Toward A Culture of Persuasion

by AllAmericanBreakfast5 min read7th Dec 202014 comments

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Most writers work alone at a desk. They're drawing on memories of conversations, tinkering with ideas, deleting a word, pausing, and then writing the same word again. Many advice-givers on the writer's craft suggest that the author write for an ideal reader. This solitary art form makes it important to find ways to stay in touch with the reader, but not too in touch. Historically, writing has been a way to gain distance from other people.

Social media is a new phenomenon in which there is far less of a barrier between an author and their readership. Less time to edit, fewer gates being kept, permission for lack of polish. The result is an output that is simultaneously more disposable and more permanent, feedback that is both more immediate and less constructive (to say the least!).

You don't need to hear another social media critique, of course. What's attractive about social media, the ideal of the medium, is the ability to get a remove, but not too much remove, from the immediacy of a verbal conversation. In theory, there is time to fact check, to consider words and ideas more carefully, to refer back to earlier stages of the conversation. At the same time, social media brings quick feedback, the ability to seek outside points of view, to give more weight to diverse perspectives. There is a reasonable argument that social media should have improved the quality of our discourse. Is the potential still there? 

Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and other platforms are outlets for many other forms of writing and conversation. Poetry and fiction, job advice, social support and counsel, explainers and how-to manuals, music and visual art, and more. But social media is most famous for producing one very special form of writing -- the argument.

An argument is a piece of persuasive writing. It is meant to persuade. Persuasion is too slinky and sophisticated a word, though, for what's on Twitter. "Argument," with its jagged edges and unpleasant vowels, does a better job. It's a cousin to words like agony, gutter, aggression, and anger. Forgive the wordplay. The point is that although social media has mostly made us more argumentative, it could have made us more persuasive. And perhaps it still can.

Persuasion is a sexy word. After all, it implies a sort of intimacy. To persuade, we have to be settled in together, committed to each other, at least for the moment. A mutual curiosity, a sense of need, of hunger, even, must pervade the air. To persuade you, I must try to understand you; and even if you are hesitant, at first, you must be stirred by the anticipation of my thoughts; long for the strong yet tender touch of my words. You want to drop your defenses. Nor to passively accept, you want to respond, return the gesture, make me understand you. When we both have reached satisfaction, or at least a happy sort of exhaustion, we let it go... until next time.

How could a writer be genuinely persuasive in the age of the Internet, if that was their desire?

A good lover has to know how to use their own body in a graceful and sensitive manner. They have to understand how they themselves feel, move, and respond to stimuli. They can only learn this by inhabiting their body for many years. They interact with the bodies of others, in rough games, delicate dances, quotidian navigation of crowds, hugs and kisses. Hopefully, they gradually grow into an adult capable of participating in the most intimate activities with aplomb.

By analogy, a persuasive writer learns how to express their thoughts about and to the world in a graceful and sensitive style. They do this by reading and writing. This teaches them how they themselves think, assemble sentences, and respond to ideas. This too is a long process with a large and lovely onanistic aspect, and takes place in many different arenas of varying levels of intimacy, consequence, and tone.

Although there is surely no shortage of bad lovers, we don't seem to be a society that genuinely perceives itself to be in a civilizational crisis over bedroom performance. On the other hand, we are quite concerned about all this constant argument. If people are learning to be at least adequate lovers, why are so few people managing the leap from argument to persuasion?

If I had to venture a guess, I would say that online writing is to persuasion as pornography is to making love. Both online writing and pornography contain the visible, tangible elements of the act in question; yet they take place without any serious intention of replicating the intimate emotional or relational context that is supposed to underpin them.

Perhaps this metaphor is not quite apt. Persuasion is supposed to be an act that can be carried out between any two people, or between a speaker and a crowd. All too often, though, it is not persuasion that is happening in those public spaces, but preaching to the choir. Argument and preaching abound, while the thing we really want - persuasion, a meeting of minds - is tragically uncommon. Our highly educated population has a thirst for thought, is surrounded by language, and yet finds so little sustenance. Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.

I promised that this wouldn't be a critique of social media, and I feel I'm veering dangerously close to the edge. What is to be done?

There are many plans for top-down solutions to our global argument. Censor Facebook! Ban hate speech! We also have grassroots policing solutions. Cancellations abound! Most of what we hear about are approaches to getting rid of the argument. Or at least, the side of the argument we don't like.

What about solutions for promoting more persuasion? What would that look like? Can we describe what a culture that honors and creates healthy space for persuasion might be?

We would need to find ways to describe what persuasion looks like, in contrast to argument. Along with this, we'd need to examine the gray areas and nuances, acknowledging that nobody has all the answers.

We'd need strategies for exploring a mutual interest in persuasion, and for getting in touch with our own authentic desire to be persuaded - or not.

Space and time need to be created in which persuasion is an open possibility. Other spaces are more ambiguous, and negotiating an act of persuasion needs to be done with some care. It is good if all involved can become conscious of when that "feeling out" process has begun, and if an ongoing meta-conversation about when, whether, and how persuasion takes place.

Sex ed is a thing. What about persuasion education?

Persuasion often involves advocating for social changes that affect people beyond the people in the room. That's fine. But it's even better to find ways to identify interest groups and bring them together. Argument is shouting into the void, or into another person's face, with little awareness of who might hear or what they might think. Persuasion is not just about advocating for a position; it's also about imagining who else might care, reaching out to them, and asking them to join you in your inquiry.

We can imagine how democracy might work fundamentally differently if we had a healthy culture of persuasion. Ideas would be floated from anywhere, and their expression polished in essays and conversations. Advocates of ideas would have real sophistication about how to draw others into discussion, refine their presentation and tweak the details. The idea that an idea would be too "weird" to succeed, too "partisan" to make headway, would be laughably strange.

In this world, almost everyone would understand the value of a culture of persuasion over a culture of argument. They would talk about the bad old times when arguments were soldiers and politics was a wasteland. Divisions would remain in society, but rather than silos with steel walls, we would have membranes - lipid bilayers like in our cells, flexible, able to split and to join, in constant communication, divided not out of fear but out of the utility for promoting specific chemical reactions in their chambers.

How can an individual get started?

We already have the tools of literacy. For a long time, we've been able to read and write. Now, we can also publish and communicate across long distances. Our learning curve is to use those powers to give good ideas a life beyond their original form of expression. This means that authors must think beyond the shaping of words on a page, just as a lover must think beyond the movement of their own body.

What are questions an author might ask in order to move closer to this goal?

  1. If this piece of writing proved influential, which people or communities would be most affected? Should I consider including them in the conversation around this piece before  and after it is published? If we want to be even more imaginative, perhaps there are non-human people or communities who could be included somehow!
  2. Just like I have both intuitive and deliberate ways of knowing if I am ready to engage in intimacy, and how to cultivate it, am I engaging my intuitive and deliberate ways of knowing whether I am ready to engage in persuasion on this topic?
  3. When I put my words or writing out into the world, am I committing to being receptive, yet self-honoring, toward the response they might draw? Do I feel free, right now, to step out of an argumentative space that does not feel safe? Do I have the resources to cultivate spaces of persuasion that feel life-giving?

Love and warfare both have ways of perpetuating themselves. In the midst of conflict, peace can seem impossible. While the clash continues over how to police the argument, perhaps a few adventurous spirits can, all on their own, practice thinking about how their words and ideas can invite the kind of persuasive exchange where all participants are delighted to be involved.

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Is “rhetoric” the discipline you’re looking for?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhetoric

It used to be a standard part of a good liberal education, and I’d be happy to see it return, retooled for the media of the modern day.

A culture of persuasion is a big idea, and rhetoric is part of it!

Right now, we're seriously contemplating a mission to Mars, yet lamenting our political gridlock and the seeming impossibility of changing the average person's mind on almost anything. We have high technological capacity, but low persuasive capacity.

I wanted a concept handle to describe a better world: a place where people are rhetorically skilled, as you suggest, and also skilled at feeling out the right context for their persuasive conversations.

We already have guidance for how to grow support for an idea on the level of big, serious ideas: policies, business proposals, grant applications, editorials, and so on. And that's definitely part of a culture of persuasion. I'd like to think that the world I imagine already exists, to some extent.

But from another point of view, I think there's a sense that, even for the most serious-minded and capable segment of our society, persuasive capacity is pretty limited. Just as one example, the medical establishment doesn't know how to overcome vaccine hesitancy - though they're trying, an effort which I applaud and which is right in line with a culture of persuasion.

On a personal level, I am brim-full of ideas for policy changes I'd like to see in the world. But outside of posting about them on the internet, I find it very hard to talk about them. I feel like it's an imposition on others to ask for their attention. I know that for a lot of these ideas, I need to gather other people's perspectives, not just my own and those of my faction. And I also notice that I choose, over and over again, to talk with the people who are most convenient, rather than the communities where a conversation might make a real difference.

I also think what's critical isn't just the failure to change minds. It's that the way people try to spread ideas often seems just deeply unpleasant and disrespectful. Why should it be that engaging in debate over the key issues of our day is pretty reliably a bad time?

Right now, we have a lot of discussion about these negative issues. With the phrase "culture of persuasion," I wanted a way to describe the positive ideal that we're going for, without trying to describe exactly what this would look like.

Why do you think that persuasive capacity is pretty limited these days? 

In your example of overcoming vaccine hesitancy, it seems to me that the problem is actually that the anti-vaxxers are remarkably persuasive, considering the lack of evidence available. Likewise, most people I know tend to become quickly persuaded of the efficacy of new policy ideas introduced by politicians of their preferred political orientation, regardless of how feasible or effective these ideas may be. 

I'm assuming that it is easier to be persuaded by people with whom one already agrees with than by people with whom one does not, meaning that people rarely switch between polar opposite opinions, but do still have their minds changed frequently. Do you see things differently, though?

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People often air opinions with their friends.

John: "Did you read about Google solving the protein folding problem?"

Bill: "So cool!"

They'll also share information they think others will find helpful.

Cindy: "Did you know that vaccines will turn your toddler into a mutant?"

Sheila: "Awesome, I'll get him vaccinated right away!"

And of course, people will argue with those who disagree with them.

What I think is rare, and consider to be persuasion, involves:

  1. Mutual enthusiasm and pleasure in the process of identifying disagreements, exploring them, and trying to come to a consensus.
  2. Taking active steps to keep an open and reasonable mind, while asking for and appreciating the same from one's conversational partner, and being kind when that is not possible.
  3. A meta-conversation within relationships about how to maintain an ongoing state of open-minded, pleasurable dialog about disagreements, in a way that routinely results in small adjustments of behavior.

I realize this is a much more specific sense of the world persuasion than most people use. If we lived in a culture of persuasion, maybe we'd have 200 words for persuasion and I could choose one that is more apt and be understood!

What we're doing here, both in this thread and on LW more generally, emphasizes the second part. I wish that we had more conversation about how to make our interactions more pleasurable. Some people may feel that way, but I often don't, even though I do find value in participating here. I also often forget the importance of these aspects, and come across as chilly and critical when I don't mean to be. Often, I fear that the work I put in to writing here and holding conversations isn't actually making a difference to anyone, or building meaningful relationships.

Part of that is me, and part is the culture of the site, and part of it is just the nature of the internet. But I'd like to find ways to improve.

I think the thing you are pointing at feels pretty unrelated to the usual connotations I have with 'persuasion'.

Yeah, I agree, I just needed a word to call it. Can you think of a better one? :)

Discussion? Changing your mind?

I've thought about those options. I mean, the real difficulty here is that a word with the precise connotations doesn't exist!

For me personally, "discussion" doesn't really capture the "productively coming to a consensus on a disagreement" aspect that I'm going for. It invokes an image of people gathering to talk, without necessarily having a disagreement to explore, or any goal of persuading each other of anything. I discuss things all the time with family and friends, but most of the time, the way this shakes out doesn't have much in common with what I long for in a culture of persuasion.

"Changing your mind," or "open-mindedness," seems to puts the burden on the person listening to the argument to be open. Although in theory, perhaps "open-mindedness" could mean equally that progressives should be open-minded to conservatism, as well as the other way around, I think that the connotation is kind of one-sided. It's a phrase that, for better or worse, seems already to have a fairly specific connotation in our culture.

The reason I like "persuasion" is that, like "argument," it gets at the idea that we are trying to come to a consensus. But it implies that we are gaining adherents to an idea because they find an idea compelling. It also doesn't have a connotation of belonging to any particular faction or perspective.

However, if you really think that one of these other terms is better, or have another idea, I would love to hear about it!

I mean, I think I just use the word ‘truthseeking’ to mean the thing you seem to mean

That’s also a good word! I think that we do need a variety of words. For me, truthseeking has a connotation that is mainly about an individual search for truth, especially an objective truth. It makes me think about solitary reading and research.

What I wanted to highlight was a social and activist aspect, one that’s about acknowledging subjective values differences, and the inseparability of what can and should be done from the social support that an idea has.

Here, we write a fair bit about why it’s so hard to change institutions and get out of bad equilibria. That’s a culture of truthseeking, and its a good thing.

A culture of persuasion is about spending our energy thinking about how to set an agenda and steer a conversation to escape those equilibria. It’s applied, it’s social, and it’s open-ended. It’s about not trying to pin things down too much, and instead about trying to provoke a rich conversation that is fact based and reasonable, but also is human and makes room for an organic working out process.

“Culture of persuasion” is meant as a complement to what I see as the culture of truthseeking we have here.

Personally, the reason I find "persuasion" somewhat off-putting is that I don't want to be persuaded unless I end up with a more accurate or beneficial perspective than before. That said, if two open-minded people are not sure whose perspective is better, I think that there is a place for a non-combative discussion in which arguments are weighed against each other. I'm not sure what word describes that situation better than "discussion," though.

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I agree. There really isn't a perfect term, unfortunately. It seems to pack together these ideas:

  1. Rightness: "having a good idea worth spreading"
  2. Activism: "trying to persuade"
  3. Compellingness: "trying to be effective in persuasion"
  4. Open-mindedness: "being receptive to persuasion"
  5. Susceptibility: "being easier to persuade"

I think there are two contradictory models of what needs to be done in our society.

One model has it that we have too much persuasion and too much social learning. Most people need to learn how to think for themselves, as individuals, from the ground up. A "culture of persuasion" would be actively destructive. Too few people know how to reason at all. If they got better at persuading others, the effect on net would be to collectively worsen our capacity for reason.

My model has it that we have too little persuasion and social learning. Instead, what we have is a lot of mutually-imposed isolation, which chills individual thought, breeding a sense of futility and close-minded resentment. A "culture of persuasion" would be positive, because it would imply that people are earnestly trying to figure out what would be mutually convincing, rather than what would get other people to give in or shut up. Indeed, too few people know how to reason at all. But if they got better at persuading others, the net effect would be to collectively improve our capacity to reason because they'd have to be making efforts to understand other people, and to make themselves understood.

My guess is that differences of opinion about word choice are just a symptom of this more important difference in how people model the state of our social world and what would be good for it.

It seems to me the word "dialog" may be appropriate: to me it has the connotation of reaching out to people you may not normally interact with.

I agree, it does have that connotation, and it also has the implication of a peaceful conversation. A “culture of dialog” doesn’t sound bad. I guess that for me, “dialog” just doesn’t get my attention. I think that for an open-ended, evocative phrase to work, it has to be sort of vivid. Maybe that’s why I like “persuasion.”