31 Aug Persuasion Has Been Forgotten
This column first appeared in the Orlando Sentinel.
By Joe McLeod
The tone of our nation’s rhetoric has reached a fever pitch. While some have taken their voices to the streets in protest, many Americans have launched their offense on the digital battlefield, attacking opponents with penetrating hashtags and 140-character ballistics. Everyone is right while everyone else is wrong. There’s a yearning to be heard but a reluctance to listen and genuinely understand someone else’s perspective.
The gap between political parties is expanding, and both sides feel defeated. A recent Pew Research study found that, between Republicans and Democrats, 26 percent believe “their side” loses more than it wins in politics. This creates more animosity, and the attacks become more directed and personal, which is perfect for social media where these types of keyboard-pounding exchanges flourish. But over the past decade, the unending volley of Twitter fire and digital cage matches have produced casualties — one of which is the art of persuasion.
Do we speak out to make a point or make a difference? It’s not always possible to do both. Technology has made it easy to tell the world what we think. But it does not always give us what we want — change. The way society discusses complex issues tends to be careless, overly simplified and disrespectful. This approach doesn’t win converts. It only calcifies the ideologies of each side while undercutting the possibly of working together for common good and achieving even the slightest degree of consensus.
There is a misguided assumption that speaking up is automatically advancing a thought or belief. The First Amendment grants us the right to speak freely, but the decision to tame our tongues and restrain our typing fingers can determine our degree of influence. People might be persuaded — or compelled to run the other way. Passion is needed to motivate people to rally behind a noble cause or a quest for justice, but hateful barbs, stereotyping and name-calling is counterproductive. Social psychologists call this the boomerang effect. A message intended to persuade an audience in one direction not only fails but prompts listeners to take an opposing view.
True persuasion begins with earning credibility and gaining influence. Perhaps our ideas would be heard if we treated those with whom we disagree as neighbors and fellow citizens instead of enemies who need to be insulted into submission. Not only would civility be better for everyone’s soul, it would lead to more purpose-driven communication. Kenneth Burke, a 20th-century literary theorist and philosopher, advocated that we must first identify with people in order to persuade them.
Once credibility has been established, people tend to be more open to rational arguments. Aristotle taught that credibility, logic and the appropriate appeal to one’s emotions — ethos, logos and pathos — were the three components of persuasion. Proclaiming what we believe has little value if we can’t articulate why we believe it.
Obviously not everyone can be convinced. Some will refuse to even consider a perspective that runs contrary to their long-held opinions. The only thing that will change their mind is a different mindset. The most articulate, well-reasoned arguments can fall short of prompting skeptics to think about another point of view.
South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “Don’t raise your voice. Improve your argument.”
That is how we can make a difference.
Joe McLeod is the co-owner and managing partner of McLeod Communications.