Friday, 28 November 2008

Propaganda, Polemic and Persuasion

I have learnt the same thing from two different sources in the past week.

Polemic is powerless.

Propaganda does not change the minds of it's readers. If anything, propaganda and polemic harden the resolve of those it targets, for or against. Like a fertiliser, it encourages deeper roots - for both plant and weed.

I read the title story on Stephen Baxter's collection, Traces. I found it shallow and plodding, but it raised some interesting ideas (in me). I found Baxter's characterisation of the religious fundamentalist to be stereotypical. Relying on a stereotyped character to further an argument leaves the author at risk of employing the straw man. I felt that Baxter's portrayal of the religious character betrayed a lack of empathy with believing people and a poor understanding of their views and beliefs. If you want to challenge a person's deeply held beliefs then empathy and understanding are the required preparation of the canvas before the first stroke of the argument is laid.

How many arguments and debates meet at cross purposes because of a lack of empathy and understanding. How often have antagonists argued the same point, only from differing assumptions that leads the discussion to cross purposes.

(Is this why so many debates end with both sides declaring the victory, because neither has addressed the foundational assumptions of the other?)

So two points by way of concrete example.

Baxter neatly outlined the transformation of the fundamentals of the Christian faith to include the anthropic principle and the resultant attractiveness to insecure/shallow people. This completely ignores the Christian faith's self-understanding as revealed and it's consequent resistance to change and innovation (at a core level). It also indicates a cynical and patronising understanding of why people have faith.

Baxter's antagonist has his faith shattered by the revelation that there was intelligent life before the solar system was formed. This is a well worn hypothesis. The arrival of the little green men will shatter the illusions of the feeble religious. It made me laugh (not a happy laugh). The story unfolds with the discovery of images from before the creation of the solar system by projecting images from the electron structures of the core ice in a comet. What amuses me is that this fanciful process in a fictional story to uncover hypothetical extra-terrestrial intelligence is deemed to discredit the historical Christian faith.

What it comes down to is my faith in little green men is more rational than your faith in a metaphysical being.

The confirmation:

I was also sent a pamphlet self styled as a challenge to protestants. It was sent anonymously, in the mail.

Out of interest I started to read. Rome's Challenge: Why Do Protestants Keep Sunday. A collection of editorials from the Catholic Mirror, Baltimore.

What became very evident to me was that this tract, although styled as a challenge to protestants, was written for catholics. Its caustic and self-congratulatory style was offputting to me. Again protestantism was stereotyped. The pamphlet did not interacted with Protestantism in a mature and sincere understanding.

Read by a Roman Catholic, already suspicious of protestants, it might have been convincing. Read by a protestant thinker, it was sadly funny.

So, a challenge for me, and for you.

In what ever I write, particularly when I disagree or interact with other views-

Empathy and Understanding.

In my writing I have set myself a goal of reaching the minds that disagree with me. I am beginning to be aware what a difficult challenge it is.

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