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.