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Persuasion 2

The Threat of Persuasion

What if deeper conversation threatens my very sense of self? In most cases it is infinitely worthwhile to engage in such “rival contestation.”
This is the second in a series by Arthur Peña, Charles Randall Paul, and Jacob Hess called “Inevitable Influencers: Why (deep down) we all want—and need—to persuade each other of what we see as good, beautiful, and true.” The introductory piece was “Why Persuasion Should be a Sweet (Not a Dirty) Word.”

The Big Idea:  Sure, persuading and being open to persuasion sounds great.  But what if deeper conversation threatens my security, the meaning in my life, my sense of self, or even my very life or the lives of ones dear to me?  There are no easy answers to this, but after years of observing people engaged in radical disagreements over values, we have seen how remaining honestly engaged in mutual persuasion contests with our rivals (and even with people we might consider to be our mortal enemies) can often lead to positive change in attitudeseven if it does not always seem to bring consensus or peace right now.

“Why talk with a Latter-day Saint?”   

We asked a gay rights activist friend of ours this question.  Why, indeed, would a gay rights activist fighting for what she would call “marriage equality” want to talk with a conservative person of faith who believes that sexual relations and marriage between people of the same sex is contrary to God’s law and ultimately damaging to human happiness and societal health? After all, that religionist would be challenging aspects of our friend that she considers fundamental to who she is as a person, and to her ability to live a life of love and fulfillmentalong with threatening the validity of her marriage to another woman. Other people in same-sex marriages have children, so entire families are sometimes at stake.  

And why would that same Latter-day Saint want to talk with her?  After all, from this conservative person’s point of view, the very definition of marriage (not to mention its sanctity) is being threatened by her community, as well as the very notion of “family.”  Indeed, from that perspective, the very fabric of societyand people’s very soulscould be at risk. 

What could such people hope to gain from entering into a conversation that assumes a willingness to both try to persuade and be open to being persuaded?

If legislation continues to move in a “progressive” direction, at what point will conservative people of faith be forced to choose between their convictions and the law?  Furthermore, if our gay activist friend is right about the naturalness and moral acceptability of homosexuality, then some very fundamental religious beliefs are wrong, and the very structure of spiritual authority in a church like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is called into question.

On a larger level, this raises the question of why would anyone want to talk with anyone else who questions or challenges something that one views as being so deeply personal and fundamental to who one is as a person?  One’s very sense of self, one’s very sense of the meaning of life, and very real social structures (marriage, nation-state, economic relationships) could be at stake.  Indeed, one’s very life could be at stake.  

So, why risk it?   

Why indeed, when even planetary survival might be at stake?  Why, for example, should a climate change “believer” engage in whole-truth-seeking conversation with a climate change “denier”and vice versa?  Isn’t the “denier’s” denial (from the climate “believer’s” point of view) reflecting a dangerously delusional belief contributing to a climate catastrophe that could conceivably make the planet uninhabitable?  Why engage with such a person? And in the reverse direction, from the “denier’s” perspective, hasn’t the “believer” simply swallowed hook-line-and-sinker a hoax perpetrated by environmental extremists who do not have our best interests at heart?  Why, pray tell, should either one of these people be open to being persuaded on any point?

Similarly, why should a libertarian advocate of capitalism sit down at the table with a Marxist socialist and engage with someone who (the capitalist thinks) represents an ideology that has caused the deaths of millions and the destruction of entire nations?  And why should a Marxist socialist be open to persuasion by a person who advocates a system (he considers to be) the embodied enemy of people’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

Likewise there are those who find themselves at odds over what it means to be “patriotic,” or, indeed, whether one ought to be “patriotic” at all.  What could such people hope to gain from entering into a conversation that assumes a willingness to both try to persuade and be open to being persuaded?

We might consider the possibility of conversation between a religious adherent talking openly with someone deeply critical of their faith claimsperhaps especially one who has departed from the faith. Given the risk of harming one’s faith, there are many instances of both sides intentionally avoiding any real exchange. 

Or take the divide between black Americans and the KKK.   One can easily imagine either side entering into a conversation in order to persuade . . . but open to being persuaded? That is harder to imagine.

Let us provide just one more particularly poignant example. In order to bring home the difficulty of assuming that being open-to-persuasion may not always advisable or possible, this example involves a mother’s love for her child:  if a parent identifying as an LGBTQ ally believes that her gay child has been harmed by orthodox religious teachings, how could she even entertain the notion of being open to being persuaded by a religious person’s point of view on the matter?  Or, conversely, if a devout conservative Christian mother fears for both the temporal happiness and the eternal destiny of a child considering embracing his or her homosexual orientation as central to that child’s identity, what possible reason would she have for entering into conversation with the aforementioned LGBTQ ally?

Might risking one’s deepest convictions by opening oneself to persuasion be itself an evil thing?  After all, some believe that the devil himself can appear as an angel of light. How do we know when to draw the line?  How do we know when, instead of listening, we should be arming ourselves (either metaphorically or physically) to the teeth and fighting?  

We have been asking a lot of questions in this chapter.  The answers aren’t always so clean and simple. For instance, we acknowledge that the answer to some of these questions may simply be: “No, engaging in conversation with ‘those people’ may not be worth the risk. It may not even be right to entertain the possibility of being persuaded by ‘those people.’”

That may be true for a variety of reasonsranging from the willingness of one or both parties to be open to new insights (or the emotional readiness either of them may have to  engage in the first place) to occasions in which too much is simply at stake (personal security, or foundational identity or faith, or other non-negotiable values or causes). 

And, of course, at different periods or moments, we may simply feel that it is too painful or threatening to have such a conversation, even if we want to and can imagine good coming of it.  While the potential legitimacy of threats against us is important to acknowledge, it’s also helpful to admit how often we can live from a place of reactivity as a human speciesinhabiting almost a chronic “fight or flight” place on a physiological level.  This isn’t true for all of usand certainly not all the timebut for many of us, many times, this can be a complicating and compounding factor here. In that case, a sense of threat sometimes would say more about usour emotional and physical statethan it does the objective scope of the threat itself. Like a hyperactive immune system “attacking” a non-threatening antigen during an allergic reaction or in one of the many autoimmune disorders plaguing us today, hyper-reactive emotional responses can possibly hit any of us.  

No matter how we might feel about someone’s position, we might at least open to the possibility that this other person who believes something wrong and unsettling might well have goodness or thoughtfulness to them.

If that’s where we’re coming from (at times), it shouldn’t perhaps be hard to understand why any of this deeper conversation (especially the persuasive variety) can feel so impossible to engage in.  

It’s important to note, however, that this doesn’t deny the possibility of deeper reactivity being a good thingin the sense where certain deep gut reactions towards real threats or our enemies can act as wise guides to taking needed action (fight or flight).  Studies of crime victims have found a surprising number of people recollecting a visceral sense of deep threat right before being attacked. In the case of real threat upon us, such a sense can protect us from real harm if we pay attention to it.  

So, is it really possible (or advisable) ever to say “yes” to such potentially threatening conversations?   

We believe it is.  For a number of reasons.

First of all, such conversations are clearly possible, as they do, in fact, happeneven in the most unlikely of situations (e.g. How One Man Convinced 200 Ku Klux Klan Members To Give Up Their Robes).  

Furthermore, while they may not necessarily involve being either initially or ultimately open to persuasion on certain core issues (a black man is unlikely to seriously consider whether or not the KKK’s views on the inferiority of his race are true or not;  likewise, a Latter-day Saint and a gay rights advocate may not be willing to consider changing their beliefs on doctrine or identity), there may be many other levels or dimensions to the issue in which openness to mutual persuasion may be more possible.  

No matter how we might feel about someone’s position, we might at least open to the possibility that this other person who believes something wrong and unsettling might well have goodness or thoughtfulness to them (even despite that disappointing, noxious belief).  That, in turn, might lead to other discoveriesallowing us to see, for instance, that their deeper intent is something we can resonate with, if not the details of how they’re pursuing that intent.  We might, in other words, come to see that their otherwise unacceptable beliefs might point to a more humanly understandable strategy to meet some fundamental human need for security, meaning, belonging, etc. (The Non-Violent Communication folks are especially good at facilitating the appreciation of the “needs” underlying our sometimes “unskillful” strategies we use to meet them.) 

We also believe such conversations are indeed advisable, as we do happen to live together on the same planet, and in the same country, and our interdependent lives cannot help but influence each other.  While “marriage equality” advocates and “traditional family” defenders may never see eye-to-eye on some of their differences, they might find themselves at least “persuadable” on a practical level–merely acquiescing to mutual toleration living in a kind of separate co-existence. While this is a thin foundation for trustworthy stability, it is better than active persecution that leads to social catastrophe.

If such difficult conversations are simply avoided, howeveror if they are not engaged in on deep enough, whole-truth-seeking levelsthe strategies for co-existence may not be sufficiently rooted in the true lived realities of both sides so as to ensure more lasting solutions.   

Similarly, climate change “believers” and “skeptics” may continue to disagree on many things, but, if they choose to take off their blindfolds and unstop their ears and begin to treat each other as allies-in-tension in the search for the whole truth of what is really going on with the climate, they may find ways to convergein spite of their differenceson ways of finding more truly life-sustaining and environmentally-friendly sources of energy.  However, if, instead of seeing each other as allies-in-tension, as co-resisters, united in the common project of real understanding of both each other and the worldif instead of this they merely continue to try to “win” the argument, and fail to see their ideological opponent as perhaps their greatest gift, then they are unlikely to “converge” on real solutions (whatever they might be) to real problems (whatever they might be).  Instead, they are likely to remain in mutually-imposed exile from the riches of each other’s insights and experiencesriches which arguably no one else can provide.

In the long run, it is conceivable that one side or the otheron any number of important issueswill eventually “win the day,” leaving no real room for the other’s beliefs, or cherished ways of life.  But the more mutual understanding there can be among people holding even truly irreconcilable points of view, the more likely that mutual influence will, at the very least, be based on the truthand not on lies we may be telling about each other.  We will no longer be “lobbing bombs on straw men,” as our friend Steve Bhaerman has put it, but rather meeting honestly, respectfully, as worthy opponents on the battlefield of contending truth claims.  

Therein, perhapsin the larger, whole truth of a mattercan be found the way out of the impasse and into productive conversations.  There is almost always some degree of truth in almost any perspective, and there is also (almost always) something we can learn from nearly anyone. There is, moreover, almost certainly something very important that ‘those people’ can learn from us.  Even if we know in our hearts that ‘those people’ are wrongmaybe even dead wrongand that we will never change our own minds, we might at least discover that engaging in whole-truth oriented conversations with our ideological (and maybe even mortal) enemies has the potential to help them “see the light.”

There are so many other lovely surprises that can emerge from such an encounter.

It’s worth a shot, isn’t it?

At an even deeper level, even assuming that no such ‘conversion’ in our own point of view is likely, there is always our own integrity to cherish and cultivate.   Standing firm in the face of ideological opposition can serve to strengthen our own conviction of the truthsharpening our arguments and deepening our own understanding, along with our own sense of self worth and dignity (or the dignity of the individuals or groups of people we may be fighting for).  

And, if, in the end, it turns out that we must face each other on the battlefieldeither metaphorically or in physical realities legally or culturallythen, at the very least, we will know we have exhausted the possibilities for peace, and we have pursued the path of truth and persuasion to the best of our ability.  We will, in other words, at least know (to the best of our ability to discern) our enemy as they really are. And we may even have caught a glimpse of their essential humanity, and come to see them as at least “worthy” opponents (even if still wrong, perhaps tragically, deeply, horrifically wrong).  

In this way, we will, at least, have “grokked” our enemies. But peace does not necessarily follow “grokking,” as Heinlein’s novel “Stranger in a Strange Land” describes it:

The Martian Race had encountered the people of the fifth planet, grokked them completely, and had taken action; asteroid ruins were all that remained, save that the Martians continued to praise and cherish the people they had destroyed. 

Like the Martians from Heinlein’s novel who “grokked” their neighbors on the fifth planetand then proceeded to destroy them (as it seemed they must)we too may have to draw a line in the sand, and use whatever means we have at our disposal, to defeat our enemies. Peace may not always be possible.  But, perhaps, the kind of love of enemies real enemiesis still worth it, and we, too, may “praise and cherish” whatever is good and worthy of being saved in them.

But that is only the worst possible scenario.

There are so many other lovely surprises that can emerge from such an encounterfrom insights that open our minds to new vistas, to fresh emotions that dissipate a chronic hardness towards Those People we’ve been carrying around.  

More basically, maybe just acknowledging our mutual threat would be an opening to greater empathy.  And, perhaps, a whole new world of fruitful co-existenceas yet unimaginablecould open before our eyes.  

Have we persuaded you to give it a try?   We hope you’re at least tempted. After all, the worst case scenario is still there, if we need it (appreciating something beautiful about an enemy we’ve committed to fight).  Since we all know that we don’t know everything, why not bank on the possibility (however remote) that whole-truth-seeking, even with our mortal enemies, might provide us all with something we can “praise and cherish.”

And in the end, maybe the meeting of hearts and mindsin the midst of deep suspicion and irreconcilable beliefsis itself worth more than any mere resolution of the conflict.  We happen to think so, and it is this experience of a Third Possibilitya conscious connection in the midst of ultimately unbridgeable chasms of objectively irreconcilable differencesit is the experience of this kind of communion on the level of heart and spirit that is what most motivates the authors of this book.

Jacob may one day have to take the sword of truth and thrust it into Arthur’s heart.  Arthur may one day have to shake the very foundations of Jacob’s spiritual security. Randall may one day have to rudely awaken both Arthur and Jacob to a truth neither wants to see. The mutual threat may be very real indeed.  We do not know.  

But, what we do know is that, in the meantime, here and now, we find we can actually love each other, in spite ofperhaps even because ofthe fact that we find in each other worthy opponents on the battlefield of truth claims.

Having grokked each other, maybe there will be nothing left but “asteroid ruins.”  Better that, we think, than ruins left in the wake of a war fought without having first grokked each other. . . . better honest battle than wars fought on the basis of misunderstandings and lies.

The Big Invitation:  

Next time you are in the presence of your enemy, take stock of what you really know for sure (beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt) about him or her.  Then ask yourself: is this someone I should, from this moment on, fight with all my might? Is this already the point of no return? Or is this person someone I may yet find a way to live with in peace?  Is this person, perhaps, even someone I might come to love? Is this person someone I might even need in some way (either as useful opposition to help me sharpen and deepen my own understanding, or as someone from whom I might need to learn something)? 

If there is the slightest chance that this might be so, then ask yourself:  shall I take the chance and engage? Here? Now?

We cannot offer any further advice.  Past that threshold, your choice is up to you.


About the authors

Arthur Peña

Arthur Peña is a semi-retired teacher of Spanish and English as a Second Language. He has an M.A. in linguistics from the University of Iowa, and a Certificate in Conflict Resolution from Sonoma State University.

Charles Randall Paul

Charles Randall Paul is the President of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy and Chairman of The World Table, PBC. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Committee on Social Thought, an MBA from Harvard, and a BS in Social Psychology from BYU.

Jacob Z. Hess

Jacob Hess is a contributing editor at Deseret News and publishes longer-form pieces at He co-authored "You're Not as Crazy as I Thought, But You're Still Wrong" and “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.” He has a Ph.D. in clinical-community psychology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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