Editorial: The Lost Art of Persuasion

We believe in persuasion as a mode of convicted charity—willing to meet one's interlocutors where they are, while unapologetically hoping to change their mind.

Appears in Spring 2013 Issue: Persuasion
March 1st, 2013

We live in the age of echo chambers, in which our opinions and preferences reverberate back to us, even if spoken by others. Our newspaper subscriptions, cable news preferences, radio presets, and web browser bookmarks tend to be package deals that comfort our already-held convictions. We spend our time in enclaves of our own choosing.

In short, we're all part of some choir, to which we preach and in which we sit, too often smugly nodding in agreement. The casualty of such enclosure and isolation is nothing less than our common life. When our "we" is shrunk down into smaller and smaller units of insulated accord, we are less and less able to fathom how others could possibly disagree with us. Indeed, those who disagree can be safely dismissed as a "them," not worthy of our attention, and certainly not worthy of a hearing. Better to devote ourselves to "shoring up our base."

In such a world, an attendant casualty is the lost art of persuasion. Instead we get posturing, pronouncements, and political ultimatums. In other words, we get just the sort of public discourse we deserve: emotive appeals that shame our opponents, coupled with sabre-rattling denouncements that rally our troops. What's important is that we preach loud enough to be sure everyone in our choir hears us.

Well, we're not willing to play by these rules. So this issue of Comment is devoted to recovering a lost art, revaluing persuasion as a discipline for the common good. We believe in persuasion because we believe in the common good. Indeed, the work of persuasion is bound up with the very mission of Cardus, which is devoted to encouraging the renewal of North America's social architecture. We know this doesn't happen by merely issuing pronouncements. If Christians are going to actually propose policy and change the public conversation, we need to undertake the hard work of changing people's minds. No amount of grandstanding or public shouting is going to transform our shared, public institutions.

Comment encourages "public theology for the common good." Because we believe in the common good, we lament the enclavization of public discourse, and we want to do something about it. That "something" is the issue you now hold in our hands. Our hope is that this might persuade you of the importance of persuasion.

In this issue, practitioners and public intellectuals reflect on the many modes of persuasion: in education and advertising, in protests and poetry, online and on the Hill. Together they comprise a pointillist picture of persuasion as a mode of convicted charity—willing to meet one's interlocutors where they are, while unapologetically hoping to change their mind. Ashley Berner captures this when she notes that persuasion "reflects a generosity of spirit that can hold strong beliefs but engage with The Other without anxiety, that is comfortable with commitment and also with change." Marilyn Chandler McEntyre notes that our best essayists, "those wordsmiths willing to speak with care and courage into a public forum where language is so often hijacked, held hostage, and abused," are public persuaders.

Another theme emerges in the collective picture of persuasion in this issue: be patient, and don't underestimate the power of little victories. In my conversation with Nicholas Wolterstorff, who played a role in changing the discipline of philosophy, I was surprised to hear him speak of modest goals. "Success" might simply be getting your opponent to pause and say, "Hm. You've got a point. I'm going to have to think about that." Eric Miller, the biographer of Christopher Lasch, identifies this as the simple goal of "making the committed think twice." That is the beginning of persuasion.

Persuasion is not necessarily the same as proving or merely demonstrating. Persuasion is as much art as science, as much a matter of aesthetics as logic. You can win an argument without necessarily persuading your interlocutor. It's not just what we say; it's also how we say it. In a little known tract called The Art of Persuasion, Blaise Pascal notes that, while demonstration is important, in fact most of us are persuaded in regions of consciousness that operate below the intellect. "For every man," he observes, "is almost always led to believe not through proof, but through that which is attractive." This is why "the art of persuasion consists as much in pleasing as it does in convincing."

This is not a brief for telling people what they want to hear, as if one would be "persuasive" by just being a mushy flatterer. To the contrary: to engage in the art of persuasion is to have a persuasion in the second sense of the term: a conviction, a settled assurance, a commitment to a particular vision. Only if you have a persuasion can you then take up the task of persuading others. Persuasion will be characterized by what Richard Mouw describes as "convicted civility." So when Pascal talks about persuasion being "pleasing," he means that successful persuasion will be logical and beautiful, coherent and convicting, well-thought and winsome. The art of persuasion appeals as much to the gut as it does to the head. To be persuaded is to not only be convinced; it is to be moved. See how beautiful are the feet of those who bring such good news.


James K.A. Smith is a Senior Fellow with Cardus, and the editor of Comment Magazine. He teaches philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he also holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. A native of Embro, Ontario, Jamie studied at Emmaus Bible College in Dubuque, Iowa; the University of Waterloo; the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto; and earned his Ph.D. at Villanova University. He is a Visiting Professor at Trinity College of the University of Toronto and has also taught at Regent College, Fuller Seminary, Calvin Theological Seminary, and Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando.


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