There is a big difference between critical thinking to solve problems, a largely neglected art, and selling, the most widely practiced art in the world today. It extends far beyond politics, where the distinction could not be more clear. To think productively, to actually solve problems, we need to be able to look squarely at facts and have as many relevant pieces as possible in front of us to consider. Thinking well requires open-mindedness, intellectual honesty and a small measure of courage.
In selling, certain facts need to be deemphasized, harmful facts removed entirely from the conversation. The problem in sales is much more limited — simply to get the customer to buy — and the techniques used are infinitely more practical, with success or failure readily measurable, written in red or black. One downside for us, as a society, is that being constantly subjected to the unabashed puffery of 24/7 sales pitches makes us question almost everything we hear as possible bullshit.
The imperative to learn, the thing that makes us wonder and think in the first place, often needs to be suppressed in the service of making the sale. The art of persuasion, in the highest sense, requires laying out as much as can be known and allowing fairness to emerge organically from an open-ended dialogue. The honesty needed for growth as a human is almost the opposite of the main quality needed for clinching a sale.
I don’t want to bring in our compulsive liar-in-chief, though he is perhaps the best illustration of this distinction that comes to mind, and of course, he’s ubiquitous. Thoughtfulness, and reference to the observable world, is replaced, in every case, with the imperative to win, to clinch the sale, to “make the deal”. You give a massive tax cut to the wealthiest people and “persons” in the world, selling it as a gift to the middle class. It is clearly not, as almost all of the benefits go to the already fabulously well-off.
At election time you swear you are about to pass a real middle class tax cut, in the next few days, in fact. You swear to this even though Congress is not in session and no law can be passed when Congress is not in session. When somebody from the press raises this obvious flag that you’re not being truthful, simply call them rude, stupid, fake, working for a failing outfit, an enemy of the people, tell them brusquely to sit down, scold them with authority, like you’d talk to a disobedient dog. The angry base loves this kind of alpha dog behavior.
The invading illegal caravan of smallpox, leprosy and tuberculosis infected raping child terrorists, same deal. An immediate and terrifying existential threat to all of us, trumpeted hundreds of times in the days before the election, many millions spent to send troops to the border for a muscular photo op — nothing mentioned about this rapidly advancing murderous hoard since. The art of the deal.
Writing, it strikes me more and more, is thinking made visible. Blessedly, from time to time, we see wonderful, thought provoking (as we say) books and articles being published. The art of selling is something I know almost nothing about. Thinking as clearly as I can is something I try to practice every day as I set my thoughts down here. My hope is that sometimes these musings can help shed light on what others are also mulling over. The daily practice of writing/thinking has improved my life, I have to say. I couldn’t put a price to it, though it certainly would behoove me to.
I offer, once again, an example from my own life of the muddle of emotions that can blot out virtually all thought and possibility for insight. By way of introduction, let us note again that emotion is almost always the deciding factor in life. The way something makes us feel determines how we react to it. The most intelligent argument is not often persuasive unless it is also engaging and emotionally satisfying. Both strands, feeling and analytical thought, must be brought into play to make a persuasive case. We humans love a sensible story that makes emotional sense to us.
So here’s a little story that may illuminate the difference between thoughtfulness and the unreasoning need to win at all costs. I had a childhood friend who went to an Ivy League college where he made a friend, Andy, a brilliant guy with a history of periodic stints in the laughing academy. Originally diagnosed as schizophrenic, Andy’s occasional spells of wild behavior were later classified as the manic end of Bipolar Disorder. Psychiatry is as much an art as a science, though some scientists make arguments to the contrary. Levels of various chemicals in the brain can be tested, neurotransmitter and other levels balanced, rebalanced, and so forth. It can make a difference, or not.
For decades they did this to the brain of this fellow, who became one of my closest friends. I was around for at least two dramatic episodes of Andy slipping over to the other side of madness, had to bring him to the mental ward myself the final time. It was scary to be close to someone in the grips of full-blown mania, full of energy and far from reason, though it never caused me to question our friendship.
When, in the end, years later, he behaved with viciousness toward me, I did not attribute it to his mental illness. I attributed it to him being an enraged asshole, pure and simple. Our mutual friend was devastated to hear that I’d finally written Andy off and did his best to convince me, during a long phone call, that I needed to forgive and forget, that we all needed to be friends.
I told him I appreciated the sentiment, and the peace-making impulse, but that I was too hurt and angry at the moment to consider any of it. I explained to him that as far as him trying to be a mediator between us, he was in the worst possible position to do it. The first requirement for a mediator is that she be disinterested in the issues and outcome, focused impartially on trying to help the parties resolve their dispute. Here, his close involvement with both of us would make that disinterest impossible. He said he understood.
Now we can fairly consider whether I was right or wrong to feel so hurt by my mad friend’s betrayal, or so angry. That is certainly a reasonable question. Put it to the side for the moment and consider, for purposes of this story, that I was deeply hurt and very angry. All you really need to know is that when Andy and I spoke to try to work things out, my old friend attempted to bully me over the phone. It was an impressive demonstration of the opposite of good will.
I have learned, over the years, that you can’t argue with someone’s feelings. Feelings are real. You must address those feelings first, if you care about having a relationship, or even a conversation. If you tell me I hurt you, and I care about you, I have to accept, first of all, that you are hurt. The impulse may be to say you’re crazy to feel that way, I never intended, I would never, blah blah blah, but that self-justifying impulse does nothing to help assuage the hurt your friend has expressed. Only acknowledgment of the feeling can be of any help when strong emotions are in play. It is a necessary first step to any real dialogue and sensitivity to a person’s emotions is a prerequisite for friendship.
I saw my old friend a few days after that phone conversation. He once again began trying to convince me that I needed to forgive my former friend Andy, who had reportedly told him “I owe him an apology, but I’m too stingy to give it”. I gave Andy’s advocate hypothetical after hypothetical to try to make him understand how hurt I was, since he could not seem to grasp it. He brushed each one aside. “That would never happen to me,” “you seem to have a fixation on that”, “well, that’s because you handled that completely wrong” “that’s your problem right there,” “I’m not prone to violent anger like you are,” “you foolishly trusted Andy” and so forth. I grew aggravated and told him so, but he would not relent. There was an important point he needed to make, a point he believed would make me see how rashly I was behaving, mitigating facts I needed to know that might make me actually forgive poor Andy.
In the end, in the face of my rising aggravation and finally real anger, he put the important facts on the table, Andy’s excuses for his final “betrayal”. Andy claimed he’d left me a missed call, apparently, that I didn’t return for days, He hadn’t slept for days before and had bronchitis on the day he promised to help me with a vexing programming problem he told me he could solve in a few minutes. He couldn’t keep his promise to do that simple thing because he had several excuses, he was very sick, sleepless, tried to call, had obligations to members of his Zen cult that came first. Why was I being so rigid, so petty, so fucking angry?
“Why didn’t you get the hell out of there?” a friend asked reasonably when I told him the story of my friend’s ruthless attempt to make me forgive. I told him he’d picked me up and driven me to his house, I had no immediate way to leave his suburban enclave.
Incidentally, all of Andy’s excuses were known to me, my friend and I had discussed them all a few days earlier.
Eventually, after a long negotiation that tested every bit of my resolve to be nonviolent, my friend apologized for his insensitivity. We remained friends, but a troubling trend soon emerged. He did not seem able to resist provoking me. In the end, when I could not get past this tic of his, he admitted that he had only apologized about the Andy business because I was so upset at the time. He had been right, he said, to insist, to try to bring facts to my attention that might help me forgive. He would do it again, he said.
In other words, no matter how aggravated you may have been, no matter how many times you urged me to stop, or reconsider, or slow down, no matter how disturbed your feelings, no matter how angry you became, what I had to say was more important than any of your so-called feelings. Your anger is your own problem, not mine.
Now at this point you may be thinking this person simply may not really know what friendship is. Maybe he needs to be left where he is, done. Goodbye friend, as little hope for you as for peace in your endlessly contentious marriage, or easily healing the many harms you’ve done to your children by your long example.
Call it a snapshot of the definition of insanity attributed to Einstein, or some kind of sentimental Anne Frank-like naivete about long-time friendship, or me just being a fool. A couple of months after our falling out I called a couple of times, left messages, and, at his texted request, sent this email:
It depresses me that people I was friendly with and had no quarrel with, your wife, your sons, R____, have all vanished from my life as a result of our falling out. Not to mention you. I understand your wife and kids have to take your side, whatever it is, but still. And you can’t even pick up the phone and return a missed call? (that was a rhetorical question)
What was my final, unforgivable act against you?
What did you tell R_____ that made him cut off communication with me? When he left the US we were seemingly the best of friends, he was apologizing that we’d only managed to squeeze in one quick visit when he first arrived. Then, as a prelude to complete radio silence, I got a reference to “other developments over the last year or so” that presumably magnified the differences between us beyond the point of possible friendship.
Did you talk to your rabbi in the days before Yom Kippur and, if so, what did he tell you? I don’t think it’s possible that a rabbi would advise someone to make no further attempt at reconciliation with his oldest friend during the Ten Days of Repentance. I conclude you didn’t discuss it with your spiritual adviser. I think you should consider this seven minute discussion on apology, forgiveness and atonement:
It only took him a few days to craft this measured reply:
I do want to find a way for us to be friends again, but I suspect that responding to your questions will get us into the same back and forth mess that electronic communication had got us into earlier this year. What I suggest would be for us to cut to the chase and for you to let me know what you are looking for from me? If you are interested in exploring what Judaism would counsel us to do, I’d be open to sitting down with a Rabbi (like Rabbi P_____ from the Chabad) and put our situation before him.
Just one more test, I see, of my ability to rein in the impulse to dash an impossible person to the ground and deliver just enough kicks to let him know how I truly feel about his idiosyncratic take on love and friendship.