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On Data, Truth, Emotion And Persuasion.

There is a fallacy that the Dog falls into far too often, and he bets there are lots of other folks that do it too. The fallacy is that if you have the facts on your side you always win in persuading people. Yeah, when you write it out like that is seems pretty silly to anyone over the age of say 15 but it is still a problem that the Dog runs into on a regular basis. What is strange is that we, as Dems, run into this problem a lot as well.

How often, prior to this last cycle, have we heard folks lament that Democrats will put out a twenty five point plan, addressing all of the problems on an issue that is important to the people and still get their asses handed to them at the ballot box? It is this very fallacy at work. It is an easy path to follow if you are numbers and data motivated; you see the factors that interact, how they can be quantified and by using them come up with the optimal solution (yes, there is always a single optimal solution for every situation, it is just a question of setting your operational definitions correctly).

The problem comes in the fact that data is arrogant. The Dog hears some of you asking how an emotional attitude can be attributed to numbers, and that is a good question. The answer is that once you are down to numbers, they are hard to dispute. They are what they are whether we like the result or not. This gets right up the nose of those that have some objection to the outcome. There is a corollary with truth as well.

Socrates famously said “What is Truth?” (he also said “I just drank WHAT?!?” but that is for a different essay). What he meant by that was that truth is something that changes based on the perceptions of the individual hearing it. Even something that is generally accepted like the Moon landings is not truth to some. While we might make fun of their paranoia that fact is they do not accept this as true fact. Even though we know that truth is not absolute, there are those that insist as a point of their personal integrity on telling only the truth. This leads them to a lot of places that a little application of diplomacy would make much less uncomfortable. When shown a picture of a new born, they do not find the best part of the red winkle faced little monkey, instead they say something to the effect of “Wow, they all really look crappy right out of the womb, eh?”

In economics there is the idea of the “rational actor”. The Dog understands that this is used to simplify models of complex transactions, but he is amazed that anyone with any real life experience would put any faith in the idea. Humans are not rational actors. Every single person reading this can think of a time in their lives when they knew what they were doing was bad a choice, that with all the luck and hope in the world it would still turn out badly with bad consequences, and yet went ahead with it anyway. This is how people wind up with houses they could never realistically afford, this is how banks make loans that are never realistically safe, this is how countries go to wars that will never turn out the way they expect them too.

Knowing this is should be no surprise that when confronted with the flat truth or the arrogant data that people do not react with acceptance, there is more to the decision making process than rationality and data. There is always the component of emotion. This is not to say that we should only make our cases from passion and emotion. That is also ineffective in terms of persuasion.

We can see this in the predicament of the Republican Party right now. For about the last 20 years they have been the anti-expertise Party. They have called those with facts “elitist” as if it some kind of sin to be well versed in a topic. They have based their appeals on emotion, starting with the simmering resentment of Southern working class white men at the perceived preferential treatment of Affirmative Action. The problem with this type of strategy is that when emotion is appealed too, the next time you do it you have to raise the emotional level in order to have the same effect.

This leads to a cycle that mirrors addictive behavior. Any win by emotional appeal reinforces the desire to win that way. If your emotional appeal vilifies your opponents, then you have to make them worse the next time. This strategy was starting to decay prior to 9/11 as it is unsustainable in the long run, but when the Al Queda terrorists attacked us in this spectacular manner, it gave a fear based boost to the strategy. Sadly it lead us to the idea that descent was traitorous, that any questioning of the tactics that grew more and more heinous was aid and comfort to those that oppose us. What the criminal Bush administration became is the logical outcome of appealing to emotion over facts.

It has left the Republican Party in the position of opposing needed stimulus for the nation, in direct opposition to the desires of most of the nation. They must stand on this “principal” and try to ratchet up the level of emotion or they will lose their base. This is where the Fundigelical wing of their Party demands them to be. Since they have wrapped themselves in the trappings of the Religious Right, they are now caught between doing the right thing for their country or appearing to give into the “godless liberals” they have vilified.

From all of the above it becomes clear that there must be a middle ground if you or your Party are to be effective in persuading the people to move the direction you think best. To move people you can not rely solely on flat truth, harsh and uncompromising; you can not rely solely on data, arrogant and cold; you can not rely solely on fiery rhetoric, with its sharply defined good guys and bad guys. If you are to be successful in actually moving people and moving an agenda forward, it must be the most difficult of balancing acts. There must be facts to support the direction, there must be honesty that tells the truth but does not brutalize those that disagree and there must be the appeal to our emotional side, in a way that inspires rather than angers.

The Dog knows that none of this is easy, but that is exactly the point. If you aspire to being an effective activist, to being an effective politician or just being an effective mover of conversations, then you must do more than what your natural comfort level allows you. No one is effective in moving change if the only people that will listen to them are the ones that already agree. You might find temporary support, but long term, you will find others drive the actual change. In order to be a true mover you must take the hard path, and work to use all the tools of persuasion. Data won’t do it. Truth won’t do it. Emotion won’t do it. Together they will, but not alone.

The floor is yours.

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Bill Egnor

Bill Egnor

I am a life long Democrat from a political family. Work wise I am a Six Sigma Black Belt (process improvement project manager) and Freelance reporter for