we make out of the chaos of experience. They are useful, but we shouldn’t think they are “laws of nature” or that we fully understand them.

    It’s online if you are curious and haven’t read it:


  174. Another thing this post reminded me of recently is another lecture I read recently on the differences between Chinese and Western Philosophy by Mou Zongsan. He uses the concept of Extensional and Intensional truths – to be honest I am not fully sure I understand everything he implies by this, but generally it seems to be similar to the division you bring up, abstract reasoning based on phenomenal experiences (including things like mathematics) vs wisdom about the proper way to live and to see life. It was quite interesting, partially because as he explores and builds these concepts he does so by contrasting them at each stage. It helps to pull these ideas apart but also creates a sense that they balance each other. His feeling is that both are true, and both are valuable. While they might be different they do not contradict each other and both are objectively true. His recommendation (this was in 1978) was that the Chinese learn to embrace Extensional thinking deeply, so that they can produce great works of science (which clearly they have done), and that the west embrace Intensional thinking and learn from the Chinese sages (and also western figures like Jesus) who have thousands of years of wisdom to share on this topic (I think we have not done this with any widespread earnest yet).

    This one is also online:

  175. Just saw an article entitled, “There Is No Case for the Humanities: And deep down we know our justifications for it are hollow.”

    It argues: “The reality is that the humanities have always been about courtoisie, a constellation of interests, tastes, and prejudices that marks one as a member of a particular class.”

    And concludes: “The humanities and the university do need defenders, and the way to defend the humanities is to practice them. Vast expanses of humanistic inquiry are still in need of scholars and scholarship. Whole fields remain untilled. We do not need to spend our time justifying our existence. All we need to do is put our hand to the plow. Scholarship has built institutions before and will do so again. Universities have declined and come to flourish once more. The humanities, which predate the university and may well survive it, will endure — even if there is no case to defend them.”

    Interesting! The first paragraph seems like an extension of the “excessive abstraction” you described. The second seems like it recommends the same thing you do. The article could be summarized as, “I have no way within our current system of thought to justify the humanities, but I think we should practice them anyway.” A hopeful sign?

  176. Janitor, thanks for this! Druids everywhere… 😉

    Onething (if I may), yes, the temperature at which water boils differs with altitude and air pressure. People who live in Denver who want hard-boiled eggs have to leave the eggs in the water several minutes longer than people who live at sea level, because at Denver, which is about a mile above sea level, water boils at 201 degrees F.

    Stefania, fair enough.

    Felix, thanks for this! I haven’t read it yet but it looks interesting.

    Johnny, thanks for both lectures. “Partial solipsism” is one way to say it; I tend to think of terms like “schizoid breakdown” myself, but that’s a matter of terminology, after all!

    Cary, hmm! It seems to me that the author has gotten a very good idea from the wrong end. I’ll want to brood over this for a while, and see what comes of it.

  177. @onething, JMG
    It is correct that water boils at 212°F(100°C) at sea level, 203°F(95°C) in Colorado Springs (~6000ft) and 183°F(86°C) on the top of Pikes Peak (14,110ft).

    What struck me about your statement was that for me water does not surely boil at 212°F. The water boils away before temperature gets that high. That the sun will surely rise in the morning, I’d agree with. However, if I was working at Prudhole Bay, AK, I might at times disagree with you. They both are beliefs that based on experience and what has been learned about the way the world works in general. But they aren’t with out their gotchas. To me it pointed out just how slippery the slope of arguments can be.

  178. DFC, there are well-documented instances of African and Native American folklore accurately preserving accounts of disasters that occurred several thousand years ago, so the fact that the Aborigines preserved records of ancient events in their legends and oral histories does not surprise me at all. We know from archaeological evidence the Aborigines have been in Oz for at least 40,000 years and possibly more than 80,000.

  179. Violet, I think there is more to the American hatred and fear of history than that. Consider the horrific atrocities and systematic mistreatment the Native Americans were subjected to, the horrors of the West African slave trade and the centuries of mistreatment inflicted on African Americans even after the abolition of chattel slavery.

    There is a real dark side to American history that a great many Americans simply can’t bear to confront and I suspect that deep down inside many Americans realize there is a lot of bad karma that has been building up even if most are not consciously aware of it. Even a lot of the angry rhetoric we see coming from the campus left seems to be more of an exercise in feel-good virtue signaling and social posturing then anything else. How many times have you seen a rich white liberal who was willing to give up their position of privilege in favour of a person of colour?

  180. JMG:

    Thanks for that reference to Tolkien’s work, You confirmed a hunch and I’ll probably look into his scholarship asap.

    Thanks likewise for suggesting that Anglophones might find Anglo-Saxon a particularly strong bridge for crossing from word to rune. I’m still in a stage of quick learning that happens in cycles of education.

    My risk of burnout is low. I know what I’m doing and what for. You could say I have a Plan.


    If example is the most potent form of rhetoric, then I deem you filius Ciceronis. Do you like chickpeas?

    Fanboy Transmission Ended,

    Saturn’s Pet

  181. I’m glad to see the infamous LennyLetter hagiography of Hillary Clinton was preserved on and elsewhere before the author deleted it from her blog, doubtless because it had become too much of an embarrassment. It was greatest example of unintentional comedy to come down the pike since Francis Fukuyama wrote “The End of History”, not to mention that both are superb examples of just how deluded and out of touch with reality the American political class really is.

  182. Oops, meant to say century and a half of mistreatment inflicted on African Americans even after the abolition of chattel slavery.

  183. I tend to think that the failure of rhetoric in the public sphere these days is strongly related to the failure to recognize the _need_ for rhetoric- that is, the recognition that other people actually have minds that can be changed. This goes back to our discussion of several weeks ago; if you are the only person who really, truly exists as a whole person, and others are just “Its” to your “I”, then why not just perform your outrage or superiority or whatever in a satisfyingly dramatic way, without considering its likelihood to convince anyone? I think social media especially tends to feed this sense of being onstage all the time, performing for a crowd (an anonymous audience of unreal others) who are “consumers” of your “content”, rather than actually connecting with individuals in a persuasive conversation. Even one to one and face to face, though, if you fail to realize that the person in front of you is as real as you are, not just an object to be manipulated, you won’t invest the energy to think through how your argument will appear from his or her perspective.

    –Heather in CA

  184. Ah, I see that Johnny had a similar thought and posted first. Hard to keep up with all the comments!
    –Heather in CA

  185. Hmm.

    I think I’ve mentioned before here that one of my favorite pastimes when I was younger was the forum version of the game variously known as Mafia or Werewolf. That’s definitely relevant to this post, because the heart of that game is rhetoric – the players collectively trying to understand each others’ motivations and model the underlying “reality” of the game via persuasive argumentation coupled with occasional reality-testing via pieces of information. A double-edged sword of a pastime, but one I got quite a bit out of.

    The question is exactly how much of my Mafia experience is relevant to the current situation. The basic conceptual frame behind the game of Mafia is that a subset of a larger group has formed a conspiracy that will steadily eliminate members of the larger group until they’re the only ones left, and for whatever contrived reason the only way to stop this is for the larger group to eliminate the members of the conspiracy via mob and/or vigilante justice – but since the conspirators are part of the larger group they get their say in who to bring to mob justice. (In other words, it’s a game which effectively creates a witch hunt with actual, er, witches – I did say it was a double-edged sword of a pastime.) Quite a bit of it is obviously not applicable to reality. What’s definitely applicable, courtesy of human nature and the law of large numbers, is the basic concept that some members of the group conversation may be arguing in bad faith and that you need to filter them out to get productive conversation (*glances at the moderation policy*) – though the game environment artificially filters out one of the real-world problems with that, namely what happens if enough of the filterers are themselves acting in bad faith (*glances at the ruins of some large forums*). What might also be applicable is that sufficiently incompatible interests can force bad-faith argument. That’s enforced in a Mafia/Werewolf game by the artificial constraint of win conditions; the question is whether and how often this comes up in real-life rhetoric, and in particular whether such interest-enforced bad faith is driving the current American political climate.

    Which brings me to an article I ran across a couple of days ago ( that strikes me as relevant to the current discussion – I’m not sure it’s right, but it strikes me as plausible. It’s written in the context of Middle Eastern terrorism, but the concepts should be applicable to this discussion – and not just because the author uses the antebellum South as a historical example. The author’s hypothesis is that removing the possibility of discussion/compromise/tolerance is the *objective* of a certain kind of radical – one who sees that their position is losing ground due to historical trends and apathy in the broader populace. Faced with certain defeat if they do nothing, they take the option that gives them a chance at success by trying to create an us-versus-them tribal binary and thus force the apathetic middle to take sides.

    If this model of radical motivation does fit reality… there are two political factions in modern America that definitely seem to fit this description, and both are currently associated with the Republican Party. The first is a pro-business faction that seems to have emerged in the wake of the New Deal; the other is the Religious Right, who were reacting to people walking away from church and Christian sexual morality. (Side note: I disagree with previous comments about the intensity of Trump Derangement Syndrome – it’s worse than the Bush version, but tonally it strikes me as about on par with the Obama version. It’s just more visible since the worst of ODS centered around Fox News while basically all the major networks seem to be affected by TDS. I’m too young to say anything for certain about the Clinton version, but I will note that I’ve heard moderate Republicans described as RINOs since I became aware of politics in the late 90s.) Going back in time, the Communist Left during the 1970s is a good historical example, and I suspect one of the underrated causes of the Civil War was a similar process going on in the North after 1840 or so as the traditional Yankee vision of an ideal society (yeoman farmers and small towns) failed in the face of industrialization.

    What’s bothering me is that I have a harder time seeing an equivalent on the American left, and I’m not sure whether that’s because the left is radicalizing for different reasons or because I’m not noticing the equivalent radicals on the left. I’m pretty sure two related processes are in play on the left (upper and upper-middle class hypocrites trying to use an us-versus-them binary to dodge the consequences of their hypocrisy, plus people reacting to being told that a certain event would bring about utopia and said utopia failing to appear when said event occurred); both, of course, are also in play on the American right. The Law of Balance is almost certainly involved (though if this hypothesis is correct the all-or-nothing radicals themselves strike me as a manifestation of the Law of Balance!). Frame inversion may be playing a role in Social Justice specifically – I’m not sure how common this is, especially given filter effects, but the modern Social Justice movement seems to have at least a subset of ex-Religious Right members who concluded that they were on the wrong side of a binary and changed sides rather than breaching the binary entirely. But an actual group on the modern American left (post-1970s) that’s convinced it’s going to lose if current trends continue? I’m not sure.

    Side note not related to main point: It has occurred to me more than once that the deep root of the scientific method is reality-testing worldviews (or priors, to grab a useful piece of terminology from the rationalists); worldviews can’t be compared against each other directly, but you can derive predictions about what should happen from them and compare them to what actually happens to see how well-adapted they are to the reality we live in.

  186. @gavin
    You might be on to something there.
    Countries like Italy and Germany certainly had a very different path to democracy than the UK or australia. But I am not a historian.

    I wonder if the two options world view is a case of abstraction. It is certainly very neat. Or at least it would be if reality would not insist on being unreasonable.

  187. Hi John Michael,

    Yup. I agree. Incidentally, should a person decide to use the tools of reflection, the world can appear to be a very strange looking place when it’s up to its eyeballs in abstractions. I’m assuming discursive meditation is a tool with which to hone a person’s abilities for reflection and assist with making sense of the abstraction noise?

    I’m curious as to your point of view too, because one abstraction in particular really bothers me. It is the abstraction that anyone who performs manual labour of any variety is either very low in the social order, very stupid, or very poor. I really feel that this abstraction which is also worn as an affectation by a huge chunk of the population is having real world consequences – and they’re not good. Anyway, I don’t let such considerations worry me as there is work that actually needs doing.

    Speaking of which, I have been really flat out with the harvest over the past few weeks and tonight is the first quiet night for me for many days. We had a discussion on the previous Magic Monday about ‘free will’ and I agree with your interpretation, and my poor description was due to me being physically very tired. Anyway, I had a further thought bouncing on from that point and it is this: In order for reincarnation to work as it is generally understood, the small wiggle room for free will, that we discussed, is all a person can have access too. The two concepts are invariably linked. And it makes a nice sort of sense too in that context and works well.

    That’s about it. I’ll get onto reading the comments now. No doubts something there will fire me up and get my tired blood boiling!



  188. Hi John Michael,

    I’m so busted too! How did you know about that ‘personal narrative’ and ‘example’ business? Those are some of my favourite tools. Hehe! (that was my not so evil – as I thought I was – genius chuckle!) 😀



  189. Mr Greer,

    Thank you for this wonderful post. This is an area where I have a great deal of interest. I have tended to march to my own drummer throughout my life and thus my opinions are often marginalized by the more mainstream folks in my social circle (that’s most of them actually). I have often felt a bit saddened by the fact that I have been unable to reach some people who I know are quite intelligent but who will not look beyond their sacred beliefs. (You know the song: all liberals are stupid, all conservatives are evil, etc., etc. Also, in fairness, I’ll bet they feel the same about me.) I have pretty much come to conclude that this old quatrain accurately sums up my frustration:

    Myself when young did eagerly frequent
    Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
    About it and about: but evermore
    Came out by the same Door as in I went

    I’m looking forward to clearing up my own thinking skills and getting to know from where my sacred beliefs arise. I cannot imagine a more important task at this time.

    Shifting gears: Observing the virulent anti Trumpism in your old So. Oregon stomping grounds I have wondered if the resistance to Mr Trump arises from what I call the ‘mirror mirror on the wall’ phenomenon. He is certainly all about self interest but openly so. Wearing beads and sandals while driving the latest BMW might cause a bit of internal conflict, no? After all, even the homeless wear hemp clothing in this enclave of awareness.

    Best wishes and again, thanks for the clarity you bring to some very murky subjects. Aged Spirit.

  190. I rarely comment but following with interest.

    JMG — you wrote: “I wonder, though — there’s got to be a book or something out there about the utterly dysfunctional habit of using every human interaction as an opportunity to put other people down; finding something of the kind and mining it for talking points might be a good strategy. Do any of my readers know of such a book?”

    I don’t know if it’s quite what you are thinking of, but Nancy Kline’s book ‘Time to think’ might fit the bill, JMG and Maria. Kline recommends a series of principles for actively listening to colleagues at work, on the principle if I remember rightly that when we actively listen to each other and treat each other in a way that communicates that everyone who works there matters, it helps our best thinking come forth, which means we produce our best work. I think it is well explained in the book in ways which will help explain the idea even to those for whom this is not so obvious.

  191. JMG and Coop Janitor,

    I think just about everybody knows that water boils at lower temp at elevation. Certainly anyone who spends as much time in the kitchen as I do. Recipes for canning always mention it. I’m really sorry I picked that for my example. I’m just scratching my head here. My point was simply that people sometimes make an absolute assumption that they are right and there can be no legitimate discussion…I mean, that was clear, right?

  192. @ Felix, I agree with your points. Indeed, in my response to Dave Note I said I think that the past as a metric of character is only a part of why Americans tend to have a knee jerk response of hate and fear towards the past.

  193. I think the biggest obstacle to effective communication and persuasion is the inability to see the topic from the other person’s perspective. It also doesn’t help that there’s a widespread tendency to demonize the other side.

    A lot of people tend to extend that even to the past. There are a couple examples in the above comments (Violet and Felix the Cat) of the idea that our ancestors were really, really bad, and we are ashamed of them. That’s absurd. Our ancestors had their good points and their bad points, just like everyone else. It’s better to look at their circumstances and understand why they did and believed what they did. They weren’t uniquely evil any more than 1950’s America was a uniquely wonderful Golden Age.

    Also, we should keep in mind that history books condense things and generalize quite a bit. For example, there’s a chronic belief that white people in the South owned slaves. The truth is that *a minority* of white people in the South owned slaves. There were a LOT more dirt-poor white subsistence farmers in the South than there were white slave owners.

    The future isn’t going to be easy. It might not be as hard though if we look honestly at the past and figure out what we can use to make the descent a little less difficult. We can’t really do that though if we’re busy demonizing our own ancestors.

  194. Denys said, “I have been so disgusted at all the brain scientists who have been marketing the idea that people are not mature until 25 at least and more likely 30.”

    Every time I see those ideas promoted (often accompanied by reference to some study or other that claims to prove it) I always wonder about cause and effect.

    So some study “proves” that humans are “immature” until some (ever-increasing) age – but do the people who conduct and publish and promote these studies ever ask why they’re finding such a (presumably surprising) lack of maturity? Somehow, the reaction to finding out that test subjects (probably recruited from university undergraduates, I’m guessing) are “immature” until much older than one would expect always seems to be greeted with some response about how the study just goes to show that we need to infantilize these immature subjects all the more. Nobody ever seems to ask if maybe it works the other way – if maybe our society has stunted the development (and maybe even the very brains) of our young people, and CAUSED the immaturity. In which case, the solution would be to react with alarm to the stunting, and encourage more (and earlier) responsibility and autonomy, not less.

  195. A P.S. to my previous comment: when it comes to demonizing our ancestors and our past, I always wonder what future generations will think of us. Just imagine in a couple hundred years a discussion about our time in which someone says, in a self-righteously horrified tone of voice, “They were so cold-bloodedly evil they murdered their own children in the womb!” Then imagine what you would think and how you would feel if you were somehow present for that conversation. (Yay time machine?)

  196. @JMG

    You may be looking for a series of books by Stephen Potter: Gamesmanship, Lifemanship, One-upmanship and Supermanship. They seem to be available in an omnibus edition: The Complete Upmanship.

    I knew a guy in college who was reading them.

    I think there was a movie called “School for Scoundrels” that was loosely based on them, but I’m not at all sure.

  197. @pretentious_username

    I’ve noticed that, at least partially. There’s an interesting article in the current Atlantic titled “The Last Temptation.” It’s definitely a long read, but it traces the history of “How evangelicals, once culturally confident, became an anxious minority seeking political protection from the least traditionally religious president in living memory.” The trace goes all the way back to the mid-19th century. It’s definitely a long read.

    I’m not so sure about the business people, although the Alt-right does seem to have that same signature, as does the older segment of the white working class.

    As far as the left is concerned: the prevailing belief is that they’re on the right side of history, and are the recipient of a long string of both strategic and tactical victories. Trump’s victory (illegitimate from a lot of peoples’ viewpoints) shocked most of them to the core, and has resulted in redoubled effort, mostly at the grass roots where it’s completely irrelevant what the clueless Democratic Party does. A lot of the activity on the left comes from the idea that they’ve got their opponents on the run, so let’s finish them off.

    And the demographics are definitely on their side.

  198. @onething

    I guess my response is that there are such things as facts, and there are such things as opinions on issues that are, for example, more value based. A debate over whether human cloning is a good thing is an example of the latter. There is not “fact” as to whether it is good thing, it is based on something else. However CO2 was established as a greenhouse gas 150 years ago. It isn’t very new science like you stated. I consider it to be an unambiguous fact. I admit that saying so here doesn’t make for a good effort at persuasion, but my participation here isn’t motivated by that. I don’t know you and I don’t know why you don’t accept this fact and I make no assumptions why. I never made any derogatory statements about you. As I said if we lived in the same town and you wanted to discuss it with me, I would be willing to do so. Nor would I be particularly upset or flustered to be on the other side of such an interaction – it wouldn’t be the first time. Maybe our interaction here is a perfect example that I need the kind of education in rhetoric that is the subject of JMGs post, but the way I see it is that I call things as I see them, pure and straightforward when that’s how I see the evidence. I make a very serious effort not to make assumptions about people’s motives because whatever my skills are, reading minds is not one of them.

  199. If anyone actually wants to read a set of how-to books on “using every human interaction as an opportunity to put other people down” as the best means of getting ahead in life, I would like to echo John Roth’s mention of Stephen Potter’s several books on “Upmanship.” They offered American readers shrewd, savage, self-centered and brutal advice, presented under the guise of light British humor. They were very popular in the US when they were published in the late ’40s and the ’50s. And yes, the movie “School for Scoundrels” (1960) was based on Potter’s books, with Alaister Sims playing Mr. Potter to perfection. I watched it with my parents and younger brother in a drive-in when it came out, only weeks before I went off to college. We all laughed our heads off throughout the entire movie.

    British amoral (or rather, anti-moral / anti-ethical) comedies of that sort were all the rage back in the repressed and “virtuous” ’50s. For instructive examples, I would particularly recommend the four “St. Trinian’s” movies, based on cartoons by Ronald Searle about a private school for “wayward girls” which prepared its charges quite thoroughly and openly for a life of successful, professional crime.

    The passion for such movies during the ’50s almost certainly helped ring in the cultural developments that Michael Martin talked about last week.

  200. Sane, balanced societies only need a small percent of the working population to be ‘college educated’. Everyone else needs lots of ‘common sense, a trade, and the support ethic from their culture that re-enforces the value, dignity and essential worth of crafts people and trades people.

    The US has none of that.

    The lopsided over abundance of young people now with college degrees and college debt and very little common sense or actual practical social skills and who don’t have their noses buried in a ‘smart’ (cough, cough) phone. They can’t count back change at a cash register, something a 5th grader could master, but they have a BA degree in ‘Human Potential’. How ironic is that?

    I watched a young men in town recently who I know had graduated college within the last couple years with a humanities degree of some generically useless pretend ‘field’ that didn’t exist a generation ago. He lives above his parents garage until ‘an opening materializes’ in the virtually non existent job market for his college educated talent set.

    I was on the opposite side of the street as he walked in the opposite direction on the other sidewalk. He was staring into his smart phone, possessed like a gender neutral Oracle at Delphi. He was picking up speed as the virtual fumes from the digital equivalent of burning oleander mesmerized his attention away from his actual surroundings.

    He amazingly walked full speed into a telephone pole, smashing his head so hard that his whole body jumped backward like a giant mono-synaptic response and he was flat on his back on the sidewalk, semi conscious. I’m actually not sure I would have considered him fully conscious and engaged in Reality to begin with.

    I involuntarily burst into laughter, a ‘knee-jerk reaction’, like I’d just seen an old black and white vaudeville movie act. He wasn’t drunk or smoking dope, and he sure wasn’t ‘High on Life’, he was checked out into the Matrix I guess.

    Rhetorical skills would not have helped, his generation needs common sense and the simple mindfulness that learning a useful trade skill would provide for a genuinely sustainable future and that is far harder to teach than rhetoric.

    First things first.

  201. I’m looking forward to a ‘rhetorical education’. I’ve been doing some self study on the side on classical education since my high schools days. The expectations of forming a ‘good’ English argument never seemed quite right to me, until I realized what passed for Australian English education appeared to be a devolved descendant of rhetorical education. Ironically, present day expectations of a PhD student matches the structured learning from the trivium (maybe the quadrivium too, but I think that may be an advantage rather than a necessity).

    RE: JMG 1st response to Jbucks

    JMG, I haven’t thought of belief and how we interact with it in that way or detail before. I’ve worked on the reasoning part, but probably placed less attention on the emotive and self-interest part. I come from a Chinese culture, at least to my living understanding of it, that tends to treat emotion and self-interest as an enemy and reflection of selfishness if we even embrace it and recognize it as an influence. While I recognize this is likely the influence of the moral philosophers/Neo-confucianism, at the same time, the military classics at least lent a refreshingly pragmatic balance (e.g. Gui Gu Zi who delved into human motives).

    RE: AuntLil’s 1st comment

    An interesting insight about law. I’ve never thought of it that way in the modern age. Puts the need for amendments (and how some constitutions drag out needs for change) in an entirely new light for me.

  202. JMG

    This has been one of those weeks when I just can’t keep up with the commentary. (Translation: Yay, I”m doing stuff!)

    Anyway, in case nobody has done so, I’d like to point out that the power of narrative has an existing thought-stopper: “The plural of anecdote is not data.”

    I have no answer to this, other than the raw power of narrative itself. I just wanted to make sure you were aware of this particular form of ideacide. It doesn’t strictly apply to fiction, the way you yourself generally make use of narrative, or overarching mythology like the Singularly or the Rapture. But it does make a pretty effective dismissal of anyone’s lived experience.

  203. @Alice, thank you for the book recommendation. Changing how I interact with others before I expect them to change their behavior sounds like a good place to start.

  204. More to the point of the Old Solar System anthology (purchase waiting on Wednesday’s check coming in) than on rhetoric, but …. since Bubonicon 50 (Albuquerque, last weekend in August, for those interested) has as its theme “The Golden Age of Science Fiction 1939-1961, it came to me this morning that the old tales – Age of Exploration writ large, much of it – really are marvelous, as tales like those of King Arthur, Beowulf, and the Norse version of Siegfried and Brunhilde. It was only when they became The Future Set In Stone that they led us to disillusion. But humankind needs its heroes and its high adventures and its marvels, even a handful of little hobbits off to see the wizard and save the world.

    However, the deindustrial age is likely to throw them all out as dangerous falsehoods that led us to destruction, and take to fairy tales (just as much fun!) instead. And of course, more heroic epics, to a rap beat.

  205. @Dean Myerson

    I did say “cursory” didn’t I? 🙂

    “And I think that the root of two parties in some countries was really royalty vs the barons”

    I disagree. In the UK, while the Parliamentary system may have grown out of the king’s council of advisors, the royalty and nobility were represented by the House of Lords, everyone else was represented in the House of Commons. The party system really grew up in the Commons, which only started to take power away from the Lords with the rise of mercantile power and people/popularity power – most aptly demonstrated first during the English Civil War. After that point in time, more and more power is rooted in the Commons where you had two broad parties, Whigs (Mercantile) and Tories (Religious/Gentry). With the start of the Industrial Revolution, power shifts more and more towards moneyed interests (e.g. bankers, industrialists, etc.), who begin to move closer and closer to the Tory position. Individual people then organise themselves due to the lack or representation in government. Thus organised “Labour” displaced the Whigs, who for the most part just moved over to the Conservative party as the best representatives for those with wealth.

    Even though the US doesn’t have a nobility, it mirrored the same changes almost exactly, just in a much shorter time period. Mostly because the only difference between nobility and “just” stupidly rich, multi-generational wealth is the presence of a king.

    With regards to “two party systems exacerbate partisanship”. While I do agree to some extent. When I look at the three democratic systems with which I’m most familiar (UK/US/Canada), I have to say the amount of partisanship and vitriol is much more of a cultural thing. I’ve seen news reports for elections in other, multi-party, countries where the media coverage was as partisan as the US. However, I am limited to those few news stories that make it as far as the UK, so that may not be representative.

    As a side note: if you want to see vitriol, you should look at some of the pro- vs. anti- Europe/EU comments made just within the UK Conservative Party over the last twenty years. And they all sit at the same table as each other.

    Partisanship seems to be most reserved for those positions for which their is a clear(ish)* either/or position and those positions are held as a matter of emotion rather than reason. (Or that position can be framed as a clear either/or even if there are actually more than two positions).

  206. Saturn’s Pet & JMG: It might interest you to know that there are people out there who learn Anglo-Saxon (as well as other early Germanic languages) specifically for the purpose of reshaping the ways in which they think. This is a core principle in the Theodish variety of Heathenry to which I belong; as part of this practice, I have been composing (primarily liturgical) poetry in Anglo-Saxon (also Old Frisian & Old Saxon) for over 20 years.

    I can certainly vouch for the results, although I find them somewhat difficult to describe. Perhaps I could describe them better in Anglo-Saxon! I might compare it to the disappearance of an abstracting fog that filters between oneself and stark reality, leaving one in the presence of the concrete force of things as they are.

    One of the most powerful, mentally-challenging and mentally-changing experiences I have ever had was to translate Beowulf: on numerous occasions, I was stuck by the awesome power of it, the muscular flexibility with which it conveyed vast concepts in small phrases, densely packed with meaning. Saturn’s Pet, I hope you enjoy your study of the language as much as I did.

  207. As I have said in previous comments, there is very much a place for questions in ANY dialog – the nature of dialog that it involves 2 or more – and thus a requisite for any understanding is some commonality. Without that, there is no dialog or conversation. Questions are a way of establishing the boundaries of the dialog, and thus are requisite.

    I have also expressed that listening is a requisite, as above for setting limits and for actually allowing words to enter the cranium beyond the tympanic membranes. Listening is a skill that can be developed, and which usually REQUIRES reflection – but in order for the reflection to have time to occur, SILENCE is required to think.

    Silence is not allowed in today’s dialog. We are almost in non-stop debate mode, each side trying to score a point. It’s unrewarding for both sides, and never produces any change. This is perhaps a reflection of television rearing, where every silence is filled; where every dialog between actors has no or few pauses. Makes me long for Sergio Leone films…

    In conversation this weekend at a brewery, I let the silence cover me. I listened, and then thought about what I was hearing. It was 2nd Amendment arguments, among a very diverse group. My one comment, at the end of their quarter hour venting of the usual positions was questions; “How would this work in real life? Do we outlaw cars due to drunk drivers? Who will take away your keys? What do insurance companies do when their revenue goes to zero overnight? What actually is the outcome? What do we do instead of driving? How effective would it be trying to stuff this genie back into the bottle?”

    THAT kept the debate going for over an hour, but the interesting thing was that the dialog shifted. Suddenly the effect of the change entered the discussion. I also interjected another question, which was “Why was this entire issue important enough that it is the 2nd Amendment made to our founding document?” That also further altered the discussion, and the answer was not exactly clear to either side, but it was certainly forcing them to consider simply the ‘why’ of the amendment – why did a vast majority feel it should be made?

    I think taking turns should almost be mandatory in discussions, but the only way for that to happen with people ignorant of listening and ingrained with emotional response is to let them talk until they have exhausted themselves. Then silence enters, yet many simply cannot abide the quiet. It’s almost like people need to be restrained in position and unable to leave the discussion for it to mature into something with any real merit for either side.

    The lost art of honest discourse? Not sure, but I will continue to ask questions. If nothing else, seeing the light of comprehending that things are never simple is rewarding for me.

  208. Hi Dean Myerson,

    No, you did not make any derogatory statements to me and if I acted offended I apologize. As I recall, you had mentioned some sort of study in which people shown what you consider to be facts were somehow unaffected in their opinions. I am merely pointing out that no matter how crystal clear this issue is for you, there are actual people with sincere motives who look at the facts and interpret them differently.

    I do consider the climate an extremely young science. I would consider the planetary weather system to be as complicated as biology, which I think is certainly the most complex system we have been studying, and while we are very much farther ahead in biology than we are in climate science, nonetheless groundbreaking and paradigm shattering discoveries are made frequently in biology. I’m just now reading an article which states that we were wrong all these years thinking that the ‘brain’ of the cell is the nucleus when in reality it is the cell membrane.

    Again, it isn’t a lack of rhetoric I objected to, but rather your assumption, which you continue to make, that there is no chance you’re wrong. It isn’t that I don’t accept as fact that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, it is that this one fact is divorced from a few hundred others in such a way as to create a distortion. I might be utterly wrong. Might you?

  209. In regard to Robert Mathiesen’s recommendations of amoral 1950’s British comedy films, “Kind Hearts and Coronets” really is a must watch.

    The cynical humour is still razor sharp.

  210. Pet, no, I’m not a fan — but thank you for the compliment!

    Felix, that’s a comparison that wouldn’t have occurred to me, but you’re right. The thing I find most useful about the litany of praise for the Great Goddess Hillary is that it doesn’t even pretend to be making a rational point. It’s pure blind faith in its most unrelenting form: “She cannot be faulted, criticized, or analyzed for even one second.” Oh, really?

    Francis Fukuyama at least went through the motions of constructing an argument, and because of that, some people missed the astonishing absurdity of his reasoning. I’m not sure anyone could have missed the equivalent absurdity of Virginia Heffernan’s piece; the fact that Heffernan took it down suggests that eventually, even she got that point.

    Heather, that makes sense. I suspect that it’s a function of interacting with machines more than with people; you can say absurd things to the television and the television won’t laugh at you, after all.

    Username, I’d agree with you about the pro-business lobby and the religious conservatives, but I think you’re missing an obvious equivalent on the left: the social justice movement, which is trying to maintain a particular kind of discourse about race and gender (and to erase the possibility of an equivalent discourse about class) at a time when more and more younger people are rejecting the way that social justice activists covertly privilege themselves by privileging their preferred discourse. Their behavior on university campuses in the US these days is exactly the same kind of attempt to close off discourse in an attempt to stave off the decline of their movement, and its replacement by new discourses of social change that don’t privilege them.

    Dropbear, good. Abstraction is useful so long as it helps us understand the world of our experience, rather than replacing that world with grand theoretical structures. Does the distinction between abstraction and reflection help you understand certain aspects of intellectual history? If so, it fulfills its purpose.

    Chris, that’s an abstraction that has been used by aristocracies of all kinds for about as long as there have been aristocracies. Aristocrats always consider themselves to be the good people, the smart people, better than those who have to work with their hands. It doesn’t take too many generations of that before you get aristocrats who barely know how to wipe their own rumps without help. Any resemblance to the educated upper middle classes of the English-speaking world is purely historical…

    Yorkshire, two excellent points. Thank you!

    Chris, it’s simple — those are the only tools that I’ve found to work reliably.

  211. Spirit, that makes sense. One of the reasons Sara and I left southern Oregon was the sheer level of hypocrisy that passed for normal there. Self-proclaimed environmentalists driving big SUVs and preening themselves on their extremely expensive pseudo-green status symbols — that for starters. Gah.

    Alice, thanks for this!

    Housewife, a good point.

    Alfie, you’re welcome.

    John, thanks for this.

    Shane, and as long as you don’t ask about the net energy, it sounds really good…

    Dave, rhetorical skills would have helped him, because he could have listened to all the self-serving cant coming out of the academic industry, picked out the obvious logical howlers therein, and gone off to do something more useful with his life. A rhetorical education isn’t pie in the sky; it’s about dealing with competing claims about facts and values right here and now — including the sort of absurdities taken seriously so often in today’s America.

    Elisa, most interesting! I haven’t read a lot of the neo-Confucian literature — I’m not at all sure how much of it has been translated into languages I can read, for that matter — and didn’t know that the same tendency to dismiss emotion and self-interest had taken root there as well. Hmm. I’ll have to do some research into that.

    Ynnothir, true enough. I like to point out that Darwin’s theory of evolution would have been dismissed out of hand by that same argument. What did he have to go on, after all, other than a great many anecdotes assembled thoughtfully together?

    Patricia M., yes, exactly! One of the motivations behind the Vintage Worlds anthology is to redefine the Old Solar System as a land of fantasy, as imaginary as Middle-earth and just as colorful, so that its potential as a place for literary entertainment can survive the end of the space age.

    Nicholas, I’m glad to hear it. I put some serious time into getting a basic reading knowledge of Cornish for similar reasons — my study of Latin was motivated more by a desire to read old occult writings, but of course it had a definite effect. Each of the world’s languages embodies a different way of looking at the world — this is one of the reasons why I’d urge everyone to learn at least two, to help avoid mental monoculture. If Heathens are pursuing the traditional languages, bully for them!

    Oilman2, nicely done. The terror of silence is a major issue these days, and one that I’ll be encouraging people to confront as we proceed.

    Shane, yep. Gurgle gurgle…

  212. Scott, Joel: Both of you raising fractals in response to our host raising the subject of rhetoric is… familiar. The incident that really set me haring off away from the contours of Progress was mulling over memetics and receiving either divine revelation or something analogous; I’ve managed to forget which insight was granted and which followed, but either way the two lessons I walked away with were “the universe is fractal; it is self-similar at every scale” and “evolution at all scales”.

    (Have either of you been spending time in Texas? I’ve seen a few other people that seemed to be if not on the same track then at least a similar one, and all of them including myself have had a connection to the state. Then again, IIRC JMG has noted that the Ecosophia server is located in North Texas…)

    Escher: FWIW, “desperate attempts to hold onto fragile beliefs” was a standard theory about why the Christian fundamentalists behaved the way they did in some circles I was privy to 10-15 years ago, and I’ve thought more than once that parts of the left are behaving increasingly fundamentalist lately…

  213. JMG: Not arguing that at all! The Social Justice movement is showing the same tendencies, and has been for at least half a decade now in increasingly blatant fashion. My question is: why? I can see the same effect on both sides of the American political aisles but cannot trace the causes of it for the left the way I can for the right, and that bothers me – that usually means I’m missing something.

    (To quote a certain line of older generations: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”)

    Mulling it over further, there’s one other movement affiliated with the left that followed the same kind of radicalization path the Marxists did: the section of the environmentalist movement that became the ecoterrorists. (There’s also another faction on the right that did the same thing in the same time period or slightly later: the true white nationalists, the kind that briefly formed the Americanist movement in the mid-’70s.) I was thinking that the current Social Justice trajectory might be the result of a related but distinct phenomenon involving how political movements crest, but now that I’m typing I’m not so sure: it just occurred to me that the frame I’m borrowing does in fact fit, provided that you assume that the relevant activist groups made their activism not merely a religion but a worldview. That’s consistent with what I’ve seen of Social Justice and what I’ve heard of the Marxists, and consistent with the American left’s roots in the Social Gospel.

    (America, where politics is evangelism.)

    There’s one other separate factor that might be driving it, too. AFAICT, the group that really seemed to go all-in on Hillary (the PUMAs who were so unhappy with Obama’s nomination in 2008) were mostly middle-aged or older liberal women. The 60s/70s movements towards the left foundered when the issue under discussion was the Equal Rights Amendment; I wouldn’t be surprised if some liberal women who grew up in the era felt betrayed when that happened and wanted to make sure they wouldn’t get hung out to dry by the political tides again.

  214. Garden Housewife: Hear, hear. Not to mention the fact that demonizing the one’s ancestors (or people in the past in general) effectively seems to be a dodge around the work of understanding the depth, nuance, and complexity of the human condition.

  215. Dear @John

    Thank you for anothe informing and helpful essay. Though I second that the downsides of reflective thinking shouldn’t be skipped.

    “I like to point out that Darwin’s theory of evolution would have been dismissed out of hand by that same argument. What did he have to go on, after all, other than a great many anecdotes assembled thoughtfully together?”
    I have to ask for citatiton that Darwin never collected data for building his theory and just used anectodes. Or do you disagree with this summary of data and anectodes? “Data have a single dimension, by which they are sampled, counted and calculated. That makes them specific, objective and useful. Anecdotes have several dimensions, by which they are experienced, told and forgotten. That makes them specific, subjective and nice.”


    You have to keep in mind “No matter how much you know, what you tell is limited to the extent of what other side understands.”. With that said, the concern for all sorts of bigotry Trump presidency will bring and the concern for nuclear war possibility of Clinton presidency are oranges and billard balls, and there is also the issue of your Putin Hillary nuclear war premise being very bad (I mean if there is a risk of Putin starting nuclear war with Clinton why aren’t you bothered about the fact that thinskinned manchild is the other candiate (and now president)?).


    “I wonder what comes first. The two party system or the “two options only” worldview.
    Chicken and egg?” They aren’t connected, “two options only” worldview, while being older thantwo party system, is a direct sequent of black/white worldview, a series of essays needed for that.

    @Millicently Lurking

    “I cannot help but wonder if, in large part, this stems from so many people, whatever their levels of education (and in many cultures, not just the US), having spent so much of their time watching television.”
    First you have to ask how much of this view come from you being (or giving impression of) biased against television.

    “Ostensibly any given TV show is about this or that or thus but, behind almost all is the great corpoporate maw of what I would dub BL:AB, that is, Bottom Line: Advertising Bucks.”

    Which is significantly old news:

    “Brought to you by Decimus Lucretius Satrius Valens, permanent priest of Nero Caeser, son of Augustus, twenty pairs of gladiators. And presented by Decimus Lucretius, son of Valens, ten pairs of gladiators. They’ll fight at Pompeii from the sixth day before the ides of April, through the day before. There will be a standard venatio [animal fights or men hunting animals] and awnings [to provide shade for spectators].” Futrell (2006) p. 45, quoting Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL) 4.7995.

  216. @ Gavin Harris

    “I think that the “two options only” worldview is far more likely to be a reflection on the absolutist, abrahamic religions, than the political structures.”
    I would put the blame at the long lasting legacy of tribalist mindset humanity possesses.

    @ Twilight

    “I believe that the Trump phenomena was initially a part of internal battles among elite factions. Eventually though Trump tapped into the massive unrest of what became his supporters, and while he’s no populist he was smart enough to recognize and use that power base.”
    While I agree that Trump saw an opportunity during the infighting of politically senile elites and took advantage of it, it is a bizarre universe that doesn’t consider Trump a populist.

    @ Violet

    As someone living in Turkey who has seen Trump Derangement Syndrome and preceding Obama Derangement Syndrome in Erdoganphobia too much for anyone’s taste, I applaud your effort for pointing out the factors, though some of your factors (bad magic, Revitalization, Video games) aren’t applicable.

    @ Denys

    “I have been so disgusted at all the brain scientists who have been marketing the idea that people are not mature until 25 at least and more likely 30.”

    Except science and scientists (especially in hard sciences) don’t work that way. Also the reason of the shift from the Captain at 15 years old to Student at 30 has many factors.

    @ Darkest Yorkshire

    Do you have sources on intended education policy of Stalin so I can use for reference?

    @Dave Note

    “Sane, balanced societies only need a small percent of the working population to be ‘college educated’. Everyone else needs lots of ‘common sense, a trade, and the support ethic from their culture that re-enforces the value, dignity and essential worth of crafts people and trades people.”

    Correction, small number of college educated, large number of working people educated with basic knowledge was the necessity for industrial conditions decades ago. It is just that education systems didn’t get updayted to changing conditions.

  217. A fascinating topic. It’s interesting to read that the belief it is impossible to change someone’s mind is a recent one – ironically, I encountered it enough during my University days that for a while I just accepted it. It wasn’t until I started looking at instances where I’d changed my own mind that I realized it was usually precipitated by something someone said, though of course it was invariably something I was ready to hear. I wonder whether the belief that no one can be convinced of anything is down to the fact that it’s impossible to convince others consistently in a laboratory – it might be fair to say that rhetoric cannot be examined by formal science, there being too many variables to run a rigorous experiment.

    Another author who deals with this topic, Scott Adams, is of the opinion that changing the minds of five percent of an audience is the sign of a highly skilled persuader. If you know of his work I would be curious to hear your opinion on him. You and he belong to a small club of people who publicly and correctly predicted how the 2016 Presidential Election would break, and I quite like his take on how magic works.

  218. pretentious username – I think you’ve put your finger on the reason left-wing women of a certain age had so much invested in Hillary’s campaign. Yes: the cause of women’s rights has been left high and dry by its supposed allies since the days of Susan B. Anthony. The Votes for Women movement strongly supported the anti-slavery movement, and when they asked for their share, were told (direct quote from the history books) “This is the Negroes’ hour.”

    The much-mocked temperance movement would not have had half its momentum if the states or Congress had passed a Married Women’s Property Act first; they gained a lot of followers over the issue of the wives and children of alcoholics going hungry or even destitute while the paterfamilias drank up all their assets, including whatever money they earned.

    The gains of the 1920s and 1930s fell to the very understandable “back to normalcy” of the 1950s, but with machinery, Freud, and a hollowing-out of womens’ work and lives except as scapegoat for everything that went wrong. (Been there, endured that!)

    et-tiresome-cetera. There are decent histories of this out there, which I read long ago and then sold in one of my many moves. Even now, my best friend online cannot see anything in the anti-Hillary movement except a bone-deep hatred for “uppity wimmen.” It’s not rational; it’s a feeling that the rug will always be pulled out from under us no matter what we do.

    Note for readers of science fiction – every generation since Mary Shelley has brought with it an article proclaiming “Wow! Women are writing s/f these days! That’s a first! Isn’t that a great advance! It used to me an all-male field!” When we older readers clearly remember many female great names of the preceding decades who seems to have slipped down the memory hole. Great Ghu, why even try? (Other than for love or because it needs doing.)

    But then, I strongly believe a lot of today’s so-called political rage, on all sides, is a venting of some deep-seated issues that go way back with most of the shrillest ranters, and many or may not have anything to do with politics. (As the cast of Rent sang, “hating dear old Mom and Dad.”)

    Sorry – not awake yet and hence given, again to logorrhea.

  219. Re: language, and the changing of one’s mind…
    I have felt, when reading a story of ‘…, the last living speaker of …’ died, that it was like hearing about the extinction of a species. Who knows what ideas can only be thought in Sumerian? Good Lord, I just Googled extinct languages, there’s more dead than I knew existed… at any rate, does anyone have suggested resources as to how specific languages might influence someone’s thinking? Or anything along the line.

  220. @pretentious_username

    I think what you’re missing is what I attempted to point out in my first response. They not only think they’re on the right side of history, they think they’ve arrived at the end point – something that, through the ages, has afflicted a whole lot of people who think they know where history is going,

    From my viewpoint (which may be rather myopic) they’re in the position of people who have made their living (and self-identity) by fighting alligators when someone else comes along and begins to drain the swamp. The Alligator Fighting Association is fighting those upstarts hard, as well at the people who are shifting their allegiance.

    And five years or so is about the right time span for what I see, rather dimly, coming down the pike.

  221. Ahmet, most of my books on Russia are about the pre-Stalin era and tend to end with “and then Stalin wrecked it”. 🙂 Some books that include the original revolutionary ideals of education are Education Under Capitalism and Socialism by Chanie Rosenberg (SWP pamphlet), The Commissariat of Enlightenment: Soviet Organisation of Education and the Arts under Lunacharsky by Sheila Fitzpatrick and Bolshevik Visions: Part 2 edited by William Rosenberg. They aimed for a democratic and well-rounded education. There were problems with the idea of the United Labour School beyond lack of resources, like the emphasis on work and community involvement often meant children spent most of their time working for and entertaining adults, but the basic idea was a noble one.

    On what Stalin did to education, the best book I’ve got is Behind the Urals: An American Worker in Russia’s City of Steel by John Scott. It’s primarily about industrialisation but there is a section on education where the author clearly describes the shift from democratic education to developing a capable and compliant industrial workforce. From a very different point of view is Secrets of Russian Sports Fitness and Training by Michael Yessis. This is primarily about sports science but gives a good overview of the athletic training system and how it moulded people to be of use to the state.

    Despite the limitations of the Stalinist education system, it was very effective at what it was intended to do. Russian industrial workers and athletes were among the best in the world. Because of the country’s vast size and lack of instructors they developed education by radio. Many of the scientists and engineers behind the nuclear and space programmes were trained this way. I think I heard this from the BBC4 documentary The Story of the Open University (not available online so I can’t be sure), which said the radio education system was one of the primary inspirations behind the founding of the OU.

    Now that I’m thinking about education, one final unrelated book I’d recommend is The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, and if the subject here is soon turning to autodidacts it would be particularly useful.

  222. Pretentious: As an ex-pat of the Republic of Texas, I can verify that the statement “the universe is fractal; it is self-similar at every scale” reflects important parts of my own thinking.

  223. What about the news is the same old, same old? I’m curious why you say that.

    Did you see this article about the nixing of the EPA climate change debate? Deemed too politically risky by John Kelly who believes the climate is changing and its a huge military and security issue. What the article doesn’t say is what the political risk would be. That the public would be persuaded in large enough numbers that climate change is the number one issue and we need to take actual steps to do something? Or that the public continues to think it is an issue and we can just wait until “someone thinks of something”, just like we’ve been doing.

  224. Patricia Matthews,

    The making of the candidacy of Hillary Clinton into one of gender is truly horrifying to me. For this women needed the vote?

  225. @Ahmet Berke Kevser

    Ehhhh, do you really feel the irresistible drive to contradict everyone on this forum? or are you just trolling…

    Seriously, we have been having this conversation for years, literally. You raise many valid questions, but the way you are antagonizing everyone on every issue… I don’t think anyone is very eager to educate you on the shared concensus that enlightens the ideas you seem so eager to dismiss out of hand as basic ignorance.

    Besides, there are manners. I understand that people like to act as if it is their godgiven right to express themselves with no regard to social custom, but I do not think you would be foolish enough to walk into a bar you have never been to before and rub off your perceived superiority in the face of the locals. Why does it have to be any different online?

  226. Dear Pretentious Username, In answer to your question “Why?” with regard to the left of today, I suggest the following points for your consideration. In ascending order of importance:

    1. Cultural background. I posted about this on the old ADR. To summarize and repeat: the faction which goes by the name of “the left” of today is not the faction of Upton Sinclair and Carey McWilliams. That movement pretty much died out after McWilliams’s death in the early 70s and was replaced by the self-styled “radicals” of the New Left. Most of those, and nearly all of their leadership, were 2nd and 3rd generation migrants from Central Europe (not to be confused with the devout Catholic Poles and others who came around the turn of the 20thC, and whose beautiful churches can still be seen all over East Coast towns). New Lefties didn’t build. They were all about “Revolution”. Senator Bernie Sanders is, perhaps, among the best and most honest of this group and is still babbling about revolution. Others were indeed brilliant sons and daughters of immigrant union workers in the East Coast cities who couldn’t wait to get out of their old neighborhoods and away from any kind of manual work. My biggest complaint about the New Left, then and now, is that they can’t seem to figure out what country they live in. The USA is not Poland or Czechoslovakia where one could find brilliant historic multicultural cities amid a countryside dominated by a still feudal barony. Two distinguishing features of New Left thought, please excuse the expression, are its almost complete urban bias and its Mittal European intellectual preparation, with a corresponding contempt for and ignorance of American, Anglo-Saxon or indeed any Western European political thought. I have no doubt that the anti Russia hysteria of today is motivated in part by ancestral hatred of that great power as well as by the inability of a host of Vladimir Lenin wannabes to understand and accept the fall of the USSR. Why I or anyone should be expected to care about what atrocity was perpetrated by what teen-aged, half-starved, never-been-away-from-home, brutalized Tsarist soldier a century or more ago in someone’s great-grandmother’s ancestral village the SJW types do not bother to explain.

    2. Self interest. In the inimitable words of Asia Times Online columnist Chan Akya*, “Follow the money, honey”. The SJW faction subsists almost entirely on the largesse of government, foundations, universities and so on. Their initial betrayal of working class interests came in the early 1970s. At that time, Daniel Moynihan who was then working in the Republican administration managed to convince President Nixon to recommend to Congress a Guaranteed Annual Income for low income Americans, to replace the bulk of Johnson’s Great Society programs. Nixon had himself grown up in poverty and understood the humiliation of having to request assistance from representatives of the comfortable classes. The entire ecology of soi dissant activists who were living off “The Programs” took alarm at this threat to their livelihoods and managed to get the Democratic Party to oppose the idea. Today, the same faction disdains any sort of hand labor, including farming, resents the entire organic farming and good food movement– even while it flocks to farmer’s markets– for disrupting its arrangements with various client groups, and has cheerfully allowed itself to be coopted by government and big money both. Feminism is perhaps the best example here. Gloria Steinem has long since been outed as a CIA agent who was brought in to the nascent movement to essentially get women spending again.

    3. Ideology. I think the ideology which I call multicultural internationalism is a particularly pernicious and dangerous one. This is an ideology which flatters its adherents into believing they are The Crown of Creation (old Jefferson Airplane lyric lifted from a popular SF novel of the early 60s), Best of the Best, End of History and so on. I believe it is this ideology which convinces its’ adherents that facts can be dispensed with, other people’s opinions and interests need not be considered, any and all tactics are legitimate to promote Our Side and as New Left novelist Marge Piercy put it in one of her early novels “It’s still either we win or everybody loses.”. It is my belief that this SJW faction has no use for the rule of law, because juries do tend to be conservative and judges, while admittedly often biased, do have to ground their opinions in some semblance of law and precedent, and would like to replace it with their own patronage networks. This prospect is, naturally, quite enticing to various minority and immigrant groups–When WE take over, all those crackers will be having to ask YOU for favors. I do know that the Romans ruled their empire through patronage systems, but the Roman client/patron relationship existed within a framework of law and custom of its time and had very little resemblance to the dividing of spoils of today’s SJW faction.

    That faction has, as readers here will have noticed, borrowed much from radical conservatives, including screaming, vituperative denunciation of opponents, outright lies (see Russiagate), outrageous name-calling, pearl clutching claims of injured feelings, blatant attempts at censorship. Nor has it scrupled to use various dirty tricks, see e.g. 1916 primary theft, Nevada State Democratic Party convention, and the beat goes on. I am sure the formulation Can’t you say something positive? a sure sign of secrets which must be kept hidden, will not be long in coming from this group.

    * ‘Chan Akya’ is or was, I am not sure which, the nom de plum of a brilliant commentator from India who chose for his online handle the name of a strategist who advised the great conqueror and emperor Chandragupta.

  227. JMG-

    Sometimes a person can have too much of a good thing. Got the job I needed and well, it’s been double shifts six days a week. Had a little back sprain, so four days rest, beaucoup anti-inflammatories, and now I can catch up on the ‘ole Ecosophia.

    I did something a while back, when I was desperately looking for work. I cast a spell. Although I came solidly out of a typical mainstream Protestant background and was heavily influenced by reductive scientific thought, the weird thing is- it worked.

    And this kinda relates to the abstractive reasoning you are writing about.

    Take steel and aluminum tariffs specifically, or trade generally and you can see the pattern you describe in your essay. Why don’t the Trumpites buy into the free trade argument? Because, in their lived experience, it doesn’t work. All of the high falutin theories on globalization lifting all boats will go over like a lead balloon in Granite City, or Decatur, or Detroit, because this is not their reality.

    So, at some point, your argument, and the practical action behind it has to work, in the world as it actually is. If you keep arguing for the world as you wish it to be, well then, a person will tune you out, as well they should.

  228. BTW- the technical name for the “oh my god bar” is the “Jesus Handle”. Just sayin’ 🙂

  229. JMG is quite correct when he says, “Each of the world’s languages embodies a different way of looking at the world.”

    There are very good studies that show how a bilingual child reacts differently to a real-life situation, comes to different conclusions about a problem, and thinks things through differently, depending on which of his or her two native languages the child happens to be using to process things. Susan Ervin-Tripp did good research about this, on the basis of English-Japanese bilingual children in California back around 1960.

    But the old master among linguists who thought most deeply about this issue was Benjamin Lee Whorf. His two best papers are titled “The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language” (1939) and “Language, Mind and Reality” (1941). You can read them both, with his other published papers, online at:

    The two articles I cited are well worth the time it will take to read them carefully and understand them.

    Whorf was trained as a chemical engineer at MIT, and he earned his living as a fire inspector for an insurance company; but he was an extremely intelligent person who was highly respected by some of the best professional linguists of his own day. Readers of this blog may also be interested to note that, alongside of his high competence in science and engineering, Whorf was also a life-long esotericist, was a member of the Theosophical Society, and sent his children to Theosophical summer camps year after year. The second of the two papers that I mentioned was actually published by Whorf in an Indian journal, _The Theosophist_; it makes use of Theosophical technical terms (which he does explain for the non-Theosophical reader).

    Important note: Since the 1950s professional linguists have been hugely exercised over something called “The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis,” which was formulated by a linguist named Harry Hoijer. It might better have been called the Hoijer Hypothesis, as it simplifies, badly distorts and misrepresents what Whorf (and Sapir) actually thought and wrote. Hoijer wanted a hypothesis that might be subjected to empirical testing, and he achieved that much; unfortunately for Hoijer, the hypothesis he formulated has been pretty conclusively shown to be false. But that fact has nothing whatever to do with the truth or falsity of Whorf’s own insights and claims (nor with the similar insights and claims of Whorf’s friend and colleague, Edward Sapir).

  230. John Roth:

    (Long post is long, which is why I didn’t reply to you yesterday.)

    The business version: You’re looking at progenitors of the libertarian movement that existed before Reason magazine (AFAIK Reason is a separate phenomenon; what I’ve seen says it it was founded by former traditionalists that splintered over social issues), plus probably some businessmen who both had traditionalist leanings and were disgruntled with the New Deal. Ayn Rand and the later Objectivists definitely fall in this group.

    The Alt-Right is an example, but a much more recent one; I left it out because it postdates the rise of modern Social Justice, and only really took off after Elevatorgate and Gamergate. In their case, the culture that’s getting absorbed into modernity is outcast nerd culture, especially on the coasts, and the situation is leavened with long memories of how popular kids co-opted nerd pursuits and kicked the nerds out (which to my assessment is not unfounded). They already leaned libertarian with a large dose of “shock your parents”, and the libertarians already had closer-than-usual ties to the existing white nationalists due to both supporting limitations on government for different reasons; they also got burned by Social Justice and would have been inclined towards switching to hard opposition anyways. (Plus, of course, /pol/’s ironic use of Nazi symbolism attracting the genuine article.) As for the white working class, that one’s easy – they’re the white nationalists gaining a burst of membership in the face of building crisis* and an immigration wave reaching homeostatic limits, in the same vein as the 1850’s Free-Soilers and at least the Midwestern part of the 1920’s Second Klan. (I’ll be surprised if “Alt-Right” doesn’t get repurposed to refer to the current burst.) I probably should have mentioned them, because they definitely fit the “compromise is the enemy” descriptor – their core is a small minority who really cares about keeping America white, with a side of increased stress encouraging xenophobia rather than xenophilia. It’s probably also worth noting that white nationalism (as opposed to Southern white supremacy) seems to be most common in areas with more Scots-Irish ancestry (Borderers in Albion’s Seed terminology); I suspect that’s a causal relationship, though not the only one.

    * – Strauss and Howe overfit data to their case, IMO, but at least in America their basic premise of an eighty-year political oscillation is sound.

    As for that Atlantic article: Not a bad article, but slanted. In theory it could just be ignorance or the author No True Scotsman’ing parts of the evangelicals, but given that by the author’s own admission he worked with the Prison Fellowship I suspect spin.

    (Warning: Geeking out follows.)

    The Religious Right/Moral Majority derives from three main sources. One seems to originate in the Midwest; I don’t have a great handle on it, but my working hypothesis is that it dates back to Congregationalist evangelism during the Second Great Awakening. (The article’s author being familiar with Lyman Beecher is actually a data point for that hypothesis; my best source for it is a biography of the Beecher family.) The second is Southern (I usually associate it with the Southern Baptists), and dates back at least as far as the Third Great Awakening; I suspect that the hardline segregationists went here in the late 1970s. (IIRC the broader Left concurs; there’s a reason for the stink-eye at school vouchers and the various religious freedom amendments.). The third and most influential originated on the West Coast during the Third Great Awakening; it’s responsible for The Fundamentals and the Pentecostals. More importantly, that strain gave rise to the New Apostolic Reformation/Latter Rain movement in the 1950s.

    The author’s cultural progression is on one level correct and on another level eliding a major distinction: none of the groups driving the Religious Right were major players in the Social Gospel. AFAICT the Congregationalists were the first American religious movement to walk the path that took out the mainline during the Fourth Great Awakening and is likely to take out the Evangelicals when the Fifth rolls around. (Lyman Beecher himself was, at best, the nineteenth-century analogue of the SUV-driving environmentalist… though he might still compare favorably to Henry Ward, who would have fit in admirably in a modern Prosperity Gospel church with a little updating of theology, Beecher’s Bibles or no.) The biggest drivers of the Social Gospel (abolition, suffrage, Prohibition, plus support for the Progressive Movement) were the rising Second Great Awakening denominations – or, as they’re better known, the mainline. (If the pattern holds, I’d expect the Fifth Great Awakening progressive religious-turned-political movement from a New Age group – Wiccan neopaganism looks like the most likely candidate – and new conservative religious movements.)

    He’s… well he’s not necessarily wrong in theory that the Evangelicals didn’t have a political philosophy given the internal splits, but one movement is/was strong enough that he’s wrong in practice. I’m not sure that philosophy has a name – Dominionism is the usual term but I think that might be more properly classed as a submovement (the Christian Reconstructionists are definitely a subset) – but the basic contours are fairly clear: America (or at least America as seen by traditionalists circa 1950 or so) and the Constitution as handed down by God, plus a hybrid of premillenial dispensationalism and postmillenialism that roughly calls for Christians taking action to bring about the Rapture.

    (End geeking.)

    As for reaching the End of History: Yes. (I mentioned that one a few weeks back in response to another post, possibly as voiceoftaredas.) My thinking above was more in the vein of “two causes or different aspects of the same cause?”. Of course, the phrase “end of history” itself comes from the equivalent moment for the American right…

    (Another underrated cause of… well, I’m getting hesitant to just call it the American Civil War because I think we may have to add “First” in the not-too-distant future: the completion of Manifest Destiny during Polk’s administration.)

  231. @CR Patiño

    Speak for yourself and don’t think for a moment you can speak for anyone else here! Ahmet Berke Kevser is certainly not antagonizing me. I appreciate the attention to detail that he brings to the discussion.

  232. CR Patiño: Regarding Ahmet Berke Kevser, I too felt that he was overly aggressive.
    On reflection, I think that since English is not his first language, the way he expresses himself may be perfectly respectful in his first language, but comes across as rude in English. I grew up bilingual, and have learned a third language as an adult, and I know that, as has been noted here, different languages reflect different ways of thought. For instance, the Italian language includes gestures to expand or reflect the emotional content of the words.

  233. Robert Mathiesen, regarding the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis:

    This comment might not make the cutoff, but after Chomsky’s reaction against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis had linguists looking at his Universal Grammar for a few decades, the S-W hypothesis was restated as the Linguistic Relativity Theory, and there is a good deal of evidence behind it. In basic terms, the theory states that a given language requires its speakers to think about certain things. For example, speakers of languages with grammatical gender have to think in terms of the gender of (among others) inanimate objects; the terms with which Spanish speakers describe the typical bridge (“el puente”, masculine) differ markedly from the terms used by native German speakers (“die Brücke”, feminine) in ways that we might consider marked for gender.

    Also of note are the speakers of languages that possess no “egocentric” directional system (left, right, in front, behind), but which rather organize space by “geographic” direction (North, South, East, West). These languages exist in Australia, northern Africa, and Central America. As a result of the grammatical insistence on knowing spatial relations according to the cardinal points, the speakers of these languages have unerring senses of direction.

    KMB: Each language is, in fact, a world; when a language dies, a world dies. I wrote my BA thesis on the applicability of a system of adult language education to reverse the trend towards extinction in endangered languages. To my mind, the preservation of worldwide linguistic diversity (and cultural diversity of other kinds as well) would be a cornerstone of the sort of polynomialism that Mr. Greer has spoken of.

  234. I have many multi-lingual relations, and am such myself: an idiot is an idiot in any language, and a wise person a wise person even in one. Wisdom is, after all, beyond articulation.

    At any age, too.

    (Without reference to any particular individual!) 🙂

  235. I’m a student of Latin and recently read this quote by Isaac Newton: Numero pondere et mensura Deus omnia condidit. I believe the original is from the ancient Hebrew Book of Wisdom: Thou hast ordered all things in measure, and number, and weight.

    A credo of modern science if I ever heard one.

  236. @onething

    And indeed “interpreting facts differently” is what I think we’re getting to here. There are such things as unambiguous facts, and if somebody tells me they want to debate them, I will usually politely decline. Been there, done that. The fact that people with sincere motives feel otherwise doesn’t mean that the issue is truly open for rational debate. And if you provide them with information as to why something is an unambiguous fact and they are only more sure that it isn’t, then I think my case is demonstrated.

    You also ask me if maybe I might be wrong. There are many cases where I will acknowledge that. The issue we were discussing though is not one I would put in that category. There are indeed many, many aspects of climate change that are open for all kinds of debate, and really only a few that are resolved, and that was one of them.

    When I think of the need for rhetorical skills and acknowledging differences of opinion and debating them, I’m think of issues like single payer health care, gun control, drug war policy, foreign policy. I have strong opinions on these but none of them are unambiguous facts. I consider myself very open to differing opinions on these issues, much more so, I might add, than many of the people who share my policy opinions on them.

  237. Long time lurker (going well back into the “Archdruid Report days), first time poster here.

    On the abstraction vs. reflection divide, I cannot help but think of a rather mundane local (but probably nationwide) example which I have been increasingly encountering in recent years. This involves traffic and road engineering, particularly in the nearest large city into which I semi-regularly travel.

    Over the past 20 years or so, but very much more in the past decade, I have been noticing various aspects of local traffic design and road engineering which by any common-sense measure make little or no sense, and which many others complain about as well, but which nevertheless keep getting rammed down our throats by the municipal government and roads department. When I have contacted traffic engineers about certain of these, more egregiously and seemingly idiotic projects and designs, I have invariably been confronted and told by haughty engineers that “this design follows the latest (and presumably best) studies”, for example, or that “this feature conforms to the latest nationwide standards”, even when those nationwide standards do not take into account particular and specific local factors.

    As an example, I had grown up, and moved from, in a large urban area where the local yellow traffic lights (those that light up after the green but before the red) lasted for either five or six seconds, allowing sufficient time for even large vehicles to safely slow and come to a stop, even in slick or otherwise adverse conditions. However, in my current location, in a subarctic region which has icy and/or snow-covered roadways for fully half of the year, those same yellow lights in the large nearby city are only lit for three seconds, barely allowing a vehicle to safely come to a stop under ideal conditions, and usually not allowing for ANY vehicle to safely stop under wintery conditions of snow and ice. However, when I have pointed this out to those stubborn and arrogant traffic engineers, they can only monotonously refer back to their “standards” which I now find are actually designed for conditions which prevail in California!

    Similarly, there is a long and curving road near my house, which has a sudden sharp but almost hidden bend in it, which in the downhill direction is routinely having vehicles driving into and even through the guardrail, as the ‘safe’ speed on that curve is only 25 mph, but the road otherwise has a speed limit — which is posted immediately BEFORE the curve — of 45 mph. When I have suggested to the engineers that rather than having vehicles routinely drive into the guardrail (which has to be replaced almost yearly), and in one instance into a house on the hill below the curve, they might at least consider putting the “Speed Limit 45 mph” immediately AFTER the downhill curve, so that drivers might not be encouraged to speed up into a dangerous curve immediately ahead of them. But no! Again, the engineers can only stubbornly insist that according to their ‘standards’, every road must have its general speed limit posted so many feet after its start, notwithstanding any obstacles, dangerous curves or any other physical limitation that might be found immediately in proximity to that speed limit sign.

    I have been considering these situations to be just a(nother) manifestation of the death of common sense, but JMG has made me realize that they are actually something for which I have been struggling to find a name, that being the over-reliance on abstraction (theories and ‘standards’) vs. reflection (designing appropriately for local conditions). In all of this, these local road and traffic engineers have been reminding me of the worst academic, ivory-tower eggheads, whose heads are in the clouds rather than on the ground. Now, the situation makes much more sense.

  238. JMG: This may be off topic but I have been thinking about it a long time. I think that we are missing something when we attribute the Trump white house solely to working class whites. In the metro Detroit area, the story is much more complicated. The wealthiest suburbs around Detroit all voted for Trump. It is likely true that what pushed Michigan over the edge in Trump’s favor was the white working class. In rural areas, the strongest voices for trump were older folks who had retired from a successful life operating small businesses-owners of excavation companies, concrete ready mix companies etc. These are not people who have been screwed by the system-they have benefited wildly from it. In my opinion, many of these wealthy and “successful” business owner types voted against their self interest because the status quo had given them a pretty good shake. Perhaps it is their concern for the younger generation that caused them to give Trump a shot??? In Michigan, many many people with pensions and 401-k’s voted for Trump.

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