A Need for “Persuasion”

Ideally? Washington politicians would read and discuss Jane Austen’s Persuasion. 

Practically? Practically, our leaders are too busy failing to read and learn, so they might embrace the concept of persuasion. 

Sadly, this is tough because persuasion attacks two prejudices of this time.

Too many of us confuse strong beliefs, strongly defended, with pig-headedness and close-mindedness. Since persuasion attempts to convince the unpersuaded, the process implies my belief that my views are better than the other persons.

Isn’t this arrogant?

It might be, but it might not be.

My great-grandfather was once asked why he could preach so boldly: “Because if I thought I was wrong, I would change my mind.”

His goal? He wanted to persuade the unconvinced that what he thought was true. 

He had thought about his ideas, read and listened to other points of view, and as a result of this humility had come to better ideas. Even where he was wrong, he was less wrong than he had been. The process of thinking, listening, examining, arguing, and praying had improved his thinking. Sharing the product of this process was preaching and he did it with all the power of his lungs, because that was the style of the oratory of his time.

He gave reasons for his conclusions that he thought would persuade his audience and do what he had done: come closer to the truth.

Nor does the attempt to persuade cut off dialog in a good persuader (whether a preacher, politicians, or any other kind of leader)!

Whenever I attempt to persuade someone of the truth of what I believe, I doubt it first. I must understand the perspective of my debate opponent. It is hard to persuade a man, if you don’t understand his perspective. Soon I will debate the existence of God with an experienced atheist and part of that process, for me, has been to see the reasons, attraction, and power of his point of view.

It was perfectly possible that I might have changed my mind in the process, but I did not. The product of that internal dialog has been greater certainty and (hopefully) a more persuasive case, because atheism is a serious error, my opponent a soul created in the image of God, and truth worth defending.

Of course, my rhetoric may be unworthy of the truth and so I will be unpersuasive, but I must do my best. Conservative politicians, in particular, seem to have forgotten that we should argue for our positions and try to persuade people who disagree with us. Generally, insulting your opponent will not persuade them.

In fact, the command of Jesus to love even our enemies reminds me that I must love my intellectual, political, or cultural opponent. Common ground is a good place to being persuading a person to change their mind. We should be as winsome as possible: cranky clarity sometimes is just cantankerousness with a martyrdom complex.

And yet, the opposite, equally odious problem is the man or woman so weak, so intellectually cowardly, they cannot say what they think is true.

“Discussion” and “dialog” can conceal a mealy, mushy mind. It is often the case that unless a person commits themselves to an idea they will never see. It may only be an opinion, but it is my opinion . . . and if I thought it was wrong, I would not proclaim it.

This brings us to the second error that prevents persuasion: stirring up the true believers can be good, but it is not persuasion.

All of us enjoy being rallied, but a rally is not persuasive, it is activating. Republicans in particular seem suspicious of the man or woman who co-opts the rhetoric of the opposition to persuade them of our goals. Never compromise the truth (as we see it), but make a great many compromises about technique.

We might have gotten the political climate we deserve, but demanding our team win without any attempt to persuade our foes, but love of God and neighbor demands that even when were in a super-majority that we attempt to persuade. How much more true that we should persuade when we are in the minority?

Perhaps, after all, we the people should stop, read, and discuss Persuasion. 


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