Ethical Peace Persuasion

Ethical Peace Persuasion:
Speaking for Peace in a Fallen World
2012 C. Henry Smith Peace Oratorical contest presentation
by Alex Woodring

Since coming to this University, I've had two great focuses. The first is communication. How do we do it? What goes wrong? How should we communicate and do it ethically? The second is peace and nonviolence or in other words, shalom. This has lead to a fiery passion in my life and a nagging question that has trickled into all areas of my academics. How do we use persuasion and rhetoric for the name of peace? But the question goes deeper than that. No.. more important than using persuasion and rhetoric is using persuasion and rhetoric ethically. All too often persuasion and rhetoric are considered four letter words. How can there be ethics in these concepts. We hear critiques of politicians when they "use too much rhetoric." But I want to argue that it is not the persuasion that is inherently bad but rather how we use it. Just like many other areas of study, persuasion has a dark side and a light side. Only when we discover how it can be done ethically, through dialogue, we can move to persuasion for peace. A task that followers of Christ are called to do. Christ followers are called to persuade for peace and the truth of nonviolence as described by Jesus Christ.

To understand ethical persuasion we must first understand how it can break down. It begins to fall apart when we seek domination. It is important to understand that the four letter word here is not rhetoric but rather domination. Humans are indeed broken; through our brokenness we seek domination, victory, judgments, and self-advancement. It is at the moment we become totally enveloped in ourselves that sin has truly infiltrated our persuasion, and thusly rendering it unethical. In order to avoid this we need to introduce dialogical ethics into our persuasion. It is through this relationship communication that true ethical persuasion can happen. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber helped define true dialogical ethics. It is through his concept of Ich-Du versus Ich-Es or I-Thou versus I-It that we can demonstrate the proper way to ethically persuade. How this works is through dialogue. Let's say for example I am in conversation with friend A. I am arguing for peace and nonviolence. Friend A is arguing for violence in certain situations. Friend A is going first. As friend A is talking I can see them in one of two ways. I-thou or I-it. If I'm using I-it, I am using the person. I'm using what they are saying to judge them and make my argument stronger. I see this opportunity merely as a means for myself. This in its nature is violent. It is dehumanizing. At this point it doesn't matter what I'm arguing for, my means do not justify the end. I cannot argue nonviolence by seeking domination which is a form of violence. Rather, I see this as an opportunity for understanding and growth. It becomes an I-thou conversation. I'm not using this person to benefit my argument rather I am listening for them. When you do this you understand more, you understand their perspective. They feel listened to, they feel welcome. This is necessary because it isn't for me. I am not persuading for my own benefit. Our persuasion is only ethical when we realize it is not for one's self. I'm persuading in the name of Christ's message, a message that is not meant only for me, but a message that it is for us. Therefore we must listen. We must engage in true Dialogue where the truest form of listening takes place; listening at its purest: Stripped of judgment and focused on understanding. Persuasion is not for yourself. It is for the betterment of our brothers and sisters and the glory of Christ. We use I-Thou communication because we care about them. Our mind set must be outwardly thinking and never selfishly inward.

Buber was speaking about just two people communicating. Therefore, we can throw this idea out the window when it comes to persuasion in media, especially mass media. If you have one speaker speaking to many, possibly millions, this thinking does not stand up. Right? ....No! There is good news friends! These principles can carry over. If fact, the lack of this kind of thinking is why so much unethical persuasion exist in mass media. It is because of the brokenness of us all that I described earlier. The sin of dominance is much more tempting when put in front of millions or even dozens. But our mass media outlook can be radically changed if we bring in some of Buber's thinking. Let's use this situation right now as an example. We are not engaged in a dialogue. Therefore the truest form of what Buber was talking about is not in existence. But still it is how I see you. This is where a version of Buber's thinking can fit. It mustn't become how I see...it. This cannot become a vessel for my own gain. It cannot be for the advancement of me. No it needs to be for you. I need to speak because I authentically have a truth I want you to embrace. If at any time my attempt to persuade you is not for all of us, then I have breached into the world of violence, an unethical wasteland of domination. Imagine if people in the media did not see you as "its". But instead saw you.

Christ taught and modeled peace to us. We are called to persuade peacefully in the name of Christ's peace, whether it is persuading against war, genocide, or environmental destruction. But we are never called to dominate. Remember dominance is violence and relationship building is peace building. We need not fear persuasion; need only fear our fallen selves. Once we make this distinction, we can truly begin to call for the peace described by Christ.