Sunday, July 24, 2005

Learning from angry men

The 1957 film 12 Angry Men is said to be one of the great liberal movies of all time. In this jury-room drama, Henry Fonda (Juror #8), a high-minded, liberal architect, persuades eleven peers to acquit a young man on trial for murder. Juror #8's triumph is an idealized version of the liberal American creed in action. The film's enduring appeal comes from its fascinating portrayal of the dynamics of a small and "angry" group. (In that sense, its appeal is similar to that of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)

Because we live in a time when liberals are in the minority, I'm interested in how Juror #8 persuades his peers. His approach offers today's liberals a useful lesson. Fonda's early speeches emphasize the mitigating factors of the defendant's troubled childhood and inadequate legal defense (an apparently liberal stance), but he only becomes persuasive when he casts doubt upon the prosecution's witnesses. This should not surprise us — not only would jurors not change their worldview in a couple of hours, they should be expected to vote based on the facts of the case regardless of their sentiment.

This observation can be applied to a recent political debate, the choice to invade Iraq. Following the example of Juror #8, opponents of the war failed to gain much support — although they did gain attention — by attacking the motivations of the Washington political class or the military-industrial complex. Their more persuasive arguments directly rebutted arguments for the war and offered compelling interpretations of its likely costs and benefits.

The disagreement in 12 Angry Men is over guilt and innocence; debates in political life are about virtue, feasibility and tradeoffs. In both cases, however, successful arguments are likely to be those that are narrowly drawn and closely linked to evidence. Our politics may inform our viewpoint, but it is not fellow liberals whom we need to persuade. We are more likely to convince others to accept our well-founded views on individual issues than to buy into our entire outlook at once. Understanding this should, furthermore, force liberals to recommit themselves to themselves to "reality-based" politics.

Of course, when folks find themselves repeatedly agreeing with liberals, however, they will tend to become liberals themselves over the long haul. In recent decades, the conservative movement has certainly converted millions of Americans in this gradual manner. A savvy liberalism that is both rehabilitated and persuasive will begin to reverse this process.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Madeleine said...

In both cases, however, successful arguments are likely to be those that are narrowly drawn and closely linked to evidence.

Sorry but you're being too idealistic.

Have you had a chance to read George Lakoff's "Don't Think of an Elephant!"

According to Lakoff, Bush&Co sold the war in Irag by evoking sacred words such as "security" and "freedom."

Lakoff calls it "framing" - couching ideas with words that appeal to an audience's emotional concepts. Facts can be ignored but emotions can't.

Apparently Democrats have caught on to this trick* and used it to successfully head off the Republicans' "nuclear option" to end filibustering.

The Dems presented the issue as an "end of a time-honored American tradition" that was instituted as part of our country's "checks and balances."

Immediately public opinion began to swing the other way.

What's laughable is that filibustering has nothing to do with our check and balances system which actually refers to the three branches of American government.

But it was good enough for Americans who have a fondness for time-honored traditions; pressure was applied to our representatives and Dems and Repubs managed to work out a compromise.

Other examples of the Republicans' skillful use of language:
--
~"Tax cuts" = "tax relief."
~"Tax on estates over $600,000" = "death tax" etc

Lakoff suggests that Democrats shouldn't say that Bush lied about going to war (too harsh for conservatives to bear) but instead state that the Bush Administration "betrayed our trust." Interesting choice of words, no?
--
There should be more of this framing in coming debates; let's watch to see who wins the war of words.

*According to the NY Times Lakoff has become an advisor and darling of the Democrats.

7/27/2005 9:46 PM  
Blogger John said...

Well, although I haven't read Lakoff, I do agree — at least in part — with the "framing" frame.

I notice that your examples of cases where public opinion has been swayed have to do with individual issues (whether to go to war; how to confirm judges) and not broader worldviews. The Bush Administration in the former case, and the Senate Democrats in the latter, made cases that would appeal to the broader public, not just to their ideological allies. Of course, in the real world people are influenced by more than just rational argument.

Perhaps instead of "well-founded views on individual issues" I should have said "well-founded and compellingly framed perspectives on individual issues." Despite your observations, I still think that it's important to have solid foundations for the views. The case for invading Iraq was based on bogus claims, but it was still based on something — not just platitudinous phrases.

I don't think it's just idealism to believe that we can develop (and frame!) more compelling positions when the facts are with us. And when the facts aren't with us, we should get with the facts! (Now that's a real struggle, at least for political parties.)

7/28/2005 9:50 PM  

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