Rhetoric, Commentary and Persuasion ...

Writing Persuasively

Writing Persuasively
History
Establishing Trust
Defining Persuasion
Religion-Politics
Workshop-Paragraphs
Hostility and Offensiveness
Workshop: Reworking
Ex. 1 - Mormons/Catholics
Ex. 2 - National Rifle Assn
Conciliation vs. Jugular
High Road: Case Pleading
Summary
Notes

Persuasive Writing must surely be one of the more divisive of all the writing topics! On some level we’re all subjected daily to persuasive dialog - touching sensitive “hot button” topics of all kinds. In our comfort zone of day to day life, persuasion becomes a most essential business tool, governs the negotiation of our social and family life, and even influences our purchasing and spending habits.

Persuasive writing is potentially the messiest corner of the writer's craft. It requires careful drawing upon all the written and rhetorical skills, but it doesn't have to be messy: it should still be fun.

There are many genres of persuasive writing: political, philosophical, ethical/moral, business, professional, and motivational - to name a few. Even if we only intend to review movies, or write about gardening projects, persuasion is involved: Would you want to view that movie, or not? Should we go with the messy but fragrant eucalyptus, or perhaps the more stately spruce?

Persuasion inherently involves opinion, offering fertile ground for choice, misunderstanding, and disagreement. In persuasive writing we strive to minimize these obstacles by presentation of constructive alternatives to the status quo: a better way. Crassly put, the parallel purpose of persuasive writing is already familiar to any of us who've been exposed to the world of sales: overcoming the objection.

Most of us, without giving it a second thought, employ oral and written persuasion in personal life, business, legal pleadings, internet postings, technical papers, letters to the editor, and perhaps the occasional article to a newsletter or hobbyist journal. We don't waste valuable time in preplanning and strategy.

When we think about it, we already know, almost instinctively, what styles and approaches are appropriate, and when to modify them to the situation. We'd never stroll into a courthouse and issue an ultimatum to the judge! Life and social custom train us from childhood to acquire an almost uncanny sensitivity to the choice of persuasive technique.

Too often, the heat of spoken and written debate causes this common-sense training to evaporate. Just look at the claptrap that passes for opinion and dialog in so many web posts and forums! We recommend consciously selecting appropriate tools for each writing task to give the edge in making the point.

Principles of persuasion, whatever they may be, must be at least equally important in the world of the written word. Where initially, it seemed, it was almost always sufficient to dash off some good ideas, trusting in the native abilities and good will of the reader, at some point we see it. We have one chance to get it right the first time.

This is Part III of Summitlake.com’s series of notes and observations on the writing craft. In Writing Notes and Writing Style and Clarity we already looked at many ingredients in the writer’s toolkit.

On this web site we've previously published Posting Guidelines as a reference for posting materials here. No matter where the content appears, established rules of the road are remarkably similar. Also, one needs something like our short primer Rhetoric 001 to review points on common rhetorical traps we may lapse into, or by which we become inadvertently victimized.

As before, we offer the standard disclaimer that we don’t get to set me up as an example or role model for the writer’s craft. By examining the various elements of the writing craft, this whole series hopes to answer the question: are there things I could be doing to improve the effectiveness of my own writing?

We’d like to invent bad and better examples of controversial persuasive writing. As initially worded, these should be construed as offensive to some members of specific target groups. Then, we’ll turn those same examples around to see how they might be used more constructively by anyone, including people with whom we might disagree.

First, what is persuasion?

 

History of Persuasion

The art of persuasion spans the whole vast chronology of recorded human history. In a random web search, one finds reference to the “first historian”, ancient Greek writer Herodotus. In a chapter Persuasion and polemic, author Rosalind Thomas writes [1]:

“… we looked at the elements in the Histories where Herodotus made use of deductive arguments and the language of proof and of the unseen which are more familiar as part of the history of the development of Greek philosophy and the techniques of logical argument. We also saw that these techniques were often called forth for topics where Herodotus needed to persuade … [we] will argue that there is much in the Histories which is controversial or polemical - sometimes the polemic is hidden, but one may guess that Herodotus’ stance is controversial … often it is more overt.”

Here we see, as far back as Herodotus, writers varied their styles between persuasion and broadside attacks upon sacred institutions and theories.

From the writings of 17th century mathematician, physicist and philosopher Blaise Pascal [2]:

“THE ART of persuasion has a necessary relation to the manner in which men are led to consent to that which is proposed to them, and to the conditions of things which it is sought to make them believe.”

Here we see Pascal has told us there's some necessary relationship between persuasion and the consent of the persuaded.

As we dig deeper, we find search references to persuasion in American advertising. There are other references to persuasion as propaganda. And wouldn’t you know, complementing our earlier observations on the writing craft, there is a fascinating PBS segment on The Art of Persuasion linking this craft to Stonehenge, King Darius, Alexander the Great, and gold and jewelry art objects [3]. Without viewing the whole segment, we're assuming PBS didn't forget to document bribery.

The history of persuasion is as complex as the remarkable history of mankind itself. The media of persuasion expand with the ages - oratory, the written word, radio and television, and digital technology. The techniques of persuasion do not change that much in substance, only in current styles.

There are reasons why the persuasive methodology does not change in substance, only in appearance. We could employ psychologists, linguists, motivational speakers and the study of epistemology [4] to tell us why.

Of primary interest to us, as writers, is the seemingly self-evident fact that successful persuasion mirrors the workings of human understanding.

 

Establishing Trust

1) Not all people on the other side of a disagreement are necessarily "the enemy".

I've posted some pretty strong opinion on civil rights on this site for over a decade. Some of it was intentionally unflattering to folks on the other side of the issues. Though I’d make no apology for strong rhetoric against folks I regard as intentionally malevolent, I’ve come to see a basic mistake in these tactics: this kind of dialog isn’t necessarily effective with my intended middle-ground audience of the undecided, because they see: “this fellow has an ax to grind.”

2) Not all people on our side of a disagreement are necessarily "friends".

I saw a PBS newscast recently on trained health-care professionals who stormed the floor of the U.S. Senate with disruptive emotional shouting, acts of “civil disobedience” on behalf of single-payer health care, for which they were arrested.

Being interested in exploring "single-payer" further because of personal experience with a failed health care system, I saw that these professionals, far from advancing the dialog, had alienated millions - myself included.

3) Corollary: Some people who find themselves on the other side of an issue may actually be friends.

For decades I’ve known an old friend who is not always on the "same side" of issues as me - fair enough! We both know not to try to sway the other by dictating what to say or do. That doesn't work.

We both have always been strong on individual rights and liberties. What we meant by these concepts has nevertheless evolved over the years. On some issues he leans more toward the "unreconstructed redneck", where I come across as the "flaming liberal."  Rather than name-calling over the years, each of us has "brought the other around" on certain ideological crossings, by patient explanation. What made this work is trust.

As writers, then, we need to find ways to establish that trust with a broad base of readership. The writer is not alone in having the inevitable axes to grind. We are naturally distrustful of others who try to stereotype us as party hacks [5]. Targeting a readership that will agree on 100% of the issues, share all of the same axes to grind, and cue on all the same keywords and code phrases - well, that only happens in cult newsletters, doesn’t it?

Over all these years, I have witnessed famous histrionics and purely emotional appeals and they do not work. I am more amenable to finding the common ground and working from there.

As writers, we see that the “safe spaces” for reasonable dialog have all but disappeared over the years, from radio, newspaper and television, to the web “blog” and “FaceBook”. If we can’t create the “common ground” for persuasion on the written page, where else are we going to find it?

Defining Persuasion

 

Dictionary.com can't be very helpful, and at times seems almost circular, since this is a difficult word with over two millennia of loaded meaning:

Persuade –verb

  1. to prevail on (a person) to do something, as by advising or urging: We could not persuade him to wait.
  2. to induce to believe by appealing to reason or understanding; convince: to persuade the judge of the prisoner's innocence

Here also we are given synonyms which are some help:

  1. urge, influence, move, entice, impel. PERSUADE, INDUCE imply influencing someone's thoughts or actions. They are used today mainly in the sense of winning over a person to a certain course of action: It was I who persuaded him to call a doctor. I induced him to do it. They differ in that PERSUADE suggests appealing more to the reason and understanding: I persuaded him to go back to his wife (although it is often lightly used: Can't I persuade you to stay to supper?); INDUCE emphasizes only the idea of successful influence, whether achieved by argument or by promise of reward: What can I say that will induce you to stay at your job? Owing to this idea of compensation, INDUCE may be used in reference to the influence of factors as well as of persons: The prospect of a raise in salary was what induced him to stay.

Persuasion – noun

  1. the act of persuading or seeking to persuade.
  2. the power of persuading; persuasive force.
  3. the state or fact of being persuaded or convinced.
  4. a deep conviction or belief.
  5. a form or system of belief, esp. religious belief: the Quaker persuasion.
  6. a sect, group, or faction holding or advocating a particular belief, idea, ideology, etc.: Several of the people present are of the socialist persuasion.
  7. Facetious. kind or sort.

Persuasion - a better definition

What it of most interest to the writer or speaker is completely lacking above. How does the “appeal to reason” work to bring about the winning over of a person to a certain course of action, and, equally important, when it fails, why?

On reflection, persuasion turns out to be more complicated than how we are socially accustomed to thinking of it.

The declaration “I would like to persuade you” actually presumes not one or more of the following, but all of the below and all at the same time:

  1. We are of different opinions;
  2. I believe my opinion to be the more correct, fair, factual or useful;
  3. I think I have an insight that may bring you closer to my opinion;
  4. Your opinion matters to me;
  5. I am willing to explain, try to meet or counter any objections or questions, and negotiate;
  6. I need your permission to continue.

We would need more time to hammer out a formal definition, so let us instead settle for an informal working definition:

Persuasion is the art or action of influencing the voluntary thought and conclusions of others by means of reason, relevant facts, and the establishment of a common ground.

“We have means of persuading you…”

Usually, the means by which an action is accomplished isn't considered an integral part of the action, and therefore, not a proper part of the definition ("don’t multiply concepts beyond necessity"). In the case of “persuasion”, we have several other words for effecting an agreement when reason, logic, facts and common ground are considered dispensable.

We’ll focus on the art of persuasion, rather than upon means which rely on coercion, trickery, demagoguery or force. Please see our reference on Rhetoric 001 to recognize underhanded methods when we encounter them.

 

"Religion and Politics"

Persuasive writing isn't just about following common-sense rules of the road, though it's certainly all of that. Best rhetorical practice requires that we understand the underlying ideas or philosophy of persuasion. 

Remember the old adage don't discuss religion or politics? Sure we do. It's such a clichéd old bromide that we have to step back for a moment, just to remember how it became such common-sense folk wisdom in the first place. People get hottest under the collar when they sense that a fundamental tenet is being ridiculed, disrespected or just plain contradicted.

From the individual's standpoint, it seldom matters whether a fundamental tenet is held as a matter of profound conviction or an article of faith. A person may assert that the right to liberty is not just self-evident but demonstrable, or he may simply state that he believes in it. Either way, we are not likely to pick a quarrel.

We know we're most likely to alienate the reader when we rub a sore spot. Many people have touchy, volatile ideological sore spots. Religion and politics are at the top of this list, and often for the very same reason.

If we're attempting to challenge an article of faith, some premise that one holds on faith may or may not be valid, but its defense has been intellectually defaulted (by definition) to "out of bounds". We are expected to realize "everybody knows that", that this position has been held by time-honored generations of forefathers, and that our challenge is tantamount to defamation - it's "dirty pool".

The whole discussion of the origin of the species, Creationism vs. Evolution, for example, fails between people of opposite persuasions because, from the standpoint of the theory of knowledge at least, we're pairing off the analytical methods of scientist against the predetermined teachings of the theologian.

In a discussion of democracy, out of a group of one hundred Americans, it would be hard to find one who would admit to not believing in democracy. Here's a little thought experiment:

a) Ask the same group, "define democracy", and you would expect a standard bell curve where the lowest percentile would fail utterly, the middle of the curve would offer some kind of passable grasp of decision-making by vote and election, and a top percentile would try to include a history of western democracies before we could thank them very much.

b) Now ask only those in the top percentile the additional question: "what are rights, how do you validate them, and who in a democracy, then, should have access to equal rights?" The result will be uncivilized mayhem.

It seems comfort zones are relative across the whole spectrum of education and status.

  • As writers we need to define our boundaries and limit our audience.
  • Can we still maximize the reach of our message by avoiding pointless irritation of those comfort zones?

Workshop: Paragraphs

Bad Example (1)

One would not submit a spirited defense of same-sex civil rights laws to Salt Lake City's Deseret News or their Intermountain Catholic. We know in advance that civil law is generally considered subordinate to theological law when the two areas inevitably conflict. We also know that the constitutional basis of individual rights is generally regarded as concerning the securing and exercise of religious freedom, not as a secular vehicle for flaunting the traditions and mores of previously-established religious society.

Bad Example (2)

One would not send the NRA's American Rifleman a reasoned proposal for licensing firearms just like we do automobiles. First of all, we know in advance that the NRA is opposed in principle to any form of gun control, and any encroachment of a single individual liberty is subject to the "domino theory of rights", and then again the American Rifleman is not a journal respected for the publication of reasoned discourse, but is well-noted and popular for its unbridled flag-waving histrionics.

 

Hostility and Offensiveness

Did you notice what just happened in the two examples above?

An odd thing about the above two corrosive paragraphs is that no single sentence, taken by itself, is way off the mark for factual correctness. It is the juxtaposition that becomes offensive. The author's presumption (mine) was: we can't say anything, because the author didn't. Nobody is fooled here except the author. The paragraphs seem to be saying much more than they actually state, because of the way they are intentionally ordered and what is not said; there is a subtext, and that subtext bristles with hostility.

As persuasive writing, they might as well have been explicitly defamatory personal attacks on the targeted reader. Why?

They mount ideological attacks on the institutions in question, while side-stepping sensitive central issues.

  • If we happen to agree with the statements, it's only human to cheer them on at first glance, since many of us might consider this "fighting fire with fire."
  • If we happen to disagree with the statements, chances are, we’re permanently alienated. Not only have principles that people stand by been attacked, but, by implication, a personal attack has been mounted on all who hold those principles.

Who is the audience for such a paragraph?

  • If we are writing to the ACLU or Handgun Control, Inc., we are preaching to the choir.
  • If we are writing to the devout Mormon, Catholic or NRA member, none of those statements will be read past the first sentence, nor should they be.
  • If we are writing to the vast middle ground of undecided, those who may see valid points on both sides of the debates, it is easy to see we are neither writing to this group, nor on its behalf.

We are not writing effectively to any of the three possible target audiences to promote principles we believed should prevail. There are better ways of making constructive points effectively, and we will visit them shortly.

Let's first summarize a list of “guidelines” for our consideration as writers. Then we’ll discuss more precisely what’s wrong with the two italicized paragraphs above. We’ll try to rewrite them using a “common ground” approach. Finally, we'll try to flesh out the NRA example by following up with a concrete proposal in outline form.

“Guidelines”

  1. Know our audience.
  2. State our opinion clearly and honestly.
  3. Recognize that a strong opinion so slackly worded that it offends nobody is a violation of #2 above.
  4. Recognize there's not as much we can do as we might think, to prevent someone from taking offense.
  5. State our premises early to save people we are going to alienate the embarrassment and annoyance of wading too far into the constructs.
  6. Recognize we have choices in the presentation. There's a difference in approach between Chris Matthews of Hardball and Paul Kangas of PBS's Nightly Business Report. Both approaches may valid, but not at the same time, and not for the same audience.
  7. Anger management: minimize hurt and personal injury.
  8. Do not attack people unless you have a really compelling reason. Attacking a Hitler or Kim Il Sung is almost risk-free (unless we live in WWII Germany or North Korea). If a magnetic personality becomes as dangerous as the underlying ideology, we might want to divide a blunt, forceful attack. If the persona has little importance apart from the ideology propping it up, it might be best to attack the failing ideology instead, ignoring the figurehead.
  9. Conflicting ideas do not always mean one party is wrong; priorities are as important as circumstances in determining one's posture and position. Sometimes neither side is "wrong"; sometimes, both are. Appeal to a hierarchy of priorities.
  10. State the affirmative. Readers are smart enough to know what this says for the negative.
  11. Know when the contest is useless. Don’t tilt at windmills. The first sentences of examples #1 and #2 were actually good advice. It would have been better if the examples had just stopped there.

Workshop: Reworking Rhetoric

Example 1 - Mormons and Catholics

We’ve established that we would not normally choose to write these groups on issues like same-sex civil rights, so why would a writer follow through with an attack on their religious institutions? If we’re not preaching to the Mormons and Catholics, and we’re not “preaching to the choir”, we’re preaching to the middle, undecided group.

Analysis of previous mistakes:

  1. An attack on religious conviction is likely to be seen as underhanded, uncharitable and irrelevant by others.
  2. We allude to a hierarchy of civil and theological law, as if it’s self-evident everybody understands potential conflicts.
  3. We don’t mention the possibility of respecting those laws within their respective domains, nor of prioritizing those laws in a civil context
  4. We mention the “flaunting” of traditions and mores (the popular conception of how an unpopular minority is seen within the church establishment).
  5. Sarcasm is not usually the persuasive tool of choice. Aren’t we actually promoting the counter-argument here?

Reworked: A more effective approach to the theme in paragraph #1 might be:

One would not submit a spirited defense of same-sex civil rights laws to Salt Lake City's Deseret News or their Intermountain Catholic. Why would we? Would we choose to pointlessly irritate devout people who were brought up to believe that what we stand for is wrong? After all, their institutions are certainly not crackpot “God Hates Fags” fringe groups.  What we want to show is that civil liberties are fundamental to the exercise of freedom. We want to show these as the pillar supporting all American liberties, including freedom of worship and religious affiliation. We want to show that when the civil liberties of one group are infringed, in time this becomes a threat to all groups. Let those seeing the wisdom of the common ground approach their church elders with the idea of change. Let us appeal to the good sense and common decency of the ordinary citizen.

Example 2 - National Rifle Association

Analysis of previous mistakes:

  1. Like the previous example, this paragraph doesn’t waste any time pretending to give the NRA a fair shake.
  2. If there is a credible case that licensing firearms might curtail crime and violence, this argument doesn’t even mention it, or how it could be effective.
  3. Instead, the paragraph attacks the NRA and its publication, qualifying the paragraph instead as an institutional argument ad hominem - a fatal error.
  4. The American Rifleman’s editorials come across as pure “unbridled flag-waving histrionics” to many. Still, offering this observation as a counter-argument to unlimited firearms access is counterproductive; it's only a purely gratuitous slap.
  5. Many Americans agree with NRA sentiments and excuse the strident tone. The NRA magazine American Rifleman has been in print in one form or another since 1887. Among its non-editorial functions: it currently appeals to perhaps five million hobbyists for superior in-depth technical and historical articles, and for its nationally recognized promotion of firearms safety programs and training.

If we as writers wish to address such mixed-bag topics, this should give us a more positive briefing for a “common ground” approach. There is no question that such a writing assignment would be difficult.

Rewritten: A more effective approach to the theme in paragraph #2 might be:

Firearms Crime: Preamble

While firearms deaths have decreased in the decade 1991-2001, many Americans are concerned that of 29,573 deaths in 2001, 39% were homicides and 57% were suicides [6]. Gun owners counter that this compares with about 42,000 deaths by automobile in the same period. However, both sides would probably agree that “Firearms are plentiful, easily obtained, and regularly used by offenders in major urban areas” [7]. The illegal firearms market has become a threat to neighborhoods in every major city in the United States. What we need is a serious proposal to limit firearm access that both minimizes infringement of civil liberties, and appears enforceable and effective. The idea that purchase and ownership of firearms might be better controlled at the point of sale has been bandied about for decades, with proponents stating that only outright prohibition can control the problem, while opponents correctly point out that existing efforts have only driven the problem underground, making it worse. I would like to see testing and licensing just as we have for motor vehicles, and for the same reasons. An NRA member (or any other responsible gun owner) should be able to carry firearms certification just as proudly as members of the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) carry theirs …

Conciliation vs. Going for the Jugular

We've just worked through a couple of examples where we turned a bad situation around into a plausible "save". In each "before" example, the tone and content was needlessly offensive to the target group being criticize. Worse, it was a tip-off, to people who might ordinarily agree with us, that there was little or nothing for them here either. Why? Instead of being offered a constructive alternative approach, readers discern a choice to engage in name-calling instead. This suggests that the writer either has something to hide, or must be presumed unable to come up with a more constructive solution.

In the "after" examples, we've simply disregarded irrelevant questions about alleged defects and personality quirks of the players, offering instead a constructive approach that appeals to a nearly-forgotten common ground.

The conciliatory approach doesn't always play in Peoria. In rewritten Example #2,

  • Some hard-line NRA members may still say we are just trying to sugar-coat the bitter pill with a namby-pamby appeal to humanitarianism, and our proposal amounts to nothing more than the first step down the slippery slope to a police state.
  • Some Handgun Control people may still say our proposal is a sop to the antiquarian vigilante mentality, and will do nothing to stop either the killings or the traffic in illegal firearms.

When we get right down to it, there's seldom anything we can say or do to sway the doctrinaire hard-liners on either side. We are looking for the open-minded people on both sides of the fence who might say, "well, this is a step in the right direction."

Normally, the middle-ground, open-minded audience is going to sway the tide against the hard-liners in the end, once they make up their mind. Here we find the readers to whom we must appeal.

"Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel"[8]

Having said all that, we may still sometimes feel the conciliatory approach just doesn't work. Sometimes we're going to go for the jugular anyway, but the trade-off is that we risk putting the critic in the same company as the scoundrel.

  • Rush Limbaugh is the darling of the ultra-right-wing branch of conservatism. He is an entertainer, not a thinker. Liberals bristle at the very name. I still think he's a fat-headed greasy bigot who thrives on denigration and defamation, having little else of any instructional value to say about life.
  • Janeane Garofolo is a left-wing, self-appointed political critic. She is actress and comedienne by trade, given to assertions such as her most recent, that participants in the "Tea Party" tax and spend protests are all racists who hate black presidents. I voted for Obama, but that's all I want to know about this Garofolo creature.
  • Alex Forbes (writer of this article) has been known to make uncharitable comments about Jerry Falwell.

I'm not an attorney, but I suspect most successful attorneys would concur that the preferred approach is to dominate the courtroom with facts and precedent, while avoiding any appearance of trying to sway the jury with intimidation and defamatory conduct.

It might be easy to say the courtroom is not a good analog of the writer's domain, since the legal players appear on behalf of the respective clients, and the judge enforces the rules. Actually, in the writer's domain, it's the writer who's on trial.

Whether choosing the middle ground or the hard-line partisan approach, professional conduct still pays in presenting the brief: "Respect the court." Be factual in your approach. Orient your conclusions toward cause-and-effect consequences. Then the jury shouldn't need much help from you to come to a just and fair conclusion.

Applying the above rules, let us conclude confrontational argument by seeing what we can do to bring Example #2 to a fact-oriented, blame-free, cause-and-effect conclusion.

 

High Road: Pleading the NRA Issue

Our reworked "preamble" to the gun control issue was a more effective first step toward encouraging a sense of common ground on both sides of the debate. While attacking neither side, it states the position of both sides even-handedly. It cites facts that both sides have acknowledged are concerns. It proposes, without detail, "testing and licensing just as we have for motor vehicles." Readers are now primed to examine just how we propose to present an idea which is generally out of favor with both sides:

Firearms: Supporting Detail

Fact

Conclusion

There are over five million hunters, target shooters and firearms enthusiasts in the United States These Americans already own legally-obtained firearms and keep them for legitimate, lawful purposes
Crime involving firearms in the United States can usually be traced to the illegal firearms markets. Convention forms of gun control do little or nothing to stem illegal firearms traffic.
Anyone with money and the right connections can buy illegal firearms and firearms which have been illegally modified for automatic fire (e.g. AK-47) Interdiction of illegal firearms traffic falls under the jurisdiction of the ATF (now the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives), which also has other federally-mandated priorities.
Accidental firearms incidents in the home are a needless source of death and injuries. Firearms safety training is an effective way of reducing accidental firearms incidents.
Firearms tragedies [Columbine, Virginia Tech] are the result of inadequate gun laws. Unfortunately, most of those firearms were purchased legally by of-age individuals under existing state point-of-sale laws.
Gun stores are a national problem. Most of the firearms in those tragedies were purchased legally by of-age individuals under existing state point-of-sale laws. Anybody of legal age with a clean record can currently walk into a gun shop and lawfully purchase a firearm. A mandatory training and certification program would set an inflexible eligibility requirement on top of existing law.
State "waiting periods" for the legal purchase of firearms have not eliminated guns purchased for illegal purposes. At best, waiting periods might eliminate a very small fraction of the problem, but they have not shown long-term potential for curbing firearms homicide or suicide.
Firearms crime could be reduced by prohibiting the sale or ownership of firearms. This bypasses the far greater problem of the illegal firearms market, while criminalizing law-abiding citizens.
Gun licensing and certification would mean Widow Jones, age 60, would be unable to buy a gun for home protection. She still could, but would have to complete the training and certification process like any other person.
A mandatory training and certification program is no guarantee firearms wouldn't be used illegally. Vehicle registration and driver's licenses are no guarantee against unlicensed and uninsured motorists.
A mandatory training and certification program could be the first step toward the tracing and confiscation of all guns. A mandatory training and certification program would only license a citizen to own a firearm. It would not affect existing federal and state point-of-sale registration of individual firearms.
A mandatory training and certification program is not a replacement for background checks. Most state point-of-sale firearms registrations require a "waiting period", which is already used for a background check.
A mandatory training and certification program would do little to reduce gun crime and violence. A mandatory training and certification program would set minimum standards for firearms ownership by law-abiding citizens. This would free up ATF investigative resources to concentrate on illegal firearm trafficking.
Validity of the Second Amendment "right to keep and bear arms" clause is open to question in 21st-century America. If it is, interpretation of all our other constitutional Amendments can in time become vulnerable to question, too.

Summary

A factionalized and emotional issue (like gun control) can be broken down into factual arguments on both sides. We as writer need to recognize that partisans on either side are very unlikely to agree with any outcome of the debate (confiscate, do nothing, register and license).

The arguments above are of course developed and presented in tabular format. For multi-step persuasive writing, it's a very good first step for the writer to develop and lay out elements and flow in some kind of outline or tabular form. Converting this to narrative text is straight-forward, so we won't follow through with step that here.

Putting all the cards on the table is a good way to initiate the process. It allows even-headed people to approach practical solutions to one part of the issue (e.g. "the gun problem"), without all the distractions of name-calling and faddish rhetorical diatribe. Even if it seems that the unaddressed issue (say, the illegal firearms market) is the greater problem and still uncontrollable, the method of persuasive argument outlined above should help clear the air for objective examination of where we go from here.

The same approaches to persuasion that we might choose for chatting with an old friend, in the relaxing shade of the front yard garden, might often set the right tone for effective persuasive writing.

 

copyright ©Alex Forbes June 5, 2009


Notes:

1 - Ethnography, Science and The Art of Persuasion, Rosalind Thomas [Google Book Search] p. 213
2 - Blaise Pascal (1623–1662).  Minor Works. The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
3 - KTEH/PBS The Art of Persuasion
4 - Epistemology - the philosophical study of what we know and how we know it.
5 - Variant of argument by intimidation - e.g., "if you believe that, you must not believe in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
6 - FBI statistics on firearms death by intent, 1991-2001
7 - US Department of Justice: Monitoring the Illegal Firearms Market
8 - Samuel Johnson

TOP

Please e-mail your comments!

 

Click here to return to Writing department