Front Page Titles (by Subject) III.: HOW TO MAKE TRENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE - The Liberal Mind
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III.: HOW TO MAKE TRENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE - Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind 
The Liberal Mind, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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HOW TO MAKE TRENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE
One of the guiding slogans of modern liberalism states that “we live in a changing world.” It may be a cliché, but it has many uses in argument both offensive and defensive. Break it down, and it turns into a collection of trends, general descriptions of the way things are going.
Trends describe that unstable part of our environment which is likely to affect our hopes and fears. Simple prudence recommends that we should be alert to them. If we see a threat, then we are well advised to consider in advance how it may be averted. This alert posture is part of responsibility; and politicians in particular must always have a sharp nose for the way things are going. But, as we have noted, it is characteristic of liberalism to make politicians of us all; and in this case we find liberalism promoting alertness to trends among the population at large. Indeed, to be liberal is to accept an obligation to be concerned with matters beyond our direct responsibilities.
To every trend there must be a response. But this principle of a reforming liberalism runs into two important difficulties. The first is that people’s reactions vary. It is not merely that one man’s threat is another man’s hope; it is also that people become bored, or change their reactions, or get used to living with a threat. Progress and improvement require a monolithic attitude towards any interesting trend, combined with a steady and persistent attempt to turn it to what, from the monolithic point of view, is an advantage. Propaganda must therefore seek to establish an absolute interpretation of trends, irrespective of the hopes and fears of any particular group.
The second difficulty is provided by the ostrich class, the large and decisive collection of people with votes who yet can seldom be enticed to take an interest in anything beyond their particular and local circumstances. Typically enough, these people are described negatively, as the apathetic or the complacent; in fact, they are simply those not emotionally engaged by the things which engage liberals. And here the solution must be to infect the apathetic with the same set of anxieties which already affect liberals.
The matter cannot be solved by the simple use of command, for there is no authority now left in political life whose instructions will automatically carry weight. It has been one of the achievements of liberalism to force authority to justify itself. And the only kind of justification available has been a utilitarian one. We must have authority in order that . . . something which we independently desire can be achieved. The kind of persuasion by which people may be induced to take an interest in the major trends of the world situation must therefore be teleological, and the persuader must cast around for some pressing hopes or fears which can be technically connected with the trend in question.
A trend is simply a statement of any series of events forming a pattern amidst the flux of life. When projected into the future (an operation people will often do for themselves) the trend becomes a prediction. There is an unlimited number of possible trends, but for purposes of persuasion, only a few are suitable for liberal use. The persuader must offer us both fulfilment and salvation, and the technique of trend persuasion soon turns into the construction of a certain kind of future, which is both enticing and menacing.
Time is very important in the intellectual world that results. There are the mistakes of the past, from which we may learn; there is the crisis in the present, which forces us to act; and there is the question of survival and fulfilment in the future, which we must face. The persuader thus appears as someone more prudent and more longsighted than we are, and since he is purporting to describe an objective situation, his vested interest is not at all obvious. Indeed, there seldom is anything which might vulgarly be considered a vested interest. In the elevated sphere we are describing, vested interests are usually emotional rather than material or financial.
This kind of persuader is generally an idealist. And he may move further away from the embarrassing logic of persuasion by seeing himself as a protagonist in a drama. Rather than a man with a policy to recommend, he may see himself in the role of a man of active virtue battling against the vice of complacency or apathy. If the persuader does take up this role, he may begin to outline a moral psychology in which the conception of will-power plays an important part. The mistakes of the past, he is likely to say, resulted from no one “finding the will” to put them right; people preferred to drift. But now things have reached a crisis point, and therefore our survival is at stake.
The pronoun “we” is an outstanding feature of trend persuasion. By means of it, the reader or listener is beguiled into an implicit alliance with the persuader, and there are many general theories which can be called on to substantiate this alliance. The theory of the common good has the effect of showing that no individual can retreat from his community. Or, to take a more extravagant example, the theory that “society is really the criminal” opens up many possibilities for the persuader (especially the more moralistic one) by asserting that crime cannot be eliminated until we “reform” ourselves. The effect of all such theories is to bring the widest possible audience into the persuader’s net and infect them with a generalized sense of responsibility. The harassed citizen can no longer ward off these Ancient Mariners with an irritable: “It’s none of my business.” The eye of the persuader is not only hypnotic, it is righteous too.
Entrenched thus, the persuader can safely use his two key terms—“crisis” and “survival”—as absolutes affecting everybody. They are, so to speak, the ultimate persuaders. If one asks: “crisis for whom?” the instant reply is “for you.” If one demands: “Whose survival is at stake?” then the answer is always “yours.” Problems also acquire a spurious objectivity; they are presented as social problems, and they are everybody’s business. In this way, the persuader has a moral claim upon the attention of everyone, and inattention has become a sin. He can now present his trends—the increase of world population, the growth of delinquency, the incursions of communism, the new brazenness of homosexuals, etc.—in the confidence of having a receptive audience.
The emotion which the persuader first hopes to arouse is that of urgency in the face of his problems. The ideal situation, in a sense, is therefore war, when such questions as survival are more compelling than in peacetime. When not using a problem-solution type of logic, the persuader is happiest when employing military metaphors. It is thus that we find ourselves now waging the cold war against communism, the war against want, the battle against crime, and even the persuader’s battle par excellence, the fight against apathy. The contemporary importance of war has no doubt greatly affected the technique of trend-persuasion. War is habit-forming, and peace is confusing to many people who cannot deal with conflicting standards and feelings of guilt. Besides, war has demonstrated what immense things can be achieved “if we really set our minds to it.” Thus the trend-persuader, with an ambitious policy to recommend, is offering us something far better than war which, even with its incidental advantages, is a nasty and destructive business: he is offering us a war substitute, a despotic goal in terms of which life can be organized.
The trend in question here is voluntaristic; it contrasts a picture of what we can achieve with another picture of what will happen if we do not rouse ourselves. This kind of trend is now dominant. There was a time when the deterministic trend, which sees the future as a wave in which we either swim or drown, was more striking, and threw up such classic instances of the genre as the Communist Manifesto. But the determinist trend has been weakened at all levels. Intellectually, it crumbled along with its close relation, Historicism. And as a vehicle of popular support, generating fanaticism, it was most successful when it was virtually without rivals. When the market-place was full of persuaders, peddling equally inevitable but rather different trends, the populace became bored and sceptical, and the determinist trend disappeared from the scene. It may return, but not for some time.
The result has been to make the voluntarist trend the more convincing. If things are not inevitable, then we can be roused to do something about them. Persuaders using the voluntarist trend can co-operate in a way not open to those favoring determinism. They can join in attacking complacency. They can infiltrate the democratic conscience with a conception of the good citizen as a man who understands the Great Issues of Our Time, giving their own content to this promising slogan. This kind of thinking has lately become one of the main vehicles for the diffusion of liberalism. It draws people into the intellectual and emotional vortex of liberalism, whose symptoms are a feeling of guilt about complacency and strong moral feelings about the duty of responsibility to others. How do we explain this susceptibility?
The reader trained in the social sciences will already have observed that what has been outlined as a technique of persuasion is identical, if certain refinements are neglected, with the operative rules of much social science. It used to be thought desirable to create something called a “value-free social science” in which the trends would simply be identified, measured and related, whilst their “use” was left to “policy framers.” The social scientists thought they were concerned only with means whilst others decided the ends. One main difficulty of this position was the sheer psychological impossibility of the separation. Trends won’t lie down. They become predictions, or justifications, or refutations of something the moment they are detected. Great numbers of social scientists are, in any case, too confused to tell the difference between a practical problem and an intellectual one. Further, trend detection becomes as habit-forming as taking drugs. Just as the neurotic scrutinizes the faces of his associates for signs of hostility, so those who form the trend-habit cannot help scrutinizing everything they encounter for signs. The discovery of trends even grew into an art form: the sociological best-seller, in the tradition of Veblen, spread the habit. As Lionel Trilling has remarked, this form of social diagnosis has taken over some of the talent and much of the impetus which in other times has gone into the novel. This development flows along with an obsession with change and insecurity; such a world is paradise for anyone with an inclination towards the voluntarist trend (and most of us do have such an inclination).
All this might mean that we have all become alert, responsible, democratic citizens; or, alternatively, that we have all become rather hysterical babes in a wood, looking for a gleam of light. What it would certainly indicate is a connection between gullibility on the one hand and the orthodox theory of democracy on the other. Somewhere between those responsible for policy in a society, who live in a world of speculations about the future, and those who care for nothing except their immediate and local life, there is a large class whose interest in social and political problems lacks the anchorage of direct responsibility. They are eager to do the right thing, and have been taught that their duty is to take an interest in world affairs. Normally they lack experience of these matters, and often their education has not made them discriminating about the printed word. They are, indeed, a valuable section of the community and they are not the least effective of checks on government. Perhaps for this reason they often have an ingrained suspicion of politicians, yet their own political judgments are wildly erratic. They are decent, sympathetic and idealistic. They are at present the main bearers of liberalism.
Their main fault is that they are prey to intellectual fashions, and fashion is the main guide to the vicarious worries they take upon themselves. A decade ago, their primary worry was Communist aggression. More recently, it has been the prospect of total annihilation from Hydrogen Bomb warfare (with such allied worries as genetic effects). More recently still, the gap between arts and science, as related to perennial problems like food shortage and over-population, have come back into vogue. It may be true that each man’s death diminisheth me, but this doctrine can easily be taken to the verge of hysteria. No one would deny that these are important questions opening up explosive political and social possibilities; but for most of the inhabitants of western countries they are vicarious ones. Short of disrupting his normal life (which he is not usually prepared to do), the average man can do very little about them. But feeling a compulsion to act, he chooses substitute acts—passing resolutions, going to meetings, writing letters to papers—and imagines that he is “doing something about it.” This type of mind is found most prevalently, though by no means exclusively, in the political tradition of liberalism.
Trend-persuasion is, then, a modern and popularized version of the kind of calculations which politicians have always had to make, combined with an extraneous philanthropic moral theory. How should one estimate this development? One consequence is to keep democracies alert and flexible in a “changing world.” Yet trend-persuasion is also subject to fashion, and therefore likely to distort social and political policies according to the (often misguided) emotions of the moment. A vicious circle operates: the more trends we discover, the more insecure we feel; and the more insecure we feel, the more we go on looking for trends. If the anxiety grows too much for us, we may become easy victims of the charlatan who offers us a panacea. Logically speaking, this road leads on to totalitarianism, the attempt to find a total solution for a bogus problem. But this would be to take trend-persuasion as itself a trend.
We have already seen how ideologies work by imposing a single point of view upon us. Our principle of criticism in these cases has been one of reversal: we took the means to be ends, or the ends to be means. In the case of trend-persuasion, the point of view arises from the logic of problems and solutions. Yet the fact that the problems are always new, whilst the solutions are old, must make us suspicious of these constructions. We imagine that experience presents us with problems, and then we start to seek solutions. Whatever the weaknesses of this belief, it yet determines the way in which the persuader presents his case. Historically, however, the solutions always come first. Seldom in the twentieth century have we lacked prophets telling us about the need for competitive industry, the duties of international philanthropy, better distribution of world production, the need for more science in education and the value of the lash as a deterrent. Such policies are part of the air we breathe, and as such, rather too familiar to rouse us very much. They are much more striking if they can be presented not as possible policies we might follow, but as solutions to problems. The persuader is thus not a man who must find solutions for problems, but one who must construct problems to fit pre-existing solutions.
It remains to consider the possible distortions which trend-persuasion might have on social life. If society be considered as a complex of activities and institutions—religious, artistic, industrial, commercial, academic, etc.—then the character of the society will emerge out of their relations. But these institutions not only cooperate; they also compete (financially, morally, intellectually, for example) and each tries to carve out a larger future for itself. Now if into this context of struggle one introduces ideas of the “great issues of our time,” then it is clear that some institutions will be strengthened and some will be weakened. If the great issue of our time is how to prevent malnutrition among Asians and Africans, then the events of scholarship must seem very far from the battle. Who would elucidate a text of Chaucer when his duty lies out in the monsoon region? How futile experiments in painting technique must look when the survival of the species is in question! Artistic movements are implicitly reduced to the role of entertainment, and a Flaubert, torturing himself for a week over the structure of a sentence, can only seem absurd. Universities have traditionally followed the trail of truth; but truth is an irrelevance in a world crying out for “science in the service of man.” Here is a menace more insidious to religious institutions than any debate about evolution. Industrialization, wrote one recent prophet,10 is the only hope of the poor—words which have an evangelical ring, and seem to announce the discovery of a new religious truth.
This idealistic, persuasive movement might be compared to a wind sweeping across a landscape. Without the wind, the air grows fetid and stale. But if the wind blows too violently, and if the fixtures of the landscape lose their anchorage, then the wind becomes destructive. To talk of the “great issues of our time” as fashionable worries may sound cynical; yet it is exactly the element of fashion which reveals important facts about trend-persuasion.
[10. ]Sir Charles Snow, whose Rede lecture, The two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959), has deservedly come to be recognized as a classic of the trend-persuasion genre.