A Matter of Honey and Vinegar

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When it comes to persuading people to change and adopt your point of view, I do believe that how you present your argument is just as important as the points within your argument. There’s an old saying that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. And it’s true. People are more likely to listen, truly listen, if you treat them with respect, or at least civility. Humans rely on emotions a lot and often generate rationale to support those emotional reactions after the fact. Relying on tactics that inspire fear or anger only serves to short-circuit the rational parts of our brains.

You don’t convince people that your view is correct by insulting them.

Sometimes it might seem that way, but in truth, most of the time the people who seem to be convinced that you are right when you start insulting the opposition aren’t from the other side at all.  Chances are they were already in your camp or leaning that way; they just weren’t vocal about it.  Very, very, very few people with an opposing viewpoint will switch sides after being called stupid.  After all, if you refer to them, or people who share similar traits, as stupid, evil, morally bankrupt examples of humanity, why would they listen to a word you have to say, regardless of how fact-based or valid your points are?

If you insult people, you are only preaching to the already-converted choir.  Those who are firmly in the other camp will become even further entrenched, convinced of their own righteousness by virtue of your vitriol, while those on the fence or with only mild leanings one way or another will not be swayed.  In fact, insulting the opposition might only serve to drive them away from you!  After all, one can become “guilty by association,” and who wants to be associated with unpleasant bullies? (I can’t tell you how many YouTube videos I’ve stopped watching, because the stream of insults and profanity obscured any validity the creators may have had.)

For example, say you don’t agree with the views that generally seem to be held by people who like the color pink. And then you go around telling other people how stupid or evil or intolerant those people who like pink are. Chances are that there are plenty of people out there who like the color pink who don’t share those views or might have views that aren’t as radical. Maybe they never even thought about the issues you are bringing up and don’t understand what the big deal is. But the more hatred or disdain you express about people who like the color pink, others who also happen to like pink might start to think like this:

“Man, I didn’t think liking pink was such a horrible thing, but this person keeps calling people who like pink horrible. But I’m not a horrible person and have never said or done or thought these kinds of things so this makes me really uncomfortable. In fact, I’m getting a little angry. Why is this person calling me horrible, just because I like pink? Maybe the other people who like pink aren’t really as bad as this person says, especially since I like pink and I’m not horrible… I don’t know if I want to listen to or associate with this angry person anymore.”

Obviously this isn’t always how the thought process goes; some people will look deeper into the claims about the horribleness of pink and end up changing their minds to support those who also don’t like pink. But most people (myself included) don’t care for confrontation, and many would rather find a way to explain or rationalize away behaviors because it’s easier than trying to question everything you thought you knew. When it comes to caustic, ad hominem attacks, emotion takes over and the sense of confusion at apparently inexplicable anger can turn to defensiveness and anger of its own, which only feeds the cycle.  And now you’ve lost people who could have been allies, who might have even agreed with your views… if only you hadn’t expressed them in such an antagonistic manner.

I’ll give an example from my own experience.  In my life, I’ve seen two very different examples of persuasion come from two friends of mine; we’ll call them Mr. G and Mr. S. Over the years (years, mind you), Mr. G has convinced me to adopt new ways of thinking, new viewpoints, and to reexamine certain behaviors and “truths” in my life.  In any discussion, he is always careful to look at the facts and arguments being presented, acknowledges points being made by the opposition, and offers alternative views in a calm, respectful manner.  He is aware that different people will have different experiences that color their views and interactions with the world around them and takes that into consideration. I have never, ever seen him resort to ad hominem attacks, despite facing a great deal of censure and ridicule for his pains.  Because he does his best to live his life according to those principles of respect, logic, consideration, tolerance, and self-examination, I respect his opinions and consider his arguments carefully.

Mr. S also gained my respect because he too tried to live his life in accordance with his principles and viewpoint. Unfortunately, my interactions with him in discussions of any kind were less pleasant because Mr. S had no tolerance for viewpoints that did not coincide with his own.  Because he viewed the world a certain way and interacted with it in a way that worked for him, he had the base assumption that everyone could and should do the same. Calling this assumption into question resulted in him trying to insult, bully, or shame me into ascribing to his way of thinking. Thanks to Mr. G’s influence, I was able to parse out the few valid points that Mr. S made, but without that, I probably would have dug in my heels like a stubborn mule and refused to concede any point because of the insulting nature of the attacks. Unfortunately, neither of us was convinced by the arguments or presentations of the other. My friendship with Mr. S eventually ended because we could not discuss differences of opinion without having a scene.

Mr. G’s approach was far more convincing and helpful than Mr. S’s when it came to changing my mind about certain fundamental views in my life.  Leading by example and avoiding insults were key in this transformation. Granted, Mr. S’s way is faster, easier, and in some ways more viscerally satisfying. It’s easy to compartmentalize and deride an entire group of people as being stupid or ignorant or whatever negative epithet comes to mind. Righteous indignation feels good, at least at first. But it only reinforces your own congregation; it does not win you converts, especially among those who might share traits with the group you are dismissing. You might bully or intimidate or silence those who disagree, but you won’t win them over. Mr. G’s way takes longer, requires greater effort and forethought and empathy, and might only convince a handful at a time. But I truly think that is a better way to fundamentally change societies, hopefully for the better.

How we say things can be just as important as what we are saying.  In this increasingly polarized environment, aided and abetted by the filter bubble of personalization, I’ve been seeing this happen way too often for comfort and it only makes the entire situation that much worse. Too many people jump straight into insulting others rather than using logic, and even rational arguments can backfire if they aren’t handled properly. It’s very easy to feel like someone is attacking you personally when it touches on a deeply held personal belief, or if you feel like people in your demographic are being demonized.  To make lasting changes in a society, people’s minds need to change.  They have to be convinced that another way is the right way and I do not believe that anger can affect lasting change, not for the better. We don’t think when we are angry. We only react, either by lashing out or digging in our heels. And that’s no good for anyone.


3 thoughts on “A Matter of Honey and Vinegar

  1. Very, very good. I’ll be sharing this. (I always love that I know who the anonymous people are!) I want to be like Mr. G, but I find myself becoming more and more like Mr. S, and, the concerning thing for me is, I haven’t necessarily viewed that as bad in the past. I think I may be slowly coming over to the side of Mr. G. But… as you said… that takes time. When you feel passionately, specifically, passionately about the rights of the oppressed, it can be very hard to have empathy for those you view as the oppressors. I’d like to try to walk a line between Mr. G. and Mr. S. I don’t want to be too passive. But I also don’t want to be a spewer of vitriol. Your thoughts?

    1. Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      It is a very difficult balance between the passion required to pursue a course of action and the restraint to keep from destroying the very thing you want to protect or promote. For me personally, I try to keep in mind how I would feel if what I am saying was said to me, how I would react. If I think it would upset me or fail to convince me, then I think of another tactic.

      For me personally it is more difficult to work up the passion required to do something like volunteer with an activist group. Because passion requires energy and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who need help or issues that have to be addressed. No one person can do it all, so I think it might be better and more helpful if each person picked one or two issues and really focused their efforts on addressing it.

      I haven’t found anything that I am passionate about enough to divert my time, energy, and attention to. I know that sounds kind of callous, but energy is a finite resource and to avoid becoming embittered, I must spend it wisely.

      Hopefully that made some kind of sense. Thanks again for reading and sharing!

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