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political debate

Your Commonplace Or Mine?

I told you this 2,000 years ago.

I told you this 2,000 years ago.

In persuasive presentations, we often appeal to commonplaces — opinions, attitudes, or perceptions that are widely held by a particular group. Like common sense, these attitudes are (supposedly) common to all members of a group. As persuaders, we can speak to a common point of view.  We’re on common ground and we can move forward together.

The problem, of course, is that commonplaces aren’t so common. Indeed, many commonplaces have equal and opposite commonplaces to counterbalance them. One commonplace advises us to look before we leap. Another reminds us that he who hesitates is lost. On the one hand, we root for the underdog. On the other hand, we admire the self-made man – who is anything but an underdog.

It seems that we can find a commonplace to suit almost any argument. Want to lower taxes? There’s a commonplace for that. (The government is inefficient. You earned it. You keep it. etc.) Want to raise taxes? There’s a commonplace for that. (We’re all in this together. We need to help each other. etc.) And “good” commonplaces can be twisted to support “bad” causes. As Shakespeare reminds us in The Merchant of Venice, “The devil can cite scripture for his own purpose.”

In my persuasion class, I ask students to write papers in which they argue a point. By and large, my students are quite adept at deploying commonplaces to support their arguments. I notice that they often deploy commonplaces that they believe in. To be persuasive, however, we need to consider the commonplaces that the audience believes in. I shouldn’t assume that you think like me. Rather, I should seek to understand what you think and use that as a starting point for building my argument.

The concept of using the audience’s commonplaces is as old as Greek rhetoric. It got a boost last year when the sociologists Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg published their research on argumentation and moral values. Their basic finding: we are more persuasive when we frame arguments for a political position around “the target audience’s moral values.”

Feinberg and Willer point out that liberals and conservatives have different moral values (or commonplaces in our terminology). They write “…liberals tend to be more concerned with care and equality where conservatives are more concerned with … group loyalty, respect for authority and purity.”

They then tested how to persuade conservatives to take a liberal position or vice-versa. For instance, how would you persuade conservatives to support same-sex marriage? They found that conservatives are more likely to agree with an argument based on patriotism than one based on equality and fairness. Conservatives tended to agree with an argument that, ““same-sex couples are proud and patriotic Americans … [who] contribute to the American economy and society.” They were less likely to agree with an argument couched in terms of fairness and equality.

(Feinberg and Willer’s research article is here. A less technical summary is here).

Aristotle taught us that the best person to judge the quality of food is the one who eats it, not the one who prepares it. The same is true for arguments. You can’t judge how effective your argument is. Only the audience can. The moral of the story? Get over yourself. Learn what the audience is thinking.

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