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Head, Heart, Guts and Gonads: Getting Down and Dirty in the Rhetoric War

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It is pretty obvious that progressives will not fight for their beliefs. The very fact that we have jettisoned "liberal" in favor of "progressive" (because some people made fun of the former term) illustrates the point. But what is even more unfortunate is that, even when progressives fight, we cannot do so effectively. There are some crucial facts about what constitutes an effective rhetorical strategy that progressives seem not to be aware of, and that unawareness is deadly.

There are four places in the body to which speakers can direct their case: the head, the heart, the guts, and the gonads. The left likes to argue to the head; conservatives know that the further down you go, the more persuasive you will be.

The head is the seat of logic; when we argue to the head, we use the language of science and rationality: studies show; the facts demonstrate; statistics prove. We avoid expressions of involvement or feeling as somehow tainted, so we adopt the passive voice: It has been suggested. Our vocabulary is heavy with Latin, and our examples are abstractions. Head-directed arguments tend to focus on impersonal concepts, ideas distant from hearers' own daily experience, so when progressives talk about "morality," their examples have to do with bankers and corporations -- not most people's daily lives.

The heart is the locus of feeling: sentimentality and compassion. Arguments directed to the heart are about the things we feel strongly about, that tug at our identification as members of a group -- Americans, Christians -- without our clearly knowing what those connections really are. Talking to the heart involves the use of words like loyalty, democracy, freedom, and patriotic. Progressives can appeal to the heart, too: the most effective arguments about the dangers of global warming make use of photos of cuddly polar bear cubs and waddling penguins, which also tug at the heart. But conservatives use heart-language to better effect.

Arguments directed to the guts are about fear: especially, at this moment, fear of loss and perhaps shame, mobilizing a childhood sense of helplessness. So words like job, home, and money -- particularly in negative contexts -- are potent here. - Isms often mobilize fear: Terrorism, communism, and socialism work very well at this level: even though many hearers don't have clear notions of what these words mean, they sound scary and un-American, diminishing our sense of self. Like related forms of "othering" -- racism and its relatives in all their many noxious forms -- they serve to bring "us" together -- albeit in a misdirected and dangerous way -- and make us want to fight the vague but threatening "them."

And finally, at the bottom, there are the gonads. Arguments directed there make use of our need to define ourselves in terms of clear sexual identities: men are one thing, women are the other, and transgressing the gender boundary unleashes all kinds of primal and infantile, necessarily wordless, terrors. One of the first things children learn is whether they are a little girl or a little boy, and from a very early age the penalties for crossing the gender line are often heavy. So even for adults, any sort of public behavior or belief that seems likely to make that line more easily crossed is likely to rekindle those wordless childhood fears and render logical arguments worse than useless. So discussion of abortion, gay rights, and gay marriage always bog down because traditionalists can't hear the progressive argument. The Bible says becomes the all-purpose rejoinder to everything, even when in fact the Bible says no such thing. "The Bible says" is the voice of parental authority, terrifying children into adhering to the norms. "Why? Because I said so, and I am your father." There is no meaningful rejoinder to that. In arguments directed to the gonads, "morality" is a very different word than in arguments directed at the head. "Morality" here is about thou-shalt-nots, about Sodom and Gomorrah, about the deeply personal and very concrete things each of us hides even from ourselves. So when the progressive rhetorician utters the word "morality" to refer to large and impersonal concepts, the hearer is apt to hear it as referring to these deep-down concerns, and the primal fear the word evokes makes it impossible to hear the head-argument.

So what's a progressive rhetorician to do? Keeping at the level of the head seems right to us -- decent and fair and intelligent. Moving down below is appealing to the least attractive and least evolved aspects of the species, and surely it is insulting to do so. But when our conservative counterparts do precisely this, their audience does not seem insulted -- they respond with enthusiasm and agreement.

We need to develop a style and a vocabulary that make head-arguments as inevitable and graspable as those aimed deeper down. This is no easy project, because it involves changing how persuasive political discourse works. But I hope it can be done -- it has to be done.