I am teaching a class on argumentation and informal logic to middle schoolers at our homeschool co-op on Friday mornings. Last week was the first session. I think every child left the class with a headache, mad at their parents for making them take this "dumb" class, and wondering whether I was crazy or just had too much caffieine to be so energetic at 8 o'clock in the morning. But being the good little homeschoolers that they are, they obeyed their parents and showed up again this week.
The goal of this week's class was to understand how propoganda and persuasion are used to make people think or act a certain way. My unspoken goal was also to persuade the children that they really do want to take this class for the next 27 weeks.
I gave a brief lecture on the difference between formal and informal logic, but it was going to take more than my rhetoric and charm to convince these kids. It was time to bring in the heavy artillery - food. I divided the class into two groups. One group had a bag of Dunkin' Donut Holes and the other Tim Horton Timbits. Their goal was to try and persuade the class that their donuts were the best purchase. After fifteen minutes of sampling and discussion each group presented their best arguments.
The exercise was everything I hoped for and more. The children were engaged and developed many good arguments, with a few fallacies and totally illogical statements thrown in the mix. 'We donate 99.9% of our profit to the poor." "Our box is yellow and bright just the thing to perk you up in the morning." "Everyone in Michigan eats them." "Our donuts are baked with love."
After both sides presented their best argument, they were allowed to challenge each others statements. It was hilariously informative to watch the children spar back and forth about which donuts were better and critically examine their competitiors illogical claims. They left the class with a full tummy and eager to return next week. Mission accomplished.
The power of persuasion, as they learned about the power of persuasion. The children never knew that they were being manipulated.
None of us really do, at least not right away.
I was reminded of this fact when I watched Palin debate Biden and witnessed a performance similar to her speech at the Republican National Convention. At the convention, Palin came across as likable, knowledgeable, and fresh. But then the media worked overtime to create a different perception of Palin and create doubt. It worked. At least until last night when viewers saw an unfiltered Sarah Palin which didn't match the media profile of the last few weeks. For many, last night exposed the power of the media and their ability to manipulate us; even when we don't think we're being manipulated.
But before you fire off an angry email to Couric or Gibson, remember Palin's a politician. With a wink and a smile she knows how to manipulate us to think or act a certain way. Many of Palin's answers in last nights debate sounded more moderate than conservative. So while Palin is convincing us that she's a conservative, McCain is persuading her to become a "maverick" moderate. I'm not sure that will affect the perception of most conservatives who are now voting for McCain because Palin is on the ticket.
The power of persuasion.