A Lesson

If you would change the world,
First seek to understand,
For things don’t always go
Exactly as we planned

And it gets hard to clearly think
With passions running strong,
Or even to consider that
It might be us

Who’s wrong

= = = = =

First day of class. Taking notes.

Subject: Polemics. “The Art of Persuasion”

E.P.L. … Ethos, Pathos, Logos. These are the keys to persuasive speaking.

1. Ethos, meaning, establish your right to speak, why people should listen to you. Your expertise, credentials, experience, moral authority.

2. Pathos, meaning, establish why people should care about what you are saying. Appeal to the heart. Only do this after doing the first one.

3. Logos, meaning, establish the logic or reason of your case. Only do this after the other two.

Listening, scribbling, concentrating.

When attacking opponents, always start by undermining Ethos. Explain why the person shouldn’t even be listened to. They are morally reprehensible, their credentials are suspect, etc. That way, you don’t have to get into tricky arguments about their actual logical point.

If those aren’t working use Pathos. Explain why it is that you care and they are cold and unfeeling. Use people’s love of feeling morally superior to bolster your own case.

Try to avoid Logos, i.e., actual logical or policy arguments that differentiate you and your opponent as most people are unmoved by them. Or, better yet, dress up Ethos or Pathos based arguments as Logos.

= = = = =

Several hours later, in my dorm room, thinking about how wrong other people are in their beliefs about the world, and congratulating myself for not being one of them. My dorm room door was deliberately propped open, as was common at that time, and an unfamiliar boy and girl knocked on the doorframe.



“I’m Jay, and this is Ashley. We are from the Animal Salvation League. We do work in the community encouraging people to take responsible action concerning their pets and reproduction. We offer education, affordable access to spaying and neutering services, and care, including adoption services, for unwanted pets.”

Ethos, I thought.

It was Ashley’s turn. “Almost 5 million pets are currently in shelters and over a million every year are needlessly killed, because people can’t be bothered. They can’t be bothered to spay or neuter their pets, then they can’t bothered to actually take care of them. Pets that are counting on them.”

Pathos. Right by the book.

“We know that no one person can solve this problem, but, by doing things in our local community, we can lower the amount of needless suffering in the world. Can we count on you for support, either financially, or by volunteering?”

“Or both,” Ashley added.

Logos. Their actual point.

“What would volunteering entail?”

= = = = =

Two weeks later, I’m paired up with a girl named “Georgiana”, who went by “George”, and I am the one now knocking on doors, although we are covering the apartments near campus.

Only about one out of four people are home (or answering their doors), so we’ve made very little headway. The apartment complex is huge, so we take a break and walk over to a little store across the street to sit down awhile and have some coffee.

“Where does the money we collect actually go?” I ask George.

“We send it to regional.”

“What do they do with it?”

“Deposit it, is the only thing I know for sure.”

“Do we get money back here? Like if someone wants to spay their pet but can’t afford it, so we can help out?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Then what does the ‘affordable access to spaying and neutering services’ part of our spiel mean?”

“We have a list of local providers.”

“Couldn’t they get those out of the yellow pages? I mean, I don’t want to be a downer, but, what are we actually doing here?”

“Raising awareness.”

“And money,” I added.

= = = = =

I volunteered four more times in the next 5 months; not long after that, an article appeared in a newspaper across the state about a Federal Sting that had taken down a number of fraudulent charities, including the ASL. My roommate read it and brought it back to the dorm.

“Isn’t this the group you’ve been volunteering for?” he asked, handing the paper over.

“Yep. I’m an idiot,” I said, scanning the article.

“Didn’t you ever wonder where the money was going?”

“Yeah, I remember talking to one of the other volunteers about it months ago. But we just kind of let it hang there.”

“I wonder if any of you volunteers will have to testify? Or get in trouble?”

I hadn’t thought about either of those possibilities.

= = = = =

Neither of those possibilities came up in my case, or anyone else’s case I knew; the leaders of the group all did indeed go to jail, for both “fraud” and “wire fraud”. But that was almost a year-and-a-half later, and I was out of college by then.

Thinking back, I had learned, literallyย just that day, how people can persuade us to do things without being truthful, was conscious of it at the time,ย and still fell for it. So I stepped back and thought about my part in the whole.

First of all, Jay and Ashley had themselves been fooled. So it wasn’t them, although the fact that they were students, like me, who loved animals made me want to trust them. I assumed they had Ethos, credibility, even though none of us did, because none of us had done the work to really understand the group we were volunteering for.

Secondly, if I was honest, I liked the feeling that I was a morally superior person, enlightening others by knocking on doors and explaining things that I, in my wisdom, understood better than they. So the pitch used both my love of animals AND my vanity against me. That was the Pathos part.

Finally, I realized that the Logos, or reason part, had never been there at all. They had no facilities and nothing tangible to show about their efforts, only brochures. I didn’t ask what they did that differentiated them from other animal protection groups, or for references from people they’d helped.ย I had asked nothing.

= = = = =

As human beings, it is the intensity of our emotions that determines how strongly we feel about the validity of our arguments, not the other way around. But it should be the other way around, because passionately defended lies are still lies. As a rule, we are better at spotting the lies other people believe than the ones we do. But the last alternative we ever consider in any argument is whether or not it is possible that both parties are wrong.

Studying the subject of “polemics” in college (the actual class covered a bunch of subjects, and polemics was part of “rhetoric”) was the beginning of better understanding the means people use to persuade, whether fairly or unfairly. Understanding it didn’t immediately make me less subject to falling victim to it. But it gave me, with time, a way of approaching arguments where I’m more aware of my own weaknesses.

It also has made me hyper-aware of how often all the polemical tricks are still employed to this day. Attacks on morality and credibility. Appeals to passion. Weak factual or logical arguments covered up by effective use of ethos and pathos. And just how many people are passionately committed to things whose flaws they cannot see, for passions are inherently blind.

A key part of tolerance is realizing that we ourselves could be wrong; which, given how often it has happened in the past, should be our default setting.

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15 Thoughts to “A Lesson

  1. Lessons are seldom learned from history or even from personal experience. We continue to make the same mistakes throughout our lives. C’est la vie!

  2. Loved this, though I’m sorry you had that experience with fundraising. It seems like you turned it into a good learning experience, and I of course know you’re still inclined to the work of giving, so it didn’t quash that, and I’m glad.

    I ask a lot of questions everywhere I go, even to myself when I come up with ideas and plans. I think it’s almost impossible to assume we’re wrong– human brains are sort of programmed to think whatever we perceive is reality. But it is pretty easy to hold onto the idea that I don’t know much, because that’s confirmed to me in this big big world every single day. ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s the default, happily. It’s fun to live in a world where there’s so much to know.

    Maybe one day I’ll learn how to convince others of that. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Loved this post. ๐Ÿ™‚

      1. I still feel like this is a steal. Youโ€™re good at it. ๐Ÿ˜‚ Even placebo comfort is worthy of a charge.

      2. I offered “peace of mind”, which commands a reasonable price. Certainly higher than “a piece of my mind” which is available daily for free right here.

      1. I was too solitary, I guess. I burned most of my university hours practicing the piano through the night and reading anything I could get my hands on.

        Which might not have been the best use of time for a math major…

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