Dialogue, Power, and the Teaching of Persuasion

Herbert Simons hsimons at temple.edu
Wed May 16 14:30:54 EST 2001

Herbert W. Simons wrote:

The conversation has been helpful, but I need to stop and smell the
flowers. Hence, a few last thoughts on persuasion dialogues, coercion in
society, and the teaching of persuasion.

(1) As regards the conditions for "persuasion dialogue," Paul Turpin

To haul this back to Burke and Herb's ideal dialogue model, I want to
suggest that the issue of Herb's example of conversation regarding US
foreign policy is not just one of the relative equality of Herb's
discussants (thereafter subsumed under the rubric of love, or complete
identification), but *also* --note: not *rather*-- the relative
*uncertainty* of the discussants--i.e., the willingness to continue
engaging in conversation towards the as-yet undecided meaning or
resolution of the subject under discussion.  If the conversants--or even

one of them--were already partisan on the issue, e.g., respectively
pro-Muslim or pro-Serb on the topic of Kosovo, the ideal discussants
might be in trouble.  In Clement's terms, the equality of the dialogue
might be disrupted by distorting differences in social power or by an
unwillingness to listen to others' positions, or both.

Turpin's comments are insightful. As regards his three "variables," I
believe partisanship (in Turpin's sense of having strong convictions)
does not preclude two people engaging in a persuasion dialogue.  Status
inequality can be a problem for dialogue of any sort; add perceived
certainty and it's fairly well doomed.

When I suggested that "persuasion dialogue" was too tame for Burke's
"human barnyard," I meant, in general terms, that it was inapplicable to
social conflicts; i.e., to Burke's "region of the scramble"; i.e., to
"clashes over incompatible interests" as opposed to mere differences of
opinion. Extending Turpin's point, it's one thing for the conversants in
my example to differ over whether the U.S. should have intervened in
Kosovo; it would be quite another for the Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo
to have had that conversation at the height of their conflict. To have
an interest in something is to perceive oneself as having a personal
stake in the matter, not "just" an opinion. The distinction between
differences of opinion and differences in interests remains
undertheorized by rhetoricians, though Burke was sensitive to it. He was
also aware that conflicts--i.e., "antagonisms"--could be "incomplete,"
hence the possibility of seeking advantage WITH others, rather than at
their expense. He knew as well that differences of opinion could BECOME
conflicts of interest, as in wars over religion or national pride.
Ironically, the greater our interdependence, the more we need to
coordinate our efforts, the greater the likelihood  that differences of
opinion will become conflicts of interest.

(2)  As regards teaching persuasion vs. teaching resistance to
persuasion, Mike McGee wrote:

Rather than teach classes in persuasion, therefore, I think it follows
scholars should write textbooks and develop pedagogies following John
Bowers' experiments from the 1970's and 1980's with courses in
resistance to


 Leslie Bruder has already made the crucial points in response to
McGee's "rather than" argument. We can't not be persuaders. We shouldn't
want a world in which others didn't try to persuade us.

Rather than dichotomizing between teaching students how to persuade and
teaching them how to become discerning, discriminating, sometimes
"resisting" message recipients, we need to do both. Moreover, it's
important that students come to recognize in what ways the world tends
to look different from the perspectives of persuader and persuadee.

This has important implications for the ethics of persuasion.  We are
far more likely, for example, to forgive deceptive practices when we are
functioning as persuaders than when we are the perceived victims of
those practices. [There are interesting exceptions to this
generalization--e.g., our apparent willingness to be deceived by
advertisers.] Correspondingly, we tend as persuadees to be insensitive
to the situational contraints that persuaders typically confront.
PERSUASION IN SOCIETY enjoins its readers, then, to develop what I call
a dual perspective on persuasion, even at the price of experiencing the
pain and bewilderment of the resultant "double vision."

Herbert W. Simons
Professor of Speech Communications
265-65 Temple University, Philadelphia, PA 19122
wk: 215-204-1880  fax: 215-204-8543
hm: 215-844-5969
Coordinator Temple Issues Forum, http://www.temple.edu/tif
Homepage, http://astro.temple.edu/~hsimons
New book: see sampler at http://sagepub.com/simons

More information about the KB mailing list