Against persuasion

Particularly since reading What is Talmud?, I have been thinking about the goals of conversation. As often happens with me, my initial impetus in thinking through this issue stems from annoyance: I’m always very annoyed when someone proposes abandoning a conversation because persuasion is unlikely, particularly when they cite the problem of incommensurable presuppositions. Those kinds of declarations always weirdly instrumentalize conversation, which is an activity that I enjoy for its own sake. It’s fun to talk about ideas, to come up with new ways to defend or explain ideas, to hear new criticisms — or at least it can be, when people aren’t uptight and don’t take a challenge to their statements as a personal insult. My ideal of a night out is sitting around a table with people shooting the shit, and that’s the way I approach blog conversations, at least when I’m at my best. I have no idea why it would occur to me that such a night out would be more fun or more worthwhile if only I could get someone to have the same ideas as me.

The emphasis on persuasion seems to me to err in at least two ways. First, it misunderstands the various relationships one can have with opinions. Opinions range from deep convictions that have stood the test of time to new and appealing ideas that one is more or less “trying on,” with a lot of room in between — and then there’s also the possibility that someone is more or less parroting some view without having really thought it through. My post for the Barth blog event, for example, does largely reflect my position, but at the same time it was a thought experiment and an improvisation, prompted by an initial befuddlement as to why so many people take it for granted that Barth is a rigorously Christo-centric theologian of revelation free of any overarching presuppositions, whereas it’s apparently a priori impossible that Hegel, for example, could be responding “directly” to the Christ event. I’m willing to stand by what I wrote and have not read anything in comments that has struck me as a particularly effective counter-argument, but at the same time, I’m not willing to die for the cause of Hegel’s Christocentrism. The error in the persuasion-centric approach is that it doesn’t really allow for such shades of gray — every opinion is essentially treated as a deeply held conviction.

Second, they err with regard to how persuasion actually happens. A serious change in point of view is basically never going to be the result of someone winning an argument. That’s not how human beings work. A discussion might nudge someone in a certain direction or cause them to question things in a new way, but the actual process of changing one’s mind — at least about anything really important — is slow, personal, and often largely unconscious. Yes, people should be open-minded and not prematurely dogmatic, but at the same time, we’re all human beings with a history and we largely have good reasons for the positions we hold, or at least I hope we can assume that’s the case for people (like the majority of the audience for this blog) who have done a lot of serious study. Expecting to persuade someone to change their view on anything at all serious after one conversation is arrogant and disrespectful.

And indeed, a lot of the assessments as to whether persuasion is going to be possible or not seem to me to be, at bottom, extremely arrogant — something I also detect in the “niceness police” stance, which often includes the lament that overheated rhetoric will undermine the goal of persuasion. If these people are such experts in persuasion, then why haven’t they convinced more people to adopt their views? And how dismissive is it to assume that you can tell in advance whether someone is worth your time, based on whether you’ll receive the all-important payoff of persuading or being persuaded?

A conversation is an improvisational encounter between people and therefore unpredictable. At its best, it’s a chance to think new thoughts, or think old thoughts in a new way that you never would have without the intervention of that other voice. But even if it fails to attain that goal, conversation is a way of being with people. Yes, sometimes people are annoying or frustrating or stubborn or not as nice to you as you’d like. Sometimes they’re tired or lacking in insight or not paying as much attention as they should be. I guess angels probably have much more productive conversations than we do, but we are what we are.

The teleology of persuasion fails to take that reality seriously — and at its worst, it can instrumentalize people, something that is often particularly visible during election seasons, when the niceness police come out in force to encourage us all to moderate our rhetoric lest we alienate a swing voter in Ohio, etc. Not every day is election day. Not every conversation is a jury trial where we need to suspend judgment and base our decision solely on what is presented in that conversation. In reality, there’s no need for a decision most of the time. There’s no big rush to change our opinions or convince others to adopt them, because at the end of the day our opinions aren’t that big of a deal.

Now of course everyone has limited time and has a right to opt out of conversations they’re not enjoying — and I can definitely see how one might find it more enjoyable to converse with people who share a certain base level of presuppositions, for example. But I think we’d all be better off if we admitted that was what was going on, rather than raising these huge meta-questions about the possibility of persuasion, the problem of incommensurable presuppositions, etc.

6 thoughts on “Against persuasion

  1. Another great fan of conversation, the philosopher Stanley Cavell, is fond of referring to Milton’s discussion of marriage (in his defense of divorce) as a long conversation. Anyone who has been married knows that this long conversation is definitely not about persuasion, at least if it’s going to have a small chance of actually being long. (The comedies of remarriage he studies in his over-the-top brilliant book called Pursuits of Happiness are all about finding one’s way back to the conversation after one party closed it down — usually the man — by turning the marriage into a court of law, demanding proofs of the other’s assertions of love).

  2. Surely the greatest factor in the rarity of people’s changing their minds is that that is part of their lives. It is a painful thing.

    I find that the people I can discuss things with the best are those with whom I have feelings in common on the good, the true, and the beautiful – and those who are incontrovertible observers.

  3. Slightly late, but how would this idea of conversation and persuasion effect your pedagogy and classroom behavior? How do the postures of the teacher differ from the more egalitarian ‘blog commenter’ or pub-converser? How do the time constraints of a ‘class’ differ and demand more or less attempts at persuasion?

  4. The major difference is that in the classroom, I’m able to hold them accountable in a concrete way for basic accuracy and cogency of argument. My posture in class discussions has tended to be fairly open, trying to encourage people to get involved in the discussion — I’m up-front about where my commitments lie, but I never expect people to become my clones or disciples. It’s much more important to me that they learn to read well and make arguments that make sense than that they come to any particular conclusions.

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