LETTER | I like Mr Rogers. It’s hard not to like such a genuinely good person even if I haven’t really watched a proper episode of his show, Mr Rogers’ Neighbourhood.
Every child should watch it, in my opinion, and I look forward to one day owning the box set.
But I recently watched a YouTube video I came across speaks of why Mr Rogers was so successful in convincing people of his point of view and the techniques he employed, consciously or not, to persuade the masses.
It speaks of a popular, and correct, implementation of rhetoric that stretches back to Grecian times but remains relevant until now.
However, I feel the handling of this implementation can subtly influence the mechanism of discourse in such a fundamental way that it detracts from the point of discourse in the first place.
Modes of persuasion
To elaborate, the video went into Aristotle’s modes of persuasion or rhetorical appeals. It states that to successfully persuade an individual or a group, one needs to employ the three modes of persuasion, namely: Ethos, Pathos and Logos. Ethos is an appeal to authority or credibility of the presenter, usually presented by establishing the prior experience in the field being talked about, demonstrating mastery of the terminology of the field or presenting some form of qualifications on the matter.
Pathos is an appeal to the audience’s emotions by passionate delivery, flowery metaphors and generally showing agreement with a value the listener holds to. Logos is a logical appeal describing facts and figures augmenting one’s arguments.
These were covered in the video by referring to Jonathan Haidt’s theories on the perception of morality. Haidt characterises the human mind as a partnership between separate, but connected entities; a rider and an elephant.
The rider, representing the rational, conscious mind, has only one percent of influence on one’s decisions whereas the elephant, representing the subconscious, controls the other 99 percent and is influenced by feelings and intuition. It is then to this elephant that the presenter is told to appeal. If the elephant is convinced, the rider will follow.
Perversion of discourse
Why am I so disturbed by the application of this analysis? It has to do with the fundamental point of discourse. We put forward arguments to questions to get to an answer which is as close to the truth as possible. This is done in many places, from courts of law to civil societies to parliaments. It forms the cornerstone of decision-making in a well-organised society.
Hence, we must be wary of how we approach treating discourse. The emphasis on persuasion that we see today is somehow independent of the quality of the substance in one’s arguments. What I mean by quality is logical arguments soundly following a well-developed train of thought bolstered by robust facts obtained from a variety of resources.
Instead, from debate instructors to corporate trainers, often preach the merits of getting people on your side regardless of the quality of your arguments which is rewarding the wrong kind of attitude. Speaking of debating, this can be seen in many competitions, where the crux of the debate is lost and a minor point is focused upon to gain the perception of superiority.
The substance of the debate is lost and the winner declared from not who had better arguments but who was the better sophist. In fact, it can even be seen in society at times when certain individuals are promoted over other, more deserving ones. No more is this clearer than in Malaysian politics, where your conduct with those in power is much more important for success than your merits.
General contempt for procedure
To me, the focus on rhetoric rather than the substance of one’s arguments is one example of a general contempt for the basic tenets on which society is formed. There is a method within the structures that exist to facilitate human communication.
In activism, for example, every day there is more talk of working with the system, that is, not organising the masses to oppose the powers that be but somehow holding ‘civil’ discussions in which representatives of both parties (those looking for a change and those with the power to deliver) convene to decide on a win-win solution.
What is unfortunately lost is the realisation that unequal power exists between the two parties. Without proper mobilisation, the collective power of a group is lost and those in power can exert undue influence on the group to come up with lopsided deals.
Similarly, legitimising these modes of persuasion as an actual tool by which to influence people de-legitimises the whole point of discourse. It distorts the playing field between ideas and leaves room for persuasion for persuasion’s sake to flourish. Hence, those who were persuaded are duped into agreeing with an idea they might not even properly understand.
I hold this to be true even if an individual doesn’t mean any harm by utilising these modes and even when one is speaking truthfully. Rather, if someone is to persuade an audience on their arguments, they should work on the content of the arguments in the first place. They should make sure their content makes internal sense and their logic is sound with proper work done on their analysis.
To persuade or not to persuade?
How does, then, one convince another of the superiority of their stance? A seemingly reasonable question this seems, but one that misses the point, in my opinion. It focuses on the method of delivery rather than what is being delivered. I believe methods of persuasions must and do come from understanding one’s stance to a high degree. Those who are willing to engage another or even the public on a certain topic have to be passionate enough to truly understand the ins and outs of their points and logic.
By preparing well enough, through an honest undertaking study where one’s initial stance is only as concrete as the evidence supporting it, one may equip oneself with enough knowledge and developed ways to present them such that they are effective. This is a much harder task, of course, but it is a more honest representation of facts compared to learning how to manipulate the audience to be on one’s side regardless.
What’s more imperative is the preservation of the responsibility of the listener. We are usually more interested in how a presenter can successfully present their case but not enough with what the listener does with the information presented to them. It is important to emphasise the frailty of human beings in accurately understanding data. Healthy scepticism is necessary for anyone being presented to.
They need to be aware of their potential biases, listen to the key points of the presenter with an open mind and do their own research to verify everything presented to them. Then and only then will we get a mature society, never by promoting short-cuts to get the listener on our side independently of the arguments presented.
In closing, discourse is a relationship between the presenter and the listener. It is a contract between the two where the former presents their case and the latter decides whether or not the arguments are sound. This is supposed to be a two-sided relationship where each party respects the other’s autonomy.
However, with the emphasis placed by the presenter on the modes of persuasion, this relationship is shifted to give more power to the presenter, effectively subjugating the listener to undue manipulation.
It is clear then that the whole point of discourse is fundamentally damaged by the modes of persuasion as understood as tools to be used to win over an audience. Rather, it is a much more fruitful endeavour to teach the audience to be better listeners and to actually be aware of their subconscious biases that may impact upon the decisions they are making. They should be aware of their elephants.
For while it may be so that the human mind is slightly controlled by the conscious rider but mostly moved by the subconscious elephant, it simply would not do for the rider to let the elephant behave as it sees fit. This is, then, the responsibility of those receiving rhetoric.
This article was originally featured in Liberasi.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.