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Winning hearts and minds: advice from Machiavelli’s buddy, Francesco Guicciardini

We live in times where the malevolence of a handful of billionaires and their corrupt minions has become obvious to many. Yet, while I have no trouble demonizing greedy plutocrats as a group, I try to avoid needlessly antagonizing those of my brothers and sisters who are also oppressed, but who may not yet fully understand the mechanisms through which they are kept down.  My own biological sister, for example, is a generous, warm person who has devoted her life to the education of young children. Sadly, she still clings to the delusion that President Obama and other Republicrats share her values. She is by no means stupid, but still she falls for the D.C. kabuki narrative, waiting patiently for filibuster reform, or whatever, to let the Democrats do the good things she’s been waiting for them to do in D.C. for decades.

So how to argue with good people, like my sister, in a way that doesn’t just make them angry and unreceptive to reason?  Push hard on the ideas, but don’t attack her character, or the character of groups with whom she identifies. This is not easy, but it’s very important in times of inflamed tensions. The times of Martin Luther and Machiavelli were also full of great tensions. Those who sought to make positive changes had to possess an understanding of the subtleties of political conflict.

Machiavelli was a founder of modern, secular political thought. Less known today is his equally astute friend, Francesco Guicciardini. Guicciardini actually achieved what eluded Machiavelli, substantial political power. He also achieved distinction as a gifted historian. A collection of his sayings, or ricordi, has survived and is available in a paperback English translation.

Here’s one of my favorites:

If either necessity or contempt induces you to speak ill of another, at least be careful to say things that will offend only him. For instance, if you want to insult a particular person, do not speak ill of his country, his family, or his relatives. It is great folly to offend many if you only want to insult one man.

Correcting for the early modern sexism, how can this help us in today’s world? One mistake that earnest activists on the left and right make every day is to hurl insults at someone that violate Guicciardini’s rule. A conservative will needlessly offend millions by pointing out that the object of her wrath is from New York. A liberal will denounce someone as a bible-thumping redneck. We need to make clear that our scorn is directed at one particular loathsome individual, and was triggered by a particular sort of action. By the same token, we should focus on the latest outrage, not rehash old grievances that might make our indignation appear to be merely sour grapes. Of course sometimes people merit contempt mostly because they are part of a larger, contemptible group. In this case it is fine to insult the whole group. I don’t care if I offend all white-supremacists, although I wouldn’t want to heap scorn on all residents of any particular state where they might be found.

So please, carry on with the merited vituperation here on FDL. Just try to remember that specific, targeted criticisms are more persuasive than careless generalizations.

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