When you were a kid, I’m sure you wished for a superpower. Aside from the obvious ones, like the ability to fly, the superpower I wanted most frequently was to be able to extend my reach across a room without getting up. This was in the days before remote controls for TV, if you can believe there ever was such a time!
During the current presidential election cycle, I’ve added another superpower to my wish list: the ability to convince people of my political opinions. That leads to the question that is the subject of this post.
Which of these superpowers is best?
- The ability to control other people’s thoughts so they agree with us.
- The ability to make the most sound argument possible for our views, even if our audience won’t necessarily be persuaded.
The second, to make the soundest argument, seems much more noble and high-minded. It’s the obvious choice.
On the other hand, broad swaths of the electorate have shown themselves to be uninterested in reasoned argument. They are interested in their own feelings, not facts. As John Oliver says starting at 4:10 into the video below, the Republican National Convention was “a four-day exercise in emphasizing feelings over facts.” Take a listen if you want a laugh.
So each superpower has something to recommend it: effectiveness for #1 or nobility for #2.
But beware of the first, the power to zap sense into people. In a book that’s been on my mind a lot lately, a Bill O’Reilly-like character boasts to the philosopher Plato, who has been transported to the 21st century, “I’m probably second in power only to the occupant of the Oval Office in terms of my opinions. Do you know how great that feels? Can you begin to imagine what it feels like to have that much influence over what people think?”
Plato responds, “I am almost afraid to imagine it, so pitiful does it seem to me.”
Later, Plato explains, “…the person of great influence lacks access to views that challenge his own.” He distinguishes between influence, which is due to fame or charisma, and sound argument.
As risky as it seems, I do think superpower #2, to make the best argument, is the way to go. Superpower #1, to zap people’s minds, is like the One Ring in Lord of the Rings: a weapon that will corrupt even the best of men.
In fact, those who are really interested in the truth will want their opponents to have the superpower of sound argument more than they want it for themselves. This is necessary so that their own arguments, which may be sound as far as they go, but overlook something, will be refuted. Truth-seekers will so abhor the thought of making a logical and persuasive argument that has nevertheless missed something, that they will devoutly wish to be refuted in such an event. Do you agree?
If so, how can we help our opponents make the best case possible for their views?