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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Monday May 07 2007

I have what almost amounts to a theory (among many other theories) about how to educate and how to propagandise, two activities which are pretty much the same thing in my opinion.  In both cases you are spreading ideas.  Or, if you do it wrongly, you aren’t.  Or, you are spreading ideas but not the ones you want to be spreading.

The theory concerns trying never to arouse opposition to the ideas you are seeking to spread.  The trouble with confronting a person with an idea is that instead of inserting into their head, perhaps through what you think is seductive repetition, the idea that you want to insert, what they end up with inside their head is the idea that your idea is disgusting bollocks.  This they would not have done if you had never presented them with your idea in the first place, in the way that you did.

This is why non-compulsion is, for me, so central to the process of persuasion.  If you compel attention to your idea, and if you further compel outward conformity to behavioural rules such as: sit still, don’t shout, don’t complain, etc., then two things are likely to happen.  One, you will build up resistance to your ideas, and two, you will not realise that this is what you are doing, and therefore will not change whatever particular thing or rigmarole you are saying that is building up that resistance.  (Consider, as an example: the utter failure of Soviet Communism to conquer the best minds of Eastern Europe.  They failed completely.  And, they only realised how completely they had failed when it was too late to repair the situation.)

Notice that the morals of compulsion are quite beside the point I am making here.  Happily for me and for the consistency of my opinions and hence my internal contentment, I also think that compulsion is wrong, but my point here is that it is liable to be ineffective as a means of persuasion.

These thoughts were provoked by a recent conversation during which I found myself recalling that my least favourite Shakespeare play is Macbeth, and my least favourite classical music pieces are certain Spanish, French and Russian orchestral pieces that have catchy names.  Why?  Because these things were “taught” to me at school.  I did Macbeth (more precisely Macbeth was done to me) for O Level, and those musical pieces were forced upon me during something called “Music Appreciation”.  Music appreciation was the one time during my school days when I did not appreciate music.

Whenever I hear it said that people are ceasing to told about something tremendously important at school - like history, classical music, foreign languages, Latin and Greek, ancient history, etc. - I react with the suspicion that, far from this presaging oblivion for this or that discipline or body of knowledge, for something to be ignored at school is a prelude for a significant if not huge revival of popular interest in the thing.

This does not mean that the way to spread ideas is to go completely silent about them.  That is hopeless also.  What I am getting at is the difference between presenting an idea, so that those interested by it can think about it, decide if they agree with it, etc. - and forcing it upon them.  In many schools (more exactly by many teachers in many schools), and during many educational processes generally of a sort which have the appearance of compulsion, the difference between presentation and compulsion is understood, which is why this is not as simple a matter as it at first seems.  Things are further complicated by the undoubted fact that the very same propaganda pitch may be experienced by one pupil as civilised presentation but by another as intolerable compulsion.  Much good teaching – that is, persuasive presentation which you are allowed not to respond to or agree with – occurs in places which are outwardly nothing but totally compulsory.  The difference between good and bad teaching can be a matter of fractions of a second, during which resistance is either aroused - with a look, a raising of the voice, a tiny flash of irritation – or not.

The profoundly non-compulsory nature of blog-reading is one of the reasons I so like blogging.  Unlike something said during a face-to-face conversation, a blog posting is easily ignored, without causing any offence to the ignored one.  You only got this far in this posting because you chose to.  You could have stopped – walked out so to speak - at any point during this sermon and I would not have known and would not have been in the slightest bit offended.  It is often said that the blogosphere is “a conversation”.  In this particular respect it is better than a conversation.

Alas, things are even further complicated (too complicated – which means that I must soon end this) by the fact (and it is a fact) that a wonderfully potent method of communication is to shout an idea at someone, but from then on to completely shut up about it.  The idea is at first strongly resisted, but at least it is remembered.  Then, unimpeded by any further resistance-arousing behaviour from the persuader, the idea becomes accepted.

Further thoughts from me along the lines of all of the above here.

Non-compulsion is not the only theory I have about persuasion.  Another is that compulsion, if done cleverly (that is, if combined with processes like those described above), can actually work horribly well. “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse” is a quote that captures the spirit of successful compulsion beautifully.  (You aren’t forced to have your bones broken.  It’s your choice.)