Editor’s note: This is the third article in a series about peacemaking in America. 

In 431 B.C., the Greek historian Thucydides recorded a funeral oration given by the great statesman Pericles. Unlike a typical eulogy, the speech memorialized Athenian democracy in what many have called its golden age. 

During this speech, Pericles offered a relatively novel idea about just how expansive participation in public life could be. “If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences,” he said.

But if someone didn’t have social standing, Pericles argued, advancing in public life relies on that person’s “reputation for capacity,” with “class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition.” 

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In ancient times, the idea that class and poverty didn’t disqualify a person from enjoying certain civic freedoms was a radical belief. Over a thousand years later, a group of New England revolutionaries would begin marking the path to the same sort of ideal, convincing people to join their cause by disseminating their ideas through pamphlets like Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense.”

These open attempts at persuasion are a hallmark of both American and Greek systems. And yet, they sometimes seem at odds with peacemaking approaches centered on listening and understanding.

Indeed, Americans of all political persuasions believe they are unable to speak freely and exchange ideas, according to a New York Times and Siena College poll. Freely exchanging ideas is critical to maintaining a democracy, and to do that, we need to rediscover the art of persuasion.

Persuasion fatigue

There are many reasons the art of persuasion has come to be seen so dimly. From political campaigns to endless marketing, many people get worn out by someone trying to “sell” them on something they perceive to be of little value. Institutional trust has also reached rock bottom — the dwindling confidence exacerbated by partisan gridlock and a weaponization of deeply held values. 

In Scientific American, Nathan Ballantyne, Jared Celniker and Peter Ditto wrote about “persuasion fatigue,” which they described as frustration with trying to win people over to your viewpoint, with little success.

In our weariness at hearing another pitch, any kind of persuasion can seem like just another tactic to manipulate us or sow enmity between neighbors. But it’s not. It’s the exercise of a fundamental right granted by the First Amendment, one in which is embedded the potential for social good. 

And the reality is that many of us have moral, religious and political values which we believe are grounded in transcendent truth. That’s why we naturally feel it’s important to encourage others to live their lives in line with this truth.

There’s a verse in one of my religion’s sacred texts echoing this idea. It reads, “For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God.” 

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Inspired change

To some degree, our social progress is dependent on persuasion. Abigail Adams, an early women’s rights advocate, sent her husband a letter on March 31, 1776, when John Adams and other men were designing the future of American government. She wrote, “And by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.”

This letter is considered one of the important Revolutionary era documents. Later, suffragists like Emmeline B. Wells and Ida B. Wells would echo and expand on the idea Abigail Adams expressed in 1776.

A decade before she passed, Wells, suffragist and editor of Woman’s Exponent, recounted how much women in the West contributed to the suffrage movement. She urged historians to “remember the women of Zion when compiling the history of this Western land.”

Persuasion can have a long shelf life; it can also have a material impact in a short time frame. Malala Yousafzai, an education activist, was shot in Pakistan in 2012 for her opposition to severe restrictions to female education. Yousafzai has spent most of her life writing about the conditions and experiences she had while advocating for change in her country. 

She continues to materially impact the lives of girls and women in countries around the world through her organization, the Malala Fund. Her rhetoric, including a Nobel Peace Prize-winning speech, has contributed to this positive impact. 

If we shy away from persuasive attempts like this, we could miss being part of morally correct and necessary change. 

Before the work of effective persuasion can begin, though, it’s important to listen to others deeply. Without a period of listening, persuasion can feel little more than superficial marketing, without any real understanding of the people we are trying to reach.

There also are instances where activists on both the left and right may bristle at the thought of peacemaking when it comes to certain issues because they believe there can be no compromise. In such a case, an inability to see a pragmatic compromise on a deeply held moral issue shouldn’t preclude still seeing basic dignity in another person. 

And by cultivating our own humility and openness, when our conscience pricks at us to change our own minds, we won’t dig our heels in. 

Perspective: What people get wrong about political polarization

When persuasion trumps compromise

On Nov. 19, 1863, when Abraham Lincoln delivered one of America’s most important speeches, he said, “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

These persuasive remarks precipitated the Union’s victory in the Civil War, beginning the process of granting freedom and rights to enslaved persons. In this instance, it was moral and right to say everyone deserves freedom.

As President Russell Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has said, “There is room for everyone. However, there is no room for prejudice, condemnation, or contention of any kind.”

In another famous speech, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. shared his dream of civil rights. He said, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”

King said what was moral — the promises of democracy and freedom need to extend to all people and segregation is a betrayal of justice and freedom. This is another instance where compromise wouldn’t be sufficient because it would betray morality and truth. 

Morality and truth should be the companions of peacemaking. Yet a chasm has erupted in American public life, dividing families and neighbors along partisan lines. Persuasion can be the whisper of hope — though it may not always convince someone to join your cause. But it offers the promise of establishing a common foundation once more.