Sunday, January 14, 2007

Fast talking

The dangers of the fast-talking are a common thematic element in movies and literature. I don't know who the most famous fast-talker is, but their MO is usually the same. With the right mix of compliments, technical language and other tricks, these individuals (often villains or at least anti-heros) fool their victims out of making a decision that matches their true interests. A common moral: sweet talking is a weapon not to be used by the honest.

Plato's record of Socrates's famous conversation with Gorgias fits the model. Gorgias is a debater, and a master at his craft, who boasts that his profession is the best of all professions. A debater can use language to con decision-makers into making any decision the debater would like. He gives examples. Suppose a group of people had to choose a new doctor, and a real doctor and a debater are vying for the job. The doctor may know how to treat a hernia, but the debater knows how to convince the people that HE is the best choice. Plato argues that this is precisely why the profession of Gorgias is immoral. His profession is one of illusion, of convincing people of things regardless of whether or not they are true. Communication must convey facts to allow people to make decisions based on them. Plato's solution, it seems, is to limit the ability of individuals to communicate to a simpler and more rigid pattern that does not leave space for the kind of artistry that provides opportunities to artists like Gorgias.

I understand Plato's position. It certainly makes sense that it is no good to have a few elite rhetoricians using their power to fool the rest of us. However I think the solution, instead of banning the rhetoricians, is to democratize their skills. We could prevent an aristocracy of the silver tounged from snatching inappropriate influence by making sure that everybody is studying and improving his/her skill at communication.

Dishonest or misleading rhetoric cannot be banned. There will always be sentiments to appeal to, new ways of linking ideas, new ways of obsuring truth or shifting the scope of a debate. If these tools belong to a few, they are dangerous as Plato points out. But if they belong to, and are diffused widely through, the entire population, we will be safer from the insidious effect that Plato worries about. In this case, our ignorance of the thing threatens us more than the thing itself.

A big problem remains - one of the ideas implied in the Plato conversation (and supported by the experience a lot of us have had) is that learning to do anything really well takes a lot of time, including communication. Thus a communication advantage can be conferred to one who can devote the most time to it. Those who also pursue other professions are left behind.

So how can people learn a LOT about communication in a very small amount of time? A website of resources organized in a particular way? What else could work? Please let us know your ideas for tools to address this question.

You're Gorgeous,
Speeker

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