How’s that for a provocative title, eh? Two articles I read this morning when I was up at an unfortunately early hour drew a connection I hadn’t thought of before between the gay movement of yesteryear and the Trump phenomenon of today.
And the connection may not be what you expected.
If somebody else had written that title I might assume they would point out how social conservatives have been marginalized in recent decades, and militant right-wingers (like Trump) are simply a response to an extended period of being sidelined. They are tired of being shut down, and they demand to be heard. There may be truth to that, but that isn’t where I’m going with this article.
No, the problem goes a lot deeper than that.
Trump and facts
In a forthcoming blog article [I actually thought I’d already published it, but apparently it’s still in “drafts” – oops] I will explain that I’m no Trump apologist, nor am I a Trump hater. In fact, I didn’t even bother watching the presidential debate. For the most part American politics has descended to such a state of you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me that I more or less try to ignore it.
[Not that Canadian politics is much better…]
But, it makes the news, so I end up reading bits and pieces. And this morning MacLean’s had an interesting assessment of the Trump-Clinton debate. In summarizing Trump’s performance the author writes,
Trump’s debate was a lively affair. There was hand waving, interjections, guffaws, one-liners and conversational tangents. This was more like an animated discussion over dinner and too many drinks. Instead of counter-arguments there were punch lines, dodges, and jabs.
Yes, it was clear he hadn’t prepared. In lieu of facts and figures he threw out phrases like “tremendous” and “big league”.
They support him not despite that he is a bigot, but because he is a bigot. They are not holding their noses and ignoring his insecure bravado, they are revelling in it. Tonight, in the debate, they watched him lie and bully and bluster and they loved it.
Notice the theme; facts be damned, he spins a good story and he’s entertaining.
That’s data point 1.
The Swinburne Affair
In a seemingly unrelated corner of the universe, another storm has been brewing recently. Richard Swinburne is an extremely accomplished philosopher who was asked to give a talk at the Christian Philosopher’s Society on sexual morality. He is also conservative in his views. Not surprisingly, homosexuality was cast in a less-than-fully-endorsed light. Edward Feser provides a bit of the back story here for those who are interested.
More to the point of this article, though, Feser provides more backstory than just the Swinburne affair – troubling as that is. He provides some of the backstory on the gay movement as a whole and, most importantly, the explicitly and clearly stated tactics. He quotes a book written in 1989, which I reproduce at length below. Bold typeface are my highlights.
The trick is to get the bigot into the position of feeling a conflicting twinge of shame… This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, all making use of repeated exposure to pictorial images or verbal statements that are incompatible with his self-image as a well-liked person, one who fits in with the rest of the crowd. Thus, propagandistic advertisement can depict homophobic and homohating bigots as crude loudmouths and assholes… who are ‘not Christian.’ It can show them being criticized, hated, shunned… It can, in short, link homohating bigotry with all sorts of attributes the bigot would be ashamed to possess, and with social consequences he would find unpleasant and scary…
When [the bigot] sees someone like himself being disapproved of and disliked by ordinary Joes… he will feel just what they feel — and transfer it to himself. This wrinkle effectively elicits shame and doubt…
Note that the bigot need not actually be made to believe that he is such a heinous creature, that others will now despise him… Rather, our effect is achieved without reference to facts, logic, or proof… [but] through repeated infralogical emotional conditioning… (pp. 151-53)
[P]ropaganda relies more upon emotional manipulation than upon logic, since its goal is, in fact, to bring about a change in the public’s feelings. (p. 162)
The objective is to make homohating beliefs and actions look so nasty that average Americans will want to dissociate themselves from them… We also intend, by this tactic, to make the very expression of homohatred so discreditable that even Intransigents will eventually be silenced in public… (p. 189)
Notice the emphasis on feelings over logic. In fact, the quote explicitly states that they intend to engage in “emotional manipulation.” The gay movement certainly did not invent this – we’ve been inundated with this kind of persuasion for decades already – but clearly some of the influencers in the gay movement latched on to it and used it to maximum effect. To this day many a conservative wants “to dissociate themselves from” so-called “homohating” beliefs and actions. How many “intransigents” have been silenced in public?
And herein lies the point; the gay movement, by any reasonable standard, has been entirely effective in their goals. They have swayed the opinion of Western Civilization on sexual ethics. So much so, in fact, that when Christians speak at a Christian meeting, defending an “intransigent” Christian perspective, the Christian organizers feel compelled to throw the keynote speaker under the bus due to the public backlash (as Feser describes).
That’s data point 2. What’s the connection?
Connecting the dots
There’s a saying, “what you attract them with, is what you attract them to.” The idea being that people are not merely persuaded to an idea, they are persuaded by the mode of persuasion itself.
A women who dresses and acts in a sexually provocative manner in order to attract a husband shouldn’t be surprised when the men she attracts aren’t necessarily interested in deep conversations and sexual fidelity.
Or churches who attract newcomers with pancake breakfasts and feel-good sermons that are light on the theology and strong on the “God loves you just the way you are” shouldn’t be surprised when those new believers aren’t interested in discipleship, self-sacrifice and careful Biblical study.
Similarly, when the American public has been strong-armed with over-the-top emotional manipulation (not my words, but their’s) for several decades – with an explicit disregard for logic and facts, no less – then it should come as no surprise to find that same American public has grown less interested in facts and logic. They were attracted, not only to a perspective, but to a methodology. And that methodology was emotional manipulation.
Facts and logic be damned. Sound familiar? As this author laments, what’s the point of fact-checking when nobody cares about facts anymore?
If Trump’s success truly is a product of his ability to effectively engage in persuasive emotional manipulation, then those who have made so much cultural headway utilizing that very tactic are the ones who have conditioned Americans to “think” in precisely those terms. Those who have made such a big deal about “if it feels right it must be alright” should not be surprised when their tactics have fundamentally altered how the public engages in these conversations. An entire generation has been weaned on this kind of emotional manipulation; many of them wouldn’t recognize a cogent philosophical argument if it came up and introduced itself.
And, therefore, present-day politics. On both sides of just about every issue; Left and Right, Republican and Democrat, Liberal and Conservative.
If you don’t like the present, you have the past to thank for it.
The role of the media
There is a certain irony that some in the media are bemoaning the reality that people don’t care about fact-checking anymore when clearly the media has been instrumental in bringing about this state of affairs. The very nature of the media is to report on newsworthy items. In order to make sales, media sources need to find something noteworthy; something that will grab the public’s attention. If the headline reads, “Politician stays within budget, remains faithful to wife,” then that’s hardly likely to garner increased sales. There go the bonuses for upper management at the newspaper.
However, if the headline reads, “Politician cheats on wife, spends taxpayer money on prostitutes,” then clearly sales are likely to increase. Similarly, if a headline were to read, “Catholic bishop articulates well-reasoned, logical, case for heterosexual priority, based on the facts,” that headline is not likely to produce nearly as many sales as a headline that reads, “homosexual activist protests discrimination; reports depression, suicide ideation.”
He who presents a carefully reasoned case will rarely see the front page, whereas he who screams and yells in front of city hall – placards, megaphones and all – is far more likely to grab the headline.
And the media cannot throw their hands up and say, “hey, I’m just the messenger.” The media might bemoan the lack of concern for fact-checking, but the media, unfortunately, has been broadly complicit in this social transformation from a fact-based culture to an emotion-based culture. They may merely be the messenger, but as gatekeeper of messages, they chose to enable certain messages and downplay other messages. Those messages that are “sexy” and attention grabbing – logic and facts almost never fall into that category – are the ones that these “mere messengers” let through. All that boring stuff that fact-checkers, logicians and philosophers might care about can get buried in the “local interest” section, just ahead of the obituary.
As I said before, the gay movement certainly didn’t invent this strategy, nor have they been the only ones to utilize it. Rather, our culture has been trending in that direction for some time now, accelerated by media and, more recently, social media. The time of careful reasoning, and a commitment to reality as it actually exists (i.e., the facts) is long behind us. We truly are in an age of “post-truth politics” and we did not arrive here by accident.
Now the question becomes, how do we get out of this mess?