Archive for July, 2010

The Ethics of Persuasion

July 20, 2010

(This blog first appeared in the Waterloo Region Record, May 4, 2009, p. A7, while I was serving on the Community Editorial Board, and is here slightly revised.  Newspaper title:  “The art of persuasion isn’t necessary bad”)

Do you think it is wrong for someone to try to persuade you about anything?  My hunch is that most readers will answer, yes.

Suspicion about persuasion is widespread.  We also don’t have a very high opinion of practitioners of persuasion, for example, people involved in public relations, merchandizing and religious proselytizing.  Why?  I suspect the main reason for these suspicions is that we like to think of ourselves as autonomous.  We see ourselves as independent thinkers and believe that we don’t need anyone meddling around with our beliefs.  Leave us alone!  After all, we can make up our own minds, thank you very much!

There is a problem with this attitude, however.  None of us are quite as independent as we think we are.  The human condition is characterized fundamentally by inter-dependence, and this also applies to the way in which we acquire our beliefs.  Indeed, most (maybe even 95%) of the beliefs that we hold are a result of persuasion.  Just think of all the beliefs that we’ve inherited from our parents.  Here we need to keep in mind that persuasion can be both, explicit or implicit.  Some time ago Vance Packard, a noted critic of the advertising industry, correctly drew our attention to “hidden persuaders.”  The phenomenon of hidden persuasion also applies to the beliefs, attitudes and prejudices that we absorb in childhood.  This is similarly true for many of the beliefs that we absorb via our immediate environment – the media and our culture.  These are powerful persuaders, and we can’t avoid them.

Then there are our teachers.  Much of what we believe is accepted on authority.  Children believe what their teachers say.  Even at universities, professors exert a powerful persuasive influence on students.  Indeed, university professors themselves are not quite as independent as they would like to think.  They too submit to the latest academic fads and to pressures of political correctness.  The late Richard John Neuhaus, a prominent Canadian-born churchman and writer liked to characterize the intellectual elite and the chattering class as “a herd of independent minds.”

We are dependent creatures.  We need to be persuaded.  We would not be human without persuasion.  And we like to persuade others.  We are by nature persuading animals.  Our prejudice against persuasion is unwarranted.  To be suspicious about all persuasion is to hide our heads in the sand.

Rather than condemning persuasion outright, we need to pay more attention to distinguishing between ethical and unethical forms of persuasion.  Unfortunately, not much attention has been given to this task.  I suspect the main reason for this neglect is the widespread tendency to condemn all forms of persuasion.  This neglect is also due to the notorious difficulties associated with distinguishing ethical from unethical forms of persuasion.

Take for example the need to distinguish between coercive and non-coercive forms of persuasion.  An ancient and armed crusader announcing, “Convert, or I will kill you,” was obviously engaging in coercive and hence immoral proselytizing.  However, it is much more difficult to identify psychologically coercive proselytizing.

But we must not give up too soon.  Here are some questions that might help us to make the all-important distinction between ethical and unethical forms of persuasion.  Have you given explicit or implicit permission to be persuaded? Does the persuader genuinely care for you as a person?  Are persuaders being truthful?  Do they engage your reason in trying to persuade you?  Are they people of integrity?  Do they have something to gain from persuading you?  Are they willing to admit that they might be wrong?  Is the persuader open to having you persuade them?  Do they respect your freedom to say no?

At a societal level, we need to be especially concerned about the connection between power and persuasion. Do monopolies of persuasion exist?  Multiple voices of persuasion are an essential feature of liberal democratic societies.

So the next time that you encounter a persuader, whether a salesperson, a political or religious proselytizer, an editorial writer, or a friend trying to convince you about something, don’t simply engage in a blanket condemnation of what they are doing.  At least they are being explicit about trying to persuade you.  Maybe you can even learn something from them.

Persuasion arises because we as human beings differ.  Persuasion, if done in an ethical manner contributes to the dignity of difference.  Indeed, healthy persuasion is both an expression of the persuader’s own dignity, and an acknowledgement of the dignity of the person being persuaded.

(For more on this topic, see my book entitled, “The Ethics of Evangelism:  A Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion,”  published by Paternoster Press and IVP Academic, 2011.)  For more information on this book, see topic of “Books” under Pages.


Against attack ads in politics

July 13, 2010

(This blog first appeared in the Waterloo Region Record, June 1, 2009, p. A11, while I was serving on the Community Editorial Board.  Newspaper title:  “Political attack ads are an affront to our society”) 

Once again the Conservative party is using attack ads against the leader of the Liberal opposition.  These ads have prompted a spate of critical editorials (and columns) in the Record. But to my mind they don’t go far enough.

The current attack ads against Michael Ignatieff might not work as they did against Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, it has been argued.  These attack ads might backfire.  To describe Ignatieff as “arrogant and elitist” resembles “childish name-calling.”   One editorialist has described the Conservative advertisements as “the most offensive smear ads I’ve ever seen,” appealing to some of the worst prejudices in this country – anti-Americanism.  Another has highlighted how this “gutter campaign” will only foster more disrespect for politicians.  Why would anyone want to make the necessary sacrifices to enter politics “only to have your character sullied and your motives misrepresented.” 

I agree with all of this.  But, we need something more than a clinical analysis of attack ads.  To analyze their effectiveness, or to assess whether they might backfire is not enough. We need to question the very use of attack ads in politics.  We need a critique of smear campaigns, period.  While these editorials (columns) sometimes hint at this, they fail to explicitly address the much more important question  – is it right to use attack ads?  I believe there are four reasons why the use of attack ads in politics is very wrong.

First, such attack ads represent a failure in logic.  Any student who has taken an introductory logic course knows about the ad hominem fallacy.  Never, never, attack the person with whom you disagree.  When critiquing someone, you must be careful always to focus on the issues themselves.  A person’s motives and demeanor in delivering arguments are completely irrelevant to the arguments themselves.  Conservative hucksters need a lesson in logic.

Second, attack ad campaigns debase politics itself.  They reduce politics to propaganda.  They put the citizen at the mercy of the hired manipulator.  Image is what counts, not a party’s political platform. Elections are now won by the party that runs the most vicious smear campaign.  This is a betrayal of deliberative democracy.  Conservative campaign managers need a lesson in democratic politics.

Third, attacking persons is immoral.  Ignatieff is described as “In it for himself.”  Who isn’t?  How about Harper?  But, more importantly, questioning a person’s motives is terribly wrong, unless his/her motives are directly relevant to the issue being discussed.  Distorting the truth is morally wrong.  Character assassination is wrong. The people behind these Conservative attack ads need a lesson or two in morality. 

Finally, these Conservative ads campaigns represent a failure in faith.  Harper should know better.  He is, after all, a self-declared evangelical Christian.  A fundamental tenet of the Christian faith is to treat people with respect.  Each person is after all, made in the image of God.  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  “Get rid of slander of every kind.”  I am not suggesting that Harper himself invented these attack ads.  But they had their origins in the party that he leads.  He is ultimately responsible for them.  Harper needs a lesson in basic Christianity.

These attack ads are an insult to all rational, democracy-loving Canadians.  The very idea of using smear campaigns in politics should be vigorously denounced by anyone having a political or moral conscience. 

The citizens of Canada deserve better.  We need a “politics of civility” as has been suggested by Ignatieff.  We have the power to raise politics to a higher level.   The citizens of Canada need to punish the Conservatives at the next election for daring once again to run a gutter ad campaign.

Financial Crisis and the Ethics of OverConsumption

July 3, 2010

(This blog first appeared in the Waterloo Region Record, Jan. 12, 2009, p. A9, while I was serving on the Community Editorial Board.  Newspaper title:  “We have no option but to change our overconsuming society”) 

 The news about our current financial crisis seems to be getting grimmer by the day.  Factory lay-offs and closures.  The auto industry struggling to survive.  Growing fears about losing one’s job.  Consumer confidence decreasing.  Recession.  What next?

 And what solutions are being proposed?  Encourage consumer spending.  Sales, and bigger sales.  Lower interest rates so that people will borrow to buy more.  Reduce taxes so that taxpayers will have more to spend.  Provide a bail-out to keep the auto-industry and its many auxiliary industries afloat. Why?  Failure here means thousands of workers unemployed, and therefore unable to buy things, thus further escalating the recession. 

 What I find significant is that both the cause and the cure of the current financial crisis are seen as tied to consumption.  Regarding cause, the media carry story after story about consumers who are limiting their buying to the basics.  The purchases of big ticket items are being postponed.  The SUV market has plummeted.  Even the market for corporate jets has gone into free-fall.  But of course, these cautionary responses only escalate the crisis, we are told.

  The solutions proposed again relate to consumption. We need to restore consumer confidence so that people will again buy new houses, new cars, new big-screen television sets, and more toys for grown-ups and children alike. Do we need all these things?  No.  But having a “healthy” economy is dependent on our buying things that we don’t really need.

 Surely, there is something fundamentally wrong with all this.  We are addicted to consumption, but addictions are never healthy. Obviously some consumption is necessary, but not over-consumption.  One cannot live by bread alone.  The desire to consume more and more can never be satisfied.   Indeed, a preoccupation with owning things is dehumanizing.  Persons become mere “consumers” to be manipulated by retail advertising or by government encouragements to increase spending.  Over-consumption is also not sustainable.  It rests on over-production, and the exploitation of the environment and of people.  Surely there is something terribly wrong with 20% of the world’s wealthiest people consuming a massive 86% of the planet’s resources.

 But if there is something fundamentally wrong with over-consumption, then there must also be something fundamentally wrong with an economic system that rests on over-consumption.  Unfortunately noone is talking about this aspect of our current financial crisis.  Everyone simply assumes that the key to recovery is to restore consumer confidence so that all of us will once again consume more than we need.  We refuse to ask the more basic questions.  Should we, for example, let the auto-industry shrink because we simply have too many cars?  We refuse to see this crisis as a wake-up call to invest in public transportation systems that will be much more ecologically friendly.  We continue to evaluate our governments simply on the basis of their ability to get everyone spending money once again.  And what is curious here is that all the political parties agree on these spend-more solutions.  None of them seems capable of really progressive thinking on this matter.

 So, what is the solution?  For a start, we need to begin questioning what is universally taken for granted.  One possible guide might be E.F. Schumacher’s, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.  Schumacher would have us look at “Buddhist Economics” as an alternative to modern economic theory.  The essence of civilization, for the Buddhist, is not found in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character.  Self-centredness and over-consumption are evils to be overcome.  Simplicity is a norm, and it is the only way to counter the violence against other persons and against nature that is inherent in modern economics. 

 Impractical, you might argue.   But, our present system isn’t exactly working very well either, is it?  And it never will be.  We need to rethink the basics.  We need to explore other alternatives.  We need an economic system that is stable, sustainable and more equitable.