Cultivating a Lost Art

Civil conversation is sadly a lost art. In Winsome Persuasion, however, Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer contend that the more civil we are, the more persuasive we become.

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authors, as an example, point to the fiery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison who railed against slavery in the most absolute, uncompromising terms–even burning a copy of the Constitution every Fourth of July. He never took time to understand, empathize with, or seek common ground with his opponents. He persuaded few who were not already persuaded.

In contrast, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a story to get past the “watchful dragon” of the heart, as C. S. Lewis described how fiction could circumvent our usual defenses. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she cast slaves as main characters, not as scenery. She overcame stereotypes going both ways, casting Simon Legree as a northerner and Augustin St. Clare as a southerner opposed to the institution. She sought common ground by appealing to the common humanity of all. The impact was enormous in rallying widespread support for ending slavery.

Muehlhoff and Langer unpack several key ways we can do the same today. First, we can cultivate ethos by presenting ourselves as a trustworthy person who can see both sides of an argument, by showing courage, kindness, justice, and humility, and by exhibiting goodwill in looking for the best (not the worst) in our opponents.

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second strategy is to read the rhetorical situation; that is, finding values and ideals that both sides can agree on and using those to move the discussion forward.

Third, we need to adjust our message and style of presentation to the constraints of our situation. These constraints can be the length of a tweet, time limits given to speakers, the amount of evidence we have, or a sore throat. But constraints can also be matters of decorum or social expectation–we don’t interrupt other speakers who have the platform, or in a Q&A audience members ask questions and don’t give tirades. Bulldozing ahead headless of these constraints will generally not win us supporters.

Fourth, we can form loose connections with outsiders. Francis Schaeffer called this joining with cobelligerents–those we agree with on one issue even if we disagree on many others. Conservative Christians, for example, can form a loose connection with feminists when both seek to keep a college campus safe for women at night.

Muehlhoff and Langer write primarily for Christians who see things in society they would like to change or improve. They exemplify well the virtues they are trying to nurture in their readers. As they give examples, they show both sides of issues with understanding and compassion. They show wisdom in understanding the value of compromise and how to get there.

Throughout they emphasize humility, a quality severely lacking in the public square. By following their advice, we will immediately make our society better.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

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