Means of Persuasion


Critical thinking is the study of persuasive (convincing) reasoning. It is persuasion to do and/or to believe something. There are many types or examples of persuasion we encounter in life:

1. Threats (hold-up man in back alley); terrorism; war; family abuse. These are all forms of threats, in which we say that someone must do what we want, under pain of physical violence. Some of these are obvious sorts of threats (e.g., gun to the head), while some are more subtle. Some may even be entered into voluntarily. For example, no one has to actually do the homework, but if you don’t, your grade will suffer. This could be seen as a threat, but it is one which a person voluntarily enters (within limits), given that the outcome is desirable. We see certain limited activities as legitimate in a certain setting. Only a few things are relevant to ask of you in exchange for certain grades. The disagreements are always within clearly defined boundaries. For example, it wouldn’t occur to any of us that you should mow my lawn to get a B, and do that in addition to trimming my hedges for an A. On the other hand, asking someone to write a paper in another context, and withholding something from them if they don’t, would be a real threat.

2. Advertisements
- Coke commercials, create aura of good feeling (Coke is it!; It’s the Real Thing; Always Coca-Cola)
- beer -- among other things, advertisers want you to buy it because it’s cold. Of course, that’s something you do to the beer, not something they do.
- vacuum cleaner ad (if you love your baby, you’ll buy a vacuum)
- Michelin tires: emotional appeal to save your baby.
- Tridel condominium/Berlin wall ad - association with positive event.
- Gap TV ads: Just young people dancing in khakis, or singing in vests, or whatever.

Note that the point here is that advertisers want you to do something, not to believe something. They just want you to buy; they don't actually care whether you think their product is the best, unless that leads to more buying later on. The usual point is to persuade by association, either with prestige, fun, protectiveness, or some other basic human urge. In other words, by making connections between products and positive or strong emotions, advertisers makes us see the world through their lenses. More importantly, we see ourselves through their lenses, by internalizing an image.
It is interesting to consider the reasons why this works. Fundamentally it comes down to the tie between the material world and our sense of self. Despite what we would like to believe, we do not come to the world with a coherent and well-developed sense of self. It is malleable. Not only that, it lies before us, not behind us. In other words, we look at ourselves in terms of what we might be, not what we have been. Advertising helps us imagine what we might be. In itself this is not a problem. However, we can end up believing that we are buying a “self”, when really we are just filling the manufacturer’s pocket, and we haven’t found anything at all.

3. Appeals to pity: In these cases, a person is persuading by threatening themselves, rather than someone else. These appeals may have a certain moral force, because the one making the appeal can claim that you are responsible if you don’t comply. A terrorist might say that he was forced to kill a hostage because you didn’t pay up. It may seem that you have a moral responsibility, although how far that goes is obviously open to question. So, here persuasion is tied to moral concerns. But it need not be a threat to self. It could be an appeal to pity that just relies on the wretched situation of someone. You are persuaded to give money to a charity because they show you pictures of starving people. It might be a good cause, but we all recognize that it’s perilously close to manipulation. We don’t know anything about the organization, and indeed in some cases they don’t actually support the starving very much at all. They are using the people to make money for themselves (although it might be called “overhead” or something innocuous like that.) In any case, pity is persuasion by moral force, but not necessarily the force of moral argument, but rather the appeal to existing moral feelings.

4. Pressure groups, strikes, etc. At some point, people decide to change things through various non-rational means. For instance, sanctions against South Africa. We said that until they change, we will not trade with them. Groups advocating for various issues before politicians may mobilize people to not vote for someone unless they do what the group wants. People go on strike to persuade an employer to meet their demands. In Kenya, for example, people have gone on strike to pressure the government for changes to the constitution before the next election. Why not use the usual rational means, like parliamentary debate? The argument is that reason has been derailed because certain cases cannot be presented, due to various features of the present constitution. So, since the usual rational channels are not an option, and change is necessary, non-rational channels must be resorted to.

5. Subliminal persuasion (message within a message, backward masking). Conscious vs. subconscious. Persuasion by appealing to something below the level of the rational. Sometimes it is possible, purposely or not, to persuade someone of something not by what is said, but by the context in which it is presented. Advertising,

6. Emotional hype (preaching, political sloganeering - wrapping oneself in the flag) Hype also capitalizes on feelings. It should be said that feelings aren’t bad things, but without reflection they are easy prey for the unscrupulous. In the case of hype, there is an appeal to popularity often at work. It’s easy to get caught up in a crowd, believing what the rest of the crowd does. It’s easy to all get angry at the same things, or go crazy for the Beatles or the Back Street Boys in the same way.

7. Argument

Now, the issue here is that not all types of persuasion are meant to convince us of a claim. Some (most, perhaps) are meant to convince us to do something, or not do something. Arguments uniquely are meant to convince a person of a bit of knowledge.

Why is this important? Why should we care about knowledge? Because many of the things we want to claim are cases in which knowledge is being constructed. Therefore, to be able to claim that we have knowledge about something, we need to be able to justify the claim. This justification is an argument.