Ingroups, outgroups, groupiness, and bias




If you spend as much time as I do crawling around the internet arguing with extremists, you quickly learn the “that source is biased” move. You present a piece of evidence, and the person won’t even look at it because, they say, that source is biased.

Let’s start with that isn’t what you do with a biased source. You don’t reject it; you look at it skeptically–you check its sources. Right now, a lot of people are refusing to look at claims that Trump hasn’t been as successful as he claims because, they say, that argument is from the Hillary camp. That’s called the genetic fallacy–it doesn’t matter where the claim originated; it matters if it’s true. Whether it originated with Hillary camp or not, it’s possible to check whether they are using Trump’s numbers about his own wealth. If they are, it’s a claim to take seriously.

But, for a lot of people, that isn’t how it works. They believe that you can reject anything said by what social psychologists call the “outgroup.” The basic premise is that the “ingroup” is “objective” and the “outgroup” is “biased,” so, to determine if someone is “objective,” you just ask yourself if they’re in the in or outgroup.

Let me explain a little about in and outgroups. An ingroup isn’t necessarily powerful—it’s the group you’re in. So, if someone asked you to talk about yourself, you would describe yourself in terms of various group memberships—you’re a Pastafarian, Sooner, essentialist feminist, neoliberal, knitter. Social psychologists call that group (the one you’re in) the “ingroup” and various groups you’re not in (it’s important to your self of identity that you’re not like Them) “outgroups.”

We all have a lot of ingroups, and we have a lot of outgroups, and the importance of any given one can heighten or lower depending on the situation. We are made aware of those many (even contradictory) group memberships when they’re under threat, unusual, or interesting. If you are an American, and you find yourself in a space where American is an outgroup, you’ll likely bond with other Americans. Sitting in a group of people in a classroom in Tilden, Texas, if asked to say something about yourself, you wouldn’t say, “I’m an American.” Sitting in a group of people in a classroom of mixed national origin in Belgium, you’d be pretty likely to say, “I’m an American.” If, in Tilden, another American said something critical about Americans, you’d be more likely to listen than if a non-American said it in Belgium. If you’re already feeling a little marginalized for your group membership, you’re more likely to be at least a little defensive.

And here is a funny thing about ingroup membership. There is a kind of circular relationship between your sense of your self and your sense of the ingroup—you think of yourself as good partially because you see yourself as a member of a group you think is good, and you think that group is good partially because you think it’s made up of people like you, and you think you’re good. Your group is good because you’re a good person, and you’re a good person because your group is good.

Because you’re good, and because your group is good, then you and other ingroup members necessarily have good motives. Duh.

Thus, we have a tendency to attribute good motives to members of the ingroup, and bad motives to members of the outgroup, for exactly the same behavior. An ingroup member who works long hours in order to make a lot of money is a hard worker; an outgroup member who does that is greedy. An ingroup member who gives a lot of advantages to family members is loyal; an outgroup member who does that is motivated by prejudice against outsiders. An ingroup member who says something untrue is mistaken; an outgroup member is deliberately lying. Politicians we like are motivated by a desire to benefit their community or country; politicians we don’t like are driven by a lust for power.

An example I use in teaching a lot is how we respond to a driver in a car with a lot of bumper stickers who cuts us off on the road. If the bumper stickers suggest the person is a member of an ingroup important to us—we like the politician they endorse, for instance—we’re likely to find excuses for what they’re doing. We might think to ourselves that they’re running late, or didn’t see us, or perhaps (as I once thought to myself) it’s actually an outgroup member who borrowed a car. If the bumper stickers show it’s someone we think of as an outgroup, we’ll think, “Typical.”

In other words, we rationalize or explain away bad behavior on the part of ingroup members as a temporary aberration, an accident, or something caused by external circumstances. But, bad behavior on the part of someone in an outgroup is proof that they are all like that—it’s an example of how they are essentially bad people.

If a member of the ingroup behaves well, then we say it’s the consequence of internal qualities—their essence. If the driver with all those bumper stickers we like does something really nice, we’ll think, “Typical.” It’s proof that ingroup members are essentially good people. If a member of the outgroup behaves well, then we say it was done for bad reasons, or done by accident.

So, if an ingroup political figure kicks a puppy, she was mistaken, or meant well, the puppy deserved it, or we might even try to find ways to say it wasn’t really kicking. If an outgroup political figure kicks a puppy, it’s proof that he is evil and hateful and that’s what they’re all like.

If an outgroup political figure saves a drowning puppy, she just did it get votes. If an ingroup political figure does it, that incident is proof that people like us are just plain better.

We are more likely to empathize (or, in rhetorical terms, identify) with people who persuade us they’re members of an ingroup important to us. We’re more likely to be persuaded by them—that’s why salespeople immediately try to find some point of shared identification. They’ll also often try to bond by claiming to share an outgroup—rhetoricians call this “identification through division.” That is, the salesperson tries to get you to identify with her by sharing your dislike of “them.”

In Texas, where I live, there is a notorious rivalry between Texas A&M (the “Aggies”) and University of Texas (the “Longhorns”). My husband went to A&M, and wears an “Aggie” ring. When we go shopping for big-ticket items, the salespeople will often notice his ring and start talking trash about Longhorns, and how awful the University of Texas is. They’re trying to bond with us by showing that they share the Longhorns as an outgroup. Since I’m a professor at UT, it doesn’t generally go over very well.

If I get you to identify with me, to see yourself as like me in some important way, I’ve persuaded you that you and I are in the same ingroup. If I’m really successful, I get you to identify with me so much that you will perceive an attack on me as an attack on you. I now have your ego attached to my success. That’s an important part of demagoguery (but not every time someone does that is demagoguery—it’s a part, but not the whole).

One of the main goals of demagoguery is to persuade people not to listen to the outgroup (basically because the claims of the ingroup would fall apart if people looked at them critically). And it does so by saying, “They are biased; we are objective.”

But, again, you don’t reject a biased source; you look at it more carefully. Whether claims about his wife’s immigration status, his wealth, the lawsuits against him, his hiring of illegal immigrants, his screwing over little people, his poor financial record, his lying originated with the Clinton camp doesn’t matter–what matters is whether they’re true. And that can be determined by drilling deep into the sources of those “biased” sources. That is how you assess evidence.

How the teaching of rhetoric has made Trump possible


People who support Trump do so because they believe that

  • politics is inherently corrupt, and politicians favor special interests because they depend on those “special interests” for campaign donations—Trump doesn’t owe anyone anything, and he is his own man;
  • Trump is authentic; normal politicians say what they’re supposed to say, and normal politics has gotten us into a state where normal people (aka, het white males) aren’t getting the things to which they’re entitled; therefore, we need an abnormal politician who will say that “normal” people are getting screwed;
  • all the criticisms of Trump come from biased sources;
  • Trump’s motives are good because he expresses kind thoughts about non-whites, and he is concerned about them—he has good motives; he is, therefore, not racist;
  • Trump’s arguments are rational because he can give evidence to support them—he makes a claim, and he gives an example or single piece of evidence that would look good to someone not especially informed on the issue;
  • Trump’s arguments are rational because his claims are endorsed by experts;
  • Trump’s arguments are rational because he gives specific datum, they support what people believe, and he doesn’t have an irrational affect;
  • Trump’s arguments are “objective” because he is speaking the Truth;
  • Trump’s arguments are good because someone uninformed about the topic on which he’s speaking can assess a good argument;
  • Trump has really good judgment, since he is a billionaire;
  • Trump, despite his problematic history regarding fidelity, child molesting, fraud, and lying, is a good person because he is one of “us.”

These aren’t just claims about Trump; these are grounded in premises in what it means to make a good argument. And where did people learn what it means to make a good argument?

In their rhetoric classes. And, although I loathe putting my thesis first (another way rhet/comp is gerfucked) I will say that these seem to be good arguments because we, as field, have said they are. We fucked up. We taught them that a person with literally no expertise in the subject can tell you whether you’ve made a good argument.

This has made me ragey for my entire career, and it’s the basis of every single fucking program. We take students, usually literature students, and we tell them they are appropriate judges of whether someone has made a good argument on topics about which they know nothing. We tell them they can assess the credibility of a source on the basis of several rules that are pretty wonky (is it a peer-reviewed journal, is it a recent source, does the author have an advanced degree). We tell them either not to worry about the logic of the argument, or we encourage them to apply the rational/irrational split, a notion that muddles the argument someone is making with the posture they appear to be taking while making it. We tell them to teach their students that “bias” is easy to assess, and comes from motives, and, finally, we encourage them to infer bias/motive from identity. We can judge an argument on formal qualities. Teachers who have, literally, never taken a single course in linguistics, logic, argumentation, or rhetoric can tell students that their language, logic, or argumentation is bad.

Well, that’s what Trump tells his followers—you don’t know anything about this, but you can decide, without any knowledge, what’s true and what isn’t. You can tell them I am speaking the truth without looking at my sources. You can judge my argument by judging me.

And on the basis of what?

Their own sense.

Trump appeals to his voters’ “sense” about what is right and wrong. We have teachers—we have textbook authors—who are relying on their own “sense” about right and wrong in regard to topics on which there is actual research. So, who are we to say, “Well, I have no actual expertise on these issues, but you should rely on experts?” We can’t. So, we have spent generations telling students that “good” arguments are… ….well, really, what are they? Arguments that please the teacher?

We have spent many, many years telling people the wrong things about argument and argumentation, and all those wrong things are in Trump. (At this point, assuming people got this far, I’ve probably lost a bunch of folks. And that’s the consequence of the thesis-first method of arguing. We expect someone to put their argument at the beginning because our faith in persuasion is so small—and because we want to know whether we should put our guard up. A lot of people in rhetoric cite studies that supposedly show that people aren’t persuaded, but that isn’t what those studies actually show. That’s a different rant.)

There was a time when argumentation textbooks would have a section on fallacies and logic, but that is long past. And why? How many teachers of argumentation (or authors of argumentation textbooks) could pass a simple test on fallacies? What, for instance, is argumentum ad misericordiam (aka, appeal to pity)? Is it an appeal to emotions? Is an appeal to emotions an irrational appeal?

Short version of my argument: no person who says an appeal to emotions is irrational should be teaching argumentation. That is an actively harmful way to approach discourse.

Argumentum ad misericordiam is one of the fallacies of relevance—it is an irrelevant appeal to emotion; it is a kind of red herring. And you can’t judge whether a single argument is engaging in that fallacy without knowing the context of the argument—without knowing the larger debate in which that argument is happening. So, I’m not making the old argument that rhetoric teachers shouldn’t teach political topics because we aren’t political scientists; I’m saying that we shouldn’t assess arguments without knowing the context of that argument—the sources it’s using, the oppositions it’s establishing.

We stopped having lists of fallacies in argumentation textbooks because of a confusion between formal and informal logic (two related, but distinct, fields). Formal logic is, as its names implies, associated with the forms that a “logical” argument can take, so it assumes that you can talk about arguments the way you talk about a math problem, with symbols. Formal logic has little (or nothing) to do with how people need to argue about political, ethical, or aesthetic topics, since they aren’t usefully captured in forms. Informal logic (or argumentation) concerns the ways that we argue, and it emphasizes that an argument needs to be assessed in relation to the context and conversation (something is a false dilemma not because it only presents two options, but it reduces a variety of options to two—if there are only two options on the table, then it isn’t a fallacy).

Authors of the most popular comp textbooks appear to have known only about the former, and didn’t know about the latter. I know many of those teachers, and they’re good people, but they spent so much time writing textbooks that they stopped reading scholarship. So, most textbooks in composition and rhetoric are gleefully disconnected from scholarship in relevant fields. Again, if you think I’m being ugly, just look for footnotes or endnotes citing recent research. Not there.

If I had time, I would talk about what it would mean to incorporate actual scholarship about reasoning and persuasion into our comp textbooks. Short version: Aristotle was right—it’s about enthymemes and paying attention to major premises. Ariel Kruglanski has argued that people tend to reason syllogistically—this is a dog; dogs hate cats; therefore, this dog must hate cats. And so, if we wanted to think usefully about logic, we would look at major premises—how reasonable is the assumption that dogs hate cats? Does the argument assume that premise consistently, or does it sometimes assume that dogs love cats?

As a culture, we oppose emotion and “rationality,” and that means that, to determine if an argument is “rational,” we try to infer whether the rhetor is “rational.” And we generally do that by trying to infer if the rhetor is letting his/her emotions “distort” their thinking. Or, connected, we rely on a definition of “logic” that is commonly in textbooks—a “logical” argument is one that appeals to facts, statistics, and data. [Notice that an argument might be logical in that sense—it makes those appeals—but completely illogical in the sense of its reasoning (what Aristotle actually meant by “logos”).] But, if we think of a rational argument as an argument made by a rational person, then we can look at a rhetor and judge whether s/he is the sort of person who speaks the truth, and who has data to support their claims. That’s a terrible definition of logic.

(As an aside, I’ll mention a better way to think about rationality—first, does the argument fairly represent its sources, including oppositions; second, does the argument appeal to consistent major premises; third, are standards of “logic” applied across interlocutors.)

But, let’s set that aside for a bit. Let’s talk about Trump. There are some issues regarding Clinton and the Clinton Foundation, but they pale in comparison to the issues regarding Trump and his “charitable” foundations. So, why do Trump supporters condemn Clinton about “corruption”, happily ignoring that their candidate has done worse?

They do so for three reasons, all of which fyc textbooks have taught them are good ways to argue.

First, they say any source that says the Trump Foundation did a bad thing is “biased.” (Okay, they usually say it’s “bias,” but you know what I mean.) They infer that bias by pointing out that the source is criticizing Trump (in other words, it’s a circular argument—you can reject all criticism of Trump on the grounds that it’s biased, and you can show it’s biased by pointing out it’s critical of Trump).

Second, and closely related, they say that any site with disconfirming evidence is written by someone with a bad motive. This too is inferred from the fact that someone is making a critical argument.

Third, perhaps (usually the stop at the first two), they show that there is a reason they’re right—data or statistics.

What all of this is assuming is that a good argument is something floating in space, unconnected to any other arguments—it has a certain form.

And Trump’s arguments have those forms—he is sincere, he really believes what he’s saying (even if it contradicts what he said recently), he can give an example to support what he’s saying, he has all the best experts, he is saying things his audience wants to believe. Trump’s arguments are appallingly apt examples of bad faith argumentation. He is a casebook in demagoguery. There is no rhetoric worse than his. And common methods of teaching argument would give him an A. This is our child. We taught generations of students that having a few (more or less random) experts supporting us, starting with your thesis, giving some examples, and leading with main claims, all of that makes a good argument. We taught them that a person with literally no expertise in the subject can tell you whether you’ve made a good argument. Because that’s how we graded them.


Email “interview” about demagoguery

 Recently, there has been a lot of talk about populism and demagoguery in relation to the American presidential election, but also with the Brexit-vote in Britain. The terms populism and demagoguery are often used interchangeably. What’s the difference between the two? Are they used to describe the same thing, the one being used in a positive sense and the other in a negative?

Initially, a demagogue was simply a leader of the demes, the non-leisured class in democracies in ancient Greece–it was a political designation, like calling someone a Green, or Libertarian. Authors like Plato or Plutarch who were highly critical of democracy used the term negatively (as a Republican would use “Democrat” as a negative term, even a sneer). Plutarch seems to have been the one to make the demagogue v. statesman distinction. For Plutarch, a statesman looks out for his country, but a demagogue looks out for himself. That’s a useless way to try to make the distinction–political figures, even the nastiest (perhaps especially the nastiest), think they’re doing good.

Most people use the term simply to mean “an effective rhetor whose policy agenda I dislike.” It’s often associated with populism, but every effective politician in a democracy has to be populist.

The label demagogue is seemingly used in a negative whenever someone is able to captivate the masses. Does the term demagogue have an inherent element of resentment or distrust of “the people”/”the masses” by the establishment? That is: In a democratic society, shouldn’t the “will of the people” be something positive? Is the labeling someone a demagogue anti-democratic?

Common uses of the term are what rhetoricians call a “devil” term–what George Orwell would have called “double plus ungood.” There’s rarely anything very specific about it, and it’s never used to describe an ingroup political figure. They follow demagogues; we follow states(wo)men.

Some scholars have tried to identify a more precise and useful way to think about demagoguery–they (we) usually identify certain recurrent characteristics: scapegoating, projection, simplifying complicated issues in a binary, authoritarianism, condemning of deliberation and thinking, and policies of purification.

Ypu’ve written: “Demagoguery,” rather than being a specific kind of rhetoric, is simply a term of abuse that people apply to rhetors with whom they disagree.” Is demagoguery inherently negative? Or can it be used in a positive sense? If demagoguery is to captivate “the masses” through emotional appeals, couldn’t the same definition be used for, say, Obamas “hope and change” message in 2008? Does a demagogue always lie?

What I was trying to say there is that’s how it’s often used. And that’s useless.

Demagoguery isn’t inherently damaging. No scholar defines it as captivating the masses through emotional appeals–that’s also a useless definition. (Who doesn’t do that?) If “demagoguery” is going to be a useful term, then we have to distinguish between leaders we think led their followers astray or seriously damaged their communities and ones who opened up opportunities.

My area of scholarship is train wrecks in public deliberation–times when communities came to bad decisions, after a lot of argument, then got feedback that their decisions were wrong, and recommitted. If you look at those times and infer characteristics about the public discourse at the time, then you see the problem is never populism (sometimes it’s very elite discourse), nor is it emotionalism, but scapegoating, projection, and those other characteristics listed above are very important.

Demagogues are more often than not perfectly sincere; while they are inaccurate, they do not intend to lie.

You write in Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Volume 8, Number 3, Fall 2005, pp. 459-476, that “It is notable, however, the extent to which this scholarly project lapsed; journals in rhetoric show few or no articles on the subject since Steven R. Goldzwig’s 1989 piece on Farrakhan.” Why do you think there have been little scholarly interest in demagoguery in recent years? Is it because there have been relatively few demagogues in recent years? If so, why/what is needed for a demagogue to gain support? Do you think there will be an upswing in interest with the recent political climate?

The most common definitions emphasized populism and emotionalism, and those aren’t connected to communities making bad decisions. But a lot of scholars have talked about the issue, just not with that term. Berlet and Lyons use the term “toxic populism;” Niewert talks about “eliminationists;” Kenneth Burke (in a brilliant 1939 analysis of Hitler’s rhetoric) doesn’t use the term demagoguery, but that’s what he’s talking about.

I think the focus on demagogues is part of the problem. Demagoguery tries to reframe all issues as ones of ingroup membership (us v. them); focusing on demagogues means we’re still arguing about identity. Instead, we should be arguing about policy.

I just wanted to clarify one point. You write:
Demagoguery isn’t inherently damaging”, but also If “demagoguery” is going to be a useful term, then we have to distinguish between leaders we think led their followers astray or seriously damaged their communities and ones who opened up opportunities.”
I don’t understand how you can square those two. If demagogues are “leaders we think led their followers astray or seriously damaged their communities” doesn’t that mean that it is inherently damaging? Or have I misunderstood you?

Good point. If you look at leaders who led their followers astray or seriously damaged communities, you can see that they didn’t do it by some kind of magic rhetoric they cast a spell over a populace. They didn’t do it alone; they had a lot of people who not only followed them, but all of whom were participating the same kind of rhetoric. Demagoguery is damaging when it’s normal political discourse. There’s always going to be someone out there going on and on about how we need to purify our group of this or that kind of person. A community is in trouble when there are lots of people who accept that’s a good way to argue–that we should be trying to figure out who is and isn’t loyal to the ingroup and then we’ll have solved our problems.

Donald Trump is the consequence of normalized demagoguery; not the cause.

Aversive and institutional racism

“He isn’t racist; some of his best friends are….”

Common definitions of racism make it an issue of affect—you have the wrong feelings about some group. Some common definitions emphasize an intent to judge on the basis of race, or an avowed feeling of hostility. But that isn’t how racism works.

I remember a racist telling me, “I’m not racist. Racism is the irrational hostility toward a group, and my hostility is perfectly rational.” As an example, he said “Normal Germans would have their shop windows broken by Jewish communists, and then have to go to a Jewish bank to pay for the repairs. That is why Germans were so hostile to Jews.”

It’s false on every level—that isn’t where anti-Semitism came from, most bankers weren’t Jewish, few people had their windows broken by communists, most communists weren’t Jews, most Nazis weren’t shopkeepers. But it’s a narrative that made this racist feel as though antisemitism was justified. (By the way, some of his best friends were Jews–really.)

“Aversive” racism is the term used for racism that comes from an aversion to being close with members of that race. It’s often assumed that aversive racism is conscious and universal. So, if you’re nice to some members of that race, you don’t have aversive racism. But everyone has their “good Jew” as Himmler called them; slaveholders claimed (and probably sincerely felt) affection for many of their slaves; advocating genocide of Native Americans not uncommonly went along with praising Native American culture; George Wallace was very nice to his black aides.

I remember people saying, “I have nothing against colored people; they’re very good with children, and they have excellent rhythm. I just think we need to live separately.” Or read F.L. Baum’s argument for genocide—racism with a compliment.

There might be a person with a black neighbor, who is really nice to that neighbor. So, is she free of aversive racism? Not necessarily. She might still call the cops every time that neighbor has relatives over, or not ask the neighbor’s son to house sit while she’s out of town, or mentally exempt that family from her generalizations about “that kind.”

More important, she might even like that family and use her affection for them as evidence that she doesn’t need to examine how she treats other members of that race. She might be completely unaware that she applies different standards to resumes where the applicant seems to be African American, but tell herself she can’t be racist because she’s buddies with that family.

Racism is unconscious, and doesn’t necessarily involve hostility. There are various studies of resumes and pieces of writing, showing that white people judge the writing more harshly if they think the author isn’t white.

For instance,

Sixty partners from 22 law firms who agreed to participate in a “writing analysis study” received copies of the memo. Half were told the memo was written by an African-American man named Thomas Meyer, and half were told the writer was a Caucasian man named Thomas Meyer. Fifty-three partners completed the task. Of those, 29 received the memo supposedly by a white man and 24 received the memo supposedly by a black man.

The reviewers gave the memo supposedly written by a white man a rating of 4.1 out of 5, while they gave the memo supposedly written by a black man a rating of 3.2 out of 5.

There are innumerable studies along those lines, about how teachers respond (especially in regard to discipline), how juries make decisions (the “blacker” the defendant, the more likely a conviction, even in the face of bad evidence), how people hire, rent, and sell.

One test of how “racist” someone is is to look at implicit biases. There’s a great set of tests here (be prepared to be disturbed):

Institutional racism is different from aversive racism, and it comes about in several ways. One way is that a lot of people are a little racist, and it adds up. It also happens because people assume “people like us” are the norm. So, we start from our experience, and assume everyone has it.

You can see it in some areas where there is no intention to discriminate. For instance, a lot of classroom rules established by PTA end up significantly discriminating against working parents or working class parents. There’s no intention to do that—just an assumption that all the parents have a lot of time and money. When I’m teaching, I’ll point to the building we’re in—what would it be like to be on crutches or a wheelchair? Then students often notice that there are steps with no function other than aesthetic. Did the architect put them just to discriminate against people with mobility disabilities? Probably not; probably, s/he thought it looked good and literally did not imagine anyone unable to navigate the steps. Discrimination is often a lack of thought.

But, did the architect harm people with disabilities? Yes.

So, can you hurt people on the basis of race without ever intending to, or even feeling hostility? Yes.

For instance, standardized tests discriminate against people who speak stigmatized dialects. If a person makes admissions decisions on the basis of standardized tests, when there is no evidence that standardized tests predict success for that program, that’ racist. No intent, no feelings of hostility, but discrimination and harm.

Or, let’s imagine a school that is making decisions about curriculum. If the curriculum only values authors and figures of one race, then it is sending the message that only members of that race can be valued. Intent? Feelings of hostility? Probably not, but serious harm.

It’s easy not to see the harm if we benefit from it, but that’s a different issue, about privilege.

But, the short, short version is: think about all the ways we discriminate against people with disabilities. There was a time when that discrimination was deliberate because people strongly believed that anyone with a disability should remain out of view of others. That was deliberate aversive discrimination. There remains a muddled aversive discrimination, but much of it is simply that being able-bodied is a privilege, and one of the main components of that privilege is that we don’t have to think about what it would be like to get to work, or the grocery store, or rent an apartment, or see a movie, or do any of hundred other things if we were in a wheelchair.

You might be very, very nice to the person next door in a wheelchair, and regularly take her to the grocery store. But if you vote against a bond issue that would expand services for people with disabilities you have some explaining to do. You might be nice on a personal level and discriminatory on an institutional one.

That’s why, to determine racism, people ask about whether someone is willing to acknowledge that it exists. If you think it doesn’t, that’s racism. It isn’t aversive (at least not the deliberate kind), but you probably would score pretty high on the IAT, and you definitely got the gold ring on institutional racism.

Conditions that make persuasion difficult

A lot of people cite studies that show that people can’t be persuaded. As though that should persuade people not to try to persuade others.

That isn’t even the biggest problem with those studies. The studies are often badly designed (no one should be persuaded to change an important belief by being told by one person in a psych experiment that they’re wrong). And the studies aren’t generally designed to keep in mind what the research on persuasion does show–that some conditions make it more difficult to persuade people.

I was going to put together a short handout for students about why the paper they’re writing is so hard (an ethical intervention in one of several possible situations, ranging from arguing against the Sicilian Expedition to arguing for retreating from Stalingrad), and ended up writing up a list of the biggest obstacles.

An opposition (i.e., already come to a decision) audience that has:

  • Taken the stance in public (especially if s/he has taken credit for it being a good idea or otherwise explicitly attached her/his ego/worth to the position);
  • Suffered for the position, had someone loved suffer, or caused others to suffer (e.g., voted for a policy that caused anyone to be injured)
  • Equated the idea/position with core beliefs of his/her culture, religion, political party, or ideology (since disagreement necessarily becomes disloyalty);
  • Been persuaded to adopt the position out of fear (especially for existence of the ingroup) or hatred for an outgroup;
  • Is committed to authoritarianism and/or naïve realism (equates changing one’s mind with weakness, illness, sin, or impaired masculinity; is actively frightened/angered by assertions of uncertainty or situations that require complex cognitive processes);
  • Does not value argumentative “fairness” (insists upon a rhetorical “state of exception” or “entitlement”—aka “double standard”—for his/her ingroup);
  • Has a logically closed system (cannot articulate the conditions under which s/he would change her/his mind).

A culture that

  • Demonizes or pathologizes disagreement (an “irenic” culture);
  • Is an honor culture (what matters is what people say about you, not what is actually true, so you aren’t “wrong” till you admit it);
  • Equates refusing to change your mind with privileged values (being “strong,” “knowing your mind,” masculinity) and“changing your mind” with marginalized values (being “weak,” “indecisive,” or impaired masculinity);
  • Enhances some group’s claim to rhetorical entitlement (doesn’t insist that the rules of argumentation be applied the same across groups or individuals);
  • Has standards of “expertise” that are themselves not up for argument;
  • Promotes a fear of change;
  • Equates anger and a privileged epistemological stance.

A topic

  • That results from disagreement over deep premises;
  • About which there is not agreement over standards of evidence;
  • That makes people frightened (especially about threats from an outgroup);
  • That is complicated and ambiguous;
  • That is polarized or controversial, such that people will assume (or incorrectly) infer your affirmative position purely on the basis of any negative case you make (e.g., If you disagree with the proposition that “Big dogs make great pets because they require no training” on the grounds that they do require training, your interlocutor will incorrectly assume that you think [and are arguing] that big dogs do not make great pets);
  • That is easily framed as a binary choice between option A (short-term rewards [even if higher long-term costs] or delayed costs [even if much higher]) and option B (delayed rewards [even if much higher] or short-term costs [even if much lower than the long-term costs of option A]).


What Duke Ellington taught me (no, not *that* Duke Ellington)

I never wanted to own a Dane. I have always loved dogs, big dogs. I think every useful lesson I learned about love was from dogs, dogs who followed me into places they didn’t really want to go, who brought me presents I had to assess in terms of the value of their intention, who managed conflicts (including forgiveness) in a way far healthier than any humans with whom I had contact, and who taught me about being astonished in the wonder of the moment. And who saved my life at moments.


But, I didn’t want a Dane because they have health problems, and they die too young. And then a neighbor found a Dane-mix puppy abandoned at a gas station, and I took him just till we found him a home. Well, all you dog people know how quickly he found a home, but that’s a different story. And he was wonderful, but a bit complicated, and then he saved my ass a few times (including a couple of times that involved the whole I’m not really clear on the “how to identify a rattlesnake” thing but he was, and the “while walking late at night places I shouldn’t have and a man stepped out of the darkness and saw Chester and stepped back”) and he had the best temperament of any dog I’ve ever known, and, well, I was sold on Danes. I named him Chester Burnette.

When Jim and I were in a position stable enough to have two big dogs, we got Hubert Sumlin. When Chester died, and Hubert almost did, we got George Washington (a Shepherd/ridgeback/black-mouthed cur mix—that story is elsewhere) and then took in a foster (Marquis de Lafayette, also a story told elsewhere). When Hubert died, George and Marquis mourned by not barking at the mail carrier for four days (a pretty significant demonstration of grief).

We worked with a big dog rescue group, and asked to adopt a 9 month old Dane puppy. His life had been pretty rough. Although a purebred, and therefore the owner had spent a lot of money to get him, the puppy was neglected enough to get Animal Control involved. This is unhappily common—people are enamored with a big breed, and decide to get one, and haven’t really thought through what a big breed means.

Sometimes they give them up, and sometimes they stick them in a backyard. Duke’s owner was the latter. Of course, a shithead who buys a big dog and doesn’t actually want to own a big dog hasn’t generally done the work of finding a good breeder (see: shithead) so a rescue Dane is often a mistreated dog with a bad genetic line. And Duke was a dog who was so underfed that he had taken to eating everything in the backyard that wouldn’t kill him. A neighbor had repeatedly reported his situation to Animal Control, who, when Duke was nine months, told the owner he had two choices: hand over the dog, or pay a fine. The owner handed over the dog, and a rescue group got him.

The next part is kind of ugly, but I mean no criticism of the sort of people who engage in rescue. As far as we understand, Duke was brought to a really good home with a whole bunch of Danes, some of whom had only recently been neutered (and maybe some who hadn’t yet?) and a female was brought in. She went into heat, and no one expected that. Duke was restrained, and every male went nuts, and he got mauled. So, for the rest of his life, he flipped his shit if he saw another dog and he was on leash.

We went and picked him up, and then spend the hour-long drive home discussing what to name him. We’d named our previous Danes after blues singers, and he was a fawn, so I suggested Delbert McClinton. It was pointed out that would sound like Dilbert, and Jacob suggested Duke Ellington. You just had to look at that dog and see he was a “Duke.” And, of course, he looked so elegant and intelligent. We didn’t really know that was just a pose. So, we named him Duke Ellington.

George and Marquis were wonderful with him, although, having been alone in a backyard for nine months, Duke knew nothing. He didn’t know how to play, and he would watch the two of them play with a heart-breaking confusion. Eventually, George was indulgent enough to rough-house with Duke, and George, being George, managed Duke well and kept him in line in the backyard, but that was because George was pretty near his weight, and had more skill.


So, George did something extraordinary—he got Duke to understand something entirely new, and it had to do with how to relate to another being. I walked Duke through four doggy obedience classes, but between us, neither George nor I taught Duke how to “play” with someone. George taught him to match aggression. George tried, but never managed to teach Duke what play is, when you rely on limits. The difference between play and aggression is that you let someone else win, you hold back, you laugh when you are threatened. Duke played too rough.

Jim took the three of them to the dog park for over a year before Duke’s inability to understand play resulted in his fetching a little dog, and that was that. Then it was walking the dogs, and Duke’s leash-fear was triggered by seeing another dog. We did all the things that you do under those circumstances, and he did get much better, but it always started with crossing the street when you saw another dog.

Here’s the thing: Duke was dumb.

Everything about him has to start there. He meant well, he was incredibly sweet, he responded to love with love, he was frightened by various things, he tried really hard to do the right thing, but he had trouble when a situation had more than two factors to consider.

[This is a trivial part of the narrative, but he made me a better person.]

When we got Duke, we promptly started doggy kindergarten. He failed. The first task in doggy kindergarten is “watch me.” It really is pretty simple. You take a treat, put it at the dog’s nose, say “Watch me,” and pull the treat toward your nose. The idea is that you teach the dog to look at you when you say that. Duke never learned that. I mean, never. He took doggy kindergarten twice, and he didn’t learn it. And Duke was more treat-oriented than any dog I have ever known. He would pay attention to the treat at his nose, and then lose track of it because ZOMGSOMANYTHINGSATPETSMART!!!11!!!


He passed doggy kindergarten because the teacher fell in love with him. And, let’s be honest, every person who met him did that. Because Duke.
I don’t know how to explain it. Jacob said that the dumber Duke was, the more I loved him, and he was probably right. But everyone responded that way. [Except for two assholes at the dog park, but whatevs. I ran into them later and thy were whining about not being able to be at the dog park because everyone hated their dog, so maybe Duke was right?] Duke managed to get out three or four times and wander the neighborhood and people brought him to us as though we had done them a favor by letting them bring him home. There was a little girl we sometimes saw at the bus transfer station, very very early in the morning, who petted his ears and told me about him—I really think he made her complicated day just a little bit better.

He ate everything. He never got over having been a starving dog in a yard. There are certain things that are native invasives in Texas—native, but they grow whether or not you want them to, and Duke learned to eat them to keep from starving. We learned that we had to give him some food first thing in the morning before letting him into the backyard or he would eat horseherb till he barfed. In seven years of good treatment, he never learned that we would feed him. I empathize with the principle that it is hard to unlearn early lessons about starvation, so I gave him part of a piece of bread every morning as soon as I got out of bed.

He turned up his nose at roadkill, unless it was really, really nasty. Jim would pull things out of Duke’s mouth that even Jim didn’t want to identify because then he might feel obliged to cut off his hand. The rule of thumb was: if Duke wanted it, you didn’t want to know what it was.
Duke was just Duke. He worried about a lot of things. He was terrified of thunder; eventually he decided that trash trucks were related to thunder—perhaps he was right, I’m not a meteorologist, but I’m obviously not a rhetorician enough to talk him out of that belief, although I tried. He came to believe that busses were not really to be trusted either. Again, I think he was wrong, but I failed to persuade him, so I think we can conclude that either he was right or I suck as a rhetorician. Compliance-gaining has never been my métier, but that’s a fairly lame defense here.

As many people have pointed out, Duke’s worries are not unreasonable concerns: thunder and trash trucks are both pretty untrustworthy. Since George shared his terror of thunderstorms, there were a lot of nights of makeshift beds in closets. The little girl at the transfer station tried to talk to him about trash trucks, but Duke was unconvinced. He did, however, lick her nose, so that made his disagreement pretty polite. I get weepy when I think about how she’ll respond to knowing that he’s died—Duke was like that. A lot of people loved him.

Early on, we had a horrible weekend (emergency vet visit) when we determined that he had Addison’s. After that, Jim was giving monthly injections, carefully moderating Duke’s steroids, and taking Duke in for various tests. There was also the discovery that Duke was allergic to the rabies vaccination (which resulted in additional work for Jim), and the skin allergy issue which meant one more pill in the morning. Jim cheerfully arranged his life around this dog’s medical needs, loaded a hundred-pound dog in and out of the car, and philosophically cleaned up evidence that meds were not quite right. I can’t say enough about what Jim did for Duke.

In other words, this was a complicated dog. On the other hand, he was a really simple dog. He had rules. He wanted to sleep by me. He got confused (he never figured it out) when I moved from one side of the bed to the other, but he did compromise by discovering the dog bed on my (new) side of the bed. He liked chasing squirrels. He liked eating things he found on walks—whether those things were covered in fire ants seemed to him a trivial issue. He didn’t like having a massive Addisonian/allergic reaction, but whatevs.

He kept me in the moment. He loved the moment. This horseherb tastes good; the sun is warm; that water is tasty.

When he was dying from pain, he licked my hand. I think he was, even in tremendous pain, worried that I was unhappy.

He had been limping, on and off, and so Jim took him to the vet. They did whatever x-rays they could do without sedating him (not much). So, they said we need to see a specialist. That appointment was for Monday, February 8th. On February 7th, after a normal walk, Duke ran into the backyard (as he did) to chase squirrels, pivoted on his leg, and went down. And then there was a noise that, Jim and I have agreed, if the Lord is merciful, we will never hear (or remember) again.
Various quick decisions resulted in asking neighbors for help, and getting Duke in the car, a long drive on a windy road, and an emergency vet place that was clear how bad it all was. And, so, we said goodbye to a dog who was in tremendous pain, and needed to leave this world. Any desire for more time came from our desire to want this not to be true, and for him not to be in pain. But, just as Duke had always been the dog to say, this is the moment, so this was the moment.

And, now, we go on without him. Without his eating the wrong things, farting more than you would thing possible, telling us that trash trucks are scary, dragging us out of comfortable beds because he needs to pee or bark at something, pointing out that squirrels are probably awful, drawing attention to the beauteous wonder of a mail carrier, engaging in world-class snuggling, getting confused about parked cars and poles, wandering underfoot while I’m trying to cook, taking up a large part of my side of the bed, and saying those squirrels are BAD. And squirrels. Because squirrels. (And the cardinals are pretty dodgy too.)

Dogs teach you that love, in this moment, is what matters. And they’re right. But what they don’t teach you is what to do when that moment needs to go.


Donald Trump is not a demagogue, but he does engage in demagoguery

There is a conventional understanding of demagogues, represented in dictionary definitions, and much conventional understandings: a demagogue is a person who deliberately misleads the common people through appealing to emotions and prejudices. That isn’t what “demagogue” has always meant, and it’s a useless definition.
Explaining why it’s useless is complicated, and arguing why we should focus on demagoguery and not demagogues is also complicated, and that, in a nutshell, is why demagoguery works—thinking about what makes public deliberation effective is complicated, and people don’t like complications. Demagoguery says it’s all simple. Demagoguery says that we don’t have to engage in complicated, contingent, inclusive, and nuanced argumentation—instead, we can just ask who in this argument is good and who is bad, and follow the good people.
Demagoguery, at its base, says that you don’t have to worry about policies; you just worry about identity: is this person a member of the ingroup. If you’ve identified him/her as a member of the ingroup, you’re done. Then, deciding on a candidate becomes a question of who performs ingroup identify more.
So, people who are persuaded by demagoguery never see themselves as following demagoguery—they (we) think the outgroup (that party) is persuaded by demagoguery. We are persuaded by sweet reason. How do we know we’re right? Because we ask ourselves if we’re right. So, if the question is: is this person a demagogue? we are always starting with the wrong question.
If you look at situations in which communities have talked themselves into disastrous decisions (and that happens to be my scholarly area), and then, on getting information that their decision was bad, they recommitted, you see something else entirely. You don’t see a single demagogue leading people astray—you see a culture in which people are not supposed to argue inclusively about the best course of action; you see a culture in which compromise, inclusion, argumentation, and deliberation are rejected as effeminate, weak, and even evil ways of handling decision-making.
I study train wrecks in public deliberation, and I have come to believe that what matters is not whether an individual is a demagogue, but whether we are in a culture of demagoguery. In a culture of demagoguery, if an ingroup belief is that bunnies are good and squirrels are bad, then the entire election process becomes a question of who is more extreme in their support of bunnies and their attacks on squirrels. It doesn’t matter whether the policies about bunnies and squirrels are feasible in terms of costs and benefits, what their long-term consequences are, let alone whether there are any principles of fairness (that is, principles that operate across groups). What matters, in a culture of demagoguery, is whether the ingroup is being privileged.
Ingroup, in this sense, isn’t the most powerful group; it’s your group. Demagoguery works by insisting that your group is threatened with extermination—the situation of the ingroup is so dire that all considerations of fairness, due process, and rational deliberation are off the table. Demagoguery says that your gut feelings about people (whether they’re in your ingroup or not) are all you need to know—you can judge someone’s argument purely on the basis of whether s/he is in the ingroup. If what s/he is saying confirms your fundamental beliefs, s/he is objective; s/he is authentic.
In a culture of demagoguery, all issues are issues of identity.
However, in democracy, identity don’t count for shit.
What matters in democracy is policy. And good policy is hammered out through an inclusive process in which various points of view are considered. Coming to a good decision is not just a question of how loyal you are to the ingroup—it’s about a policy that is feasible, solves the problems, and doesn’t cost more than it benefits the community (all the groups) as a whole over the long term. Democratic deliberation is about uncertainty, contingency, listening, compromising, and looking at things from various perspectives. It’s about acknowledging that no single group has the right answer. And demagoguery is about saying all that can be ignored in favor of whether this person is really, really, really passionate about the ingroup. Demagoguery and democracy are entirely at odds.
Trump’s policies are unreasonable, irrational, implausible, and not even a little bit feasible. And his whole argument is not about those policies—it’s about his identity. His appeal is that he presents himself as the sort of person who, through sheer force of will, will make good things happen—things that are unreasonable, implausible, and not even a little bit feasible. That his policies are irrational is the attraction. And by “irrational” I don’t mean “emotional.” Being emotional and being rational aren’t opposed. Policies fueled by compassion, fear for the future, desire for a good life—that’s how democratic deliberation must work. Emotions must be part of how we argue. Feelings and reason are not opposed—they are integrally connected.
The problem with Trump’s method of argument isn’t that it’s about feelings; it’s about which feelings, and for whom. A basic premise of his method of participating in public discourse is that all the good feelings (compassion, concern) should be reserved for the ingroup, and all the negative feelings (fear, loathing, disgust) are for outgroups.
A basic principle of democratic deliberation is that rules apply across groups. A basic principle of demagoguery is that all the good feelings (compassion, concern, affection, respect) apply only within the ingroup, and the outgroup is treated as an inherently adversarial enemy.
Is Trump a demagogue? That’s the wrong question, because it’s still about identity. Does he engage in demagoguery? Hellz yeah.