Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Editor’s Corner: Activists, watch your rhetoric

Getting on your high horse feels great, but if you don’t explain what you’re saying, you will alienate outsiders.

If you want to get attention at the University of Iowa, the place to go is the Pentacrest, at the heart of campus. Pamphleteers from all walks of life recognize that location’s centrality as a great way to get attention. A couple of years ago, I picked up a newspaper from a socialist group that set up a booth there.

Expecting to find a detailed critique of capitalism or at least some insight into mainstream socialists’ motives and alternative models of society, I soon found myself overwhelmed with bombastic, over-the-top rhetoric that vaguely decried the injustices of capitalist society and called for a workers’ revolution.

Maybe that energizes the base, but as a mildly sympathetic outsider, I didn’t feel motivated to join the revolution. I mostly felt confused.
And that’s a real danger for activists. A loyal base of supporters often responds well to lofty proclamations and moral indignation, but it often throws outsiders for a loop.

Fortunately, from what I’ve seen, most of Iowa’s peace organizations are pretty on top of their game, but every now and then, some unexplained jargon floats into the conversation, or controversial buzzwords like “American Empire” get thrown around willy-nilly.

That may sound just super to gung-ho supporters and it may even be accurate, but people who don’t understand the line of reasoning are going to feel confused unless it’s fully explained.

My former editor at The Daily Iowan had some poignant advice when he was critiquing a column I wrote, “Avoid unnecessary controversy.” At first, I thought he was just trying to save his skin, but I later realized why this is so important.

If I’m making lots of grandiose claims left and right, I’m going to lose people. You shouldn’t avoid controversy, but if you’re going to make a big statement, it better be relevant to your overall thesis and you better back it up. The more radical you are on more tangential issues, the fewer people are probably going to agree with your overall sentiment. Don’t give people an excuse to dismiss you. Make your point, build a strong case, and don’t digress.

But it’s not like I’ve mastered that art. It’s hard to remember to fully explain yourself on topics you take for granted. Several famous experiments in social psychology have demonstrated that once you know a fact, no matter how obscure, you’re more likely to assume that it’s common knowledge.

But recognizing this quirk of our psychology opens huge opportunities. If you dig into what you’re saying, sometimes you’ll find gaps in your knowledge, providing a chance to research and reconsider your position. The unexamined belief is not one worth holding.

Don’t just look for information from your ideological allies. See what neutral parties and even what your opponents are saying and try to understand the issues from their point of view.

It’s a win-win. If you change your mind, congratulations, you’ve probably learned a lot. If you return, holding the same belief you began with, then you can establish common ground with your opponents, and it will be much easier for them to identify with you and for you to persuade them.

For activist groups to succeed, their rhetoric cannot sound like a foreign language to ordinary people. Obviously, pure logic and statistics will put everyone to sleep, but with the right mix of emotion and reason, a clearly conveyed message is much more likely to build support for your cause than a slew of charged declarations of moral indignation.

Jon Overton is the Media Editor of Iowa Peace Network and an undergraduate at the University of Iowa studying Ethics & Public Policy and Sociology. He also writes for The Daily Iowan.

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