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October 22nd, 2018

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The Dangerous Diminishment of Persuasion

Laura Hollis

By Laura Hollis

Published April 12, 2018

The Dangerous Diminishment of Persuasion

One of the attributes that sets free and civilized societies apart from those enslaved by dictators or mired in barbarism is the value that is placed upon the art of persuasion. BusinessDictionary.com defines persuasion as the "process aimed at changing a person's (or a group's) attitude or behavior toward some event, idea, object, or other person(s), by using written or spoken words to convey information, feelings, or reasoning, or a combination of them."

An advanced society offers many opportunities for persuasion, including the publication of ideas in books, magazines, newspapers and other periodicals; information presented in lectures, workshops and courses; clubs and other voluntary associations dedicated to the promotion of certain causes or viewpoints; entertainment media (literature, music, film); and, of course, participation in the democratic political process.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution is tacit acknowledgement of the importance of persuasion. Although the amendment itself is framed as protecting the people's rights to speak from infringement by the government, the underlying principle often articulated by defenders of free speech is that a liberated and enlightened society is best served by more speech, not less. Former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said in the case Whitney v. California: "Those who won our independence by revolution were not cowards. They did not fear political change. They did not exalt order at the cost of liberty. To courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government, no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion. If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence. " (Emphasis added.)

In the information age, electronic media and the internet have democratized speech like never before. But those in control of most of the tools of persuasion today are cowards who not only fear the political change they see taking place all around them but also fear the resulting loss of power and control over the people. Academia, the news media, major corporations and even Hollywood have become increasingly hostile to the idea of persuasion, preferring the enforced silence that Brandeis decried and demonstrating their willingness to use the power they have to ensure it.

These cowards are devoted leftists (not liberals, who have traditionally defended free speech). They are bullies. Their targets are overwhelmingly those espousing conservative views. And their weapons are many.

First, there is the war against truth. Facts — which point to truth, arguably the underpinning of the best persuasion — must be ignored, denied or minimized in favor of "narrative." With facts dismissed, the ideas that these facts support are denounced as dangerous, bigoted or oppressive. Thus do we see an ever-increasing volume of ideas characterized as "hate speech," particularly although not exclusively on college campuses, which should be bastions of intellectual inquiry but have become little gulags of censorship under the guise of sphincter-clenching "sensitivity."

Attempts to thwart these self-appointed societal censors are resisted — often violently — even when the speakers are scholars, not politicians, as Dr. Charles Murray, Christina Hoff Sommers, Heather Mac Donald and others have experienced.

Meanwhile, the major multinational corporations that control information on the internet are actively engaged in censoring content. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Google have all been credibly accused of blocking and banning (or "shadow banning") speech.

The bullies seeking to silence others' voices spew specious drivel about "hate," "bigotry," "science denial" and "safety." (Facebook just banned President Trump supporters "Diamond and Silk" — two black women who post videos of themselves talking — as "unsafe to the community.") This would be laughable were it not so ominous.

These tactics are really nothing more than admissions that those engaging in them do not have the power of persuasion; they cannot win the battle of ideas if their ideas are challenged by others. They cannot win with facts; they cannot win with science; they cannot win with argument or information. And so, they will "win" by utilizing the power they have to silence anyone with whom they disagree.

I don't know how to be clearer: The seeds of war are sown this way.

To engage in persuasive discourse is to acknowledge the rationality of the average person and the possibility that you yourself might be able to be persuaded. There is a basic equality at play here.

To forbid argumentation, civil discourse and the possibility of persuasion is to exalt yourself as omniscient and dismiss anyone with whom you disagree as a lesser human. From there, it is a short leap to other policies curtailing other freedoms.

If you think that's extreme, consider comedian Nikki Glaser, who tweeted last week about the size of Donald Trump Jr.'s family, asking, "Why are people still allowed to have five kids?"

Excuse me? Just who does Glaser think should be doing the "allowing"?

Or consider California's odious Reproductive FACT Act — a law that mandates pro-life pregnancy clinics to promote abortion services. (The Supreme Court will hopefully strike down this affront to free speech.)

In a world dominated by cowards who fear persuasion, it is ultimately not even enough to silence the opposition; they will utilize their power to force those who disagree with them to speak — and live according to — the one message that is permitted.

This is not merely dogmatic; it is dictatorial.

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Laura Hirschfeld Hollis is on the faculty at the University of Notre Dame, where she teaches courses in business law and entrepreneurship. She has received numerous awards for her teaching, research, community service and contributions to entrepreneurship education.

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