manipulation versus eloquence

Here are two conflicting ideas that both have some appeal to me:

1) Our political system is too manipulative. The techniques of persuasion have become too effective. Instead of just sending out a mass mailing, we design several messages and test them each with a random sample of the target audience to measure its impact. Instead of sending organizers out into a neighborhood to talk to people, we give them pre-tested scripts to recite. Persuasive political advertisements are slick, scary, and produced for particular niche audiences. As a result, there is not enough listening going on, not enough two-way conversation. Real needs and good ideas cannot bubble up from below. Communication is also too strategic–not designed to explore and address problems, but to get people to do what the organizers want. Finally, the techniques of effective communication are for sale, so they tend to benefit organized groups and interests with money rather than diffuse or poorly funded interests.

2) We should prize eloquence as a skill and virtue of political participation. We teach people to express themselves effectively in writing and speech because that is part of being a good citizen. Americans need a “public voice” that can persuade others who are different from themselves on matters of common concern, not just a “private voice” that works among friends and family. As Francis Bacon said, “it is eloquence that prevaileth in an active life.” Modern techniques (such as randomly testing messages) are natural refinements of traditional methods for assessing the impact of speech on audiences. They are not especially threatening, nor are they always effective; sometimes, people prefer spontaneity. When speech is free, some will be better at it than others. If their persuasiveness can be bought, that is nothing new. Protagoras sold his services as an orator in ancient Athens.

This entry was posted in deliberation. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to manipulation versus eloquence

  1. Patrick says:

    Peter,

    I think your point is a good one, and I’ve struggled a great deal recently trying to come to terms with my own internal conflict about the power of rhetoric in modern political discourse.

    I think you may be a bit off in your dichotomy, however. The conflicting ideas are not manipulation and eloquence, but manipulation and inspiration.

    I too am frustrated that political messages today are focus group and consultant tested to the point that they say next to nothing at all. I don’t object to the practice of focus grouping messages or even object to the influence of consultants. I think both of these inputs can be valuable in the hands of a politician with courage to stand behind his arguments, and who is not afraid to challenge those who listen to him once and a while. The problem is the message itself, not the route it takes to get there.

    We have a great deal of manipulation – through fearmongering of various sorts, half truths regarding policy implications, and good old fashioned obfuscation. What we lack is true inspiration. Sure, someone like Barack Obama occasionally shows flashes of inspiring rhetoric, but he hasn’t really called anyone to action yet.

    Therein lies the major flaw in contemporary political rhetoric. We are told many things, but nothing is really asked of us. That is what separates inspiration from manipulation. Even if Lincoln had focused group the Gettysburg Address, it’s likely he still would have asked us “to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” The closest we’ve come in recent memory is being inspired to purchase big ticket items to spur the economy in the wake of 9/11.

    Inspiration can come from focus group tested rhetoric, it can even come from consultants. But it must come from a leader who is not afraid to ask those listening to contribute something. That is the point at which private virtue becomes a public voice, and that is what we are sorely lacking in politics today.

Comments are closed.