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Our Persuasion Challenge

Dennis Fox

September 2002

President George W. Bush will get his Iraqi war. His not-so-veiled ultimatum to the United Nations ("do it my way or get out of the way") and his new national security plan (formalizing his justification for preemptive attacks) will soon silence all but the most determined critics. If we want to stop him, we'll have to do better than just mimic his simplistic rhetoric.

The mixture of grief and flag-waving during last month's anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks offered fertile ground for pro-war propaganda. Steeped in lifelong myths about the United States' inherent benevolence, prejudices about those who don't conform to US political and economic norms, and ignorance of the difficult circumstances so many people around the world confront daily, the general public will likely support whatever plan Bush devises -- regardless of its logical connection to 9/11 -- at least until American soldiers return in body bags. Despite growing popular opposition, once the shooting begins mainstream critics will close ranks. The opening salvo will be a popular one.

Activists and scholars who depart from dominant cultural assumptions have generated a large literature on the destructive nature of US power. Rallies and other forms of protest are common, Internet petitions relentless, alternative media coverage comprehensive. Even a handful of worried politicians have finally acknowledged reservations.

Unfortunately, most Americans have little awareness of this critique beyond quick out-of-context references. They remain susceptible to one-sided administration statements, generally disseminated with only superficial analysis by a corporate-owned mass media content to debate how, not whether, the war should proceed.

Watching what passes for public debate and the more personalized interactions between protestors and counter-protestors at rallies, I'm reminded of a commonplace social-psychological finding. When people try to persuade others to accept their side of a controversial issue, they have many choices, ranging from speech style to message content. One significant consideration is whether to acknowledge the other side's reasonable arguments.

The research-based answer supports the commonsense notion that it depends on the audience. When talking to uninformed and unmotivated people who won't go out and check the facts for themselves, speakers can just ignore competing positions. Thus, Bush seems less simplistic to the politically unaware than he does to those who understand issues are complex and motivations on both sides varied.

So America's hawks, building on our socialized myths and prejudices, most often assume --correctly -- they can portray conflict in stark black/white terms. Beyond a minimal nod to political correctness, schools, the media, and other mythmaking agents raise little awareness of other cultures and experiences and of the US's historic misuse of power. Nothing clarified this more than the post-9/11 question: Why do they hate us? Yet that important question -- attacked as unpatriotic, made irrelevant to political discourse -- soon receded. Once the shooting begins in Iraq, it will be long forgotten (though the US's civilian victims will wonder the same thing about us).

As a consequence, not too far beneath the respectful language and public proclamations ("of course not all Muslims are terrorists"), many perceive Arabs and Muslims as misguided at best and subhuman at worst. With stereotypes in play it becomes easier to believe generalizations and to dismiss every counterexample as an unimportant exception to the rule.

Thus, advocates of American dominance have it easy: their primary audience has limited exposure to contrary information. Afraid of what might happen next, they're inclined to overlook lingering qualms and support whatever military action abroad -- and whatever crackdown on civil liberties at home -- the president says is necessary.

Our task is harder: much of our audience already supports war. So regardless of our goal -- to force Bush to work with the UN as an equal rather than just preach to it as a bully, or in the longer term to seek broader changes in US policy -- activists for peace, justice, and human rights can't just present alternative simplistic critiques.

We often do a good job in detailed articles, but too often we aim primarily at those who already agree with us. In speeches and banners and other efforts to communicate with the larger public, short of space and trying to get to the point, sometimes we merely list every argument that supports our views, mirror-imaging Bush. Sometimes we, too, overgeneralize and oversimplify and fail to demonstrate we understand ordinary people's legitimate needs and fears.

As satisfying as it is simply to ridicule the president's one-dimensional discourse and to blast the US role in the world -- I've done this more than once myself -- we can't afford to be as one-sided in our arguments as the other side is in theirs. Well-reasoned critiques will persuade more people who are now in the middle than will bumper-sticker slogans that seem clever only to those who already agree.

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Note: this version differs from the published versions.

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