Tag Archives: Ed Koch

Are We Still Persuadable?

                            Twelve Angry Men

Nearly every kind of organization—from art museums to local school boards—must face stakeholders who are too easily baited into the rhetoric of political outrage. This rhetorical bomb-throwing has taken some of the fun out of studying these cases.

As a young scholar I wrote a book with the subtitle, Case Studies in Constructive Confrontation.  It included a series of vignettes in which a righteous advocate pitted him or herself against someone equally righteous in their enthusiasm to rebuff the attempt.  It well may be that only my mother ended up reading Persuasive Encounters (Praeger, 1990), but it was a good exercise in testing the proposition that we are—at some levels—changeable.  My cases in this 1990 study ranged from John Lennon to former New York Mayor Ed Koch, from Phil Donahue to psychiatrist Thomas Szasz. Even abolitionist Wendell Phillips shows up to take on the defenders of slavery.  In every instance I focused on an advocate in a specific moment facing a mostly “hostile” audience: perhaps the ultimate trial-by-fire for any public person. With all of these cases and more, no one can say I didn’t cast my net widely.

In every instance I was doing what trained rhetoricians are prone to do: looking for how advocates uses the resources of language to clear a pathway to  the common ground of audience beliefs, values and familiar idioms.  The payoff was to see if any could achieve the rhetorical equivalent of a bases-loaded home run.

This professional fantasy easily comes to students of persuasion: can an advocate win over a skeptical audience? It sometimes happens in the movies and our dreams; why not in real life? As a faithful adherent to the idea that we respond to reason, I felt that there are instances when a very compelling advocate could turn the room around. After all, Mary Richards sometimes succeeded in softening up Lou Grant.  And who can forget Henry Fonda silencing the suspicions of eleven other jurors in the classic Twelve Angry Men (1957)?

My book examples came with a standard set-up: describing the context of a person’s appearance to a group, including some samples of their appeals, then looking for evidence of how an audience reacted. Could we see persuasion magic in a meeting between Mayor Ed Koch and a vocal group of citizens in a public meeting of District 6, in a meeting room near the East River (1988)? Could he convince them that he was working on the prevention of crime, do better on garbage collection, and spare the neighborhood of development that would partly cut off access to the waterfront? He was fun to watch because he was the rare politician who was comfortable telling a room full of constituents that they were wrong. Once, when enemies followed him around town with bullhorns shouting their abuse, he easily rose to the challenge by shouting back with his own bullhorn—and in one case—delivering insults to the ears of protesters standing in front of Bloomingdales.  Only in New York can you move from an elegant fragrance department in a department store to rhetorical slugfests just a few steps away. “I never feared speaking to any group,” Koch once noted. “I love the combat of the street in politics.”

If I once looked forward to finding encounters that would pit an advocate against a hostile audience, the fun has faded.  It seems like too many of our leaders and their stakeholders have too often gone from being “outspoken” to blatantly toxic. Nearly every kind of organization—from world-class art museums to local school boards—must be prepared to face true believers who now routinely overuse the bloated rhetoric of outrage and vituperation. This crudeness has even crept into the pathetic public rhetoric or our former president. Before Donald Trump, presidential rhetoric used to be routinely understood as a tool of verbal unification rather than division. But if everyone is shouting insults, very few are interested in finding agreement.

We are perfectly content to be consistently wrong.

Additional encounters I looked included Phil Donahue in a Moscow studio trying to get Soviet youths to admit to the authoritarian nature of their government; Senator Ted Kennedy facing a mob of Bostonians who were furious at his support of school busing; and the legendary Edward R. Murrow (recreated below by actor David Strathairn) confronting television news directors about their “insulation from the real world.”

I have gotten a little smarter since the book. A theoretical problem with examining change as a result of public rhetoric is that rapid attitude shifts rarely happen. In The process of persuasion is better understood as incremental: usually occurring over an extended period of time and made easier if one’s initial stance has not been witnessed by many others. So, it follows that I did not find much evidence of immediate attitude shifts within the audiences to these exchanges. As current levels of contemporary political discourse remind us, we are amazingly content to be consistently wrong.

The one clear exception was the artificial one of Brian Clark’s play, Whose Life is It Anyway? (1981). On film, it’s a tour de force performance by actor Richard Dreyfuss, who plays the role of a paralyzed accident victim demanding that the plug be pulled on his life support. His doctors resist even when they are taken to court. In this case, he does eventually get his way by persuading a sympathetic judge. Theater can make clear what real life obscures. But the point stands: persuasion happens over time, and attitude shifts are not easily observed. As with Mr. Clark, perhaps only in our heads or in fictional narratives are we are allowed to imagine how dramatic confrontations might yield a stunning result.

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Grace Under Pressure

Most people accustomed to the public arena have learned to not take audience opposition personally. In return, members opposed to a persuader can show unexpected forbearance. 

Kennedy and Falwell Source: Liberty Unversity
                         Kennedy and Falwell  at Liberty University 

Several decades ago I wrote a book describing a number of public figures who willingly appeared in front of “hostile audiences.” An audience is “hostile” if its known to oppose who you are or what you intend to say. Even so, these were individuals who were mostly fearless in facing their critics. I think only my mother actually read Persuasive Encounters when it was published in 1990.  Yet, a least for me,  the idea remains intriguing.

The book included transcripts and analyses of specific public comments made by a range of people, including Phil Donahue, Edward R. Murrow, John Lennon, Ed Koch, Ted Kennedy and psychiatrist Thomas Szasz.  Szasz was an interesting case. In a number of books and addresses he went out of his way to warn his medical colleagues that they were crippling their patients by renaming their bad choices as mental health “conditions.” So much for his chances to be a future President of the American Psychiatric Association.

Senator Ted Kennedy was also a useful example. By mistake he was sent an invitation to join the “Moral Majority,” Reverend Jerry Falwell’s crusade to purge secular liberalism and governmental activism from the American political landscape. At what was then Falwell’s somewhat constricted version of higher education known as Liberty Baptist College–they still had curfews, as well as prohibitions against women going on dates–Kennedy was Exhibit “A” for why the nation had strayed from its ostensible Christian roots.

But never a person to miss the humor in our foibles, Kennedy wrote back, telling Falwell he welcomed the invitation. After long distance pleasantries to smooth over the awkward snafu, Falwell made an offer to have Kennedy address his students at Liberty. And so the Massachusetts senator went to Lynchburg in 1983, offering a general plea arguing that we should oppose “religious tests” for public office-holders. That idea remains a cornerstone of evangelicals interested in politics.

The clean-cut audience couldn’t have been more courteous.  And Kennedy gave as much as he got. The speech included a generous acknowledgement of Falwell, acceptance of the value of religious belief, and a straightforward argument for tolerance of all or no faith traditions.

In my study, only New York Mayor Ed Koch responded as a rhetorical athlete, matching his audiences shout for shout. He returned a disgruntled resident’s sneer at twice its original speed and with far more topspin. At a particular public meeting held in one of the city’s districts sustained volleys between vocal citizens and the Mayor wore down even  hardened veterans of municipal feuds.

Persuaders in front of hostile audiences are interesting not because they may produce charges and countercharges, but mostly because of the reverse:  there is usually surprising and sudden elasticity of viewpoint in many who are involved. People accustomed to the public arena have mostly learned to not take audience opposition personally. In return, members opposed to a persuader can show unexpected forbearance.

And so a whole series of questions seem interesting. In terms of communication skills, how resourceful can a respondent be to complaints that they are “out of touch,” or are “dishonoring” the public office they hold?  How focused can they remain in the face of criticism and overt disbelief?  And what ideas or values can a persuader dramatize which—to quote a common phrase—affirms the idea that ‘our areas of agreement are much greater than our differences?’

Versions of this line have been delivered many times by Barack Obama and less frequently by Donald Trump. In rhetorical terms, it has been a common trope (a recurring pattern in discourse) for public figures to explicitly celebrate a common culture and shared history of beliefs.  And so it reenacts what is perhaps the most universal of all communication impulses: the reaffirmation of the other’s legitimacy in the culture.  Our opponents may annoy us. They might seek ways to limit our reach or effectiveness. But the basic courtesies we expect even from those with seemingly alien views are an anchor against currents that can sweep away a tenuous civility.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu