The Large Opinion Collider (Part 2)

I'd spent so much time thinking about how to create persuasive tactics, that I hadn't stopped to think if I should.

My work in Explorable Explanations has largely been based off Ian Bogost's work in procedural rhetoric and persuasive games, which both blew my mind and reaffirmed my belief in interactive art -- they really let the author express themselves!

But is that core assumption behind all forms of art, of public speeches, of the printing press -- that we should increase the power of authors and artists to express themselves -- really true?

Now, I feel gross just typing that question, because I'm a huge proponent of free speech. But why do I feel gross just questioning that "peeps should be empowered to express themselves"? Asking a question isn't necessarily disagreement. But I guess most people think it is, and I may have internalized that attitude.

Well, I'm going to ignore my icked-out feelings for now, and keep throwing questions at that core assumption, colliding ideas at high velocity, and see what comes out of it.

My beliefs may or may not survive this.

Isn't persuasion manipulative?

This is the most common accusation made against the art of persuasion. β€œOh, that's just empty rhetoric.” or β€œOh, that's propaganda.” And to be honest, I used to believe persuasion = manipulation as well, and it's not a totally wrong-headed idea.

(Side note: it's kinda weird how peeps think "expressing selves = good" but "persuasion = bad"?)

Now, where I draw the line between persuasion and manipulation is moral intent. A persuasive person genuinely believes in what they're saying, and wants others to join in for their own good! A manipulative person knows they're being deliberately deceptive, and tricks others into doing things at their own expense.

What about cult leaders? They genuinely believe what they're saying, but hurt people nonetheless.

Well, I'd say many cult leaders know exactly what they're doing, but that's beside the point of the question. That is, there are people who do truly believe in what they're saying, but it's still false and damaging, and them being persuasive hurts people.

Again, I'd like to reiterate I've not planned this blog post out in advance. I'm doing a Q&A with myself as I go along, trying my hardest to disprove my own thesis, and trying my hardest to defend it.

Okay, so I may need to change my original statement to: persuasion is amoral, just a tool that can be used for good or evil.

You make tools, Nicky. You know tools have specific affordances, and that technology is not neutral. The medium is the message.

Yeah... Yeah I'll concede tools aren't neutral in terms of use, (it's far easier to destroy with a gun than create with a gun) but they're still neutral in terms of morality. (a gun can be either used to defend your family, or kill your family)

First: Because I'm you, Nicky, I know you know having a gun at home statistically makes you less safe. Coz people are idiots and don't follow gun safety tips.

Fiiiiine. I was just using guns as an example of "tools are neutral", because everybody uses weapons as an example of "tools are neutral".

And by everyone, I mean Americans.

Second: If tools --> actions, but tools -/-> morality, are you saying actions -/-> morality? If a tool existed to literally create dictators, would you say it's morally neutral because you could theoretically have benevolent dictators?

I could bite the bullet here and say yes, but I'd be bullshitting. Benevolent dictators aren't logically impossible, but they are vastly improbable. If a coin turned up heads 99.99% of the time, I wouldn't say it's neutral just because it could turn up tails 0.01% of the time.

So, I concede. Again. Just because a tool, or a piece of technology, can be used for either good or evil, doesn't mean it's a 50-50 chance. Tools usually do skew the odds, one way of the other. Probability matters.

Okay, good - something came out of this collision! We now know that tools aren't always morally neutral.

Which is actually good news, because now that means that tools and tech can be morally good, not just neutral!

In which case I'd argue, rhetoric, and the art of persuasion, is morally good. Sure, cult leaders can use it to manipulate, but cult leaders are rare. As we now know, probability matters.

What's far more likely, is if everyone was well-versed in rhetoric, then we'd have better discourse, society evolves, and we'd get closer to the truth(s).

But persuasion isn't about getting to the truth, whether that's a logical truth or human truth. It's about convincing someone of a thing. And sure, if everyone's equally trained in rhetoric, it may work out, but we aren't equally trained, or have equal access to persuasive tools. There's a power imbalance.

Ah - that actually helps clarify something from earlier!

We shouldn't increase power for people to express themselves, but distribute power for people to express themselves. A subtle difference, but a big one! It's the difference between a multinational television network, and YouTube. (And it's sad YouTube is trying to become more like a TV network...)

That's how we resolve the paradox: the value of rhetoric isn't in rhetoric itself, it's in its widespread use.

Well... what happens if everyone's just talking past each other? Everyone trying to convince each other of their beliefs, rather than, y'know, trying to get to the truth?

Probability matters, so let's first ask, is that scenario likely?

nicky have you been on the internet.


So that means the value of rhetoric - if it has value - isn't even in its widespread use, if people just talk past each other, rather than talk with each other.

Now hold on - even if people never directly converse, surely everyone putting out their viewpoint will be beneficial to human knowledge? A listener can just hear both sides--

--whose persuasive ability is totally uncorrelated with the truth of their statements--

Well now, if everyone knew of persuasive tactics, a listener could easily peel away the fluff of both sides' arguments, and synthesize their own conclusions.

Right, but that's because of the listener's logic, awareness of their own emotions and beliefs, and courage to pick apart their own worldviews. Which is several steps away from rhetoric. Meaning, the value of discussion still is not in rhetoric itself.

Ah! But just as a car needs an engine, the engine can't do anything itself. The value of a car may not be in the engine itself, but it's still a crucial part of the whole. You can't take rhetoric out of context of the whole ecosystem of thought, then say it's worthless! Otherwise you could say language is useless, since it doesn't work if nobody's around to listen to you.

And persuasion must be a crucial part of the whole. How can there be a dialogue, if neither party even knows how to speak?

You... know what? I concede, you're right on that point.

Ha, it feels so good to finally win against myself.

This isn't about winning, Nicky. Again, I'm you. You're going to lose & win either way.

Whatever, meeeee.

But - to expand on your kinda clichΓ© car metaphor, if you want a car to drive faster, or more efficiently, you can't just dump a bunch more engines into the hood. Likewise, if we want to improve societal evolution, we can't just focus on bigger and better ways to do rhetoric - like procedural rhetoric or Explorable Explanations - we need to think about the whole.

Well, that's what we're going to do in the next part, right? Here we explored the thesis of Rhetoric; next we'll explore its antithesis, Dialectic?

Yup. You read my mind. Because, again, we share the same mind, you dingus. Anyway, here's a summary of what we learnt today by conversing with ourselves:

  1. Persuasion is a tool, but tools are not neutral.
  2. Don't increase persuasive power, but distribute persuasive power.
  3. We can't just make bigger & better persuasive tools, we need to think about the whole ecosystem of thought.

This is part of a multi-part series, because I'm making it up as I go along, debating with myself, and somehow learning things from it?

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Rhetoric ← you are here
Part 2Β½: Intermission
Part 3: Dialectic
Part 4: Conclusions, For Now