Persuasion does not work; love anyway

Here’s a news item: file, according to your own preferred system and nomenclature, under “sociology of knowledge” or “mass delusion” or “our epistemological maelstrom” or (for the Harry Frankfurt fans) “bullshit”:

Eighty-one percent of respondents who never watched Fox, and 76 percent of respondents who never listened to conservative talk radio, said the government should prioritize containing the virus over restarting the economy. But only 12 percent of frequent Fox viewers and 3 percent of frequent talk radio listeners said the same.

This quotation is from The original research report:

The fact of the correlations is not a big surprise, I guess. Still, the extent of the correlations is striking.

We have lost the minds of a huge swath of our populace to the AM radio blowhards and the Fox News disinformationists and opinionators . I don’t know how this gets fixed. When I was a kid, there were “ministries” that claimed to be able to “deprogram” Moonies and others trapped in cults. I don’t know how successful (or ethical) their efforts were.

I think of Proverbs like “bad company corrupts good morals” or, on the other hand, Paul’s language about being transformed by the renewing of your mind. Paul “beseeches . . . by the mercies of God” that we be not conformed but transformed. But does this earnest beseeching not seem weak—impotent, even—against the imposing, powerful, 24/7, multimedia forces of “this world”? How many hours per day, per week, does your preacher have of your attention? And who is your preacher listening to all week? And if your preacher told you to stop listening to Hannity—or was too dipomatic or too meek to tell you that directly, but you began to suspect that they would like to—would you stop listening to Hannity? Or find a new preacher? I have seen that question answered more than once over the last five years, and the answer I have seen is not encouraging.

The stark, hard question I am asking myself is: once you commit yourself to a person or group by consenting to listen to them for multiple hours per day or per week, is there a way back, or not? And we shouldn’t fool ourselves: if they are making claims on our minds and hearts—and they are!—then consenting to listen to them for multiple hours per day or week is to give ourselves to them, to lay our mind and our heart out on the couch before them, unclothed, unprotected, and let them have their way with us. And we are changed.

I remember, back years ago, when I still found it amusing rather than nauseating and then simply impossible to listen to Rush Limbaugh and Shaun Hannity while eating or driving, that Hannity repeatedly said: “All I ask for is four hours of your day every day—just give me four hours!” Seemed funny at the time, like “The Rush Limbaugh School of Advanced Conservative Studies,” but in retrospect: not so funny. Too many of our friends and neighbors gave him and his ilk what they wanted, or if not four hours every day, at least enough time to let the poisonous seed ooze in and settle and do its impregnating work.

But is there a way back? It is not clear. Persuasion doesn’t really seem to happen much in real life by rational means. I am frequently dumbfounded these days by the utter imperviousness of some people who disagree with me to evidence and reason. But really do we not know by now that conversion—the radical reversal of life-orientation, the transvaluation of values, the redirection of loyalty from one god to another—is not a matter, except in rare cases, of rational persuasion?

Not only for them, but for us, for me. How many hours and years did I have to spend slogging through ancient and modern texts in three or four languages under the supervision of how many brilliant and patient professors to move me even a small direction from the commitments with which I began to (I think) a slightly deeper, wiser, and better integrated appropriation of those commitments, entailing some painful sloughing off of alien accretions? And emerging not with a sense of having arrived at perfect understanding but with a deeper than ever sense of how far I am from knowing everything? And do I expect to change someone else’s mind or heart with an argument that I can write in two minutes, or two hours? Ludicrous. And in my own case, whatever I profited from my texts and teachers did not happen, could not have happened, without the concurrent influence of so many relational factors: the life-changing effects of the stories of pain and grace that were being played out all around me and in me.

I cannot, will not be able to—I know this about myself by now—stop trying to persuade people through arguments, even though I know, at least at one level of awareness, that argument is mostly futile, or is effective only if certain rare conditions are in place. As a wise friend told me years ago: You can’t tell anyone anything before they’re ready to hear it. (I was not ready to hear that.)

It’s like a miniature golf course where you have to putt the ball between the blades of a moving windmill, but worse, because the windmill blades expand and merge into a solid disc with only one ball-sized opening, and it’s invisible to boot. So you try an argument, and another, and another, and the ball keeps bouncing back, but you keep trying because you believe it’s possible that the next time, the moment will be right, and the mind will be open, and the argument will roll into the cup.

But what if you could dissolve the obstacle instead of continuing to bounce off of it? That’s what conversion does, and it is not within your power to convert anyone, but you are invited to participate in a subordinate way by allowing yourself to serve as a humble channel of grace, not as the Teacher but as a taught one; as a recipient—not owner or originator—of faith, hope, and love, and sometimes, perhaps, in graced moments that you cannot orchestrate or direct but only be caught up in, as a passer-on of something previously received, or as a clear window through which something that has been lit inside, by someone else, can shine out.

I collect hats. I think my favorite baseball cap is a green one that bears two words: “Love anyway.” That “anyway” is so pregnant, so polyvalent: “anyway” means in spite of them and their resistance and the ways in which they make you crazy or seem to willfully misunderstand or even attack you and everything you say and just everything in general; and it means in spite of yourself—myself—and all my impatience and inability and frustration and pessimism; and it means in spite of our surroundings, the virus and the climate and the Antichrist in all his shapes, forms, and voices, and the world, the flesh, and the devil himself. In spite of all these things, these three things abide: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of them is love, so: Love anyway. Is that not who God is, and what God has done, is that not the proper activity of the lamb slain from the foundation of the world and still being being slain all around the world until the rectification of all things? And is that love not the only thing that has the slightest glimmer of a chance of overwhelming and reversing all the currents of ungoodness and unlove and untruth (on the airwaves and in the ether and from the proudest, bullyshittiest pulpits of power) that seem likely to simply swamp us and carry us away to ultimate oblivion?

P.S. Want a cool hat? Find one here: NOTE: I am not affiliated with Preemptive Love, other than as a minor donor and major fan, and they are not responsible for anything I say, do, or write while wearing the hat I bought from them.

4 thoughts on “Persuasion does not work; love anyway

  1. So, a few things to throw into the mix. First, Niebuhr would argue that rationality is affected by self-interest. The arguments cannot be made on a Thomistic view of rationality that is pure and wherein all the best arguments are persuasive. Second, this insight becomes supercharged when a group argues that disregard for pure rationality is a moral and political strength. Steinbeck wrote of the mother of the twins in East of Eden, that being born without a certain moral character was an extraordinary strength. We are seeing an example of what he meant, though of course that was fiction and not a mass of people that approximates 40% of the population. Finally, to return to Niebuhr, this is why Niebuhr argued that social change comes about through coercion. Without the National Guard, Wallace would have remained a segregationist. Without the Civil Rights Act, the country would not have made the meager progress it has on race. The idea that America will make progress on police reform, or redlining, or racism, without laws that force people to do things they do not wish to do is both incorrect and ineffective.


    1. Your response calls to mind Miroslav Volf’s trenchant observation (as a Croatian theologian whose country was decimated by the superior military might of the Serbian aggressors: “This is the negative lesson of Hobbes’s political philosophy: the more society consist of self-centered egoists, the greater the need for Leviathan—a tightly organized and centralized state apparatus.” – (from Exclusion and Embrace.) Given that both sides today are committed to the Crusade: “Western civilization is on the line; the Soul of America is at stake; it is a Flight 93 Moment — all over again,” there would seem to be nothing left for it but to overwhelm the hijackers (whether on the Right or the Left) with superior ordinance. One would hope that the potency of the super-majority vote will extinguish the felt need for gunpowder.


    2. Thanks, Ward. Coercion is for the state, right? I guess I was just thinking about how people relate to each other. Not meaning at all to deny that the state just sometimes has to legislate and enforce, and if that means coercing some people who will just never get it, so be it.


  2. In light of John MacArthur’s Sunday sermon this past week in which he gave emphatic support for what I take can only be QAnon Gnostic enlightenment: “There is no COVID pandemic and those who believe otherwise have been deceived by Satan”, I sorely needed this reminder. And I will be buying multiple pieces of head and shirt ware from Thanks for the head’s up on the latter as well.


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