Social Change is the Art of Persuasion

Good commentary and overall approach that should work with most people – start with probing and engaging rather than labeling:

I recently gave a commencement address at a college in rural Ohio. My driver from the airport was a kindly white man who had spent most of his career teaching high school chemistry in West Virginia and retired in Northeast Ohio because the culture felt similar but the economy was better.

Over the course of the hour-long drive he:

  • spoke about the opioid crisis that had afflicted his friends’ children;
  • expressed appreciation for the steady stream of cultural activities that the college (speakers, concerts) provided;
  • invited me to stay at his house when nobody answered the doorbell at the local inn (it was almost midnight by the time we arrived, I think the innkeeper was dozing);
  • decried the racism of some of the townsfolk;
  • leveled criticism at Sean Hannity for being a fear-monger;
  • leveled criticism at Donald Trump for being, well, Donald Trump;
  • used the word ‘Negroid’ in conversation with me;
  • praised Barack Obama;
  • asked (without overt mal-intent) if I thought Hispanics were poised to take over the country;
  • asked (also without overt mal-intent) if I believed Islam was compatible with America.

How should we characterize this man? Generous? Racist? Inquisitive? Neighborly? Of the past, not the future?

Should I have called out the racist things he said (there is more than one item on that list)? Should I have asked the senior administrators of the college to fire him for making me uncomfortable (he hadn’t, really, but I can certainly see how his conversation would have been hurtful to others)?

I believe the great writer Zadie Smith had precisely such a man in mind when she wrote in the New York Review of Books “… individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting.”

For one who believes in a multicultural vision of America, I believe the best way to understand and approach such a man is to engage in persuasion. Social change is the art of persuasion. And the central tool of persuasion is language.

My favorite line in all of hip hop is this one from Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) “Speech is my hammer bang the world into shape

Now let it fall … (Huhh)”

So what type of speech is most likely to persuade this man, to tease out the melodies in him that are in tune with the coming majority-minority America?

Shall I tell him of his white privilege? Shall I inform him that systems that once worked in his favor (systems which were invisible to him, but not to others) for so long are being questioned, challenged, and sometimes dismantled outright?

Or shall I take a different approach? Shall I talk to him of George Washington and Jane Addams and Dr. King and say that they were dreamers and builders of a nation where both he and I could thrive?

And as I quote Washington and Addams and King to this man, shouldn’t I realize that such people were proudly willing to speak with people with whom they disagreed. As Jane Addams wrote, “We know instinctively that if we grow contemptuous of our fellows and consciously limit our intercourse to certain kinds of people whom we have previously decided to respect, we not only tremendously circumscribe our range of life, but limit the scope of our ethics.”

Which language – the multiculturalism that speaks principally of white privilege and systems of oppression, or the multiculturalism that speaks optimistically of American inclusiveness and welcome – is a more useful tool to bang the world into shape?

Source: Social Change is the Art of Persuasion

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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