The Problem of “Perspective”

I’ve noticed a growing trend in public and private discourse over the past several decades, where people at all levels, but especially at the higher levels of politics, business, and, for lack of a better word, “celebrity,” offer their perspective as if it were factual. And they’re using the term “perspective,” as if to convey greater weight than mere opinion. Now, I know their “perspective” is factual to them, but the selective use of facts converts them from the realm of attempted accuracy to mere opinion. And, as a very old saying goes, “You’re entitled to your opinion, but not [just] your facts.” Or just the facts you find convenient.

We all have the tendency to ignore unpleasant facts, those at variance with what we wish to believe, or at the very least to give them less weight and credence, and to overweight those facts that support what we wish to believe. And none of us is truly objective, nor can we be, because, by nature, we’re subjective. But the mark of the truly thoughtful individual is to attempt to weigh all the facts, to fight against the immediate instant opinion that comes to mind, and to consider those things which he or she would rather not.

There is a practical problem with this, however.

Aristotle classified arguments by type, those rooted in facts and figures (logos), those that rely on the speaker’s expertise and credibility (ethos), and those playing on an audience’s emotions (pathos). Donald Trump clearly relies on his reputation, essentially saying he’s an expert, while playing almost entirely on the emotions of the audience. There are virtually no credible facts and figures, but that apparently makes no difference to the effectiveness of his arguments because his appeals are overwhelmingly gut-level emotional.

Hillary Clinton has also relied on her expertise, but she has attempted to present her case for being president far more on logical basis, and polls have consistently revealed that she is weaker than Trump in appealing to her audience, or any other audience. All too many of her supporters are merely “with Hillary,” and not with as strong an emotional connection as Trump supporters have for him.

The problem is that winning this “argument” and the presidency can clearly be accomplished without accurate facts.

I can certainly understand the concerns of disenfranchised former white male middle class industrial workers. The changes in industrial production methods, especially automation, and world trade patterns have effectively destroyed tens upon tens of thousands of U.S. semi-skilled jobs. But the facts suggest that no amount of political rhetoric is ever going to bring those kinds of jobs back. And anyone’s “perspective” that insists a politician will be able to overturn the impact of massive technological change is mere unfounded opinion. Yes, better skills training will equip workers for the new kinds of jobs, but the old ones are gone forever. The logical basis of this argument doesn’t appeal in the slightest to all too many of those displaced, and when it’s placed in an emotional context, facts lose out in the hearts and minds of all but the most thoughtful individuals.

Global temperatures are rising inexorably; glaciers all over the world are shrinking or vanishing; practically every month in the past year has been hotter than that same month in any previous year, something that as far back as we’ve been able to measure has never happened before. Summer northern polar ice caps are the smallest ever measured, and water temperatures around Antarctica are continuing to rise. Yet there are those whose “perspective” denies this. Do we know the precise reasons for this? Not to decimal point precision, but when global temperatures for centuries having been rising in concert with rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, and human activity is at present the major source of increased carbon dioxide, the facts strongly suggest that we’re responsible. Trump doesn’t bother with the facts; he makes an emotional argument that global warming is a hoax, suggesting it was perpetrated by China.

In comparison, Hillary comes off as a policy wonk, trying to persuade people, and one thing I’ve learned from twenty years in politics is that facts are never enough to convince anyone who doesn’t believe you in the first place. Lyndon Johnson once observed that you couldn’t change people’s hearts and minds until you “have ‘em by the balls.”

And those differences between Hillary and the Donald are why this election, barring some major surprise, will be very close, and why Donald Trump may well win.

8 thoughts on “The Problem of “Perspective””

  1. Frank says:

    I am a displaced republican. I can’t stand Trump. I don’t particulary like Hillary either. What to do. It scares me that he could win. He will finish destroying the Republican party if he becomes president.

  2. Tim says:

    The recent UK referendum on continuing as part of the European Union shows a parallel.

    The campaign supporting “leave” started well, using logos since the £9B net contributions to the central EU budget are clearly available.

    The campaign to “remain” then employed ethos using many business leaders and UK, EU and US authorities and dignitaries to explain how, in their experience, it would be disasterous to leave. Your president was one of them.

    However the Leave camp categorised the latter (with some justification) as Project Fear. The issue of unlimited immigration then became increasingly dominant.

    So Pathos won the day in the end. And so we are leaving the EU.

    So Trump may indeed win if he can marshal Pathos.

    As an addendum, it would probably help the UK if he did win, as he was the only major foreign influence who supported the “leave” campaign.

    1. Daze says:

      Yet to be seen whether Project was ethos or logos. The Japanese government statement on the likely impact of a hard Brexit on firms like Nissan, Hitachi, etc suggests logos may be nearer.

      1. Daze says:

        d’oh – Project Fear

  3. Peter J Michaels says:

    Understanding the role of the national press in shaping opinions about Mr Trump and Ms Clinton is increasingly important as part of the process in evaluating the candidates. While some might have you believe that we have an objective and impartial press, the fact remains that Mr Trump received more press coverage during the primaries than all of the other GOP candidates combined. The fact was that Trump was great press in the sense that he could be counted on to come up with something outrageous. And outrageous sells. The nightly news is not about providing a comprehensive overview on the day’s important events. Its about holding your attention such that you will tune in for the 30 second commercial. It’s the commercial, and the corresponding revenue stream, that matters.

    Now that the political circus is down to Hillary and Donald, both candidates are looking to capture the pathos of the voting public. It also bears thinking about the election from the perspectives of the advertising hungry press. A dead heat offers far more potential to capture viewership than a landslide. Expect polls and coverage to play for that perceived dead heat.

  4. Matthew Hargraves says:

    It is the perspective that “my ignorance is as good as your knowledge” and is definitely nothing new. Throw on top of that the ability to frame “I have 99.995% certainty” as uncertainty and you understand how those who are ignorant.

    Btw, this is the first time I’ve been able to post from my phone. Very happy.

  5. Tom says:

    ” … The changes in industrial production methods, especially automation, and world trade patterns have effectively destroyed tens upon tens of thousands of U.S. semi-skilled jobs. But the facts suggest that no amount of political rhetoric is ever going to bring those kinds of jobs back. …”
    The change in life and work relationship has hit Japan worse than us and the cultural change is not yet complete. It seems as if ‘democracy’ cannot cope with cultural change. The seeming (to me) impossibility fo a USA revolution is possible indeed probable in view of the ascendancy of someone like Trump. We are similar to the Wiemar Republic. Any offer as to who will take over from Trump when anarchy reigns?

  6. Lydia says:

    What truly scares me in the current landscape is who would follow Trump if he loses. The forces that he has ridden on to his candidacy will not suddenly disappear. As has been pointed out they are at work in other locations too, with Brexit, the popularity of the Front National in France, the current Polish government, the Hungarian Government all showing similar warnings.

    What is new is that a candidate like Trump has been able to be successful despite committing various actions that would be political suicide for others in different times. I fear that the US political ecosystem will no longer be able to provide the required checks and balances to temper someone like this.

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