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On Persuasion, Dissent, and Conversion

By ‎ ‎ Wisdom Okoronkwo
In our society today, it is almost commonplace to find the constant use of weak verbal attacks and rhetoric of physical violence; protesters and all with varying opinions debase language, which is powerful in expression of dissent. Although language (comprising of words) is dynamic and, based on ones’ interpretation of it, there are no “bad words” or “good words” per se. But to think that words still do not matter is to live in delusion. Words, good or bad, matter! The kind of language used in expressing opinions matters a whole lot!

When we mean to convert people to our own line of thought, or market an idea, we often time are persuasive and influential at once. In reality, we are only interested in appealing to our target audience; and this could be customers, fans, followers and others. Further to that, we do so in a way that truly speaks to them in order to get their buy-in. So, the primer is to understand what segment of the society the audience represents without which we fail to persuade. Because just as trees bend with the prevailing wind, so do words. Truly, words can “bend” anger, dissent, or any form of disagreement, perhaps it can also allow for assent. The act of language communication has immortalised man’s knowledge. Thinkers who are long dead are alive in their works today as when they walked the earth. For example, the works of Shakespeare, Maya Angelou, Mahatma Gandhi, Chinua Achebe, etc. are alive. Although they no longer live physically today, their works live on.

The word dissent has evolved historically. There was a time dissent meant mere speech, constructive aggression, a violation of orthodoxy, the most challenging idea, until it became a demonstration and “body rhetoric” of the 1960’s in Nigeria. So, the type of language of dissent becomes very important, if it must speak to the people. In order to persuade, you must have and believe in your message. Beyond that, you must tell the people what the message is all about and why you believe in it. In other words, you must have an effective manner of communicating that which you so believe. To that extent, it must contain facts for facts checking; it must speak of authenticity, sincerity, credibility, empathy, and much else. No wonder the thirty fourth president of the United States of America, Dwight D. Eisenhover commented: “I would rather try to persuade a man to go along, because once I have persuaded him, he will stick. If I scare him, he will stay just as long as he is scared.”
Whether in politics or in other spheres of persuasion, the rule is the same. If your objective is truly to persuade, insulting people and cursing them in order to win them over will not work. Is it not true that you cannot demonise or vilify someone who disagrees with you because the moment you do that the conversation stops? Of course! Therefore, the truths that could have been gleaned from possible revelations as a result of the conversation are missed. When you are insulted, instead of being disagreeing, you become even more dogmatic and holding to your supposedly incorrect belief than before you were insulted. Even though semanticists always remind us that until we (meaners) give meanings to words they mean nothing at all, we do disagree to agree on many good grounds. Perhaps what is paramount is not that we disagree; it is that we ever thrive in finding some kind of common ground.
Depending on the credibility of the conversation, having a dissenting opinion is not a bad omen. In the precious words of Chinua Achebe, “As a sensible man I will not accept just any traveler’s tales solely on the grounds that I have not made the journey myself”. My earlier article in the year titled “Violation of Orthodoxy” is premised on this thought, and I clarified that challenging the status quo can get us out of any rut in the cards. Once I read this joke: a man was asked to always think outside the box, and he answered, “If everyone had to think outside the box, maybe it was the box that needed fixing”. The moral sense of it is that challenging the status quo is good with circumspection. The argument can be corroborated further with another nugget by the author of “The Trouble with Nigeria”, Professor Chinua Achebe (of blessed memory). He wrote, “I will not trust the evidence even of a man’s very eyes when I suspect them to be jaundiced”. The undercurrent of this statement, therefore, is that persuasion becomes possible with facts.
With respect to the varying degrees of dissent in Nigeria today, there is no amount of disagreement that is worthy of “body rhetoric” as a replacement for verbal rhetoric, articulated literature, because as they say, bullies are cowards at heart. The point here is that agitators must take the part of honour to continually press for their God-given right. Considering that climate change has had adverse effects on their waters and farmlands, through heavy explorative activities by the International Oil Companies (IOCs), I disagree with those who think that the agitators in the South-South should stop feeling entitled. At least, with about 123 gas flaring sites in the Niger Delta, making Nigeria one of the major emitters of greenhouse gases in Africa; why should they not feel somewhat entitled? Regardless of this automatic right, a well-articulated, highly thought out strategy for mutual engagement with the government of the day cannot be overemphasised! Albeit those in that region may be in dire straits socio-economically, it is a known fact that violence is a proclamation of ultimate inarticulateness.
At least, every other day when we tune in to our TVs, radios, or turn the pages of newspapers, or even visit some of our social media accounts, what we find are usually negative political verbal attacks and negative rejoinders that follow suite without the slightest consideration of the audience composition. The discouraging part of these trendy “attacks” and their attendant rejoinders from opinion leaders is that many times they are devoid of facts! This is sad! At a conference I attended as a delegate which commemorated “World Press Freedom Day” in 2015 at the United States Consulate, Walter Carrington Street, Lagos, Femi Adesina, Special Adviser (Media and Publicity) to President Buhari, was one of the speakers. He mentioned that build up to the 2015 general elections, as the Managing Director of the Sun Newspapers, that it took him to overlook a tempting fee to be able to minimise a particular hate speech, which he mellowed to something printable in the end. In fairness to those with dissenting opinions, (after all, it was Prof. Wole Soyinka who said that “The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism”), the language of dissent must be evidence-based.
On the recession which has caught up with Nigerians already, I do not believe that Buhari is clueless; I also do not accept the narrative which calls the recession “mere word” or “mere propaganda”, etc. Whether these off the curve comments originated as a slip of the tongue or as well-intended statements, they obviously are not persuasive enough. That way, you are not going to be able to persuade the people talk less to convert them to believe in your course. For instance, to persuade the people, government must admit that inflation is about 17%, that our GDP contracted by 2.06% in the second quarter of 2016 and even more in the third quarter of same year. Regardless, government would have presented a stronger argument by presenting that in second quarter of 2016, as indicative of the much-talked about diversification policy agenda, Agriculture grew by 4.53% as compared with 3.09% in the first quarter of 2016 with hope under way in 2017.
In fact, when those in authority want the governed to be of a reputable conduct, it matters, first, how they carry on with the people legitimately. According to Malcolm Gladwell, the principle of legitimacy is hinged on three things. Firstly, the people who are asked to obey authority have to feel like they have a voice, that if they speak up, they will be heard. This, in fact, is the major principle upon which dissenting opinions must find expression by those who wish to express them. Secondly, the law has to be predictable. There has to be a good enough expectation that the rules today are going to be nearly the same as the rules tomorrow. Then thirdly, the authority has to be fair: it cannot treat one group differently from another.
In all, people are persuaded when the argument is credible. It persuades because the articulation is devoid of insult and hypocrisy. As Rev. (Dr.) Chris Oyakhilome would say, and I paraphrase, you can tell a mature Christian by the words he or she speaks. Influencers and leaders must recognize that instead of shouting of obscenities, hate, weak verbal attacks, they can replace all those with meaningful words and ideas; move from weak verbal attacks to strong verbal arguments; graduate from emotional outbursts to emphasis on reason; move from defiance of the law to respect for the legal process; inexact vocabulary should be replaced with exact vocabulary; crudeness, lack of dignity can be replaced with dignity. Instead of dramatic acts by our leaders, there should be challenging speeches by them; in place of rhetoric of violence, we should hear and see rhetoric of peaceful change; for “body talk”, we should have right verbal communication; for trite slogans, there should be original expressions for possible conversion driven by dissent.
Wisdom Okoronkwo is a writer and a green advocate with special interest in Green Marketing. Research is his hobby horse!
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