Mack Truck of Rhetoric: How to "Be Persuaded"

You are not a robot, and persuasion is not a form of programming. It's an active process.

2/21/20243 min read

a truck driving down a street next to a car
a truck driving down a street next to a car

"I can't refute your arguments. You've refuted all of mine. But I still disagree."

I sat silently for a moment. Dropping my head a bit I stood up and walked out of my professor's office. I turned back momentarily and asked, "If that's the case, then what does it mean to be persuaded?" But he had no answer. And at that point, I didn't either.

It was my last week of grad school, and the professor was someone I admired. But his response bothered me. We had been arguing about a nerdy point of philosophy. By all measurements, I "won" the argument. He even conceded my points. Yet he wouldn't agree with me. I thought about my rhetorical approach, my logic, all the things I learned in communication theory. Everything seemed to go as planned except my opponent's reaction.

We have free will, of course, and my professor may have been purposely dodging the issue because he was tired, confused, or simply wanted me out of his office. Nonetheless, it got me thinking. I understood, well, the obligations of the rhetor, but what are the obligations of the audience? There is a lot written about the rhetorical situation. Is there a corresponding "situation" for audiences?

Bear with me while I conjecture...

Persuasion has a component for the persuader (rhetor) and for persuadee (audience). The burdens of proof and motivation are on the rhetors. They must understand the rhetorical situation and present compelling arguments within that context. But the audience is not a passive participant. Audience members have minds. They have the capacity to reason, to judge, to decide. The audience, then, has the burden of intellectual honesty.

Too many people hold their opinions as inviolate. "It's just my opinion," "To each his own," "Opinions are like behinds..." But your opinions are not laws of nature. Opinions are formed by you—consciously or not. Many opinions, though, have been formed unconsciously and seem pre-determined. "It's just what I believe."

An important part of being a good audience—no, being a good human—is understanding that your opinions may be wrong. They may not correspond with reality; they may be based on false information or, worse, no information. Being persuadable means accepting that there may be information that you don't know that could change any opinion you hold—from the seemingly inconsequential to the most fundamental truths.

Being persuaded is not an emotional mechanism. That is, it's not automatic. Being persuaded is not like fear or happiness or anxiety. It will not be produced by the right combination of sensory stimuli. It's not something that merely "happens" to you. If you're engaged in an argument and waiting for "persuasion" to run you down with a rhetorical semi-truck, then you'll wait until an arbitrary point when you feel like you have been squashed by persuasion. But in reality, you haven't been persuaded at all.

Being persuaded means 1) understanding the given argument (seeing how it corresponds with reality), 2) integrating it with your context of knowledge (whatever is required for the subject at hand), and 3) making the willful assessment that the new information is true (non-contradictory) and that your old opinion is false (contradictory).

In short, being persuaded means consciously changing your mind in light of new evidence and acting accordingly.

Make no mistake. This is an active process that requires the ability and willingness to integrate information into your worldview without evading reality.

Must we be convinced by all arguments for which we have no counter-evidence? No, of course not. The immediate action we take when presented with a compelling argument depends on many things: the consequences, cost, commitment, etc. It is entirely rational and in most cases necessary (yes, I said it) to decide to delay judgment until you have more evidence—especially if the topic in question is a serious moral, philosophical, or political issue. (Rhetors must understand this and be patient. It's part of "The 3 'Modes' of Persuasion.") This does not mean that you should delay judgment on all things indefinitely. If the question is important then you have an obligation to yourself to seek further information and come to a satisfactory conclusion. The more important the issue, the more urgent the obligation.

Clearly the burden of proof changes based on the severity of the claim. I don't mean to imply that it's best to walk around in a state of "ready to change"-edness. But neither is it prudent to wait for the Mack truck of rhetoric to leave tire marks on your back before you decide you've been persuaded. There is no 16-wheeler of rhetoric (sadly). You'll just have to make up your own mind.