Persuasiveness depends on whom you’re trying to persuade and what you’d like them to do. For a broadcaster concerned about ratings or a political organization looking for contributions, rants and zingers can be effective. But for an individual trying to persuade personal acquaintances who disagree with him to consider his point of view, unnecessarily emphasizing his friends’ wrongness doesn’t work.  In fact, it is exquisitely counterproductive.

Facebook is awash in pithy sayings and images from both sides of the political fence, as well as longer articles, blogs and “rants.” These often include gratuitously inflammatory language like “Feminazis,” “lunatic fringe,”  “class warfare,” and “War on Women,” language that is not necessary to get the basic point across. The caption of one progressive list serve email included the words, “ [name of speaker] …Takes on the Six Biggest GOP Lies,” while a conservative pundit titled one of his pieces “Will Somebody Please Tell Me How We Compromise with Socialists?”

Inflammatory language works for political organizations and pundits because their objective is to grab the attention of an audience of people who are already inclined toward their view of things. In the case of broadcasters and writers, their interests also include ratings or circulation, and thus, entertainment value.

When trying to gain one more donation from those who already support a cause, a title like “…Takes on the Six Biggest GOP Lies” is more effective than this alternate title I composed for the same subject matter, “Six Surprising Truths about Economics.”  The former title is more likely to draw donations from Democrats, but less likely to inspire Republicans to read the article. My reworded title, by omitting the label “lies,” would increase the chances your Republican friends might read the article if you post it on Facebook or email it to them.

“Will Somebody Please Tell Me How We Compromise with Socialists?” has greater attention-getting and entertainment value than “One man’s Take on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Health Care Reform and Disaster Relief,” again, my own substitute title. But the latter version, by eliminating that suggestion that progressives aren’t open to compromise, makes the article more likely to be read by progressives.

Broadcasters and fundraisers know who their audiences are, and are not.  Rush Limbaugh and the Fox channel pundits know perfectly well that progressives either don’t listen to them, or they listen only to stay informed about what those scary neo-conservatives are up to.  The people who run progressive political organizations like PFAW and MoveOn know perfectly well that conservatives don’t subscribe to their list servers, or they subscribe only to stay informed about what those scary liberals are up to.

For fundraisers, it’s more important to get donations from those who lean their way than to try to change the minds of those who strongly oppose their positions. Their opponents aren’t listening (or reading) anyway. For broadcasters and writers, it’s more important to entertain and satisfy their target audience than to try to influence those who aren’t listening or reading anyway. So generating fear and anger by vilifying and ridiculing “the other side” can be effective for the purposes of fundraisers and broadcasters.

To put it another way, fundraisers and broadcasters’ interests are served by making their target audiences feel superior to those who disagree with them. They embellish the wrongness of their opponents so their audience can feel right by comparison.

But are we persuasive when we repeat their words to our friends?  Again, it depends on which friends and what we want them to do. Let’s look first at those who already agree with you politically. If you want to keep them more scared and angry than they need to be in order to stay informed and decide how to vote, then, yes, borrowing inflammatory language from fundraisers and broadcasters is effective.

But is that what you want? Ask yourself, do you do your best thinking and best work when you’re scared and angry? If you’re like me, you don’t, and neither do your friends.

Now let’s look at your politically opposite friends. You’d like them to consider your point of view, or at least discuss it with you, right? Well, they don’t do their most logical thinking when they’re angry either. Of course any disagreement with others’ beliefs indicates we think their beliefs are wrong. But adding unnecessarily inflammatory language decreases calm reflection and increases anger. “Feminazi” is wrong making, whereas “feminist” is not (at least not to a feminist). “Lunatic fringe” is more wrong making than “neo-conservative.”

Why does it matter? This is not simply about being kind and compassionate. As explained in Chapter 4 of Bridges to Consensus, when people, and their concepts, are made wrong, they resist your ideas in three predictable ways—denial, rationalization and projection. (“Projection” means relieving my discomfort about being wrong by making someone else even more wrong than I am.)

Even children do this. What happens when you reprimand your daughter for watching television when she’s supposed to be doing her homework? “I am doing my homework.” [Denial] “I’m watching PBS, it’s educational.” [Rationalization] “Well, I was doing homework till a few minutes ago, but brother’s been out riding his bike since we got home from school.” [Projection]

By adulthood, we’ve become pros at resistance to being wrong. I wouldn’t really do this, but let’s suppose that one of my clients paid me in cash for a consulting session, and I pocketed the money without reporting it as income. A friend finds out and tells me, “Margaret, I didn’t think you were the type to cheat on your taxes.” I might be tempted to say something like, “A measly $120? That’s not cheating.” [Denial] “I’m sure if I went over all my back tax returns, I’d find more than $120 in deductions I failed to claim.” [Rationalization] “Besides, last week you accidentally walked out of a restaurant without paying, and you never went back to settle up. Better to cheat Uncle Sam than a little mom-and-pop café.” [Projection]

A zinger directed at a concept or leader we respect seems to fall on us by implication.  My concept is judged wrong, so I am judged wrong.  My hero is an idiot or a lunatic, so the zinger flinger must think I’m an idiot or a lunatic.

What do I do then? Maybe I fire back by trying to project greater wrong on you. “I’d rather be a socialist than a fascist.” “If Bush was Hitler, Obama’s the devil incarnate.” Maybe I only unfriend you or block you from my newsfeed. Maybe I just tune out. But what I don’t do is say, “Oh, I never considered how idiotic my ideas are. Thanks for pointing that out. I’ll think about what you said.”

It’s hard to listen with an open mind to a contrary opinion because a contrary opinion, by its very nature, suggests the listener’s own opinion is wrong. However, if we can express our opinions or facts while minimizing the wrong-making rhetoric, we stand a fighting chance that the other person will listen and, sooner or later, think about what we said.

Conversely, gratuitously raising the level of wrong making by name calling, sarcasm, or other judgmental terms only ensures that anyone who is not exceptionally mature and high-functioning will reject your ideas out of hand.  The average person isn’t going to change her political stripes because you called her a Feminazi or a Neo-Nazi.  And even a Zen master might struggle to stay tuned if you suggest his candidate and he are idiots, liars, or are waging war on an entire gender or social class.

But what about cartoons and funny quips? Doesn’t the humor offset the wrong making? Not if it makes fun of those who disagree with you. It not only makes them wrong, it ridicules them. If the cartoon or slogan seems to imply a “gotcha,” or a “so there,” it’s wrong making on steroids.

If you don’t believe this, try an experiment. If you support Obama, look on the internet for anti-Obama cartoons. If you support Romney, look for anti-Romney cartoons. Can you see why those who are against your candidate might find some of these cartoons humorous? Were you persuaded to consider the candidate you oppose by these cartoons? If not, how did you react? If you’re like me, you support your candidate even more.

Those who disagree with you react the same way to anti-their-candidate, or anti-their-position, cartoons and zingers. Yet somehow, it’s instinctive for us to feel that the sarcastic approach that puts us off will be persuasive to our opposite numbers.

The truth is that most of us don’t actually think much about what we want to accomplish when we share things that add unnecessary wrong making to our opinions. We see something that expresses what we believe so well, so succinctly, or so humorously, that we click “share” on autopilot, or we quote the zinger in conversation with someone who holds an opposite political view.

That urge to click “share” is so hard to resist. Sometimes I feel like a tractor bean is pulling my finger to the button. On a gut level, we feel we are doing something to help our cause.  But when we share unnecessarily wrong-making content, we increase the resistance of friends who currently hold other opinions, and as explained above, we also cripple kindred spirits with gratuitous fear and anger.

Perhaps we did not share the cartoon with any real hope of convincing someone who disagrees with us. We may feel that those who disagree are beyond reach anyway. But do we want to inspire them to donate even more to their candidate? Do we want to inspire them to volunteer more hours at a phone bank? Do we want to put the last nail in the coffin of possibility for reasonable dialogue with them?

Perhaps we only shared the zingy cartoon with select Facebook friends who think like we do. But how do we know whom they share with?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t express our opinions, but rather, that we should express them in ways that actually serve our interests. My suggestion, therefore, is this: if something you see or read expresses new information or a belief you’d like others to consider, but goes beyond disagreement to include unnecessarily wrong-making rhetoric, restate the idea without the extra wrong-making words, then post your restatement instead of sharing the original. Or look for a non-inflammatory article that makes the same points.

Or borrow an idea from physicians and “first do no harm”; post nothing. If your news or analysis is not worth the time and trouble of rewording, it’s not worth the risk of increasing resistance to your ideas.

Better yet, lets stop using Facebook as our default, one-size-fits-all medium for political communication. Let’s try having a real conversation with someone who holds different views, preferably in person, or at least on the phone. Then let’s use our communication skills from Bridges to Consensus. Instead of directly contradicting the person, ask some open questions about why they believe what they do, and what they think about some of your ideas. Paraphrase their answers to show them you listened. Who knows, you might find that they begin to ask questions and listen to you.


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