Political space encourages mutual persuasion.
Participants try to persuade each other. Whenever we exchange opinions, we try to convince others of the sincerity, accuracy and legitimacy of our respective accounts.
“[‘P]ersuasion’ is a very weak and inadequate translation of the ancient peithein, the political importance of which is indicated by the fact that Peitho, the goddess of persuasion, had a temple in Athens. To persuade, peithein, was the specifically political form of speech, and since the Athenians were proud that they, in distinction to the barbarians, conducted their political affairs in the form of speech and without compulsion, they considered rhetoric, the art of persuasion, the highest, the truly political art.” (PP: 7)
Today, persuasiveness is not very reputable. Even famous public figures like Noam Chomsky – famous, mostly, because of being persuasive themselves – claim that we should actively suppress our capacity to persuade others. We might of course ask back why Mr. Chomsky is saying such things publicly if not in order to persuade us not to persuade others? The art of persuasion has such a hard stand because, on the one hand, it is often wrongly equated with a bag of rhetoric tricks or even said to be a form of coercion, as if we would be incapable to resist it; and because, on the other hand, we do not clearly separate between the realm of opinion and the realm of truth.
At universities and schools and wherever else we are primarily interested in knowledge, in finding out the truth about something (whether in the field of history or physics), persuasive speech is indeed out of place. There may be different answers to the same question, but they are not opinions but theories and each of them claims to be true. In the political realm, however, where we are always concerned with opinions, persuasive speech is natural and even desirable. That it is the natural way of exchanging opinions becomes obvious in the most day-to-day situations, for example when we have to decide which movie to watch. And its absence is the best reminder of how desirable persuasion actually is. Debates for instance become almost unbearably boring for most people if the participants have problems to really articulate what they are trying to say or if they are not even trying to persuade each other and the audience.
Further, rhetorical figures are no more tricks than a hammer is a trick to put nails into the wall. There is nothing malicious about them. They are simply devices of verbal expression. Of course they can be misused, just like a hammer can be misused to beat someone’s brains out. But actually the art of persuasion is not a way to trick people but a way to convince them or at least to make them “see my point”. Metaphors, analogies and other such devices help us to articulate what we really mean and to convince others of our own convictions. If we use them to twist facts or to convince people of what we do not even believe ourselves, we are not persuading anymore, we have become liars and fakers. What is more, nobody can be forced to agree. All that we can do, “as Kant says quite beautifully,” is “‘woo the consent of everyone else’ in the hope of coming to an agreement” (BPF: 219). Persuasive speech is therefore not a form of coercion but it’s very opposite. (It is true however that people need to think and judge for themselves in order to be able to resist persuasion. If people are too busy or too lazy or simply not trained to judge the opinions of others and to make up their own minds, they will agree with almost anything and follow almost anybody.) Finally, in the political realm we do not only try to convince others with words but also with deeds. S/he who decides, for example, to become a vegetarian not only for personal but for political reasons, sets an example, hoping that others will follow.
Political action is persuasive. Persuasion is adequate and natural in the political realm, but only in the political realm. It is opposed to violence and should not be mistaken for delusion. If political space discourages persuasive speech, it will seem unnatural and boring.