Stories and the art of persuasion

How do you persuade or convince someone that your opinion on an issue is either the correct one, or, at the very least, worthy of serious consideration? Or, to phrase the problem in a slightly different way, how to you get someone to understand something from your perspective – particularly when their perspective is so radically different? This is a problem that has haunted me for many years. I have, for example, particular views on what the economy is and how it should be modelled, views that are radically opposed to the current dominant neo-liberal model, views that are dismissed by the people I want to engage as (at best) against common sense or (at worst) part of a communist take-over plan.

Whilst this is a chronic issue for me, it occasionally become acute – like when the government, in lifting COVID-19 restrictions, blatently prioritises consumption and the revival of economic growth over the health and safety of its citizens. A standard response would be that I simply need a good argument – that if it doesn’t convince people of the correctness of my argument then it is wrong. Plain and simple. In other words, we are all rational thinkers and are quite capable of making decisions and evaluating ideas using good old reason. But it’s not as simple as this. And we have known it’s not as simple as this for well over two thousand years.

Aristotle was probably one of the first thinkers to study the art of persuasion, or, as he termed it, rhetoric. His work on the subject is still quoted today and still forms the essence of most modern studies. And it certainly moves us beyond a narrow focus on rational argument. For Aristotle, there are three ingredients to the art of persuasion: logos (reason, rational argument); pathos (emotional engagement); and ethos (the character the person making ‘the argument’). So yes, whilst presenting a well-reasoned argument to your audience is important, it is not enough. It’s necessary but not sufficient.

Engaging with your audience on an emotional level is also important. Despite the idea expressed in classical economic theories that people make economic decisions based on rational self-interest, in practice (as people engaged in the advertising industry, people paid to persuade us to make decisions in their clients’ favour, know) it’s usually emotion that sells. And regarding the character of the speaker, I suggest that the only reason why some people have supported Boris Johnson is because they warm to his character. They accept what he says because they regard him as ‘one of us’. Never underestimate the importance of the assessment of character. However, despite my belief in the necessity of all three of these ingredients, I don’t think that taken together they are sufficient. There’s a vital forth ingredient that has not so much been ignored as taken for granted. And that is story or narrative. Or, to use the closest word from ancient Greek that I can think of, mythos.

Mythos is the story that has to be present in order to make sense of any argument related to it. It supplies the relevant history or histories of an argument, its context and background. However, I use the word mythos with some caution because it obviously implies fiction or fable, a story that is essentially untrue. But when you think about it, if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that these stories have to be, to some degree, fiction. Take for example the recent debates about the British involvement in the slave trade. Yes, the history we tell ourselves about the slave trade must be based on evidence – evidence that is, to some degree, factual. But this evidence cannot, on its own, form the story that we use to make sense of what happened. First, someone (or some group of people) decide what evidence to include and what to ignore. History, someone once remarked, is written by the winners. Not by the humans that were captured, traded, bred and put to work to make a fortune for the businessmen whose work we celebrate with statues in public places. Not by the women who, for centuries, were deprived both of a vote and an opportunity to express their views on important issues. Arguably a true history needs to include all these voices, though in practice some selection is inevitable. And second, because a narrative (a story) needs to be written that connects the selected evidence in a cause and effect way. Or, to put it another way, the evidence needs interpreting.

My point, then, is that logos, pathos and ethos are all necessary elements in the art of persuasion, but that on their own they are insufficient. What’s also needed is a story or narrative (mythos) that explains the context or history of the situation we want to change, a story that explains how we got to this point and where we need to go from here. These stories have always been present whenever someone or some group is being persuaded of something, but they have always been implicit. I want to suggest that to become really effective in the art of persuasion we need to make these stories explicit. We need to show how the story being told is rational. We need to facilitate emotional engagement with the story. And we need to make the characters of the main players in the story clear – not only the narrator, but the victims, the villains and the heroes. We unconsciously do all these things already. But what we do not do is to pay attention to the story itself. If we fail to do this we risk telling the same old story, a story that we are comfortable with, but a story that doesn’t support the argument we are trying to make.

The necessity of rewriting history

Writing in today’s Daily Telegraph, Boris Johnson ‘warns’ that “Britain cannot ‘photoshop’ its long and complicated cultural history.” His comments refer to the boarding up of the statue of his beloved Winston Churchill in Parliament Square ahead of threatened Black Lives Matter protests at the weekend, and the toppling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol the weekend before. His choice of metaphor, however, seriously misrepresents the process that creates our, or any, history. In fact it reveals a serious lack of understanding as to what ‘histories’ actually are.

“Photoshopping” refers to the editing and / or manipulation of images – images originally taken of an actual event. So, is an original photograph (or any artefact) a history? Well, obviously, no – not on its own. The best we could say is that it is a piece of historical evidence. But even as a piece of historical evidence we can’t claim it to be a definitive description of its subject. We first need to ask a series of questions: Who took it? Why did they take it? Why did they choose this angle as opposed to another? What did they decide not to photograph or record? Why? And even then we don’t produce a history. Even a whole collection of photographs spanning many years do not constitute a history – not without some narrative that connects them together.

On this point, the Home Secretary’s comments the week before reveal a greater understanding of the historical process. Also writing in the Daily Telegraph, Priti Patel wrote: “I profoundly dislike the rewriting of history through a twenty first century lens.” However, whilst acknowledging that histories are written, she seems unaware that we have no choice but to rewrite history, any history, each and every time we revisit or think about them, and that we have no choice but to do this through a twenty first century lens.

Histories, all histories, are stories. They are narratives. Hopefully these narratives are constructed from actual evidence and are not complete works of fiction, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate all elements of fiction from them. Think about it. The past is a seamless flow of events. Even the selection of particular events out of this flow is problematic. For example, both the start and the end of the First World War are contentious points. Did it start with the assignation of Archduke Ferdinand, or was this just a tipping point in a process that had many origins? Did it end with the armistice on 11th November, 1918, or, as one general predicted, was this just a pause in proceedings? Proceedings that recommenced in 1939?

The First World War was not a single event. It was a very complex collection of interrelated events. However, it is impossible for all the events that occurred, events that could legitimately be regarded as being related to the war, to be included in its history. And events that are included in this history are linked together by a narrative that relates them to one another and to the war as a whole. It is, then, a matter of judgement as to which events to include and how to interpret them in terms of the overall narrative. Both the inclusion and the interpretation (and therefore the narrative as a whole) is open to revision (to rewriting) when either fresh evidence is uncovered or methods of interpretation change. For example, the psychological condition of ‘post traumatic shock’ was in its very early stages of being described during the period 1914-18. So rather than offer this as a diagnosis of the symptoms displayed by many who refused to return to the trenches after recovering from their injuries, these soldiers were regarded as deserters and shot. With hindsight we can view this as wrong. So we rewrite what happened. We don’t eradicate the events from the narrative, but we do change the narrative to tell a different story. In the original they were deserters. In the rewrite they were victims of an actual psychological illness and of an unfair justice system.

Likewise with both the history of the British Empire and our involvement with the slave trade. Many of the atrocities committed by British troops in these colonies were not, for a long time, included in the official histories. They happened – but were not part of the narrative until certain historians either uncovered evidence of their occurrence or started to interpret events in a different way due to a change in values. Historically, for many people in this country, the slave trade was regarded as a legitimate business. It wasn’t until people like William Wilberforce started to argue that this trade in human beings was deeply wrong and should be abolished that opinions started to change. Changing our interpretation of events involved in the slave does not airbrush out any historical event, but it does both rewrite that history and allow a wider range of evidence to be included. The trade in human cargo that was once regarded as legitimate, and was a cause of celebration, is now regarded as immoral and a cause of deep regret. The once excluded experiences and suffering of the slaves are now included. How could this not require a rewrite?

The statue of Colston has acted as a reminder of the slave trade to all who pass it. This was deeply offensive to Bristol’s black community. It should have been deeply offensive to us all. That it had not been removed earlier is a disgrace. Its peaceful removal by BLM protesters should be seen as positive acknowledgment that we are not proud of our historic involvement with the slave trade, and that commemorating its main proponents by, quite literally, placing them on a pedestal, is immoral. Yes, it’s removal is yet another edit to our national history. It is a rewrite. But if we do not make these edits we include interpretations that no longer apply.

The moral case for open borders

One of the main ‘rules’ of rhetoric is to never start with an apology. Nevertheless, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for my the overly sentimental way that I’m going to introduce a very serious idea, but that’s just the way it is. Get over it.

I’ve been reminded this last week of the song ‘Borderline’ by Chris de Burgh. I realise that being familiar with songs by this particular singer is probably enough to destroy any ‘street cred’ I may have, but I am. I confess it. And I can’t stop this particular song bringing a tear to my eye. It tells of two lovers being parted by the outbreak of war because they come from the opposite sides of a borderline, and includes the refrain of him pleading with her to wait for him “until the day there’s no borderline”. I can vaguely remember another, less sentimental song about getting rid of borders between countries, this time (I think) by a British folk rock band – but I can’t remember who. Whilst I remember the idea capturing my attention at the time, this is something that I have given practically no consideration to in recent years. Not until a late chapter in Rutger Bergman’s Utopia for Realists that is.

So, in an era when the UK government is in the process passing a new immigration bill that will further restrict ‘low skilled’ immigration, when there is outrage from the nationalist right wing of politics about desperate refugees risking their lives by crossing the English Chanel to seek safety and shelter, and when this country treats anyone found to be here illegally so inhumanely, I would like to propose the opposite: the opening of borders. Obviously the UK could not act unilaterally on this, but it could start to at first consider, and then campaign for, the gradual elimination of regulated national borders.

As Bergman points out, formal borders controlling the movement of people is a relatively new phenomenon: “On the eve of World War I, borders existed mostly as lines on paper. Passports were rare and the countries that did issue them (like Russia and the Ottoman Empire) were seen as uncivilized.” So why do we need them? National governments could still administer their geographical area and its services. And it would be possible, for the sake of planning and resource management, to restrict access to all but emergency health and social services to people who have been living and / or working within the administrative border for more than a certain period of time. We could even have a collective of administrative governments entering into an agreement to allow total free movement of people and services. Or has this been tried already?

We live in a global society. The most serious of the problems faced by humans are global. The effects of a rise in mean global temperatures, the slow erosion of habitats capable of supporting human life, and the corresponding erosion of our wider ecology are not phenomena restricted by national borders. Arguably the migration of people fleeing these problems could be controlled or restricted, but that would be so inhumane it would be off the scale of perversity. If we are serious about equality and human rights (and I really hope that we are) we surely have to accept that it is grossly unethical to actively prevent people travelling to seek food and work, to seek safety and refuge from war and civil unrest, and to escape the effects of climate change and ecological collapse. And just in case someone is inclined to argue against, could I point out that many, if not most of these problems were caused, either directly or indirectly, by the economic expansion of those Western states that suffer them least. These states have a moral obligation to accept responsibility for their colonial histories and their plundering of the Earth’s resources.

We also have a moral obligation to greatly reduce global inequality. In terms of wealth, it is scandalous that (according to UN figures) the poorest billion people in the world are responsible for just 1% of all consumption, whilst the richest billion are responsible for 72%. “In the nineteenth century”, Bergman argues, “inequality was still a matter of class; nowadays, it’s a matter of location.” It’s not even that the opening of all borders to facilitate the sharing of global wealth would cause those in the richest countries to be noticeably worse off. It’s been estimated that the gross world product would grow by between 67% and 147%. The whole world could be twice as rich. And even the Centre for Immigration Studies, a think tank that opposes immigration, concludes that immigration would have no effect on the wages in the countries receiving people. In standard economic terms, a bigger workforce will increase consumption and create demand, which, in turn, will create jobs. It is just that these new jobs will go people who really need them.

We really need to rid ourselves of the prejudice that immigrants are criminals or scroungers or terrorists that have no right to a share of the wealth that we, in rich countries, enjoy. Those that struggle with this thought should ponder where we got our wealth from in the first place. Instead, we need to move towards a truly global society, and rid ourselves of any thought (other than in sport) of nation competing with nation. Our human survival, and the survival of our wider ecology, demands that we cooperate and support a global conception of humanity. And if all of this is just too sentimental for you – I can’t apologise. It’s just the way it is.