The Common Good

The Delicate Art of Persuasion

Photo by Getty Images.
Photo by Getty Images.

It’s been a mind-boggling fortnight at the Internet water cooler. Kony 2012. Mike Daisey’s dubious portrayal of Apple’s manufacturing practices abroad. Questions of whether the “Christian Movie Establishment” is “out to get” Blue Like Jazz … and an Amazon petition to let Rachel Held Evans use the word “vagina” in her forthcoming book, The Year of Biblical Womanhood.

Running through each of these stories and the surrounding debate are similar themes: truth, storytelling, power, persuasion. The online conversation is often vicious and acrimonious, reflecting a trend that’s spurred some writers to leave reader comments unread.

Adding to the intensity of the discussions is that almost each of these controversies involves an effort to change something: the Ugandan geo-political scene; unethical manufacturing practices; ways of talking about religious experience; “Christian” expectations for women. That’s not to say these creators set out with those ends as their foremost goal, but their projects were certainly meant to be more than beautiful or useful.

The problem is that attempting change requires changing minds. With Kony 2012, viewers had to be persuaded a problem they hadn’t previously heard of was real and obliged them to respond. But trying to change minds presents at least two challenges.

First, people hold opinions and convictions for several reasons, some of which are more amenable to persuasion than others. As a book I once read described it, some opinions are held on the basis of fact, some emotion, others prejudice.

Obviously, the first kind of position is the easiest to change. Present evidence that Mike Daisey did not have the interviews he claimed to, or that the circumstances he described exist whether or not he personally witnessed them, and people whose opinions about him or Apple were based on prior information may change their minds.

Positions held for emotional or other reasons are more resistant to facts, however. It is in such cases that the second challenge of persuasion is most acute. That challenge is the difference between the speaker and the hearer, the persuader and the could-be-swayed.

To want to change someone’s mind is to see things differently than he or she does — and, frequently, to use the same words differently. Anyone who’s been abroad can probably think of examples — words like “napkin” or “biscuit” that meant quite different things to others than expected.

But when dealing with those who share your nationality, maybe even your religion, it’s easy to assume they’ll know what you mean by a word like “religion” or “freedom” … or “f---.” That was the word I wrestled with six years ago, while writing my memoir of reluctant chastity, Sexless in the City.

Somehow I had to explain to the reader how I, a regular church attendee and self-described “serious” Christian, found myself dragging a more experienced friend into a sex shop to help me purchase a token of revenge for a former date I’d met on Craigslist.

In the brain of the girl who’d once aspired to a journalistic career, sticking to the facts mattered. So if the reason for our shopping trip was that Ad Weasel had once told me, “Call me when you want to f---,” that had to go in the book verbatim.

But after I sent the chapter to a small group of friends reviewing the manuscript, one objected to the language. When I protested that certain details were important, he reminded me that Hitchcock had made great use of viewers’ imaginations, often implying more than he showed.

So I thought about it. I thought about friends from the bar, who would hear my story and think Ad Weasel a bit of a jerk, but little more. And I thought about the relatives who would be so offended that I’d use a coarse word in reporting the story, they might be more upset with me than the guy who said it to me.

Would anyone realize why that one sentence drove me to an unprecedented quest for vengeance?

While literalism and candor were important to my book, so too was engaging both Christian and secular readers in a discussion of sexual mores. Somehow I had to find words that would translate to both audiences, even if some phrases weren’t my first choice. Surprisingly, the final version felt more honest than the first.

It took more time and scrapped words to find the right ones, but persuasion is always like that. It’s a balance of truth and translation, with the shoals of accommodation on one side, misunderstanding and alienation on the other. And yet, if we don’t find ways to graciously communicate with those with whom we disagree, nothing changes. If my friend hadn’t so adroitly combined respect and objection, he couldn’t have helped me grow as a writer.

Mutual help and correction is one of the foundations of Christian community. Without it, others can’t help us discover and correct our blindspots, and we can’t help them recognize the failings and flaws of their own.

Most of you who will read this are not in the position to create something like Kony 2012 or Blue Like Jazz. But you’re probably among the legions of those who comment on articles about those projects, including this one. And you may be likeliest to weigh in when you disagree or object.

When you do so, will you take the time and care to consider how your words might actually get others to think, even help them grow as people? Will you pursue a dialogue that could change both you and others for the better? Or will you simply shout an opinion intelligible only to those who already agree with you?

Anna Broadway is a writer and editor living near San Francisco. The author of Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity, she is a regular contributor to the Her.meneutics blog and has also written for Books and Culture, Patheos, RejectApathy, Radiant and Beliefnet.

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