Daily Herald columnist Jim Slusher: Understanding writing that aims to change your mind
By Jim Slusher
When was the last time a piece of writing or a public speech immediately changed your mind about something? I'm going to take a wild guess and bet you can't remember.
Persuasion, I've come to find, doesn't work that way.
I think a lot about this around election time when we are doing research, conducting interviews and writing editorials to endorse certain political candidates. And, of course, the concept applies to nearly everything we publish as "Our View" on our Opinion page every day.
Ideally, we hope that what we write in our editorials will persuade readers to our way of thinking. Realistically, we know that does not happen often.
Many's the time I have written a column or editorial, punched in the final period and sat back with an almost satisfied smile to think, "Well, there. That's the last word needed on that subject" only to find to be slapped with reality in the coming days to find that not all readers were swayed by my unassailable logic, deep research and eloquent turn of phrase.
Indeed, quite a few had logic, research and well-turned phrases of their own to provide a very different, often directly opposite point of view. This naturally wounds the pride more than a little, but more important, it also leads me to examine my own reading and study of differing points of view. What I've come to realize is that I've almost never changed my mind on the basis of a single essay or speech. Instead, when my personal points of view have changed, it has almost always come over the course of long periods of thought and review of both opinions I agree with and those I don't.
The real value of all those essays and speeches wasn't in the thinking of the moment, but in the thinking they stirred as I go about the routines of my life, reflect on the ideas I've been forced to encounter that I might not otherwise have considered and challenge statements with which I would generally agree. Thoughts percolate over time. They intermingle with additional ideas that others express on a topic. Eventually I find myself either revising or gaining confidence in my original opinion.
The realization has given me important new insights into how I react to what I read and hear. Without question, I still respond with anger or emotion at times when I'm confronted with arguments that offend me. But over the cool space of time, I find that I also have to wrestle with the positions I've encountered and internally reflect on whether my counter responses have any power or merit. If we're interested in getting at truth rather than merely affirming what we already believe, it's in that process where our opinions take shape and, sometimes, change.
In truth, I suspect that one persuades only exceptionally rarely, at least in the moment. But perhaps over the course of time, the things we write and say influence the thinking of people who are willing to listen -- and maybe even some of the hardheaded, if they're truly willing to consider alternatives to their own ideas.
Therein lies the real value of public discourse. One may well say his piece, drop the mike and leave the stage, but he'll quickly find that someone else is all too ready to pick up the microphone and feed in some ideas and information of his or her own.
Even more important, one may hear or read ideas that at first have no impact, but he or she will also find in the coming days and weeks that some of the truths of what was spoken have to be engaged and dealt with. It's the result of that process where honest opinions take shape.
So, yes, we would love it if our editorials immediately moved you to share our view. But we also know very well that they're more likely to only to stir your thinking. And if that happens and if you're honest with yourself, you'll come to a point of view that seems most right to you. Whether in the end that is ours or not, we will have done our job.
• Jim Slusher, firstname.lastname@example.org, is managing editor for opinion & administration at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.