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The Unconsidered Voice
On seeking the answer in the middle, the persuasive power of being unpersuadable, and the conservative demand for an exclusive 1st amendment right to harass others.
So there’s this guy named Elon Musk, and the other day he suggested that the social media platform Twitter, which he insists is actually called X, is going to get rid of the blocking feature, which is sort of like a ship’s captain announcing that it will get rid of the “hull” feature, provided you accept that in this metaphor the water is a stand-in for hordes of Nazi bullies and other disturbing and disturbed and mostly right wing harassers of mostly women and other marginalized people. And everyone got in a rather understandable tizzy about this, because it turns out that this Musk chap actually owns Twitter, which means he gets to do whatever he wants with it no matter how destructive what he wants to do might be, and he’s done other destructive things with the platform in the recent past, and almost all of them are aligned with taking the side of bullies both Nazi and otherwise. Will he really do it? Who knows? He might know, but even that much is uncertain. He certainly supports the right of bullies, Nazi or otherwise, to bully everyone else, and the sees it as everyone else’s responsibility to have to endlessly listen to bullies to be an important part of what he refers to as “free speech.”
Today all this has me thinking about persuasion, and how important everyone agrees persuasion is. It’s sort of a given, when faced with supremacists and other bullies, that it is the responsibility of the rest of us to persuade them away from their ugly beliefs, and to persuade other people that the bullies are wrong, by engaging them in good-faith argument.
And who could deny that persuading somebody toward needed change would make that needed change more likely? So persuasion would seem to be in order.
Yet I notice there’s not as much talk about what persuasion actually is, and how persuasion works, and I find that interesting.
Let me tell you a story.
Long ago, some travelers found themselves lost in the desert, and they knew their situation was desperate. It was decided that their one hope was to find the oasis, which they happened to know was nearby1.
The travelers were lucky. They had not one leader, but two, and both of them were very wise. Unfortunately, the two leaders were divided on which direction to travel. The first leader was certain that the oasis lay to the north. The second believed it lay to the south. The two leaders could not agree, and soon they were arguing.
Among the travelers was a fool, who rather than join in the fray kept to the narrow shade of a rock outcropping. Seeking more comfort, he thought to dig a deep hole in the sand for shelter using a nearby rock as a crude spade. But as he lifted the rock, he uncovered a scarab, who shrieked “please, traveler, do not take my home from me!”
The fool quickly replaced the rock and apologized to the scarab, and heard from beneath the rock a grateful voice say “Thank you for your kind restraint, o friendly traveler. In gratitude, I offer this advice, from one who knows this desert well: for succor, look not to north or south, but to the west.”
When the fool returned to the party he discovered that the argument, which had grown ever more rancorous, had effected a split. Some of the travelers had resolved to follow the second leader to the south, while others had opted to follow the first leader into the north. The fool attempted to share what he had learned from the scarab, but none of his fellow travelers heeded him, for he was only a fool, and they did not believe in talking scarabs.
Yet the fool remembered the words he had received. When the parties began to move, the unpersuaded fool headed west alone, and a great many of the travelers of the northbound party, seeing his certainty, followed—so many, in fact, that even their grumbling leader found himself compelled to come along, though he insisted on taking the lead, and (the fool noted) kept trying to turn the party north. But the fool kept to the scarab’s direction, and each time enough travelers came with him that the first leader found his efforts at redirection repeatedly foiled.
In time, the travelers came over a dune and spied the oasis (though the fool could see that the first leader’s diversions had brought them too far north), and there was great rejoicing, and many believed that the fool should become the leader.
“Come,” said the first leader, seeing this. “We must turn around, back the way we came.”
“But,” said the fool, “the oasis is only a short hike away. Surely we would do better to drink our fill before attempting to catch our fellows and bring them to safety, rather than chase them into the waste unquenched, where our thirst will doubtless end us.”
“But my dear fool,” said the first leader. “The oasis does not lie ahead, but behind.”
The fool was astonished. “We can clearly see it ahead,” he protested.
But the leader only laughed at the fool, and he persisted until most of the rest of the travelers had joined his mockery. “Do you not see?” the first leader said. “The second leader and I disagreed about the direction of the oasis, but we are still the leaders. And the answer is always found in the middle.”
“I had no idea,” said the fool. “I would have thought that, as the scarab’s direction has proved the true one, the answer will be found further in the correct direction.”
“This is to be expected,” said the first leader, “For I am a very wise leader, and you are only a fool. And I happen to know that there is no such thing as a talking scarab.”
And the fool was left to decide whether to continue to the oasis, or to follow the leader out into the desert.
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A good teller of parables is never supposed to tell the listener what the meaning of the parable is. Luckily for you, I am a shitty teller of parables, so I’ll just come out with the morals to this parable.
The first moral is that there is no reason to expect that the truth will be found in the middle. I think this is pretty obvious, but I’ve noticed that it runs counter to the dominant popular narrative within what I’ll call “moderate” or even “liberal” thinking when it comes to disagreement and persuasion. The dominant popular narrative is that if there is a disagreement between opposing parties then both parties are probably a little bit wrong, and both parties are probably a little right, so the most accurate answer is definitely found somewhere in the center, so the thing to do is to move toward one’s opponent, regardless of what it is they believe.
I know this, because it’s what I used to think, too.
I changed my mind. I was persuaded, you might say.
I change my mind all the time, by the way. Maybe you’re the same.
Simple example: I used to think sushi, which I had never tried, was gross. Others thought it was tasty. Then I tried sushi. It was tasty, so I changed my mind. It turns out they were right and I was wrong. I moved all the way to them.
Another example: I believe 4+5 = 7. You believe 4+5 = 10. Turns out it is 9.
Or I think the speed limit should be 70 mph and you think it should be 60 mph and we agree on 65 mph.
Hot damn! The answer is actually found in the middle! And this could be true of any number of policy questions, too, in the increasingly rare cases where the question at hand involves an agreement about what a problem is, and a determination to solve the problem, rather than an argument about whether or not there even is a problem, and whether or not solving problems equates to tyranny.
Sometimes, though—and I have to say, I find this to be more commonly true the higher the stakes become for actual living people—what I actually discover is that the truth is not between me and the person who disagrees with me, but much further out there in one direction or another.
The second moral is that in most arguments between two different perspectives, the truth lies with other unconsidered voices.
It’s usually these unconsidered voices to which you must listen if you want to arrive at anything like truth.
I’ll give you an example.
In my younger and less vulnerable years, I used to believe that racism was still a big problem in our country, but that it was mostly an individualized matter of personal racial animosity which could cut against white or Black people equally, and that my nation (the United States) had largely solved any problems of institutional racism long before my birth. Since then, I have learned the truth: that racism is a deep institutional problem that goes back to our nation’s very founding in supremacy, that ‘whiteness’ is a fictional construct used to define and enforce it, and that all of it is in service of institutional corruption that exists to steal the value of human beings away for the enrichment of a few.
Over time, I have persuaded myself of these truths, not because they comfort me, but because they disturb me; not because they exonerate me, but because they convict me. I persuaded myself of them, not by listening to comforting and self-exonerating perspectives from people whose experiences are similar to my own, but to other perspectives—gay, trans, Black, Jewish, Muslim—to which I have no direct experiential access. The only way to experience them was to be willing to be persuaded by them, to listen to them, and then to see new truths that their perspectives revealed.
This means that while some of those I argued with about racism may have been wrong, I had also been wrong about racism.
Furthermore, not only had I been wrong, but I probably was still wrong.
Do you see how, once I know this, facing back inward to find some answer in the middle between me and somebody I knew to be even more wrong than me about racism would only waste my time looking for truth where I know truth isn’t? Do you see how my decision to look there might also convince anyone who is watching and uncertain that the truth must be there?
From this, I gather that the only mind each of us is responsible for persuading is our own, that being persuaded is more like a movement along a spectrum than a switch, and that detecting your directional orientation along the spectrum is crucial. There’s no moral value to simply being persuaded—after all, you can be persuaded from a place of being more right to a place of being more wrong, and many are. Are you truly open to being persuaded toward truth? Good question. Are you listening to perspectives different than your own that convict you and discomfit you, or are you instead accommodating voices that offer exoneration to you both?
Moral the third: The most persuasive way to get others to walk toward truth is not to argue about truth, but to walk toward it yourself.
To listen to the unconsidered voice is to choose an orientation that faces not inward toward your opponent, but outward, farther beyond the limited scope that your perspective has allowed. And, if your opponent is truly persuadable, you may persuade them by leaving them behind and walking toward that truth. And if they are not persuadable, they likely won’t follow.
But others might.
It’s an observable truth that most people simply want to go with the flow—whatever the flow might be—so one of the least persuasive things a person can do is to seem persuadable about subjects that you know to be wrong, and one of the most persuasive things a person can do is to be unpersuadable, not about every matter, but about the most important matters.
This also runs counter to the dominant social beliefs, which posits that the worst thing you can ever be is unpersuadable. I know this, because that’s what I used to think, and I was persuaded otherwise, by the words and deeds of people who were unpersuadable when it came to compromising on issues of justice.
Many of the most vital changes in history came from people who had made themselves unpersuadable about the great matters of justice of their day. For example, take the Civil Rights Movement, which was extremely divisive and polarizing, and was heavily criticized by people who thought that division and polarization are far more terrible things than denying the humanity of other human beings.
Now I think there are likely a great many matters about which, for the sake of practicality or tactics or even an interest in comity, members of the Civil Rights Movement were quite willing to be persuaded—even, perhaps, by direct opponents. But on the matter of the humanity of Black people—which was what was under direct and violent dispute—this movement was unpersuadable—unpersuadable even unto death. And in becoming unpersuadable, they made themselves unignorable, even to morally lazy people who just want to go with whatever flow was easiest, tractable people willing to be persuaded in any direction about anything. By holding to the truth about their undeniable humanity in unignorable ways, their prominence made them convincing in the way the truth can be; moved minds toward the truth in ways that persist to this very day. And their legacy persists to this very day too, carried on by unpersuadable people who work for justice and liberation, and refuse to compromise on the shared humanity or the right to exist of themselves or anyone else.
These unpersuadable people are the ones I find most persuasive. And I’m not alone.
Today, almost everyone agrees that the Civil Rights Movement was on the right side of the disagreement over whether or not Black people were full human beings—even those who stand against everything the Civil Rights Movement stood for, even those who clearly work directly against the notion that Black people are full human beings.
In fact, the people who seem to speak most often (though most inaccurately) in reverence of the Civil Rights Movement and its great leader Martin Luther King Jr. are more often than not those people who are working as hard as they can against social justice because they think social justice has gone too far … which is exactly what the people who hated and opposed Martin Luther King Jr. also believed. And the way they praise Martin Luther King Jr. usually involves firmly establishing the Civil Rights Movement not as what it is—a continuum that carries foreword to the present day—but as a movement fixed in time, whose mission was perfect and is now perfected and is most of all complete, which means that the most disrespectful thing anybody can do is try to continue its work today.
It’s the damndest thing, but racists have found that it won’t do to hate Martin Luther King Jr. as their ideological forebears did. They have to invent a version of him that agrees with them, and they love that simplified false version with their whole heart.
And that’s interesting.
To me this suggests that most minds are probably not changed on the subject of racism in some sort of Pauline conversion. My guess is that most minds that changed—most “white” minds, anyway—seem to have changed from believing that racism was ugly but unchangeable and probably necessary and certainly not worth fighting over, to believing that racism was ugly and embarrassing and not something you would want anybody—including yourself—to think about you, and something you had better give way on if you wanted to avoid a fight. But it seems to me that it also gave people of good heart but failing hope new resolve that Jim Crow and other structural evils were changeable, because people were working with resolve in order to change them, and could not be persuaded to stop, and certainly weren’t interested in being persuaded away from the pursuit of the truth of Black humanity. They walked toward truth, and others followed—enough that even those who didn’t had to pretend that they did.
And there are many other movements for justice that follow very similar paths. I’m reminded of the recent tack taken by popular professional bigot Erick Erickson, claiming that conservatives never meaningfully opposed gay rights, but now trans rights are just a bridge too far—even as the Supreme Court hands down rulings protecting the religious right of antigay bigots to oppose gay marriage, even as conservative localities and states across the country are banning books and harassing librarians and teachers out of those states and even shuttering their own libraries rather than allow even the most innocent trace of gayness to appear on their shelves.
But the persuasive powers of being unpersuadable don’t only serve justice.
In fact, they often don’t.
You know who clearly understands the power of being unpersuadable? Right wing reactionaries, Christian nationalists, Republicans, and other authoritarian supremacists, that’s who. They have advanced injustice a long way in recent years by being entirely unpersuadable on the subject of the necessity of their own supremacy and their exclusive right to administer the benefits of supremacy’s corruption to themselves. No amount of evidence of their injustice, their hypocrisy, or the harm they are doing to others can move them, because the injustice, hypocrisy, and harm is the intended output of their unpersuadable stance.
But what makes them so noxious isn’t that they refuse to be persuaded. It’s that they refuse to be persuaded away from a terrible lie.
Final moral: Anyone who can perceive the difference between the truth and a lie is obligated to become unpersuadable about the truth.
These days I notice an increasing a sort of kabuki theater of persuasion, in which increasingly overt bigots of all stripes are platformed by hosts who claim to be ideologically agnostic and open-minded, but who in practice serve to listen to unpersuadable voices of bigotry and find their arguments persuasive.
All this gives bigots the benefit of a highly visible opposition that is being actively persuaded by them; give them room to say things like “look, even Bill Maher agrees that demands for equality and equity for other human beings have gone too far!” It’s the sort of thing that’s so useful to persuading people that bigots would almost have to invent this so-called friendly and persuadable opposition, if it didn’t exist.
Yes, it’s almost exactly something they would have to invent.
And this brings me back around to Elon Musk and his nasty little Twitter-killing X-moves, like freeing all the toxic people who had been banned for harassment, or letting people pay to be heard first and loudest, and now, perhaps, removing the ability to block. It’s understandable why a supremacist like Musk would be opposed to the way things had been. Allowing other people to choose what voices get heard based on their inherent value (or lack thereof) meant that bullying voices were being suppressed, and rich bullies like Elon Musk, convinced that rich bullies are the only voices worth hearing, found this intolerable. Blocking is even worse, because one thing that rich bullies believe free speech guarantees is their own right to never have their bad ideas rejected, to never be ignored, and to never not be heard first, longest, loudest, and forever. Blocking tells bullies that you are unpersuadable, and you will not give them the benefit of being seen trying to be persuaded by them.
It tells them that you are oriented away from them, and toward a truth that you will pursue without seeking their approval or permission.
As long as bullies can be seen not being persuaded, they can convince morally lazy people that the answer to their unpersuadable stance is to try to convince them, establishing that they are the ones that must be convinced, and that their right to dominate the narrative is exclusive to them.
The interesting question to me is not so much "am I persuadable or unpersuadable?" It’s what am I persuadable and unpersuadable about? Who am I trying to persuade or be persuaded by?
Is it the loudest voice, or the unconsidered one?
Am I trying to change some other mind, or am I doing the work to change the one I am responsible for—my own?
Remember, changing my own mind will probably involve listening to voices neither side of the existing argument has considered, including my own side; and doing that will cost more than just comfort, it will involve understanding that I am still wrong.
Unless I decide to just turn my back on the voice of truth, and seek an answer in the middle, that is.
If I turn back around, I won’t have to do any work at all. I can just wanly try to persuade my opponent to move my way, while signaling that maybe I’ll drift toward them, seeking truth in the one place I know it isn't, the empty center between us. I’ll never have to deal with the reality of the truth that the unconsidered voice can reveal—which is that I have a lot of work to do.
That’s not only wrong; it’s also massively unpersuasive—which might concern you, if you’re somebody actually concerned about persuasion.
By turning my back on the truth of the unconsidered voice and facing my opponent in a show of persuasion, I demonstrate that my opponent can persuade me, and also that, by making myself persuadable to my opponent, I have made myself unpersuadable to the truth of the unconsidered voice. I demonstrate a belief that my opponent is the one who needs to be persuaded on matters of justice, and that it is my job to persuade them, which demonstrates to a morally lazy mass of people a belief that my opponent is perfectly correct to be unpersuadable if they want to be, and moreover that if my opponent is unpersuadable, then it is the fault of others for not being persuasive enough to convince them.
I will have established that I bear no responsibility to persuade myself of the call for justice, and that it is the responsibility of others to persuade me instead—and that if the unconsidered voice doesn’t persuade me, the fault lies not with me but with them. Once I’ve placed the fault with them, I can scold them as divisive and polarizing if they ever point out that I have turned my back on them. Meanwhile, by turning my back on them, I am showing the world that I don’t believe that the unconsidered voice—with whom I claim I agree—has a license to be unpersuadable, and that I believe my opponent—with whom I claim to disagree—does.
In fact, I can just act as if the unconsidered voice and the truth they’ve revealed don’t exist at all, while consoling myself that at least I’m better than my opponent—with whom I claim to disagree, even though I never try to persuade them of anything other than the fact that I am fully persuadable.
If I choose this orientation, it allows me to claim to be morally correct without doing any work of moving further out toward the truth, or to ever do the most persuadable thing: to walk toward difficult truth without worrying who follows. Meanwhile, my opponent and I can talk endlessly about millions of very real people and their unconsidered voices as if we were the only two sides in the equation, as if the truth existed somewhere between the two of us.
Neither one of us ever once lifting a finger to actually find it.
Twitter is making it harder for writers to be heard. You can help.
Elon Musk is throttling links from his site, which is his right as the proponent of open dialogue and unfettered free speech that he clearly is. However, that makes it a lot tougher for writers who had come to depend on the site long before the apartheid emerald prince decided to snap it up for a mere $44b, so if you liked what you read and want to help by spreading the word on the various platforms, there’s a button right down there to help you do that.
And if you loved what you read so much that you just can’t stand not paying for it, there’s a button just below to help you with that.
And if you hated what you read, you can probably keep it to yourself.
A.R. Moxon is the author of The Revisionaries, which is available in most of the usual places, and some of the unusual places, and is co-writer of Sugar Maple, a musical fiction podcast from Osiris Media which goes in your ears. He’s brave but he’s chickenshit; he’s got one hand in his pocket, and the other one is hailing a taxi cab.
A magical stork flew by and told them or something. Don’t worry about it.