I’ve decided to attempt the first draft of a college-level textbook, writing it directly into my blog, bit by bit. Feedback and recommendations in the thread comments are welcome, either encouraging or critical. The first chapter is a mini-course in critical thinking for writers; the second chapter is a mini-course in rhetoric for writers. This post is part of chapter one. To have a look at other parts of the book, click here.
Concept 1.12. The spell-casting mystifier. Historical figures characteristic of this writerly and speaking persona (presentational mask) are Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, and Edward Bernays, deemed the intellectual “father of public relations” in the United States. This persona is a walking, talking, propaganda-disseminating fog machine; the chief nemesis of the science oriented critical thinker, and arguably, of social hope. Why in opposition to social hope? Because the spell-casting mystifier makes difficult—even exasperating—honest, vulnerable, and rational debate, glibly shifting attention away from critical thinking to psychological and rhetorical manipulation, gossip, and emotion-driven memes (catch-phrases) and images. To be drawn into rhetorical battle with such a person on his or her own turf is to become him or her—and yet little can get accomplished in the contemporary world without Jacob-wrestling with this persona.
Like the critical thinker, the spell-casting mystifier is found everywhere in global culture, in forms both subtle and extravagant (in advertising, business, politics, religion, law, broadcasting, and lobbying). Perhaps armed with an ivy-league law degree, the spell-casting mystifier may be the hired-gun of a public relations firm. Or perhaps he or she is a salesperson, cult leader, or surrogate to a politician. Spell-casting mystifiers are not concerned with truth so much as in using every rhetorical trick in the book to get people to think, feel, or act in the way they want—or the way their clients want. Spell-casting mystifiers generate fog not just around issues, but around themselves. In other words, they may act like the fog: smoke-like, ghostly, evasive. If seen in public, and you become too inquisitive, they may duck behind a door or curtain, Wizard of Oz-like.
Shakespeare’s Iago, Franz Kafka, and the spell-casting mystifier. In literature, the spell-casting mystifier is captured by William Shakespeare in the character of Iago in Othello, who says enigmatically, “I am not what I am.” Iago is the cynical soul-stealer of the play, opaque himself in motive, whispering metaphorical poison into the ears of the innocent, driving them without remorse, like a tobacco industry executive, to emotions and behaviors that lead to mayhem and death.
The spell-casting mystifier’s ideal environment is represented in Franz Kafka’s fiction, most specifically his novels The Castle and The Trial, where the honest and rational person is thwarted at every turn, and responsibility for the existing and seemingly all-pervasive system of things cannot be assigned, but is dispersed to a maze-like and inhuman bureaucracy that supports the ongoing production of opaqueness.
Miracle, mystery, and authority. The spell-casting mystifier is also captured in literature by the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky embeds within his novel a fanciful short story that he situates in seventeenth century Spain. In the story, Jesus has returned to Earth and is on fresh trial, this time before the Grand Inquisitor, the supreme judge presiding over the Spanish Inquisition. This was a time in history of widespread arrest, persecution, exile, torture, and murder of religious minorities in Catholic-majority Spain. It is here that Dostoevsky imaginatively makes Jesus subject to a lecture from the Grand Inquisitor as to what people really want. The masses, the Grand Inquisitor informs Jesus as he stands at trial, don’t want inconvenient truths or freedom, they want bread; they want miracle, mystery, and authority—“And I give that to them.” The path of truth and freedom—the path the Inquisitor says that Jesus offers—is hard, and not what people really want. They want to not think. Jesus’s way, says the Grand Inquisitor, is cruel to weakling humanity. Better to give the majority of people lies and delusions to balm their short and tormented lives; better to give them strong and confident headship surrounded by pomp and unshaking beliefs—and not to leave them vulnerable to their own weak thought.
So though the Grand Inquisitor is in the position of command as supreme judge in Dostoevsky’s tale, and the consistently truthful and honest person who ought to be ruling is the one standing silent at trial, listening without interruption to a hectoring lecture, it is nevertheless the Grand Inquisitor—the supreme judge himself—who has broken the law of the soul with his fellow humans. He has done this by knowingly presiding over a regime whose foundation consists of falsehoods and that persists because of the dissemination of falsehoods.
The story ends with Jesus retorting to the Grand Inquisitor’s speech, not with words, but with a Judas-like kiss to his cheek. Dishonesty, the kiss suggests, severs the implicit social contract between people at the deepest level of the soul, poisoning the heart’s ability to be vulnerable and trusting. Dishonesty—the faking of reality—is a betrayal of mind, heart, and genuine community. This is why the poet Dante, in his Inferno, reserved the deepest circle of hell for the liars, placing Judas Iscariot in the jaws of the Great Deceiver himself, Satan, who is at the very center of hell, frozen in ice (a symbol of the unfeeling heart).
Willfulness and the Dark Triad. As illustrated by Kafka’s disorienting fiction, Shakespeare’s Iago, Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, and Judas Iscariot in Dante’s Inferno, the spell-casting mystifier is not a self-deluded person, but a willful person. He knows exactly what he’s doing—and he knows exactly what sort of system of things makes it possible for him to do it. Not recoiling, he wants to support the powerful and report for duty, but perhaps only to the highest bidder. Like Johanne Goethe’s Faust, he will sell his soul to Mephistopheles.
So if you say, “Sign me up!”–adopting the writerly persona of the spell-casting mystifier–you know exactly how and why you’re distorting the truth. As a spell-casting mystifier, you may partake in what is known as the Dark Triad of personality traits (high in narcissism, sociopathy, and Machiavellianism). To be narcissistic is to be focused on the self; to be sociopathic suggests a lack of emotional states appropriate to situations; and to be Machiavellian is to be cynical, nihilistic, conniving, and crafty. So if you’re a spell-casting mystifier, you may delude others with perhaps few or no twinges of conscience, all the while without yourself ever being deluded as to what you’re actually doing as a rhetorical hired gun for Big Propaganda (the message management industry working for all-comers—Big Oil, Big Tobacco, nation states, authoritarian dictators, scandal entangled CEOs, etc.).
Rhetorical moves of the spell-casting mystifier. If you’re in the persona of the spell-casting mystifier, you’re highly selective in your presentation of evidence, subtly encouraging confirmation bias: you want your audience to attend only to the evidential hits, not the misses, in whatever pet theory or spidery narrative you’re spooling out to them. Your end is to guide them to your conclusion, not the truth. You’re prepared to lie. You send people down rabbit holes. If you display fairness or curiosity about the actual truth at all, it is for show—or you may even be quite brazen, displaying outright incuriosity and unfairness, betting that your audience is also incurious and unfair, wanting what you’re selling, and simply waiting on you to provide a reason–any reason–to quell their lingering doubts.
And so you are theatrical. Perhaps not given over to political or religious passions yourself, you are nevertheless content to be a cipher for other people’s passions—especially their magical thinking, lusts, and resentments—and you’re prepared to give them exactly what they want: a show; a ritual enactment of their longing or anger. You shrug off reality testing, or make only pro-forma gestures toward it, going through the motions to pantomiming fairness, all the while sending signals that you’re to be trusted for no other reason than that you’re a member of the in-tribe; one of them.
So as a spell-casting mystifier, you’re also a confidence man: you act like you’ve thought of everything, have everything under control, and are not innocent, but experienced. You are someone people think they can follow with trust, outsourcing their thought to the carnival of your charisma, charm, issue-framing, and storytelling. You promise fast results—and with minimal cost. You don’t acknowledge the dilemmas of competing goods. You seduce and oversimplify. 100% confidence is attractive, and enthusiasm is attractive, and getting things done cleanly and fast are attractive—and so you are attractive.
Demonizing others, emotional blackmailing, intimidating, and tormenting. For those in your audience who waver, you’re prepared to engage in Stockholm Syndrome-like rhetorical techniques, where you make it clear to the vulnerable that you can hurt them as well as help them. The Stockholm Syndrome is getting love and threat from the same source. So if you’re doing that to people in your sales pitch—whatever you’re selling—putting time urgency, for instance, on them to buy now!, then you’re an emotional blackmailer. You take hostages. Posing false either-or dilemmas, you promise extravagant rewards for following you or doing what you want—and suggest terrible, terrible consequences for those who balk. You’re also prepared to feign outrage, humiliate, shun, gossip, and engage in ad hominem (attacking not the argument of one’s opposition, but the opponent herself; making it about the person, not the issues at hand, demonizing her). The spell-casting mystifier might thus speak or write like this: The solutions to our problems are simple—if they will just get out of the way. They are all darkness, we are light, and I have a final solution for getting them out of the way.
Writing 1.12.1. Locate a piece of writing that is in the persona of the spell-casting mystifier, and analyze and deconstruct it. How is it functioning rhetorically? How might one in the writerly persona of the critical thinker respond?