Why it’s so hard to persuade

Each week, Symposium Magazine invites an author to guest-blog. This week’s featured piece is History Versus Hagiography by Robert Ventresca.

To conclude the discussion on persuasion and on its power to inform our public reasoning, be it on historical or contemporary matters of dispute, it may be instructive to call upon the wisdom of the ancients. The Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero famously observed that there were two ways to settle “disputed questions”: either by discussion or by force. The first, he said, is the approach preferred by men; the second is the way of brutes.

History suggests that the first approach is the more arduous one — the road less travelled, as it were. It is hard to persuade another, and to be persuaded by another, if we close our minds to the possibility that the other might hold the rationally superior point of view -– the empirically based argument or the more logically consistent moral claim. Often in our day, we find it easier to seek the specious shelter of an all-embracing multiplicity of truths than to stake a claim, honestly and transparently, for the rationally superior argument.

It is even harder to be open to persuasion if we dismiss alternative viewpoints as intolerant and intolerable simply because they are so very different from our own. Such an attitude is the very antithesis of tolerance and acceptance; it actually constitutes a subtle but harmful form of prejudice. We might say, even, that the line between conviction and prejudice can sometimes be blurred.

As Mortimer J. Adler observed, “prejudices are barriers to persuasion.” Only by removing these barriers can we hope to practice fully the art of persuasion, to the enrichment of public reasoning and debate. Removing these barriers is the first step toward “understood disagreements” and toward the possibility of eventual agreement on the disputed questions of our time, and of all time.













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