Michael Cloud literally wrote the book on libertarian persuasion. Written in 1978, Cloud identified the kneejerk desire of libertarians to use aggressive language to wake people up.
It was a large and expensive home. The architecture radiated impeccable taste. Seated around the dining table were five people: three moderates, a conservative and a libertarian. The conservative was a multimillionaire — and a generous political contributor. After dinner she turned to the libertarian and said, “Our hosts tell me you’re a libertarian. Maybe I’m a little naive, but I don’t know what that word means. Could you tell me about your beliefs?”
“Sure. I can explain them in a sentence: ‘Fuck the State!’ Libertarians want to get rid of as much government as they can.”
The woman was stunned. She dropped the subject and guided the conversation into other areas. In her mind, two things were associated with ‘libertarian’: bad manners and gutter language.
In the early 1960’s, a student asked a spokesman for Objectivism what would happen to the poor in a free society. The spokesman answered, “If you want to help them, you will not be stopped.” What did the student conclude? That Objectivists are indifferent to human need, callous toward the unfortunate, and without solutions to the misery of poverty.
In the early 1970’s, on the University of Arizona campus, libertarians set up an information table each week. Armed with the latest books, magazines and position papers, these libertarians tried to bring their views to the attention of other students. One day a student stopped at the table and asked, “What do you think of Social Security? What kind of help would the elderly get in your free society?”
The student behind the table was an old hand; he had heard the question many times. He responded, “The government has no right to force people to pay Social Security taxes. Taxation is theft. Government has no right to steal from one group of citizens to benefit another. If people don’t save money for old age, they have no right to coerce it from those who are working. We should abolish Social Security.”
The questioner was shocked. “You want to dump Social Security and abolish taxes? Sure! Maybe we can do without government, too! You don’t give a damn about old people. All you care about is your own stinking money!”
This last story is a little painful — I was the libertarian behind the table.
These are three examples of The Libertarian Macho Flash. Most people are familiar with ‘flashing’ — sexual exhibitionism. The common scenario is this: A middle-aged, average-looking man approaches a small group of women or children. He is wearing a raincoat, false trouser legs and shoes. The man whips open his raincoat to exhibit his naked body. His viewers are shocked, and he leaves before they recover.
The Libertarian Macho Flash has much in common with sexual exhibitionism. A common-looking person exposes his political beliefs in a shocking way. Invariably, he disgusts people or at least shakes them up. The Libertarian Macho Flasher displays his views in the most offensive way or exhibits whichever views are most likely to offend the audience.
Are some libertarian positions offensive? Not to libertarians. But supporters of other viewpoints may be offended. It depends on the audience. What would enrapture a feminist might offend an educational choice supporter. A liberal might be shocked by a statement that would make a conservative’s heart soar. To determine what would flash an audience, a speaker must know who he’s talking to and what they believe. He must understand their loves and hates, their hopes and fears. Flashing is emphasizing one’s views in terms of what they hate and fear.
There can be many motives for flashing. The flasher is a show-stopper, a real attention-getter. If someone desperately wants to be noticed, flashing gets instant results.
The Libertarian Macho Flash is also a great timesaver. After all, persuasion involves time and effort. By flashing, the speaker bypasses a long and demanding conversation.
Then there are people who live in fear of rejection. Seeing themselves through the eyes of others, they are psychologically dependent, and the possibility of rejection is frightening. How do they handle this? By doing something to get it out of the way as soon as possible. By engineering rejection.
The real macho flasher, by shocking his listeners, convinces himself that his ideas are virile, potent — even intimidating. The audience obviously lacks his intellectual courage and insight. He grasps truth and goodness. He is good, noble and wise — clearly a superior person. The listeners? They are stupid, worthless and possibly evil. Why waste time on such inferiors?
Some libertarians flash to convince themselves that they are doing something for freedom. They mistake flamboyance for effectiveness, heat for light.
Still others flash to persuade themselves that nothing can be done for freedom. If people are shocked by libertarianism, then effort is futile. So why try? This is a beautiful example of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Late, Great Libertarian Macho Flash has its defenders, of course. They appeal to “honesty”, the Lenny Bruce argument, the Ayn Rand argument or the claim that it works. Each of these falls flat.
The argument from “honesty” goes as follows: It’s dishonest to avoid subjects simply because they offend or shock people. As libertarians, we must put moral principles before political consequences. We must fearlessly proclaim our views and let the chips fall where they may.
This won’t do. First, if a person implies support for a belief that he doesn’t hold, he is deceiving others. But silence need not mean consent. Second, the purpose of a discussion or speech should determine what one talks about. Suppose an atheist ran for public office. Would a refusal to discuss religion be dishonest? Not necessarily. A speaker isn’t obliged to answer every question put to him — only the relevant ones warrant a response. What determines relevance? The nature of the office, the qualifications for holding it, and what the candidate will try to do if elected. Third, discussing irrelevant issues is misleading. It diverts attention from the real issues and suggests that the irrelevant subjects do matter. This is dishonest.
The Lenny Bruce argument zeros in on the psychological impact of the macho flash. Lenny Bruce believed that frequent use of offensive and shocking words would reduce and ultimately extinguish their ability to evoke strong emotional reactions. If, for example “hell” and “damn” were used often enough, they would lose their power to trigger emotions.
Although true in the long run, this is irrelevant. Twenty years of effort that made America indifferent to libertarian views — rather than violently opposed — would be no victory. It’s like running a business deep in the red for 20 years to finally break even. What is the purpose of presenting libertarian ideas: to desensitize listeners to mere words and phrases, or to win agreement on substance? Flashing rarely produces agreement.
Are there any lingering doubts about this argument? Then consider the death of Lenny Bruce. The heroin overdose was incidental — he was hounded to death by those he flashed.
Ayn Rand devised a far more ingenious defense of the libertarian macho flash. Rand was asked why she used “selfishness” to denote a virtuous quality when it antagonized so many people to whom it meant something quite different. The introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness contains her answer. Stated in general terms, it is clear that Rand’s attempted justification of her terminology applies to every instance of the macho flash.
Rand contended that the popular uses of a given term are no valid index of its correct meaning. A term must not include a built-in moral evaluation, she countered. If a person uses a term in an unconventional manner, perhaps the fault lies with the conventions rather than the speaker. In the name of man and morality, some terms must be saved from conventional abuses. The “exact and purest meaning” of a word should not be surrendered “to Man’s enemies, nor to the unthinking misconceptions, distortions, prejudices and fears of the ignorant and irrational.”
But consider. The meanings of words aren’t engraved in stone — they change and evolve. If people don’t adapt to changing meanings, they risk being misunderstood. Would Rand care to describe her political views as “liberal” simply because the term would have correctly described them a century ago? No? Then the point is conceded.
Ayn Rand was a virtuoso flasher. Ponder a few of her colorful phrases: “the virtue of selfishness”, “capitalism: the unknown ideal”, “America’s persecuted minority: Big Business”, “give a silent ‘Thank You’ to the nearest, grimiest, sootiest smokestacks you can find”, “the evil of self-sacrifice”, and “a parasite, moocher or looter.”
These phrases are guaranteed to stun the average person. Consider The Virtue of Selfishness. If Rand had been interested only in communicating certain ideas, she would have called her book “A Morality of Rational Self-Interest,” “The Case For Ethical Egoism,” or something equally restrained. But she intended to shock, attract attention and create controversy. As an author, she could afford to be attacked, but not ignored. Neither apathy nor enemies, however, make for libertarian success.
Contrary to Rand, many terms do carry built-in moral judgments. “Treason”, “greed”, “slander”, “Stinginess”, “kindness”, “generosity” and “blasphemy” are but a few examples.
There are, of course, many foolish conventions. But those who regularly flaunt them will pay a price. Far better to use a convention to further one’s views!
There are any number of ways to present a viewpoint. The choice of words and phrases can dramatically influence whether a position seems beautiful or hideous. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but a florist using offensive, ugly names for flowers will soon be out of business. Language can serve libertarian goals or oppose them.
A final alleged advantage of The Late Great Libertarian Macho Flash is this: some people think it’s an effective way to persuade others.
This may be true in a limited number of cases. Defending the Undefendable — a textbook case of flashing — may “wake the reader from his dogmatic slumbers” or act like “Drano for clogged minds.” But would it be the best introduction to libertarianism? Not a chance!
Flashing should be tested against other methods of marketing libertarianism to the general public. How often does it work? Under which circumstances? What kind of people does flashing attract? This is crucial. If the macho flash attracts people who will be an embarrassment to the libertarian movement — people who alienate and antagonize, who are crude and ill-mannered — then it ought to be dropped. A political belief is often judged by those who hold it.
And what about the people it repels? Will they have open minds in the future, or are they now opponents?
One final point. Some libertarians use the macho flash as a litmus test for potential converts. If the listener is alienated by a controversial view, he isn’t worth having. Or so these people would have us believe.
This ignores a basic fact of human psychology: changing one’s viewpoint usually takes time. Views that many libertarians take for granted today may have seemed ridiculous, insane or evil in the not-too-distant past. It took many years for even Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, John Hospers, Robert Nozick and Karl Hess to become full-blown libertarians. Thought, study, discussion, persuasion and time were necessary. And these people are very intelligent. So why does the macho flasher expect so much more from a chance listener?
Those who use the Libertarian Macho Flash usually discredit libertarianism. People tend to judge a body of beliefs on the basis of a few statements. If a Libertarian candidate presents ideas that are virulently offensive to an audience, the audience will assume that his other views are equally obnoxious. In social psychology, this is known as the “halo effect.”
Flashing makes enemies. It creates active opponents to liberty. Freedom has enough natural enemies — people who thrive on statism. Why create more through lack of tact?
A viewpoint may be accepted or rejected because of the speaker who presents it. If he is perceived as callous, against all decency, inhumane and disgusting, then he couldn’t possibly be in favor of anything worthwhile. This is a logical fallacy. It is also a psychological fact and not to be ignored.
I have personally field tested The Late, Great Libertarian Macho Flash. It is not simply unproductive; it is counter-productive. It makes future attempts at persuasion far more difficult. Liberty is the casualty.
What can libertarians do to avoid flashing? Space forbids a lengthy reply, but I have a few suggestions.
Know who you are talking to and what they believe. Find out their emotional beltlines and stay above them.
Before speaking, ask: What are you trying to accomplish? How do you plan to do it? Will your plan promote your goals? Why or why not? Do not stand in the way of your own success.
If you flash because you enjoy the exhilaration, find other ways of getting kicks. When you do, you will be more emotionally satisfied and politically effective.
Become politically effective. This will eliminate the desire to prove that nothing can be done.
Devote your energies to finding more effective ways to bring others to the libertarian philosophy. There are too few persuasive libertarians, and becoming one is far nobler ambition than seeing how many hearts and minds you can close.
The Libertarian Movement has matured a great deal in the last few years. Bright, attractive people are the norm. It is time for our communication methods to come up to date. One step in that direction would be to discard The Late, Great Libertarian Macho Flash.
Michael Cloud created and produced The Essence of Political Persuasion, a 3 Hour Audio Tape Learning Program. He has ghost written 6 books, 1 Doctoral Dissertation and 300 speeches for business people. He was the Organizer & Fundraiser of the ’88 Marrou VP Campaign, PROJECT 51-’92, and Marrou For President Campaign. Between Fall 1987 and Fall 1991, Michael Cloud personally fundraised $519,344 for these projects. (Source: F.E.C.)