Knowledge, Science, Facts, Logic, Truth, and Persuasion
This post was inspired by my friend Kerri. In May, I wrote a post about Mental Health Awareness Week. It was kind of a jokey post about how I’m trying to have a conversation about mental health, and I didn’t even know there was a week, or a month, set aside for it. I said the week was probably harmless even if it didn’t do any good. Kerri left a comment pointing out how awareness events might actually be harmful. Her comment resonated with me. Then, today, she posted this article, Stop Raising Awareness Already (ssir.org). It’s about how raising awareness does nothing at all to change behaviors and talks about some of the harms of awareness events. Now I want to add my (tangential) two cents.
Public debates (if that’s the right word for it) feature a lot of talk about knowledge, science, facts, logic, truth, and other related ideas. But public debates are not formal debates. You don’t get points for successful refutations or anything like that. The point of public debate is to change minds, to persuade. Unfortunately, knowledge, science, facts, logic, and truth cannot do that.
Probably the smartest thing David Hume wrote (which is saying a lot) is, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” There’s a lot that has been said, and is still to be said, about that quote (maybe I’ll write more another time). For now, though, it’s just important that it is one of my central beliefs. It really explains everything I’m talking about today. Awareness affects knowledge rather than the passions. That’s why it’s a waste. Same thing for using science, facts, logic, and truth. Persuasion is all about the passions.
That’s in large part why my writing style is a bit unconventional. I’m actually quite good at reason and logic and I possess a lot of facts and knowledge, but you wouldn’t know it from reading most of my stuff. Instead, I usually write about how things affect me and people I know. I hope this generates some sympathy which stirs the passions.
It’s also why I’m so frequently critical of people who would seem to be my natural allies. A good example was my essay Privilege | Nutmegger Daily – Quality writing on many topics. I wrote a (hopefully) humorous little story about the way the word privilege activates the passions in a counterproductive way. It’s not that I don’t know the real origins of the word (Peggy McIntosh coined it in 1988 if you’re curious). It’s that starting from there and writing a well-reasoned critique of the social justice use of “privilege” would have been pointless. It would have been dry and boring. And it would have left the passions untouched. I don’t know if I was successful or not, but rather than raising awareness, I was trying to do something.
That’s the real key, doing something. Whether it’s entertaining or persuading or something else, I’m always trying to do something with my writing. And it’s frustrating how many much more successful writers, especially in the political, advocacy, and social justice arenas, don’t. They raise awareness. They present facts. Sometimes they connect those facts in clever ways. But that’s as far as it goes. They don’t do anything and that’s a real problem.