On Proselytizing, or Why Persuade Anyone of Anything?

Every few Saturday mornings, my doorbell rings. This, in and of itself, is a rare event. Despite my Penthouse Forum fantasies, it's inevitably the same pack of Latin, cross-generational, well dressed Jehovah's Witnesses there to persuade me of something.

My reaction, internal and external, varies as I'm sure does theirs. I don't think my pajama clad, skinny, big jew nosed white ass is what they were expecting to see. Anyway, I usually just politely say I'm not interested — although I have been known to point to my glasses and nose — for some jews, they come as a pair — and smilingly shut the door. Which of course means nothing to them as they didn't grow up in New York watching Woody Allen movies.

My conspicuously Jewish appearance means nothing to self-righteous believers. 
Sometimes, as I shoo them away, I seethe internally with a temporary, satisfying, and deranged anger: Who the fuck are you to invade my private space being so fucking goddamned sure you know the way? Fuck the fuck off you self-righteous, sanctimonious fuckwads! If you could see the sweet, little old lady who rings the bell as I silently scream these words, you'd laugh.

And yet I don't believe my anger is unjustified. Most of the world's illness stems from one or another group of douchebags believing they know better. America rules so we carpet bomb you! America is corrupt so we fly planes into you! And so on and so on: self-righteous jizzbombs killing in the name of knowing better. Just because you're sweet doesn't mean your sanctimony isn't dangerous. On the contrary.

Other times, I think: What generosity! They believe they have found the way to salvation and they want to share it with me! Of all people! From their perspective, why wouldn't they? Why shouldn't they? If you knew for certain that peace and beauty and good things would happen if people only did this or that, would you keep it to yourself? Why wouldn't you tell everyone?  You could dress to the nines and spend your weekends ringing strangers' bells telling them the way to be happy and true and free.

There's something hilarious about ringing people's bells and asking, Do you have a minute to talk about rhizomes?
After they've rung my bell, I sometimes think, ironically, Well, I'm gonna go ring their bell with Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals and harangue them with a 45 minute lecture on ressentiment.  Or, even funnier, Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus! I'll have one dogeared copy tucked under my arm and a bag of pristine copies in tow. May I speak to you about the rhizome and refrain, please?

When I think about it, why persuade anyone of anything? Really, who cares if you or anyone believes what I believe? Do I even care if I believe what I believe?

When I was much younger — late high school, early college — I had adamant and banal beliefs about capitalism, communism, and such. I'd get in heated arguments with classmates and dorm mates that, fueled by booze and hormones, often lasted way, way too long. Why?

Well, persuasion and its attending argumentation can be pleasurable, even erotic. When I picture it now, I blush and recoil at the pornography of it. I'd stand there and spew on someone else. Then he — usually, it was a he — would spew back or literally wipe the spit from his face while offering some kind of retort to my engorged rhetoric. It was an ugly pas de deux although, at times, I was known to take on a group, a kind of reverse bukkake as I turned and spewed on everyone. 

Clearly, I wasn't interested in actually persuading anyone of anything. I was interested in an expression of ego, much as a lily exudes its foul perfume. One of the great motivators of persuasion is, alas, ego — to extend one's will over someone else affords a certain, if unseemly, pleasure. We all know this from the cat and mouse game of seduction, a kind of persuasion. At times, we want someone else to like us even if we're not interested in returning their feelings, the thill of the conquer.

Persuasion of course need not be so sinister. Sometimes, we want someone to see the way we see, feel the way we feel, not because of a will to dominate but because it in and of itself is pleasurable. Co-feeling can be comforting and enjoys its own form of the erotic. Loving a band that your close friend or lover doesn't like can be alienating. Having them suddenly enjoy what you enjoy is a nuptial that can make us feel less alone in this universe.

Then again, there is something immensely pleasurable and profoundly affirming about loving something, believing something, no one else does — including your lover and friends. O, to be sure of yourself without any need or desire for confirmation from anyone else! What is more alive than that?

There is a practical component to persuasion. If I'm the only one who loves Jethro Tull, then I'll never be able to play them for my friends and lovers. If my sweetie loathes Thick as a Brick, I'll never know the delight of fornicating to syncopated rhythms and careening flute. To have that pleasure, I must persuade her that Minstrel in the Gallery is not as goofyass as it seems. Persuasion is, in some sense, training: to be part of this community, this is the way we think, feel, and act. 

The sub-title to Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra is A Book for All and None. This succinctly states Nietzsche's great ambivalence about persuasion. Nietzsche doesn't encourage you to be like him but to be like you. This is a strange position because in order to follow him, you have to not follow him. You have to be worthy of being an enemy or friend, with lungs capable of breathing the frigid mountain air where you, as a radical individual, live alone. Unlike, say, me trying to convince a ladyfriend to enjoy Jethro Tull or the Jehovah's Witnesses trying to persuade me to join their church, Nietzsche doesn't want community. He doesn't even want conversation; ergo, a book for none. And yet everyone can be an individual; ergo, a book for all.

Despite being accused of demagoguery, when I taught I was never trying to persuade anyone of anything. It never mattered to me whether my students believed the things I taught. I was just trying to teach them a perspective; after that, it was up to them do with it what they will.  Which is why I never allowed arguing in the class. What was there to argue about? It was not a question of me being right — which, unfortunately, is how many students interpreted it. No, it was because there was no issue of agreement or disagreement, of right or wrong. There was only the matter of seeing a certain perspective.

Usually, when someone holds forth, it doesn't matter to me whether I agree or not. I don't even need to understand it. I just want to enjoy that perspective. I think of Kant: the world he proffers is not one I fiind compelling but it is a strange and beautiful world, nonetheless. Or Francois Laruelle: I can't really understand him but I enjoy my not understanding.  It's a pleasure to read something so esoteric and resistant to comprehension. It feels like a gift. I don't have to believe, agree with, or understand anything: I can just let the words and images flow.

Maybe, then, we can forego persuasion. Maybe we don't need to convince anyone of anything. Maybe we can just enjoy different world views. Or not.


Jim H. said...

A Brick wrapped in Zarathustra & 1000 Plateaus hurled through the window of the interwebs.

Evangelism, from their perspective, is the only true way to manifest the truth of their conversion. You can demonstrate the validity of your salvation only by attempting to bring that salvation to others. Think of it as a prototype of viral marketing.

Religion as virus.

It's not the converting/persuading of you that matters (everyone knows that, as with all marketing, it's a numbers game), it's their staying converted and committed to their faith community that is at the heart of that doorbell ringing.

Brad said...

For what it's worth, individual Jehovah's Witnesses are *required* to go from door-to-door each month to remain in good standing. It's not simply a matter of their own volition. They record the number of hours (along with placements) they put in their "field ministry" and are required to submit these hours to their local congregation, which then submits them to their world headquarters. It's much like recording hours for a job. The whole religion has a very corporatized feel to it. (I used to be a member.)

Interesting perspective of yours as always, Coffeen. I enjoy your blog immensely.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Jim: The virus figure is a good, tasty one: feels spot on, the religion winding its way into people's bodies, infecting them....

But explain how ringing my bell is their staying committed? Are they fundamentally virus and so must act as a virus acts — a commitment to their virality, of you will?

@ Brad: First, thanks for reading and the kind words.

And for your insider insight. I think it reinforces Jim's point that it's marketing — and, at some point, explicitly financial, no?

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