Kindly Persuasion Works Better Than Outrage

By Don Hall

When Abraham Lincoln was 33 years old, he gave a speech inside a Presbyterian church to a temperance society. His message: The assembled ought to be nicer to drinkers and sellers of alcohol, rather than shunning them, or denouncing them as moral pestilences. Indeed, they ought to use “kindly persuasion,” even if a man’s drunkenness had caused misery to his wife, or left his children hungry and naked with want.

For people are never less likely to change, to convert to new ways of thinking or acting, than when it means joining the ranks of their denouncers.

To expect otherwise, “to have expected them not to meet denunciation with denunciation ... and anathema with anathema, was to expect a reversal of human nature,” Lincoln explained. “If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great highroad to his reason, and when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause.”

However, Lincoln cautioned, dictate to a man’s judgment, command his action, or mark him to be despised, “and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart. And even though your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and though you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall be no more be able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.”


The modern tendency to stand on one side of the issues (any of them) and dump shit and vitriol upon those we disagree with isn't really that modern. It is human nature. Spending the time and energy convincing someone your perspective is the right one is much harder than just calling names and thumping your chest.

It is, however, a lot more fun to call each other names.

This isn't an argument against identity politics (although I'm not a big fan of them in general) but the tone of our discourse. Likewise, it is not an argument to empathize with the enemy or simply lie down and take it when they elect morons or try to take away our health insurance or deny man-made climate disaster. 

This is a suggestion that if you really want to win over hearts and minds, shame is a shitty approach. If your aim is simply to be seen as righteous, then shitmouthing the opposition is absolutely the way to go.

Me? I'd prefer to win and to do that, we need to win over those with whom we disagree.

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