Persuade Someone

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Two blog posts have me thinking about the importance, in cultural activism, of reaching a wide audience.

The first post, by a technology blogger, makes a great point, although I don't care for his opening example. (Dictatorial rule systematically usurps the reason of those subjected to it, for starters.)

Nobody ever changed anything by remaining quiet, idly standing by, or remaining part of the faceless, voiceless masses. If you ever want to effect change, in your work, in your life, you must learn to persuade others. [bold in original]
These others are individuals, and change happens one mind at a time. But even the most persuasive people don't persuade everyone every time, no matter how right or just their cause. One reason for this is that some people simply are not bright enough or do not know enough to be reachable. Another is that some people are evasive (i.e., simply not open to reason).

I found an almost perfect example of evasion the other day, when reading a news story about the fallout from the Freeh Report. The Freeh Report had been commissioned by Penn State in order to determine how serial sexual predator Jerry Sandusky had been able to operate there for well over a decade after officials, including Coach Joe Paterno, had been made aware of his activities.
"I'll go to my grave believing he didn't do anything until someone shows me a video of him participating in whatever they're saying that he did," said [David] Sage, who later flashed his large ring with Paterno's name engraved on the side, the same ring he showed Joe's sons, Scott and Jay, at their father's on-campus memorial viewing in January. " . . . I think if you looked up the word integrity in the dictionary, you'd see his picture there."
He might as well have added that if someone ever showed him such a video, he'd "know" it was a fake. Assuming for the sake of argument that the above remains this man's position in a year -- unless some pretty good evidence against Paterno having a role in the cover-up somehow surfaces -- this is a nearly perfect example of evasion, a refusal to think. (There is the possibility that the man is in temporary denial, too shocked to believe the evidence yet.)

Most people have no trouble deciding whether to expend more effort or give up on persuading someone who is less intelligent or informed. However, some people (including myself at times in the past) don't make this call with as much ease when someone is evasive. That's a problem, because a cultural activist cannot waste his time -- or far worse, his energy -- by investing it in attempting to persuade someone who is evasive. Aside from comment threads here, I almost never participate in on-line discussions, but when I do look at them, I usually see someone who is obviously right about something allowing someone who is obviously wrong (and being evasive) to waste his time and energy by making a reply. One clue that the person in the right is wasting his time is that he is becoming angry out of frustration.

It is far better to look for help with one's persuasiveness from people one knows to be conscientious and helpful, and then to always work to reach a broader audience than any one individual. Even in an online discussion, there is a broader audience -- lurkers and passers-by -- who might be open to the points one wants to make. It is the broader audience, and the fact that there are likely to be receptive minds there that one must remember when promoting one's cause.

Strive to be persuasive, but don't beat yourself up if persuasion doesn't work on everyone.

-- CAV


: Corrected a typo and corrected the wording in a sentence about the example of evasion.


Steve D said...

‘Even in an online discussion, there is a broader audience -- lurkers and passers-by -- who might be open to the points one wants to make.’

So this is actually an argument – one I’ve heard many times - in favor of debating online with someone who is not open to reason. You have no hope to persuade him, but you might convince others who are listening and lurking, especially if they recognize your opponent’s evasion. So, in this context, online discussions might be a worthwhile endeavor.

Another issue is that it’s not always easy to know, especially at first, that someone is not open to logical persuasion. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the intensity of the moment.

(As an amusing aside, this reminds me of an experiment I once did in college. I was in the position of arguing with someone who was basically defending the status quo – a militant centrist. I was challenging his argument from the left or right side of the political spectrum – I don’t remember which now - ; then I left for a few minutes, for some reason and then I came back and continued the argument where it had left off but from exactly the opposite political point of view. Needless to say my opponent continued to debate happily with me without even realizing that my position had switched 180 degrees to its polar opposite :) – well I guess I was a little immature in those days – but I still chuckle at it.

One other point I would like to make and this goes back to your statement about temporary denial. I have been in some discussions where a person has been adamantly – and irrationally - opposed to something I’ve said to the point of becoming defensive. However, later I’ve learned that in the quiet of his own mind, he had rethought his position carefully and reconsidered.

Gus Van Horn said...

"[I]n this context, online discussions might be a worthwhile endeavor."

Yes, but it is vital to keep one's cool, and to write from that standpoint.

Jim May said...

There are two values I can see in engaging those who are not open to reason.

The first, is to make that person's irrationality as obvious as possible to passers-by and lurkers. It's why I'm willing to drive religionists, for example, into ad hominems (like I did earlier this month on Twitter with one of them pushing the "atheism is a faith" line).

The second reason, is practice. Engaging these targets can be instructive, in terms of testing tactics, solidifying my grasp of my own position, and last but not least, studying particular instances of intellectual pathology -- especially the "flow" of the ideological causality involved.

In the case of the religionist on Twitter, I was interested in comparing his reaction on that topic to an engagement via email some years back on the same topic. I was impressed with the parallelism between the two; the "flow" of each discussion went the same way, and they were reduced to angry insults at the same point in the discussion -- where I introduced the concept of "primacy of consciousness". Apparently, they believe it's their Achilles heel; they both bolted before I've even begun to do something with that idea.

That being said, I don't do nearly so much practice as I did a decade ago; I don't see much that's new these days, so its easy to get complacent and feel as if there's nothing new under the sun among the opposition.

Gus Van Horn said...

You are right, Jim, and the point you make about the value for helping oneself better understand principles and their application is especially valuable.