Politicians, Lawyers, and Winnings Arguments

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November 1, 2022 by libroshombre

            The Atlantic magazine referred to Ambrose Bierce, the civil war veteran and author as “The American Cynic,” and for good cause, as readers of his “Devil’s Dictionary” can attest.  That was named by the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration as one of “the 100 Greatest Masterpieces of American Literature,” and it’s free online at the DevilsDictionary.com and in print at our public library, including an edition illustrated by Gahan Wilson.  A cynic? Bierce’s definition of “love” was “a temporary insanity curable by marriage,” and politeness: “the most acceptable hypocrisy.”  Perhaps Bierce had reason for looking at the world through grim, suspicious eyes.  He enlisted as a private during the war and received battlefield commissions and “an astonishing 15 commendations for bravery under fire … and saw ferocious combat through nearly the entire length of the war, including at Shiloh (his regiment sustained the most casualties of any that fought in that battle, one of the war’s bloodiest), Chickamauga, and Kennesaw Mountain—where he was nearly killed when his skull was ‘broken like a walnut’ by a Confederate bullet.”

            Bierce didn’t care for much, but he especially despised politics.  His Devil’s Dictionary defined “politics” as “a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles; the conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”  He also said that oratory, that necessary political tool, was “a conspiracy between speech and action to cheat the understanding. A tyranny tempered by stenography.”  A demagogue, which to Bierce was simply any “political opponent,” is defined by Webster’s as “a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power.”  We’ve certainly seen our share of demagoguery recently, and though some good decent, people are in politics, they seem to be in the minority, we should distinguish between oration and demagoguery.  Oratory, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, is “the rationale and practice of persuasive public speaking” and is distinct from the lies and distortions of a demagogue.

            So where does that leave Temple Lea Houston, the son of Sam Houston and not only a politician but a lawyer?  The online Texas Handbook says Temple was born in 1860 in the Texas Governor’s mansion shortly before his dad refused to go along with seceding from the Union.  By age seven both his parents were dead and at 13 he signed up for a cattle drive to Kansas, worked his way east, and was employed on a Mississippi riverboat to New Orleans.  There aLouisiana Senator, and an old political crony of his father, arranged for Temple to be named U.S. Senate a page.  This sparked an interest in law and politics, so he went to Baylor University, graduated with honors, became the youngest practicing lawyer in Texas, and by age 21 was a county attorney.  Three years later the governor named him district attorney of 26 unorganized Texas counties. 

            The Handbook notes that “Although flamboyant and sometimes eccentric in dress and appearance, Houston won a reputation as a brilliant trial lawyer and a gifted speaker, whose oratory was laced with allusions to the Bible and classical literature. He was a dead shot and often carried a pearl-handled pistol.”  TexasEscapes.com added that “Temple wore his hair shoulder-length and would walk down the street holding hands with his wife. He liked to wear Prince Albert coats and rattlesnake-skin neckties,” and adds “It is said that Edna Ferber, in her book “Cimmaron,” modeled her character Yancy Cravat on Temple Lea.  As an aside, another Ferber novel, “The Ice Palace” was set in the Northward Building here in Fairbanks.

            After “espousing some unpopular political causes,” Temple left political life to focus on law and, following the 1893 Oklahoma Land Rush, moved his family to that Territory where “his silver-tongued oratory and unorthodox behavior became legendary,” making him a highly sought-after defense attorney and lecturer.  His ability with a pistol was fabled, with a contemporary writing that “Temple Houston stays alive because he is very fast on the draw. He has winged several bad men and killed two or three, and now he is a man to be feared.”  Once he defended a cowboy accused of murdering a well-known gunfighter and stealing his horse.  The courtroom scene was described in TexasEscapes: “The prosecution claimed that the fact that the cowboy drew and fired first constituted murder. In answer, Houston said ‘He could no more have stood up to his malefactor than the spark from the lowly firefly could outshine the noonday sun-than the stubborn jackass could outrun the swiftest racehorse. Gentlemen, such things are impossibilities.’ He moved closer to the jury’s box. ‘Gentlemen, that malefactor had a gunman’s reputation, while my client here is an ordinary, hardworking citizen like yourselves. He had no chance unless he fired first. The malefactor was so adept with a sixshooter that he could draw and fire his own weapon before his victim could begin to draw – like this!’ Houston’s hand went under his coat, came out with a shiny sixshooter, and emptied it directly at the jury.  The result was panic. The jurors dived out of the box, spectators dived out of windows and through the door, the defendant crawled under the table, and the judge ducked down behind the bench. Houston’s pistol was loaded with blanks. A mistrial was declared, and the cowboy was later acquitted in the same court.”

            Fortunately, another way to win debates is described in “This Is the Scientific Way to Win Any Argument (And Not Make Enemies),” an online essay by David Hoffield, who pointed out that arguing with someone, choose any national issue, is usually a no-win situation.  He cited psychologist Art Markman who said the only way to convince someone to change their mind is through “a war of attrition.  There’s usually no one argument that can suddenly get someone to see the light,” but “reframing your ideas can boost your opponent’s receptiveness.”  Frames are “the term psychologists give to the theoretical filters or categories our minds use to help us store, manage, and interpret the meaning of information.  Our brains deploy frames out of necessity. Though the brain is an incredibly powerful organ, it’s limited in its ability to process information. As a result, it instinctively creates these categories for understanding its experience of the world. The type of frame a person may be using determines how they’ll perceive and respond to what you say and do.”

            Hoffield used an example of buying a blue, two-year-old car for $30,000 to present three of the many possible frames. The situation’s first frame, “blue,” is aesthetic, the age is historical, and the price is economic.  The buyer might not like the color, but is cost-conscious, so the salesman emphasizes its low price to move the buyer closer to “I’ll take it.”  In the political realm, Hoffield looked at a large study conducted by behavioral scientists on how to make the most effective political arguments to those people with opposing political beliefs. They found that “compliance rates” with a given political message increased if that message was reframed to leverage the existing beliefs of the listener.  One of the experiments used the topic of same-sex marriage.  Liberals were more persuaded when the argument was reframed to focus on fairness (treating everyone equally), while conservatives were more compelled when it was framed to emphasize how same-sex couples were loyal, patriotic Americans.

            Or as an anonymous beseecher once prayed, “Grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the direction when I see them coming, and the wisdom to not try to smack some sense into them when I can’t avoid them.”

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