Noam Chomsky on how the left can beat fascism, give hope, and win the age
"Don't don't tell people how bad things are," the philosopher and linguist tells me. "Show them how good things could be."
Not long ago, I got to have a fascinating conversation with Noam Chomsky about the subject of my new book, persuasion.
It was fascinating because Chomsky came to the conversation a skeptic of the idea of persuasion, at least as he conceives of it: as an idea uncomfortably close to advertising and marketing, to corporate PR. We talked about whether the political left working to get better at moving minds and reaching people on the more visceral levels of emotion and story and language is misguided — or exactly the ticket.
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“Now that would be democracy”: A conversation with Noam Chomsky
I'm glad to have a chance to discuss with you a topic with you that I've been immersed in for a large part of my life. Many of the issues you discuss [in the book] come up within the educational system, namely the kind of relationship you have with your students. These are debates that go back to the Enlightenment. Should education be coercive, or should it stimulate the curiosity, inventive, and instinctual concerns of the student?
The first chapter of the book [about Russian troll farm operations] is about the coercive kind of persuasion. It's done by efforts to mislead, control, and set up divisions among people. Then it leaves them vulnerable to domination. The other is a kind that seeks to reach people and bring them to an understanding of what's significant for them. To help them see what may be concealed in their ordinary lives by massive propaganda, but to induce them to perceive it for themselves. As one of the interviewees puts it, "If you want to lead somebody, take somebody to a specific place, walk with them and listen to them."
Some other aspects of persuasion could be added in a different book. One is the public relations industry which goes back to the late 19th century. The United States is the leader, but now it's all over the world, and it really took off after the first World War. It spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year to control and dominate people.
It's a huge form of domination and control with enormous amounts of money and huge numbers of people working hard to devise methods kind of like those that your interviewees in the book propose. But these were not for the purpose of getting people to discover who they are and what their values are to work together and improve life. This is a very striking contrast.
Whenever I hear the word persuasion, I immediately have a visceral reaction because the overwhelming majority of it is designed to mislead, misinform, delude, and set people against one another. To control and direct people into harmful paths for themselves and others.
But your book does the opposite. It's trying to use these methods in a very different way that's comparable to a decent educational system, which tries to support, stimulate, and inspire the efforts to find out who we are, pursue it, discover ourselves in the world, and act in a cooperative and constructive manner.
I think you're exactly right. You're on to something that I didn't make explicit but is coming to the fore now for me. Part of my frustration leading to the book is that only the bad guys use persuasion skills in our public life. Only the bad guys have figured out how to do what Fox News does to help millions of Americans process the events of their time. People don't go from seeing a Walgreens cashier speaking Spanish to fearing an alien invasion on the southern border automatically. As your work has demonstrated for so long, that is something that requires intermediary processing and meaning-making.
You look at a dimwit like Donald Trump, someone who is so effective at picking very particular scabs and choosing the perfect fights that frame an issue in a way that gets everybody talking about it. You look at the ability of the right to name scapegoats, which in many cases is the fraudulent and misleading naming of scapegoats. But they nonetheless clearly identify a villain and rally people around it. You look at a similar failure on much of the left to be able to do the same for banks in 2008 or people who get us into bogus wars. There is a lot of reluctance around naming and shaming. The right has a real discipline around language and messaging. They understand how language can get into people's heads and shape new constellations of political possibility simply through phrases like "partial-birth abortion" or "death tax." There's much less skill and facility on the left to do those things.
I understand your concern that many of these tools we're talking about can be used for dangerous ends. But I think the wellspring of this book is the curiosity of whether it has to be that way. In this modern and fragmented media environment, can the good guys employ these techniques to cater to emotion and psychology? Can those who want more democracy and inclusion and a society that works for everyone use these methods the way the right does? Can we employ language with the same kind of skill, rigor, and creative possibility that someone like Frank Luntz has done on the right? Can the left create belonging?
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