Is Persuasion Bad for Society?
Some months ago, I read an article titled “Art and Propaganda” in the online edition of The Nation, and found it to be insightful, challenging, and mildly persuasive, at least in part.
It’s a terrific article, and worth the read. Milton Glaser, a Fulbright scholar and one of America’s most celebrated designers, wrote, ” The mind’s ability to alter itself is the source of human freedom. Information expands the capacity of the mind to change. Persuasion limits that capacity. Beliefs must be held lightly, because certainty is frequently the enemy of truth.” I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, and I can go along with much of what he said. But it all falls apart for me when it comes to one of his core ideas.
Glaser writes that “Persuading us robs us of our ability to observe things for ourselves.” No, sorry, it (persuasion) does not. It can’t do anything. It is but a tool, a method, a means to an end. It is amoral, meaning it can be used by anyone for any purpose, ethical or not. At best, the use of persuasive communication increases your odds of a successful outcome. But the use of persuasive communication comes with no guarantee. Persuasive skill is naught but a construct of human imagination and ingenuity applied to an outcome, and matched against the formidable and very human capacity to think, to question, to challenge and arrive at one’s own conclusions, I don’t think it stands a chance. Not even a little one. The only thing that robs us of our ability to observe for ourselves is our failure to think for ourselves about information presented to us. And yes, that happens. When it does happen, when we are persuaded when we ought not to be, that’s an opportunity to get feedback about how we think, and to learn how to think even better.
When information is presented non-persuasively, I suppose a case could be made that because it is not compelling, we don’t have to think about it. The idea, I suppose, is that non-persuasive communication is easier on our busy and pitiful little minds. But that’s just whack. The real challenge of life in these modern times is to make note of the fact that compliance professionals (Cialdini’s term) are running rampant up and down the threads of our cultural connections. So whenever communication takes place between people, whether it’s a conversation, a meeting, a radio spot or television ad, the responsibility for our choices falls squarely where it belongs, on ourselves.
Persuasion is an attempt to influence people’s attitudes. I find nothing inherently wrong with the idea of people seeking to influence each other. Indeed, I think that’s how it should be, because an idea presented non- persuasively has little chance at influence, no matter its worth. Attitude drives behavior. Seems to me that persuasive skill is a necessary tool for parents, managers, service providers and a whole host of others trying to either improve their world, their relationships, or their lot in life.
Wise parents persuade their children to think for themselves. Otherwise, the kids won’t be able to protect themselves from peer pressure and other coercive influences. The wise service provider persuades the customer to learn about and take advantage of a system, product or service intended to serve their needs. Otherwise, there can be no trust building for the long term reciprocal relationships necessary to the success of a business. And as for managers, the wise manager learns everything he or she can about what motivates their employees and teams, and uses this knowledge to engage, empower and employ the best those people have to offer. Otherwise, a non-persuasive manager can cripple an enterprise, sow the seeds of a revolt, throw sand in the gears of progress.
I just can’t persuade myself to hold it against anyone that they communicate persuasively. Even if I despise what they stand for, they have the same right as I to try, and if they believe they are right, they should go about their communication the right way, using the art of persuasion. I think it a valuable endeavor for you to improve your persuasive skills, since without persuasive ability, you may have the solution to a problem yet the problem persists; the answer to a question, yet the question goes unanswered; a way to move things forward, yet no progress is made.
Admittedly, people are all too often more emotional than thoughtful in their responses to the signals of persuasion. Yet for this very reason, when hope requires persuasion, without it there is no hope.
What do you think? Better to be persuasive, or leave everything to chance? I’d love to hear your thoughts.