Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Call me unpersuasive

In the previous posting, I summoned up a column by Melanie Sturm in the Aspen Times where she wrote about her discomfort in the presence of a tattooed woman she saw on a visit to San Francisco. I suggested that Melanie's reaction avoided the bigger issues involved. 

Yesterday Melanie responded with good grace in the comments to my posting. I think she and I can have a reasonable conversation, and here is my part of it. Although I will quote from her comment, you are encouraged to scroll down and read her remarks in their entirety.

Melanie says:
I'm writing to you because I can see you're clearly very intelligent and articulate and I wanted to reach out, as a fellow conservative, to encourage you to consider ways you might channel your writing talents toward persuasion, and perhaps less toward pure opinion -- that is if you aspire to influence readers who don't already agree with you.
I am not a conservative. There is no conservatism left in this country -- the Left has obliterated it. We live under a Stalinist system in which everyone and everything revolves around government, especially the federal government. Unelected federal judges determine whether laws stand or fall depending on whether the judges like them. Unelected bureaucrats make rules that people must follow. Presidents decide to invade other countries without a declaration of war. The U.S. has a single political party, the Republicrats, whose opposition to each other is over the division of the spoils.

Under the circumstances it's nonsense to imply there's anything to conserve. People who call themselves conservatives have only two concerns, abortion and economics. If a name is needed for my political views, I'm a neo-reactionary.

I don't care about persuading anyone about anything except the value of thinking and of keeping an open mind about paranormal phenomena and the spiritual dimension of life. On the political level, efforts at persuasion are a waste of time and energy. Leftists may very occasionally have a change of heart on their own, but never because someone has argued them into it. The spectrum of the Left, ranging from Stalinism to tea-with-milk liberalism, isn't a philosophy; it's a religion for people who don't believe in God. If I were a hundred times more eloquent than I am, I doubt I could cause a single conversion.

Trying to influence people to see things your way is like being attracted to somebody and trying to make that person fall in love with you. The harder you try, the less likely it is to happen. The object of your affections senses, consciously or unconsciously, the manipulation going on. All you can do is be yourself -- best foot forward and all that, but still, be your real self. Some people will like who you are; some will dislike it; a huge percentage won't care. If you're lucky, eventually someone you find attractive will correctly read your personality and be attracted in turn. But you can't shoot the lock off someone's heart, or their politics.
As the only conservative columnist on the opinion page of the Aspen Times (in radically liberal Aspen), I know I won't be read if I hurl red meat or play into the conservative stereotypes (insensitive and uncompassionate -- that was the one exit poll Romney lost to Obama in 2012, by a huge margin) that repel many Americans. You may have noticed that my motto is Think Again, with the tag line, you might change your mind. If I can't get people to read me and Think Again, I have no shot at getting them to change their mind.
I understand Melanie's temptation to wear protective coloration and subtly undermine the stereotypes that fashionable Commies have about conservatives. The trouble is, first, that most of them aren't about to Think Again because they didn't think the first time. They picked up their political beliefs by determining what is approved among Aspen's trust-fund babies and rich moral show-offs, and they get along by going along. 

Second, it's playing defense, which is what has brought the country to this pass. The Marxists were out to win, and they have. The so-called conservatives said, lower our taxes and ban abortion and you'll never hear a politically incorrect word from us again. It was a bad strategy when the outcome was uncertain; as passive resistance to defeat, it's futile.
... My goal was to draw the reader into judging the behavior of the tattooed woman. Liberals don't like to judge, so one must be careful. Ultimately, I wanted readers to come to the conclusion you did -- that the tattooed woman's behavior was not only self-indulgent and angry, but it's ok to derive that judgment. 
Melanie's goal is reasonable, but I suspect she overestimates her influence if she thinks that a column carefully worded to sound non-judgmental is going to cause any reader to "derive" a judgment.
... The world is a better place when individuals are kind and compassionate, not self-indulgent and angry. A kinder and more compassionate world is undermined by selfish individualists who dismiss standards and codes of conduct.
Who's going to argue against kindness and (genuine) compassion? But I still think Melanie is avoiding the tough business of making moral judgments by taking refuge in a sentimental platitude. Besides, for all Melanie knows, the tattooed one may actually believe she's being kind and compassionate, standing up for the rights of wackos to deface the skin God gave them, ticking off "normal" people who are all -ists and -phobes and responsible for society's ills.
But my bigger point, which I was inspired to make because of my personal experience over the summer and because we Jews were in the middle of the Days of Awe when we're supposed to be reflective and repentant before God, was this sentence: "What makes us matter in a world where we often can feel insignificant is not how we brand ourselves as individuals — it’s the mark we stamp on others’ hearts and the legacy we leave the world."

I'm sorry you missed the bigger point, which didn't escape most of my readers thankfully as the response to this column has been overwhelmingly positive. I'm still working through the emails.
I take exception to this. "We Jews" aren't the only people who try to be reflective and repentant before God. Some of the rest of us do too. She doesn't know anything about my spiritual values or practices, but seems to imply that her benign fellowship has a divine blessing, while my way of putting things is just "opinion." Of course it's opinion, and I'd never try to serve it up as anything else. I don't claim to be a sales rep for God's plan.

Maybe I missed her bigger point, but I'm not sure she made it clearly. What does she mean by "brand ourselves" -- tattooing? How we present ourselves? All our acts? Our spiritual travails? In any case it sounds like a false opposition between alternatives. If the sum of our behavior or the quality of our spiritual life is for the good, isn't that bound to leave an equally good legacy? 

Melanie concludes, "I'm glad you care enough to channel your considerable talents, time and energy toward improving our society and country. I wish you the best in your endeavors!" I'm afraid I'm not the reformer Melanie is, although there are aspects of myself I'd like to reform. If I can write a blog post that a reader finds interesting and worth the time spent reading it, that may not bring us closer to a better society, but I feel that I've accomplished something. I don't mean to imply that Melanie's way is wrong -- just that it's her way. I wish her the best in her endeavors.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Darby,

I have found your harping over abortion of late to be over the top and most importantly an incorrect reading of reality.

God Bless,


Melanie Sturm said...

Hi Rick,

I’m glad you find satisfaction and fulfillment in writing for the enjoyment of your readers and not to persuade anyone. That’s a refreshingly modest and achievable goal, given your talents. It reminds me of J.S. Bach’s reason for writing music -- “for the glory of God and the recreation of the human spirit.” He surely achieved his goal!

But in achieving his goal, he elevated himself beyond his wildest expectations, and yes, he moved people to appreciate the things in life that were important to him – he persuaded people.

I can appreciate that persuasion might not be a satisfying goal, but to argue its futility, as I believe you do, is to render behavioral psychology irrelevant and marketing superfluous.

Additionally, persuasion in the political realm, when not dealing with hardened ideologues, is how dramatic and historic changes have occurred. Consider how Jesus, Thomas Paine and the American revolutionaries, and Hitler transformed the world through persuasion.

Furthermore, how do politicians travel from obscurity to victory without influencing people? To assert that people have a lock on their politics is to deny that strong leaders with powerful visions can move people, whether through demagoguery – exploiting people’s emotions of fear, envy and anxiety – or by defining unifying goals and motivating people to want and pursue them.

Like America’s founders, I believe that demagoguery is an evil precisely because it is an effective persuasive devise. That’s why I work hard to counter the false narratives that capture people’s hearts -- especially at election time – by being a “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” of political commentary. You may think it’s futile, but my experience proves the contrary. Consider the improbable and historic success of the Colorado recall elections last week. The grassroots managed to change the narrative from gun violence to elitist political over-reach. Now that’s effective political persuasion!

I’ll let the rest of your blog post reaction to my comment stand for your readers to judge. However, I do want to clarify the point with which you took exception: When I said “We Jews” were reflective and repentant before God, I wasn’t implying that Jews are the only people who try to do that or that Jews are divinely blessed. I was merely pointing out that I was motivated to write a more reflective piece because “we Jews” were in the middle of the Days of Awe (the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) when I wrote the column and hence, I was personally engaged in reflection. That’s not opinion; that’s a fact.

I thank you for this dialogue, for appreciating “my way,” and for wishing me the best.

My best to you as well,

Melanie Sturm
Columnist, Aspen Times

Rick Darby said...


Well said.

We each do what we feel is right, preferably taking into account whatever our own personalities and talents add to the mix. It is discouraging to read on various blogs so much infighting among people on the Right. I'd be the last to argue that everyone should think alike, but we ought to be able to put our differences aside to some extent and form a strong alliance.

The Founders who created our now nearly defunct Constitution didn't see eye to eye on many things, but they managed to pull together for the sake of an ideal.

Ugh said...

Angry, mean spirited, judgmental - these are words that are used to describe right-wingers. When stripped down to the facts I find it there is almost always projection-ism going on. Ultra lefties are angry, mean and extremely judgmental. But to the commenter's point I've found women do not like angry men at all, even when its called for. It scares them, they will not be persuaded by it except out of self preservation. Right-wingers, aka serial losers, are angry all the time.

Stogir said...

I don't like tattoos. I am of the opinion that a beautiful woman cannot improve her natural beauty through "body art."

It's like painting graffiti on the Mona Lisa. Not a good idea.