Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

TED Talks: Rhetoric And Dialectic

The more I look, the more I find evidence that TED is propaganda.  It uses factually misleading yet emotionally persuasive and motivational speeches to sell the idea that creative geniuses are changing the world for the better.  It sells itself as a conveyor of knowledge and as access to the world of the intellectual elite.  Here is how TED presents itself (the bold is from their own Website):

TED conferences bring together the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes or less). On TED.com, we make the best talks and performances from TED and partners available to the world, for free. . . . Our mission: Spreading ideas. We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world. So we're building a clearinghouse of free knowledge from the world's most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other.
It's right there:  TED should be appreciated, because it freely shares the ideas of the world's intellectual and professional elite, ideas which have the power to change society and make the world a better place.  TED's audience?  Curious souls.

I like that TED promotes engagement between its audience members.  However, we can't assume that any online discussion forum is actually going to promote critical thinking and the spread of knowledge.  Many online forums are more like echo chambers, where dissenting or challenging voices are drowned out, if not shouted down.  I haven't explored TED's online community yet.  What is important to note, however--what is central to my thesis--is that TED Talks do not promote critical thinking.  They are prime examples of the art of rhetoric, and not dialectic.

Of course, you cannot expect a speaker to engage in dialogue with its audience.  Public speaking is not, generally, in dialogue form.  And I'm not criticizing public speaking as such.  When I contrast rhetoric and dialectic, I'm talking about two different approaches to the spread of ideas.  With rhetoric, the goal is to persuade the audience, manipulating their emotions in order to change their thinking.  With dialectic, the goal is to challenge the audience, forcing them to question their assumptions and recognize the unwanted consequences of their reasoning.

The distinction between rhetoric and dialectic drives one of Plato's dialogues, called Gorgias.  Gorgias was a real man who lived to be over a hundred years old in ancient Greece.  He was quite wealthy and powerful, making money by teaching the rich and powerful how to practice the art of rhetoric.  Socrates, as is well known, didn't live quite so long and didn't make much money.  But he did also try to teach people his art:  the art of dialectic, of challenging people's assumptions about what they know and leading people to recognize that what they think they know has uncomfortable consequences.

The dialogue is often interpreted as making an argument for both rhetoric and dialectic.  Dialectic is unpleasant and unwelcome in most people's lives.  People respond more favorably to rhetoric.  And yet, Plato argues, rhetoric without dialectic is blind.  The art of persuasion must be led by critical thought, or else it will lead nowhere.  And so, in the dialogue, Socrates argues that Gorgias cannot possibly teach his students how to be good and just.  He can only teach them how to manipulate people's emotions.  And this is dangerous, Socrates says, because he can trick people into thinking that they are being taught what is good and just.  When our emotions are manipulated, we think something good and just is happening.  We are tricked into thinking we have found what is good, when in fact we've just found what is pleasant.

This is what TED Talks do:  They give the audience an uplifting emotional experience and they make the audience believe that it is coming from the intellectual elite.  TED's intended audience is not stupid.  They know they are being emotionally manipulated.  But, they think, this is rhetoric informed by dialectic; it is emotional manipulation that we can trust, because it is coming from people who have the credentials, knowledge and experience to know what is right.

When we look at TED Talks, it is very hard (maybe impossible) to find evidence of dialectic. Instead of challenging audience's assumptions and engaging their critical faculties, TED promotes a pseudo-intellectual cult of personality.

Pseudo-intellectualism is the tendency to act with an unjustified air of intellectual authority. A pseudo-intellectual cult of personality, then, is a social movement in which a relatively small number of individuals use mass media to gain power over others by falsely selling themselves as intellectual giants and by leading their audience to act out of a false sense of their own knowledge.

TED speakers are, in some respects, elite members of society. They hold high positions in corporations and industry. They teach at top universities, or at least they have degrees from top universities. They publish widely read books and articles. They have all the formal qualifications, but that does not make one a creative genius. Academic and professional success are not indisputable signs of intellectual superiority.

Now, one might ask, what is the harm in having very smart, educated, successful people share a little bit of their knowledge and experience with the rest of the world?  It is entertaining, uplifting and at least a little bit educational, isn't it?

Obviously it is entertaining and uplifting.  The question I'm raising is about the educational content.  If I am right, then TED Talks systematically mislead people into putting their faith in the wrong hands.  They provide some informational content, but it is generally misleading.  TED says their goal is to spread ideas, though the one idea they seem to be spreading most of all is that TED speakers have the power to change the world for the better.  That idea is not based on fact.  It is a wish that the audience buys into.  And it is supported by the fact that the speakers are so successful.  The assumption that TED relies on is that, if you are successful, you are doing something right.

The loyal TED audience will defend TED Talks on the grounds that these are highly successful, intelligent individuals who have proven themselves in the workplace.  The ideas they are sharing must be valuable, because they come from the world of great intellectual and professional success.  And yet, it's all rhetoric, not dialectic.  The path these successful individuals are selling is the path which puts blind faith in highly successful individuals.  TED's audience believes in the speakers because they are told to, and because the speakers manipulate their emotions in fulfilling ways.  They are misled into thinking they have received knowledge which can make the world a better place. They are supported in their belief in the power of the individual to effect change.  They may therefore be motivated to work a bit harder at their job, or in their creative pursuits.  But what they are not motivated to do is think critically about their assumptions or engage with TED's ideas in a challenging way.  They are not motivated to challenge the speakers' points of view, or the social structures which put those speakers on the stage and give them authority in the first place.

Of course, many people who watch TED Talks do respond critically to them.  I'm not saying everyone who watches and likes TED Talks is incapable of critical thought.  I'm saying that the talks do not promote critical thought, and are not designed to.  They are designed to promote the one idea that TED champions:  the idea that the institutionally-sanctioned intellectual elite are making the world a better place.  Anything that challenges that idea is unwelcome.  And any manipulation of facts and emotions is welcome, so long as it promotes that one basic idea.