A Free Society is an Advertising Society, a Rhetorical Society

No small part of why Sam posted Deirdre McCloskey’s video on freedom of speech is because at one point she says, with emphasis, “sweet talk,” and then pauses for effect. Thus providing documented proof that she does, indeed, say the phrase, and out loud!

But I suspect a big part of why Sam posted the video is also because it gets at the core of what Sweet Talk is all about (so much so that I’ve added it to the about page, on Sam H’s suggestion).

As someone who works in advertising, it may be a little self-serving to promote a video which argues that “a free society is an advertising society”. But her point that persuasion is the mechanism of informing one another’s judgment in a free society is an important one. It gets at what makes even the most forward-looking liberal uncomfortable with speech that is radically free—what if people cannot be persuaded to believe the right thing? McCloskey uses the example of the Pythagoras Theorem; you don’t start believing in it because you’ve witnessed unblemished Truth. You start believing in it because someone or someones have persuaded you that you should. As a child or young person perhaps you simply took it as a given; later in life you may be more likely to deliberate more before making such a judgment call.

But persuasion is persuasion. And the discomfort with relying on it alone is not unfounded—consider the anti-vaccine community, who have persuaded themselves and others to take a stance which actively puts other people at risk. Moreover, it provides a path for tyrants who haven’t enough strength to simply stage a coup—if you can persuade enough people that the headaches and gridlock of democracy ought to give way to decisive actions directed by one man, and that you are just the man for the job. (I can hear Evan Jenkins chiming in here with “you know who else persuaded people that he was the man for that job?”)

McCloskey’s remarks are highly clarifying—you can measure the extent of freedom in a society by how restricted persuasion’s importance is. For in the USSR persuasion was extremely important—within the party bureaucracy. Even Stalin had to cobble together coalitions to maintain his power, and the people at the top of those coalitions had to persuade the people at the next level down that they ought to be followed, and so on. It’s true that the threat of being disappeared often trumped rhetoric where Stalin was concerned—but this was only possible because of someone who Stalin could get to do his dirty work. And it is worth noting that Stalin always found it important to publicly smear the image of the ones he exiled or murdered, as if leaving a hint of good reputation was dangerous.

But the point is not really to look at the extent of persuasion’s importance within Stalin’s regime—the point is that for the rest of Soviet society, persuasion was essentially off the table. It wasn’t an option. In as much as black markets emerged and it was impossible for the center to completely regulate the reality on the ground, rhetoric could surface in the daily life of the typical Soviet citizen. But anything outside of some very narrow lines came with very high personal risks.

We now know even better than we did at the time the problems that come with such a national-level monoculture of politics, production, and persuasion. This is something that needs to be brought up again and again; it is a necessary foundation of the rhetoric supporting a free society.

Still, this does not mean we should get comfortable living our relatively free lives. The dangers of what persuasion can bring about are very real. It’s for that reason that we must consider ethics and rhetoric as deeply interconnected.

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men be unpersuasive.

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