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A Tactic

Saturday, December 17, 2005

A Tactic

Translation of Una Táctica by Julián Marías, first published in ABC on 27-Mar-2003 and now available on Julián Marías died in Madrid on Thursday 15 December 2005 at the age of 91. He was one of Spain´s most important philosophers, a successor to José Ortega y Gasset. His son, Javier Marías is also a well known novelist and writes a column in the weekly, El País Semanal.

A strange tactic is becoming fashionable nowadays which can be described as follows: to decry against someone the very thing that they defend. You use against your potential enemy something that he holds dear, something that is a fundamental part of his being. It seems impossible to be able to do this, but there are times when you can declare the existence of a thing that doesn't exist and succeed in getting people to believe it. I remember that Ortega talked about this when he gave as examples “plates of steak without beef” or “knives with neither blades nor handles”. These are ways of distorting the truth, of replacing the truth with something that doesn't exist.

You invent an adversary and put forward an allegation against him about something that he believes in, something that he holds dear; in doing this you try to take away from him his own reality, using his reality against him and reducing him to nothing. How is this possible? Only by skilfully provoking and inducing overwhelming confusion. The method is by repetition: when same things are said over and over again, tirelessly, they end up by leaving an impression in those that hear them or read them; people let go their defences, their reflex to respond evaporates, they end up by agreeing because of sheer exhaustion. Demagogues, especially totalitarian ones, use this persuasion technique: interminable speeches in which they repeat the same things a hundred times in such a way that it subdues the resistance of the listeners, who at the end are left feeling stupefied. I remember that many years ago I obtained a literal transcript of a speech by Fidel Castro; he was talking for hours, and each one of his “ideas” was repeated at least ten times.

If you examine in detail the tactics employed by any dictator in any century, you will find the same process. In contrast, you should remember the conciseness, the rhetorical richness of some creators, of those who are capable of appealing to something that is alive in their listeners, in their readers, in their citizens. When Churchill said, “blood, sweat and tears”, he was making a rhetorical proposal to his people.

This is the key: whether to treat men and women as people or as something else; or maybe it is better to say “as things” because people are very different to things.

It would be very interesting to do a stylistic, literary study of the different ways of speech or writing in which attempts have been made to persuade people. On the one hand there are slogans; on the other hand appeals to human nature, to intelligence and to freedom. The recent history of Europe could be written making reference to these alternatives. It would show that the effectiveness of slogans is transitory and is followed by their failure over time, and the long term durability of appeals to men and women as people.

Thinking in this way, one can imagine the probable effectiveness of this current tactic. It is enough to remember the diverse fortunes of the different ways in which attempts have been made to control people in the recent past that we can still remember. What is not clear is how far back we can remember. I am quite old, and have a pretty good memory. I can remember what was said at times quite a long way back in the past and also my reactions to what I heard; but I am aware that the majority of people alive today don't remember what happened in the second half of the twentieth century. This gives rise to a state of relative helplessness; the failure of memory allows further attempts to be made which which are only possible because of forgetfulness and which will fail in a few decades.

The abundance of news, the daily repetition of poorly differentiated and scarcely justified ideas all make it difficult to defend oneself against falsehoods and reject them. Personal experience is very limited, but if one has some and it is kept up to date, then it would be an effective instrument of criticism, a defence against any untruths. Unfortunately, you can't rely too much on it; historic memory hardly works at all, and this creates a curious state of “inexperience” which seems to make personal and collective reactions appear as lacking in sophistication.

To overcome the tactic described above, you have to make an effort. The method is simply to declare false those things that are false; to demonstrate with proofs the errors, or in the worst case the lies, of those who attack you.

If you do this with some consistency and skill, those who don't deserve any influence will begin to lose their power; a justified view of the merit, or lack of it, in people, attitudes, positions and parties that aspire to influence us will be re-established.

A certain degree of memory is an indispensable requirement for this skill; if one goes about forgetting things as soon as they occur, then the enrichment, which constitutes maturity, will never be achieved. Those who don't remember, don't mature; they are always starting again and never acquire the strength of spirit that personal experience offers and which can lead to historical experience. This is developed by keeping in mind what has already occurred, but is lasting in its results, and in this way it supports us right up to the present. The advantage of writing things down is that they remain relatively stable, and they can be reviewed. Active knowledge of the recent past is very variable; in the majority of cases it is strictly limited; it is related to peoples' ages: it frequently occurs to me that those who surround me have only lived a few decades, they have not been able to live through what occurred when they weren't conscious; things that are completely real for me don't even exist for them. And time passes: those who are young now were simply children ten years ago. Life in society is contingent on the integration of different levels corresponding to different ages; if one doesn't see this clearly, then one cannot understand what different people can know, argue or decide, what are their resources and their potential.

Does anyone think about this? Those who intend to manipulate people or simply to understand them and maybe advise them must be clearly aware of all the different conditions that obtain. When you speak or write you have to try to picture what different people will understand, depending on the moment of their birth. This means that you are not saying the same thing to everyone, that you must be aware of what is going to be understood; in summary the plurality, perhaps mistaken, of what you are saying.


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