Saturday, 2 August 2014

Can Neuroscience Make You A Great Leader?

"Take much of what you have heard about how the best executives make decisions. Now, forget it." This is how The Wall Street Journal hails the new findings from neuroscience in their article "Inside the Executive Brain" by Andrew Blackman. Neuroscientists have revolutionized what we know about good decision making (according to the neuroscientists themselves anyway). So let's take a look at what these people have found and want to teach, and how they want to teach it. Are they really discovering new things or are they just reinventing the wheel? What have they discovered and what may they have missed?

Lesson 1: Deadlines can make people less creative. Pardon me, but this isn't really brain science is it? Oh, right, it is. Is anyone really surprised when they hear that people aren't the best at thinking outside the box when they are stressed and just have to get something done? At least for my wife and me, that is when we hit survival mode where we just have to get it done in the simplest way possible. Mistakes are made in such situations. According to Blackman, "Richard Boyatzis - along with another colleague Anthony Jack and others - has found that a tight deadline increases people's urgency and stress levels" (R1). Really? Wow, I never would have guessed that. Seriously, you needed to use "sophisticated machines to map what's going on inside the brain" in order to figure that out? I don't even want to know how much that study cost.


Anyway, the part of the brain that is activated is the "task positive network" which works on problem solving but does not come up with original ideas. Who knew? "The research shows us that the more stressful a deadline is, the less open you are to other ways of approaching the problem." Yes, that's when I shut all the windows, close myself to everyone, and just attempt to barrel through the problem. It leads to people not even seeing the box they are thinking inside. The solution, they say, is to teach employees to meditate more, which some were able to do before the whole tyranny of deadlines was imposed in the first place...oh well.

Lesson 2: Fear and anxiety lead to bad decisions. Wow, didn't see that one coming. Evidently, people who live in fear of losing their job or company tend to expect the worst and act accordingly, thereby often self-sabotaging or avoiding opportunities which may have saved them. Well, here's my comment:


Seriously though, is this really news to anyone but Wall Street Journal? Anyway, Srini Pillay, founder of the coaching firm Neurobusiness Group says the answer is not to avoid fear and anxiety, since they are apparently inevitable in modern workplaces. "The solution lies not in trying to avoid it, but in learning to accept it. It is important to be aware that your response is likely to be an exhaggeration." In other words: EMBRACE YOUR FEARS! 

Though he mentions that "consciously countering it by reframing an issue in more positive terms, can also be effective." (Instead of calling it a market meltdown, think about calling it a market waterfall! Ooh, I feel all warm and fuzzy inside now ;)

Lesson 3: Good leaders look past facts and lean more on emotions and intuition than logic. Ok, here I am actually learning something, although I am not too surprised. After all, there is a reason why number crunching by itself does not lead to good decisions and why we need people rather than machines in leadership positions. Researchers gave a bunch of management scenarios to experienced executives and scanned their brain as they were analyzing. What they found surprised them. According to Blackman: "They expected to see a lot of activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain known for its involvement in things like planning and logical reasoning. There was activity there, but different areas of the brain were dominant - those involved in social and emotional thinking." This disparity increased in those who were known to be the best decision makers.

Of course, part of the reason is that leaders have to consider the emotions of those they are leading. David Rock, director of the research organization NeuroLeadership Institute says that "A lot of strategies that go wrong are because managers haven't thought through what happens when it hits people" (R2) and many leaders have problems shifting between the analytical number-crunching and social modes of thinking. In other words, they have gone to business school to learn all about finance and numbers, and as leaders they struggle to relearn what they once knew about people.


A tip from Matthew Lieberman, professor of psychology at the University of California, is "simple reminders" like sticky notes to remember not to get too caught up in numbers and analysis. Getting quite advanced here, isn't it? Meditation, embracing fear, and putting up sticky notes to remember to think about people. I can definitely understand why these consultants and researchers are paid millions of dollars for their absolutely invaluable advice and insights.

Lesson 4: Good leaders are positive. Evidently, although some people somehow think you have to be a jerk to get things done, "the data says that's just not true" according to Dr. Boyatzis. So now he can stop abusing his research assistants while thinking he is doing them a favor, I guess. I can't believe how surprised Blackman sounds when he is writing this! He writes, "The best leaders, it seems, are good at motivating people with things like encouragement, praise and rewards - thereby creating a strong emotional bond and sense of purpose among employees." Wow, business gurus have finally realized that you need to be nice to people to get them to work for you. Isn't this just basic common sense? There is a reason why memes like these are so common:

What is the point? you may ask? Have I written this article just to make fun of researchers in general and perhaps neuroscientists in particular? Actually, I find this research to be valuable. Yes, it often confirms things that we already know, but it adds the weight of science and numbers to common sense. There is an increased credibility when research like this has been done, credibility which has more power to inform policy than "common sense" does. It is one thing if you have read it in a book by the likes of Dale Carnegie, and something else if it has been "proven" by science. If you have a boss who has bought into some kind of new management craze and requires tighter deadlines, puts people more on their toes, prefers number crunchers to people who are socially intelligent, and says that being negative and tough is "just his style," you now have numbers and research of your own to convince him or his superior that his approach is mistaken.

However, I do have an axe to grind against some of the neo-positivistic thinking which goes into a lot of this research which says that everything that is important can be measured and quantified. This, I think, becomes most clear of all in the feeble and vague solutions they propose for these problems: Meditate, what kind of meditation? Not all meditation is productive. Embrace your fears and become aware of them? How exactly do you do that? Put sticky notes up to remember people? Right, because all we need to change our behavior and way of thinking is another reminder in a world full of checklists and notification devices.

Most absurd of all, Doctor Waldman at Arizona State University wants to train good leaders by making them watch TV! Yes, you read it right. He claims that "We are right on the cusp of being able to assist leaders to rewire their own brains." You see, they have found that good leaders have what they call "inspirational leadership" which they define as "the ability to articulate a vision that inspires people and makes them buy into your strategy. Not only can these people see the big picture, but they can put that picture into words and impart it to others." In other words, a good leader needs to be a good speaker and communicator.

This was the goal of the entire tradition of teaching rhetoric, with successful outcomes shown in people like Pericles, Cicero, John Adams, and Winston Churchill. They learned through exercises, principles, and practice to analyze a matter, find a good solution, and then to articulate good arguments and reasons for this course of action. Some of the core skills and practices involved articulating the larger principles at stake, showing their connections to the case at hand, and making the perspective vivid and compelling. In fact, the humanities and a humanistic approach is especially suited to this training (as I argue here).


According to Waldman, I guess they have been going about it in the wrong way. The real way to teach leadership is through neurofeedback. Here is how it works: You make people watch a movie while you are monitoring their brain activity. "If the people aren't displaying the desired brain patterns, for example, the screen they're watching may go fuzzy. When they do display the right brain patterns, it becomes sharp again. Gradually, people's brains learn to follow the patterns that are positively reinforced." Come on! They think the brain will reprogram itself simply by "giving it a cookie" when it is doing the right thing? Even dogs' brains aren't that mechanistic! I know, I have trained several. With this "brainwashing" activity they really think that they will train people's brains to "make those visionary-leadership connections naturally - and, with any luck, make it easier for them to inspire people more easily."


Wow, who knew that to become a visionary inspirational leader all you needed to do was to watch a TV which goes fuzzy when you think the wrong way. If only Cicero, Churchill, and Martin Luther King Jr. had known this! To think of all the hours, years, they spent listening to and giving speeches, studying the concepts, listening to people and trying to understand them, and then to find out that all they needed was a little bit of reprogramming through neurofeedback. Well, good luck Dr. Waldman. Of course, he says that neurofeedback still needs more research before researchers can be sure it will work in developing leadership ability. Guess who is going to fund that research, and guess how likely it is that he will be a recipient of government grants, stipends, and research fellowships in order to carry on with that research.

Have you heard the saying "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail"? In some ways it makes sense that if you have a machine like the fMRI-scanner which records activity and connections, the solution seems to be to rewire those connections which happen to be the problem. Yet the mind is more than just a ball of wires. I think it would be appropriate to end with a word from Kenneth Burke. He predicted that positivists will be blind to the non-mechanistic elements of human nature and reality. “The quasi-scientific reductionist theories, with their caricatures of perfection, will not only never see it in the first place, but will be so constructed that they never even miss the loss” (301). While looking for the secrets of leadership through the methods of neuroscience it seems like it is also possible for researchers to become blind to other aspects of what it means to be and become a good leader. As Kenneth Burke would say, "It's more complicated than that." Leadership is not developed in a day, and despite the short-cuts these people are promising, it takes patience, passion, and natural ability. Becoming a good leader is a lifelong pursuit. 

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Putin's Strategy of Inaction and The Rhetoric of Doubt

Putin has shocked and puzzled the world by his actions since the Winter Olympics in 2014. People were shocked by his brazen invasion of the Crimean peninsula, but they have been even more puzzled by his fantastic claims and his support of stories about the invasion of Crimea and the subsequent violent uprising in Eastern Ukraine. We are supposed to believe that all who oppose Russian dominance in Ukraine are fascists; that this fact endangered the lives of Russians living in Crimea, even though not a single incidence of violence has ever been recorded prior to the invasion; that Crimea was in fact not invaded at all, but that some Russian speaking Ukrainians suddenly acquired armored vehicles, military uniforms, tanks, machine guns, sniper rifles, and a clear chain of command in order to spontaneously resist the "Ukrainian nationalist threat." It is said that the first victim of war is the truth, but this takes dishonesty to a new level. The stories aren't even consistent, but rather they change with whatever the situation requires. Phony and rigged referendums are just the top of the iceberg.



Of course, a large part of the explanation is that Putin needs a story to tell his own countrymen in order to justify his actions. His followers have performed a lot of revisionist history lately, writing Russian history books for education which claim that Stalin's mass executions and labor camps were just "a natural consequence of the difficulties of holding together such a vast and diverse country" and portrays the fall of the Soviet Union as one of the worst tragedies and mistakes of the 20th century.


As a former director of the KGB he also understands the use of disinformation and propaganda for external purposes, but what actually is he hoping to achieve?

Putin learned well the lessons from the Iraq War and Syria's use of chemical weapons: An act of war is judged by its justification, and the justification is based on what one could call "actionable intelligence" which convey a clear narrative which warrants a reaction which is appropriate or at least is esteemed to be so by common wisdom. The Iraq War has been condemned mainly because there were no weapons of mass destruction and so the act of war was not justified. The narrative by which an act of war was seen as potentially justified has proven to be false. Fuel is added to the fire when one learns of the faulty intelligence and the flimsy evidence which were used as the basis for the decision to go to war.

Thereafter, the public became increasingly skeptical of justifications for war and scrutinized more carefully the reasons and the evidence given by governments who wanted to do so. "Do we really know for sure that this is what happened? Are there other factors which give these facts a different explanation? Is this really the best course of action and a fitting response?" This was clearly displayed in the public backlash against David Cameron when he lost the vote for use of force to punish Syria for using chemical weapons. Barack Obama felt the same heat from Congress and public opinion. Where was the evidence that chemical weapons were used? How do we know for sure that they were used by Assad's forces? Who issued the order to use it? You claim they have been used by Assad's forces before? Why should we act now when we did not act then?

The opposition did not succeed in disproving that Assad used chemical weapons, but when your goal is not action but inaction you do not have to prove your point. All you have to do is to sow doubt about the narrative and the facts the other person is using to justify their push for action. In any argument aimed at effecting action, the rhetor has to take the audience along the four stases (discussed and elaborated in this post) of fact, definition, quality, and procedure. The audience need to feel they can be pretty confident that they know what happened or what the situation is, what it should be called or what kind of category it fits into, what quality it has (how good or bad it is), and that the proposed action or procedure is the appropriate one according to the facts, definitions, and qualities of the situation in question. Here the defence arguing for inaction has the upper hand, since they do not have to refute all the evidence: all they have to do is muddy the waters a little bit to create room for uncertainty and doubt. The one arguing for action has to defend all the four stases, whereas the one arguing for inaction can choose to attack any one of them. If he can win even one of them he has won the battle and inaction ensues, as any veteran saboteur of planning meetings knows. (just as a side note, this is also why the justice system inherently favors the defense. Not guilty is the default position as long as guilt has not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt).



This is what Putin is doing with his rhetoric of doubt. What happened in Crimea? What do we call it? Was it an invasion? Well, no shots were fired, and the action did have the assent of some local government officials. So then it was an annexation? Ok, but that just means that one country took over another. It is not as clear how we should react to an annexation. We know what an invasion is, with all its negative connotations of aggression and war, but what does really an annexation mean and what is the appropriate response to such an action? Support of local government officials and the referendum further makes the case a difficult one to classify. A similar pattern is repeated in Eastern Ukraine, where the so-called "rebels" now have acquired Stinger missiles to shoot down airplanes. Did they get that from used army supply shops as Putin claims? Meanwhile, Russia escalates and then de-escalates their military presence on the border in order to give the pretense of "wanting to keep the peace" while at the same time watching out for its interests. The hope is that the rest of the world will tire and be confused and inactive long enough for Russia to gradually increase and strengthen its hold of the region.

This is the political equivalent of chess with a silent war fought on the stages of international diplomacy as well as through arms supplies, subversion, espionage, and open display of military force. Gradually, the world may learn to tolerate and accept a reality which just a year ago would have provided widespread outrage and the threat of nuclear war. And Putin gets to enjoy his prize with impunity.



Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The Orator and the Mechanic: Images of Rhetorical Practice in De Oratore

What do you need to know to change the world?


I am not the only one who has asked that question; it has been the central quandary for many philosophers, politicians, reformers, and preachers for most of the recorded history of thought. As Richard Weaver writes, we are all "born into history, with an endowment of passion and a sense of the ought. There is ever some discrepancy . . . between the situation man is in and the situation he would like to realize. His life is therefore characterized by movement towards goals." We want to make the world better, and make life richer, fuller, and more worth living. How do we do that?

Well, one central element is that we cannot do it alone; we need help from others. In order to help, they have to be persuaded through words that the endeavor is worth it. That is why Weaver goes on to claim, "It is largely the power of rhetoric which influences and governs that movement" towards goals. So what do you need to know to get others to enlist in such a cause? Is it enough to know which buttons to press, how do make people feel certain emotions or get certain desires? Will marketing and style do? What about the larger ideas about human nature and what builds and moves societies, what some people may call philosophy, what about them?

Marcus Tullius Cicero plays out this dispute elegantly in his dialogue between Crassus and Antonius in De Oratore. At the outset of De Oratore, Cicero references an important disagreement with his brother Quintus on the nature of eloquence: Cicero espouses that "eloquence is dependent upon the trained skill of highly educated men" whereas Quintus says "it must be separated from the refinements of learning and made to depend on a sort of natural talent and . . . practice" (290). These competing views (high education vs. practice) are then fully played out in the ensuing dialogue between Crassus and Antonius, yet they are not as far apart as they seem. The central argument is based on different perspectives of a similar idea: Crassus is normative and describes a "lofty ideal" of the Orator (320), whereas Antonius is descriptive and performs the Socratic work of defining and delimiting the strict boundaries of oratory (311). As such, it is logical that their definitions of the issue will be conflicting, with Crassus pursuing the greatest eloquence and Antonius cutting the craft of the orator to its barest minimum. What we see playing out in the dialogue is an artful display of an argument on the stasis of definition, where Cicero is able to instruct us about the nature of eloquence and oratory, and their roles in society from both idealistic and descriptive perspectives.

One of the main disagreements is about what and how much the orator needs to study in order to become an orator. Antonius limits the sphere of an orator to the law courts and public debates (311), and claims that although the orator may "taste" much which belongs to other fields of knowledge, he does not need to acquire it as his own (312). Philosophy in general is especially useless, since such ideas and precepts espoused by the likes of Plato are too far removed from reality to be of any utility (320). The one possible exception here is Aristotle, whose theory may be useful to more advanced students of rhetoric (326) but not to novices. What an orator needs is to be attuned to "the thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and hopes of his fellow-citizens and of any men whom on any issue he would fain win over by his word" (313) since the oratory needs to be adapted to the ears of the audience (326).

Crassus, on the other hand, argues that an orator should seek after knowledge widely, since eloquence without it is empty (292) and cannot achieve excellence (294). Especially philosophy which deals with human life and manners must be mastered by the orator (299). Nor is oratory restricted to law courts and public debates. Oratory brings people together, creates and sustains civilization, law, and order, and brings pleasure and safety: "the wise control of the complete orator is that which chiefly upholds . . . the safety of countless individuals and of the entire State" (293-294). It is also the general art to which every specialist must come in order to convince people and gain consensus and support for any cooperative venture (298). As he concludes towards the end: "an orator cannot have sufficient cogency and weight if he lacks the vigor that public speaking demands, and cannot be adequately polished and profound if he lacks width of culture" (339). As for rhetoric, the education of the orator, they both agree that it is not an art in the strict "Greek" sense, but that it still has utility and value (309). The Isocratean tradition is clearly the most useful to rhetorical novices, but Aristotle and some other philosophers may have occasional helpful points to offer (338).

In my opinion both perspectives have value: Antonius' "mechanistic" perspective is helpful in order to settle the boundaries of rhetoric as an academic field, and Crassus' views show the potential reach of oratory which "embraces the origin and operation and developments of all things" (338). Oratory, as Crassus defines it, is the only way leadership can be practiced in a democratic society, and it is often the only way people can change the course of the world.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

What I Want My Daughter to Know

Reading "The Solitude of Self" by Elizbeth Cady Stanton had a great impact on me, partially because it spoke of a principle which is central to my philosophy of life. Cady Stanton was a female rhetorician who really kick-started First Wave Feminism (which was directed towards getting the vote for women). She has been criticized for using racial language when she gave reasons for why women should have the vote before black men did, but even Frederick Douglass respected her highly and wrote, "After her--silence."

This speech was given when she was already firmly established and respected as an advocate for women, and it is a piece I would class together with the greatest masterpieces of philosophical rhetoric next to "On the Peace" by Isocrates and "The Dream of Scipio" by Cicero. Her premise is simply stated: "We all have to be responsible for our own lives." Women cannot depend on a man for her happiness or protection alone, just as no other person should be wholly dependent on anyone else for the rest of their lives. I have heard and I believe the saying that "If a person cannot be alone with nature and be satisfied, that person is not happy with themselves." It is the same in matters of love. Though I am a huge believer in the importance of relationships and families, these relationships alone cannot define your worth or who you are. As Cady Stanton writes, "The isolation of every human soul, and the necessity of self-dependence, must give each individual the right to choose his own surroundings."

What then of all the talk during her age of the "weaker sex?" The talk of sheltering woman from the fierce storms of life is the sheerest mockery, for they beat on her from every point of the compass, just as they do on man, and with more fatal results, for he has been trained to protect himself, to resist, and to conquer. Such are the facts in human experience, the responsibilities of individual sovereignty. Rich and poor; it is ever the same, each soul must depend wholly on itself."

She makes it quite clear indeed that women may pass through more travail than men do in life. "Whatever the theories may be of woman's dependence on man, in the supreme moments of her life, he cannot bear her burdens. Alone she goes to the gates of death to give life to every man that is born into the world; no one can share her fears, no one can mitigate her pangs; and if her sorrow is greater than she can bear, alone she passes beyond the gates into the vast unknown . . . ."

Everyone needs a center, a focus of their being which they can call their own and which is not defined solely in relation to other people. It is this center they must rely on in the bitter and lonely moments of their life, and it is this center which may provide a security and a joy which no other source can take away. This must be the same for men and for women. The lack of nternal value leads to a constant struggle for external value, and all external value in the end will be nothing more than shadows and dust by itself.

Do not live in constant fear of what other people can give or take away. Do not wait for someone to slay your dragons or fight your demons. You are who you are, and that by itself is enough.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

What's Not To Like About A Tyrant?

You'd think that this would be a closed case in a country founded as a reaction to tyranny, with a people whose very Constitution is based on a suspicion of government and trust in individuals and the choices of the people, where "freedom" and "liberty" are discussed and honored more often than just about any other concept. Yet, when you see not one, but two presidents applauded for promising to abuse and overstep executive authority in a State of the Union address, when you see government agencies and bureaucracies used to stifle dissent, and when you see massive surveillance of the press, opposition groups, and in fact the entire population, all of which happens without any public outrage, you start to wonder.



In the old rhetoric schools of Athens and Rome, one of the rhetorical exercises given to advanced students was to rhetorically "slay a tyrant" by using something called the "topos of a tyrant:" In a measured invective, the students would lay out the six vices of a tyrant to remind their audience what it meant to be free from tyranny as well as to move them to action against a budding tyrant or tyrannical tendencies in their society. The freedom they had to exhibit this exercise was a good indication of the actual freedom they actually enjoyed in their societies. Two rhetoricians, Secundus and Maternus, were put to death by Caligula and Domitian when they performed the topos of the tyrant as rhetorical exercises at a festival. I guess they did too good of a job, and the tyrants got a really good look at themselves. The topos of a tyrant is an exercise I think we could profitably adopt in our society, as a safeguard of liberty and a ready weapon against tyranny. In this post, I'll try to explain the exercise and give a model you can use and spread as you choose. So, here goes: Let's slay a tyrant!



First, a little bit of theoretical groundwork to define what I mean by tyranny. Paul Woodruff has the best description I have seen so far in his book First Democracy: "The idea of tyranny is among the greatest gifts we have from ancient Greece, because it nails down a vital way to think about freedom. The ancient Greeks realized that there is a kind of government that destroys people by dividing them, while it diminishes their leader by clouding his mind. The leader may be a person or a group, and tyranny may rise in what is nominally a democracy. Like a disease, tyranny is recognized by its symptoms. These symptoms are the features of political leadership that the ancient Greeks most feared. And the Greeks were right to fear them. If you observe any of these symptoms in your leaders, be wary. A plague could be on the way, and it could fatally weaken your freedoms:
1. A tyrant is afraid of losing his position, and his decisions are affected by this fear.
2. A tyrant tries to rise above the rule of law, though he may give lip service to the law.
3. A tyrant does not accept criticism.
4. A tyrant cannot be called to account for his actions.
5. A tyrant does not listen to advice from those who do not curry favor with him, even though they may be his friends.
6. A tyrant tries to prevent those who disagree with him from participating in politics" (66-7).

Any of these look familiar? Ask yourselves, when did the US last have a president who did not start campaigning for reelection from day 1 in office? When last did it have a president who followed the Constitution and refrained from fighting illegal wars? When last did a president voluntarily disclose and admit to a significant failure without being forced to do so? When was ever a president successfully impeached or held accountable for his actions? I'm not talking about losing an election or stepping down like Nixon, I mean impeached and prosecuted for crimes. Only two presidents (in over 200 years) have ever been impeached, and none have ever been convicted. And not because of lack of either crimes or evidence, I can assure you. Besides, the US president has what is called "sovereign immunity," and according to the US Attorney General's Office "The indictment or criminal prosecution of a sitting President would unconstitutionally undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions" (i.e. "ya can't touch him"). Concerning point 5 and 6, do I even need to list examples? Didn't think so.

So why is this so bad? Why does it matter for example if the NSA is spying on Americans (and the rest of the world for that matter)? I have had university students actually say "as long as you don't do anything wrong, what do you have to fear?" If that's your attitude, why bother with any restraint at all. Why even care about having checks and balances. Have we forgotten that almost everyone who has been given absolute power has actually used it? The results have not been pretty. The rhetoric schools outlined six vices of the tyrant to help people keep this in mind. They are cruelty, savagery, suspicion, arrogance, immorality, and avarice. The student would then explain and amplify those vices by giving descriptions, examples, and stories. I will provide a brief outline, but you can easily fill in examples of your own.

Suspicion: A tyrant can have no real friends, for he knows that his power is illegitimate and is only supported by force. As a result, he is constantly suspicious, even of those who want what is best for him. He believes the slightest rumor of a threat against him and sees every talented individual as a challenge to his power. As Euripides writes,
"When the people govern a country
They rejoice in the young citizens who are rising to power
Whereas a man who is king thinks them his enemy
And kills the best of them and any he finds
To be intelligent, because he fears for his power" (Woodruff 63).

Every tyrant has needed informants, secret police, and surveillance. In our days the thought police have taken the role of the bodyguard as the vanguard of tyranny. The ancients recognized that a tyrant first asks for a bodyguard because he knows he will need protection from his people and the power of force in order to carry out his crimes. In our days, the tyrant first seeks intelligence about dissenters and the ability to spread an atmosphere of fear and distrust among his subjects. It is always defended with a need for "security," but too late do the people realize that the security he was talking about was his, and the threat was them. This is a necessity, for a tyranny of one over many can only endure by the oppressive fear created by a police state, splintering everyone into their own shell of terror, never knowing who is watching or listening.

This is a scene from  the movie The Lives of Others portraying the real surveillance practices of the DDR.

Cruelty and savagery: A tyrant relies on terror to silence opposition, and the fear of the citizenry must be kept vivid by regular demonstrations of power and cruelty. Thus, it is not a question of whether or not a specific victim deserves this treatment because of any action on their part. Rather, display of cruelty in itself is a goal, and so-called crimes against the state are often mere pretenses in order to organize these displays. This is one subject which I believe the recent UN report on the North Korean prison camps makes vivid enough. To give a more historic example, Tacitus describes the murders committed by Emperor Tiberius after he had seized complete power: "Frenzied with bloodshed, the emperor now ordered the execution of all those arrested for complicity. It was a massacre. Without discrimination of sex or age . . . there they lay, strewn about - or in heaps. Relatives and friends were forbidden to stand by or lament them, or even gaze for long. Guards surrounded them, spying on their sorrow, and escorted the rotting bodies until, dragged into the Tiber, they floated away or grounded - with none to cremate or touch them. Terror had paralyzed human sympathy. The rising surge of brutality drove compassion away" (209). This is the goal of cruelty, to paralyze human sympathy and drive away compassion by terror and brutality. This is the hollow existence of a people living under tyranny.

Arrogance: Along with being a vice, arrogance in some ways is a necessity for a tyrant. How else can he defend asserting his will contrary to the wishes of his subjects? He needs to believe that he is above them. He needs to make himself in some ways a "superhuman," almost a god as the Roman emperors did. His reign serves as a sign of devotion to his massive ego. Raised on a throne of power above everyone else, he looks down upon the puny humans below him as little more than animals with haughty disgust. They are there for his enjoyment and use, and serve no higher purpose than that. The Greeks believed this frame of mind above all the other vices show tyranny for what it is: a disease of the mind. For under this self-delusion the tyrant has to hide his knowledge of his weaknesses, frailty, and guilt. Tacitus writes, "How truly the wisest of men used to assert that the souls of despots, if revealed, would show wounds and mutilations - weals left on the spirit, like lash-marks on a body, by cruelty, lust, and malevolence" (202). The tyrant seeks confirmation of his superiority over mankind, and finds it in abuses of power. He seeks confirmation of his superiority to divine law, and finds it by breaking every sacred bond and violating everything deemed inviolable.


Immorality and Avarice: These are the vices which a tyrant can exercise without restraint, and the very ability to do so constitute the lure and reward of tyranny. To have whatever one's eye lusts for, be it property, power, or people, this is the lure for the tyrant. The desire for absolute power would have little meaning for unscrupulous people if that power did not enable one to break all bonds which social position, morality, and laws would otherwise restrain. The Roman emperors would frequently display that power by taking the wives of men they had invited to the palace. Nero made it a hobby to display the most depraved behavior imaginable. Tiberius had his soldiers throw the richest man of Spain off a cliff so he could confiscate his money. There is no private property in a tyranny, nor is anything sacred. There is nothing where anyone can say, "this is mine" or "this is private." What is there then to live or hope for?
As the Athenian Euripides writes:
"Why should one acquire wealth and livelihood
For his children, if the struggle is only to enrich the tyrant further?
Why keep his young daughters virtuously at home,
To be the sweet delight of tyrants?
I'd rather die than have my daughters wed by violence" (Woodruff 63).

Yes, freedom from tyranny is worth fighting for. Cicero, who saw the death of the Roman Republic in his time sums it up like this in his The Republic: "As soon as a king takes the first step towards a more unjust regime, he at once becomes a tyrant. And that is the foulest and most repellent creature imaginable, and the most abhorrent to god and man alike. Although he has the outward appearance of a man, he outdoes the wildest beasts in the utter savagery of his behavior" (50). Remembering the first tyrant slayer of Rome, he writes that "he became the first in this state to show that, when it comes to preserving the people's freedom, no one is just a private citizen" (49).

It is the duty of every citizen to guard against tyranny and from becoming tyrants ourselves. A whole generation is growing up now which has never experienced the world before the Patriot Act. Massive surveillance which has never before been experienced in free societies is a fact of life. Throw off this yoke and destroy tyranny and all that resembles it. Nip it in the bud before it can grow any further. We do not want to progress down this road. Remember the words of Benjamin Franklin

Thursday, 23 January 2014

"Closer at Hand, and Fiercer": Fear Appeals and Resonance in Alexander Nevsky



In Alexander Nevsky, Sergei Eisenstein uses a scene from Russian history as a historical analogy to prepare the Soviet Union for a defense of their homeland. In doing so, he sets up the drama of an agonistic ritual between good and evil where patriotic Russians are placed on a moral pedestal whereas Germans and dissenting Russians are denied all legitimacy. Eisenstein exploits the potentialities in this drama for fear appeals and resonance in order to instill an attitude and prepare the Russian people to respond to a potential call to arms against the Germans. 




Alexander Nevsky portrays a social movement where a large ethnic group, the Russians, unite in the purpose of becoming an independent nation. As Stewart, Smith, and Denton mention in Persuasion and Social Movements, "Social movements are organized from the bottom up with leaders that emerge as the movement develops and sees the need for leaders with unique abilities" (6). It is established early in the film that the dream of Russia is one shared by almost all Russians, which is perhaps made clearest by the chorus chanting, "We'll never yield our Russian land. We'll crush every invader." Then, as the rich merchants of Novgorod argue that "we can buy our safety," Olga Danilovna again invokes the dream of Russia, asking, "You would sell away Russia?" A merchant replies, "Where is Russia? When did you ever see such a thing?" indicating that Russia at this time is not an undisputed institutionalized fact. It is still an uninstitutionalized vision which only has life as a social movement. Yet the dream of Russia wins the argument and the voice of the collective calls for Alexander Nevsky to become the leader of the movement. The film ends with the institutionalization of the social movement as Alexander proclaims, "Russia lives!" effectively transforming the social movement into a social movement organization. By using a story from their own history, Eisenstein could display a war against the Germans as a consistent pattern of behavior for Russians, rather than an aberration. Thus tapping into what Daniel O'Keefe calls the "general desire for consistency" (23).

The quest for Russian independence is portrayed as a moral struggle between good and evil, where this movement alone "constitutes an ethical, virtuous, principled, and righteous force with the moral obligation to act in the name of and for the good of, the people" (15), with exaggerated "strength, unity, and intellectual and moral legitimacy" (16). Strangely enough, a quasi-Christian agonistic ritual between the good, the evil (including the Germans and "second Judas" Russians) is invoked to motivate a population in defense of a Communist state.



Eisenstein makes liberal use of what O'Keefe describes as "fear appeals" in order to move people to action (226). The threat severity is the highest imaginable ("They're beating and killing everyone they encounter . . . They're torturing women whose sons and husbands fought against them"), as is the threat vulnerability ("we poor people, we face death under the Germans"). Meanwhile, Alexander guarantees the response efficacy ("We will beat them by spring!"), and the display of clumsy but brave Russian soldiers shows that everyone can contribute ("even a sparrow has a heart"). An alternative to war is impossible in this zero-sum game: The bishop proclaims that "All who refuse to submit to Rome shall be destroyed," as children are thrown into the fire, while Alexander explains that the Germans are "closer at hand, and fiercer" than the Mongols. "And they cannot be bought off by tributes." This is a fight where there can only be one winner.

The real genius of this propaganda film is having Alexander establish Soviet foreign policy as the centuries old law of the land. By anchoring this military doctrine to the esteem of a national hero, Eisenstein effectively convinces people to change their attitudes by relating the change "to something in which the persuadee already believes" (34), creating resonance with his audience. In addition, Eisenstein fills the film with Russian proverbs, effectively connecting the current Russia with the past. The government supported this connection with visual symbols like the Order of Alexander Nevsky, a military decoration reinstituted in 1942.

By displaying the war of 1242 as an analogy to the situation in 1938, Eisenstein is able to use fear appeals and resonance to move the Russian people to war and suppress dissent. The attitude he tries to instill is perhaps clearest when Alexander proclaims even defeat an act of treason, "If we had lost, Russia would have never forgiven us. Tell that to your children. If you forget it, you will all be a second Judas. A traitor to the Russian land." This is internal persuasion, aimed at Russians to instill militant patriotism.  

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Symptoms of a Disease: Mass Suggestion and Arguments of Sign in Robert Welch's Conspiracy Theory

Conspiracy theories are everywhere today, in entertainment, politics, economics. You can even sense their shadows in organizations which are supposedly as far from the fringe as you can get. Democrats believe Republicans are accomplices in the great conspiracy of the rich financiers against the poor and the middle class, and Republicans accuse Democrats of supporting a statist agenda towards control and tyranny over the American people. Both sides assume the others are alligned with a small cabal of powerful elites who are silently dictating the development of the world towards a hellish future. There is plenty that could be said about these theories and their effect on public discourse (for example creating the assumption that everyone but you has a sinister hidden agenda for what they do). But why do these arguments work in the first place? Why are some audiences so eager or ready to accept arguments often based on the most flimsy evidence? Here is one prevalent conspiracy theory (which has recently had quite a Renaissance of interest on the web) which I analyzed using Toulmin's The Uses of Argumentation.

In "If You Want It Straight," Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, sets forth his theory about how the United States of America is threatened to its core by an almost ubiquitous Communist conspiracy. Welch relates a fantastical foundation myth for this conspiracy and interweaves its history with almost every significant political event of the last two hundred years. Then he gives what I think is a central clue to the construct of his argument and its potential appeal to an audience: "As we move down the years . . . and you find these items from the past meshing so neatly into a total design with the present pattern which you already recognize, most of your doubts about the earlier history will probably disappear." 1968, the time when he is broadcasting this message for the first time, is a very disorienting time in America. There are riots, protests, assassinations, and a great amount of civil unrest. In the middle of such disorientation, people often seek explanations. Welch offers one in this broadcast. In doing so, he uses mainly what Toulmin calls substantive arguments of sign to prove the "fact" of the Communist conspiracy, and relies on an implicit motivational argument to encourage Americans to resist the Communist campaigns.

"In arguments from sign, the data consist of clues or symptoms" (49). It is an inductive process where certain clues are interpreted as symptoms of an attribute possessed by a "person, object, event, or condition." By themselves, the data do not give a clear meaning, but the warrant "interprets the meaning or significance of these symbols" (49). As such, it works well with methods of mass suggestion such as those used by Welch. Welch claims he is displaying a complex mosaic, and does so by suggesting that just about every progressive initiative in the entire USA is a part of a Communist conspiracy. My model shows how his techniques may play out with his contemporary audience, focusing on the backing they fill in for him. (Key: D=Data or information which is already accepted, C=Claim or what the arguer wants to get accepted as truth, W=Warrant or the qualifying element which interprets the data and connects it with the claim, B=Backing or the support the argument find in existing attitudes, documents, laws, established values, etc.)

The first argument builds upon an assumption about the international Communist movement. Earlier in the broadcast, Welch provides a history of Communism and how it has spread through social protest, agitation, and armed revolution. He claims that this past is symptomatic of the Communist modus operandi and predicts that they will attempt the same in the US. With this claim, he is not doing much more than repeating the warnings of the US government and educational institutions from propaganda like Red Nightmare. Linking his arguments to this background provides him with all the backing he needs to proceed. 

In a second argument from sign, Welch mentions all the social upheaval and unrest in the 60s, including race riots, protests, the hippie movement, the sexual revolution, as well as black rights, Hispanic rights, and women's rights, and reads it as clear evidence of a Communist conspiracy to take over the US. The data is probably on most people's minds in this turbulent period, so it makes sense that he would have resonance with some people. The logical "leap of faith" it takes to see all these movements as symptoms of a Communist master plan makes this argument one that is less likely to be accepted. However, it does fit with the narrative established by the government about the Communist conspiracy, and it resonates with the impression perpetuated about Communists as devious and stealthy. This may be a field-dependent argument, which can only work with people who believe in the Communist plot and have reactionary sentiments towards the rapid change which is occurring in the US.

The third argument is an implicit motivational argument about how undesirable such Communist rule would be for Americans. Welch states from early on that this conspiracy threatens "your liberty and the very lives of you and your family in the near and quite foreseeable future," and keeps referring to the results of the Communist plot which will "destroy American civilization so they can rule over the ruins that will be left." The data says here that "US citizens need to resist progressive efforts to remain safe from Communism," and it builds upon the "fact" established previously about the nature of international Communism and the Communist origin of the social upheaval currently taking place in the US. This motivational argument is an evaluation of those facts based on the emotions of fear and anger, and the value of self-preservation. As shown in my model, all of these arguments can only work if the audience can supply the backing of an established attitude and belief about Communism and Communists. Without this backing, the model falls apart and the argument deteriorates to incomprehensible mass suggestion and threats.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

A Warning From Ancient Greece About the Curse of Empire

"All those who come before you on this platform are accustomed to assert that the subjects upon which they are themselves about to advise you are most important and most worthy of serious consideration by the state. Nevertheless, if it was ever appropriate to preface the discussion of any other subject with such words, it seems to me fitting also to begin with them in speaking upon the subject now before us.


For we are assembled here to deliberate about War and Peace, which exercise the greatest power over the life of man, and regarding which those who are correctly advised must of necessity fare better than the rest of the world. Such, then, is the magnitude of the question which we have come together to decide." 

This is how Isocrates introduces his speech titled "On the Peace." It is a sober piece of writing, with a more subdued tone than most of his other speeches. Isocrates is speaking from his own experience. His family and property was devastated during the Peloponnesian War against Sparta, and he has seen Athens rise from that devastation only to again entangle themselves in wars and intrigues. Now, after another serious defeat, Athens is seeking for peace. Isocrates sees this as the moment where he can lead Athenian foreign policy down a different track than they have been on for the last 50 years: He wants them to give up the disastrous dream of an empire.

In doing so, he realizes that he is speaking from a disadvantaged position. The speakers beating the drums of war have an easier case to make than the ones who urge for peace. One can appeal to pride and ambition, whereas the other can only appeal to humility and harmony: for the former put into our minds the expectation both of regaining our possessions . . . and of recovering the power which we formerly enjoyed, while the latter hold forth no such hope, insisting rather that we must have peace and not crave great possessions contrary to justice, but be content with those we have—and that for the great majority of mankind is of all things the most difficult.

The psychosis of empire carries with it a recognizable symptom of invincibility: For some of us appear to me to be over zealously bent on war, as though having heard, not from haphazard counsellors, but from the gods, that we are destined to succeed in all our campaigns and to prevail easily over our foes. Similar sentiments were expressed recently about the inevitability of success in Iraq and Afghanistan for example, showing us that although we are far removed from the Athenians in time, human nature has not changed that much.

Isocrates claims that (1) security, (2) material well-being, (3) harmony and unity within the nation, and (4) esteem and respect abroad would be conditions in which Athens would be most happy. Now it is the war which has robbed us of all the good things which I have mentioned; for it has made us poorer; it has compelled many of us to endure perils; it has given us a bad name among the Hellenes; and it has in every way overwhelmed us with misfortune. On the other hand, if Athens were to keep their peace treaties and covenants, Isocrates claims that they would be secure, trade would increase, Athenians would be united in a common project of improvement, and we shall have all mankind as our allies—allies who will not have been forced, but rather persuaded, to join with us, who will not welcome our friendship because of our power when we are secure only to abandon us when we are in peril, but who will be disposed towards us as those should be who are in very truth allies and friends.

In order to secure this lasting peace, one thing has to happen: Athens has to stop trying to dominate everybody: For I, for my part, consider that we shall manage our city to better advantage and be ourselves better men and go forward in all our undertakings if we stop setting our hearts on the empire of the sea. For it is this which plunged us into our present state of disorder, which overthrew that democratic government1 under which our ancestors lived and were the happiest of the Hellenes, and which is the cause, one might almost say, of all the ills which we both suffer ourselves and inflict upon the rest of the Hellenes.

What is this empire? Why have all nations sought after it? And why is it so destructive to whoever holds it? Isocrates says that "all the world lusts after this power" and they have "waged wars to obtain" it.

The empire is based on force, and therefore goes contrary to the principles of the Hellenes, since we recognized the principle that it is not just for the stronger to rule over the weaker. Athenians were raised with a hate of despots and a love of democracy and equality. Yet, as we often do, they failed to translate the principles of their domestic policy into their foreign policy. Isocrates sees this inconsistency of principle, and he seizes on it. He begins by denouncing the conditions of the tyrant: Is it not true that when men obtain unlimited power they find themselves at once in the coil of so many troubles that they are compelled to make war upon all their citizens, to hate those from whom they have suffered no wrong whatsoever, to suspect their own friends and daily companions, to entrust the safety of their persons to hirelings whom they have never even seen, to fear no less those who guard their lives than those who plot against them, and to be so suspicious towards all men as not to feel secure even in the company of their nearest kin? Isocrates is here stating a common sentiment among the Athenians. It was the terrors of tyranny which made them turn to democracy in the first place, and the bloodbath caused by the brief reign of The Thirthy reiterated those lessons to his own generation. Then he makes the connection: while you consider the power of a despot to be harsh and harmful not only to others but to those who hold it, you look upon the empire of the sea as the greatest good in the world, when in fact it differs neither in what it does nor in what it suffers from one-man-rule. 



So what is the lure of empire? Why have Athenians and others been willing to ignore their own principles in order to obtain it? The answer is, because it can satisfy the most basic desires for quick wealth and power: it turns the heads of those who are enamored by it, and that it is in its nature like courtesans, who lure their victims to love but destroy those who indulge this passion. But when did Athens cease to lead and begin to dominate? They were given the hegemony or leadership over the Hellenes because of their valor and wisdom in the war against the Persians. It is not leadership which causes evil, Isocrates points out, but rather unbridled dominion. The Athenians of that generation were chosen to rule, but those who came after them desired, not to rule but to dominate—words which are thought to have the same meaning, although between them there is the utmost difference. For it is the duty of those who rule to make their welfare, whereas it is a habit of those who dominate to provide pleasures for themselves through the labors and hardships of others. 

This is a state which is contrary to virtue and nature, which is why Isocrates prefaces the next part of his argument with a grave warning: But it is in the nature of things that those who attempt a despot's course must encounter the disasters which befall despotic power and be afflicted by the very things which they inflict upon others. And it is just this which has happened in the case of Athens

An empire is a deception. It is not what it seems: what we call empire, though in reality it is misfortune, is of a nature to deprave all who have to do with it. The empire is a licence and arrogance based on physical strength which tempt all men to abuse the power they have been given: anyone can see that those who have been in the strongest position to do whatever they pleased have been involved in the greatest disasters. Athens itself reached a point where before they knew it, they had filled the public burial-grounds with the bodies of their fellow citizens.


Isocrates uses the history of Sparta to illustrate this principle:

"And we ought not to emulate those who hold despotic power nor those who have gained a dominion which is greater than is just but rather those who, while worthy of the highest honors, are yet content with the honors which are tendered them by a free people.

We have a most convincing proof of this. For imperialism worked the ruin not only of Athens but of the city of the Lacedaemonians (Sparta) also.

For in place of the ways of life established among them it filled the citizens with injustice, indolence, lawlessness and avarice and the commonwealth with contempt for its allies, covetousness of the possessions of other states, and indifference to its oaths and covenants. In fact they went so far beyond our ancestors in their crimes against the Hellenes that in addition to the evils which already afflicted the several states they stirred up in them slaughter and strife, in consequence of which their citizens will cherish for each other a hatred unquenchable.




They first became subject to the dominion of their present ills at the moment when they attempted to seize the dominion of the sea, since they were seeking to acquire a power which was in no wise like that which they had before possessed.

Because of the arrogance which was bred in them by that power they speedily lost the supremacy both on land and sea. For they no longer kept the laws which they had inherited from their ancestors nor remained faithful to the ways which they had followed in times past.

For they did not know that this licence which all the world aspires to attain is a difficult thing to manage, that it turns the heads of those who are enamored by it, and that it is in its nature like courtesans, who lure their victims to love but destroy those who indulge this passion.

anyone can see that those who have been in the strongest position to do whatever they pleased have been involved in the greatest disasters, ourselves and the Lacedaemonians first of all. For when these states, which in time past had governed themselves with the utmost sobriety and enjoyed the highest esteem, attained to this license and seized the empire, they differed in no respect from each other, but, as is natural in the case of those who have been depraved by the same passions and the same malady, they attempted the same deeds and indulged in similar crimes and, finally, fell into like disasters.

Isocrates summarizes the moral of the story with this brief sentiment: If you will go over these and similar questions in your minds, you will discover that arrogance and insolence have been the cause of our misfortunes while sobriety and self control have been the source of our blessings. It is urgent that Athenians realize this truth for a man who is godless and depraved may die before paying the penalty for his sins, but states, since they are deathless, soon or late must submit to punishment at the hands both of men and of the gods. And time is running out for Athens. A mighty enemy, Philip of Macedon, is amassing a great army in the north. His greedy eyes are looking south towards the scattered, divided, and leaderless Greek city states that he is planning to subdue into his empire. When his armies came, Athens led the fight against them. But because of their arrogance and intrigues, they had as many Greeks fighting against them as were fighting with them. Thus ended the independence of the Greek city states, and with it, the brief light of democracy.

What can we learn from the mistakes of Athens? The evils of empire have shaped our world increasingly since the 1700s. The atrocities of the colonial powers still haunt us and manifest themselves in a world divided between victims and conquerors. The colonial war was a major contributor to World War I and the revived imperial ambitions of Germany, Italy, and Japan helped trigger another one. Following that, the US and USSR each formed empires of influence and force, leading even the US to commit crimes and outrages which they had formerly decried and stayed away from in international politics. The US currently has a crumbling empire. More despised and feared than loved in large parts of the world, and not always undeservedly so either. Deep trails of blood in South America and the Middle East have followed American foreign policy. In deed the US have often acted outwardly as a dictator, while struggling to maintain a democracy internally.

Is it possible for the US to lead rather than dominate? These concluding words of Isocrates may still be applied in our days. The first advice he gives is to choose good leaders and representatives who do not hunger for war and easy money.

The second way is to be willing to treat our allies just as we would our friends and not to grant them independence in words (only) . . . and not to exercise our leadership as masters but as helpers, since we have learned the lesson that while we are stronger than any single state we are weaker than all.

And the third way is to consider that nothing is more important . . . than to have a good name among the Hellenes. For upon those who are so regarded they willingly confer both sovereign power and leadership.


For no other of the states will dare to oppress them; on the contrary, they will hold back and studiously avoid aggression when they see the power of Athens on the alert and ready to go to the aid of the oppressed.


If the foremost states resolve to abstain from acts of oppression, we shall have the credit for this blessing; but if, on the other hand, they attempt to oppress others, then all who fear them and suffer evil at their hands will come to us for refuge, with many prayers and supplications, offering us not only the hegemony but their own support.


it is a noble enterprise for us, in the midst of the injustice and madness of the rest of the world, to be the first to adopt a sane policy and stand forth as the champions of the freedom of the Hellenes, to be acclaimed as their saviors, not their destroyers, and to become illustrious for our virtues and regain the good repute which our ancestors possessed.





For if we really wish to clear away the prejudice in which we are held at the present time, we must cease from the wars which are waged to no purpose and so gain for our city the hegemony for all time; we must abhor all despotic rule and imperial power, reflecting upon the disasters which have sprung from them; 


This, then, is the kind of leadership which is worth striving for.