In a democracy, rather than force or bribe people to assent to our ideology, we try to win them over through persuasion. That can be a challenge. It requires us to understand where other people are coming from and to develop arguments that are outward-facing.
Not everyone thinks as we do. People have different experiences and possess different information; they have different values and do not always share our criteria of judgment. To persuade them we have to make connections with our audience – with what they might think, feel and be familiar with. This is not about tricking people or fooling them. It is about truly persuading them to share our views on a particular issue – and that means developing a relationship.
A glance at the newspapers and much of the internet demonstrates, however, that many people think the purpose of public communication is to reflect well on themselves – to announce their own importance, specialness or cleverness. An infamous academic chooses not to be convincing but to increase his brand value by performing provocatively; a troll communicates publicly but seeks only private “lulz”; shouting things your audience already believes, yet pretending that you’re not allowed to say them, seems to be an easy route to success on talk radio or the op-ed pages. But the only thing such people are saying with their arguments is “look at me!”
True persuasion is democratic. In giving people reasons to act with us we recognise that they aren’t inferiors who can be compelled but thinking, feeling and speaking beings. And true persuasion is an art. Contrary to the books on the self-help and business psychology shelves there are no magic “words that work”. You have to cultivate an “eye”, developing a feel for situations and empathy for those you want to persuade. The name of that art is “rhetoric”.
I’m finding this series in The Guardian fascinating.