Persuade xor discover

Persuade Xor Discover

September 2009

When meeting people you don’t know very well, the convention is to seem extra friendly. You smile and say “pleased to meet you,” whether you are or not. There’s nothing dishonest about this. Everyone knows that these little social lies aren’t meant to be taken literally, just as everyone knows that “Can you pass the salt?” is only grammatically a question.

I’m perfectly willing to smile and say “pleased to meet you” when meeting new people. But there is another set of customs for being ingratiating in print that are not so harmless.

The reason there’s a convention of being ingratiating in print is that most essays are written to persuade. And as any politician could tell you, the way to persuade people is not just to baldly state the facts. You have to add a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.

For example, a politician announcing the cancellation

of a government program will not merely say “The program is canceled.” That would seem offensively curt. Instead he’ll spend most of his time talking about the noble effort made by the people who worked on it.

The reason these conventions are more dangerous is that they interact with the ideas. Saying “pleased to meet you” is just something you prepend to a conversation, but the sort of spin added by politicians is woven through it. We’re starting to move from social lies to real lies.

Here’s an example of a paragraph from an essay I wrote about labor unions. As written, it tends to offend people who like unions.
People who think the labor movement was the creation of heroic union organizers have a problem to explain: why are unions shrinking now? The best they can do is fall back on the default explanation of people living in fallen civilizations. Our ancestors were giants. The workers of the early twentieth century must have had a moral courage that’s lacking today.
Now here’s the same paragraph rewritten to please instead of offending them:
Early union organizers made heroic sacrifices to improve conditions for workers. But though labor unions are shrinking now, it’s not because present union leaders are any less courageous. An employer couldn’t get away with hiring thugs to beat up union leaders today, but if they did, I see no reason to believe today’s union leaders would shrink from the challenge. So I think it would be a mistake to attribute the decline of unions to some kind of decline in the people who run them. Early union leaders were heroic, certainly, but we should not suppose that if unions have declined, it’s because present union leaders are somehow inferior. The cause must be external. [1]
It makes the same point: that it can’t have been the personal qualities of early union organizers that made unions successful, but must have been some external factor, or otherwise present-day union leaders would have to be inferior people. But written this way it seems like a defense of present-day union organizers rather than an attack on early ones. That makes it more persuasive to people who like unions, because it seems sympathetic to their cause.

I believe everything I wrote in the second version. Early union leaders did make heroic sacrifices. And present union leaders probably would rise to the occasion if necessary. People tend to; I’m skeptical about the idea of “the greatest generation.” [2]

If I believe everything I said in the second version, why didn’t I write it that way? Why offend people needlessly?



Persuade xor discover