Tuesday, January 25, 2005

On Logic and Feelings

An interesting opinion piece in the Salon talks about the way the wingnuts employ feelings to get their message accepted all across the country. The writer, Jennifer Buckendorff, points out that the liberals don't do this very well; we tend to rely too much on logic and facts and they lose in the competition against a really tear-producing piece about how some poor Christian has been oppressed once again:

On right-wing media outlets like Fox News, personal tales of victimization -- by "liberal elites," professional academics and Hollywood libertines -- abound. Witness the many network news segments that have profiled Christian teens "shut out" of their high schools, unable to conduct public prayer meetings. Consider also the inevitable framing of stories about the pagans who tried to cut Christmas out of the holidays. The right spins these stories, making big agenda issues absolutely personal, and garnering empathy for presumed victims. It does this even though -- as Jon Stewart pointed out on his talk show recently -- the right already controls all wings of government and is powerful in the most classic sense. The right uses these stories because they are effective.

I agree with Buckendorff. Human beings are not just thinking creatures, but also feeling creatures and the way our feelings are manipulated can often outpower the meager "yes, but" whisperings of our logical parts. Liberals and progressives should learn to use emotions better. After all, most true victimization stories are on our side. The wingnuts control everything nowadays, yet they still screech about how poorly they are treated in the media and how oppressed Christmas and Easter are.

Buckendorff singles out Oprah as someone who knows how to do the emotional persuading:

One public figure understands the power of a sympathetic story. And while many lefties reading this are likely to roll their eyes at the mention of Oprah Winfrey, there's no question that she gets results -- she changes minds, skillfully encouraging her viewers to root for the underdog. In one recent example, a charismatic, eminently likable gay man had just experienced unfathomable loss. In relating his ongoing story, Winfrey made gay relationships understandable to the kinds of Middle Americans who voted against gay marriage initiatives.

The show was about Nate Berkus. (For blue-staters unfamiliar with Berkus, he's a telegenic designer with all-American good looks who appears regularly on Winfrey's home design segments. Her viewers love him -- and his window treatments.) Berkus had been vacationing in Sri Lanka when the tsunami struck, and his partner, Fernando Bengoechea, has been missing since the event and is presumed dead.

Winfrey introduced Berkus, speaking directly to the camera. "For the millions of you at home who've come to know Nate as the sweet, talented cutie-pie with the great big heart," she said, "you should know that he and I have read your letters ... You will never know the depth of comfort those prayers and letters have brought to him and his partner Fernando, who is still missing. [They] are literally lifting Nate up."

As the show went on, Winfrey talked with Berkus about the couple's last minutes together and about how Berkus had managed to survive. She brought others onstage who had met him in the disaster's immediate aftermath, and interviewed his mother and his partner's brother and sister-in-law. Winfrey then urged viewers to give to her Angel Network on behalf of tsunami relief organizations.

Stories like this can convince red-state America that gay and lesbian relationships are equal to straight ones -- the central concept in the argument for gay marriage. Such stories do cause people, in Diamond's words, to replace their previously held values with new ones. Consider these sympathetic responses posted on Oprah's message board regarding Berkus:

Sharon C. of Carrollton, Texas, wrote, "Nate, may God be with you at this hard time. I pray that you will find your friend." Another post said, "You are in my thoughts daily and I pray for the return of Fernando."

DeJane Stephenson, from Kansas City, Mo., wrote, "I know there is no room for joyfulness now, and I pray deeply that God will give you his grace and return Fernando to you. I pray for you and all with you. I pray for your parents and family, and for the Bengoechea family as well. I am so very sorry for your suffering and waiting. God bless to you Nate. God bless to all the children who have lost all of those they love. May angels wait beside you."

Logic and emotion shouldn't be seen as enemies in the first place. Martha Nussbaum has written an interesting book about the interconnections between them, and though emotions can be used to counter facts they can also be helpful in unearthing facts and reinforcing logical arguments.

We should learn to understand emotions in politics and we should learn to use them better. Maybe hiring someone like Oprah wouldn't be a bad way to start.