Back in college I was initially a communications major. I eventually switched to journalism, but not because that was the career path I was interested in. I just knew I wanted to be a writer and thought it would be good training. Indeed it was, helping me to craft crisp prose while also gaining research and interviewing skills – skills I put into practice at Libretto every day.
Yet it was a communications class that I remember most fondly. It was called Persuasion Theory. I was fascinated to discover how to change people’s opinions, perceptions, and behaviors (another useful skill at Libretto). I recall learning about cognitive dissonance, the tension that arises when an individual tries to hold contradictory attitudes or actions simultaneously; it’s possible to get people to adopt your side if it helps them achieve consonance within themselves.
This very thing happened to me several years ago. I was always a Scotch drinker – Johnnie Walker Black, specifically. But one day I got an offer from Maker’s Mark, a bourbon brand, inviting me to become a Maker’s Mark Ambassador. For reasons I cannot retrieve, I signed up and began receiving regular mailings from them. They sent me information about the product, invited me to local events, and every holiday season they sent me a small gift to accompany my bourbon-drinking experience.
Except that I was still drinking Scotch. Eventually, I began to feel guilty about the fact that I was accepting gifts from Mark but buying his rival Johnnie. When it got too much for my psyche to bear (I’m being dramatic but love triangles bring that out in me), I finally broke down and bought a bottle of Maker’s Mark. And not only did I enjoy it, I also felt good about buying it. I ended things with Johnnie and I remain a loyal and true Ambassador to this day.
Some of the greatest documents in American history are examples of persuasive prose. Take the Declaration of Independence, which is nothing if not a bold and detailed effort to persuade the rest of the world that the colonies have just cause for declaring their independence from Britain. After the introductory paragraph (“When in the Course of human events…”), there is the thesis statement:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government….
That is followed by a lengthy list of grievances (27, in fact), and ultimately ends with the declaration that “these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved….”
Another great example is Abraham Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech from 1858, which he delivered upon accepting his party’s nomination for U.S. Senator, a race he would lose to Stephen A. Douglas. In his speech, Lincoln says that the fissure between slave and free states cannot continue, and that the country must arrest the spread of slavery and put it on the path to extinction. He attempts to prove a conspiracy among Douglas, former President Franklin Pierce, sitting President James Buchanan, and Chief Justice Roger Taney, whose Dred Scott decision barred any legislative body from excluding slavery in the territories.
In the speech’s most famous passage, you can hear the strains of cognitive dissonance arising from the presence of slavery in a country founded on the ideals of freedom and liberty:
A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.
I will end with what I think is the greatest piece of political persuasive prose ever published in this country: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail, written on April 16, 1963. It is so extraordinary that I daren’t excerpt it but would entreat you to read every blessed word. You will again find the idea of cognitive dissonance expressed:
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. … Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths…so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
We may all need a little more persuading on his final point.