Friendly Persuasion: Lessons on social change, from Newman to 'Juno'
Did you ever wonder: How does a culture change its mind? What makes an entire people repudiate a position once held with blithe certainty? The question has long intrigued me.
Two great examples of this kind of transition are the seismic shifts that occurred in the United States in regard to slavery and civil rights. In the 18th century, both in Europe and America, most decent, rational people held that slavery was defensible. Even well-educated, thoughtful commentators—relying on the arguments of Aristotle, the witness of the Bible and uncontested tradition—argued that slavery was a positive feature of civil society. And as recently as the middle of the last century, many upstanding, pious and intelligent people felt that the segregation of the races, bolstered by Jim Crow laws throughout the South and by informal customs in the North, was a legitimate social arrangement. But now, it is fair to say, only mad people would hold that slavery or segregation is good. Today these practices cause revulsion in the hearts of rational people.
But how did such changes occur?
Rational argument played a role. Regarding slavery, one need only consult the arguments offered by Fra Bartolomé de las Casas in the lecture halls of 16th-century Europe, or the speeches of William Wilberforce in 18th-century England, or the polemical writings of the 19th-century American abolitionists. And in regard to civil rights, Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Dubois, Booker T. Washing-ton and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. advanced vigorous arguments in speeches and books against the practice of segregation. But the fact that these rational arguments were in play for decades before social change occurred demonstrates that they alone were not the sufficient or even primary reason for the changes.
Other factors were clearly operative. Would slavery have become repugnant to the American conscience without the personal witness of John Brown and the songs and paintings presenting him as a romantic hero? Without the face of Dred Scott, as captured by early photographers? Without the heroism of the all-black Massachusetts 54th volunteer regiment? Without Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Didn’t Lincoln himself bear witness to the power of imagination to change the course of public affairs when he greeted Stowe with the words, “So you’re the little lady who started this great war!”
More recently, would segregation have struck the American mind as morally reprehensible without the televised scenes of black protesters knocked to the ground by water hoses and threatened by snarling police dogs? The courage of Rosa Parks? The photograph of Dr. King being pelted with rocks while marching in Chicago? Or the image of King as he lay bleeding on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis?
All these, which appealed to the imagination and the heart, had at least as much influence on the decision-making process as rational argument.
In his late-career masterpiece The Grammar of Assent, John Henry Newman proposed a nuanced and textured account of the act of coming to assent. Formal inference (the Aristotelian syllogism in its various forms) played a key role but by no means the decisive one. Alongside strict argument, there was what he called “informal inference.” By this he meant that whole range of instinct, intuition, feel, hunch, half-formed argument and unconscious motivation. John Locke had opined that the quality of assent must be commensurate with the quality of the inferential support that one was able to muster for it. Newman countered that the mind simply does not work that way. Very often we give full assent to propositions for which there is no clinching argument. The reason is that the nonrational is not necessarily the irrational.
This nuanced analysis might prove helpful in our consideration of the culture’s attitude toward abortion. To be clear: I am convinced by the arguments that thoughtful people have introduced against abortion. Further-more, I am convinced that 100 years from now (sooner, I hope), only mad people will think that partial-birth abortion—to give the most extreme example—is a practice that should be protected by law.
Although we should continue to formulate arguments, these will never be enough to change the mind of the culture. In line with Newman’s principles, we must rely on various visual, visceral and imaginative means. I think, for example, that the pro-life marches on Washington for the anniversary of Roe v. Wade—at which the vast majority of participants are under the age of 30—have been extraordinarily effective at convincing the country that the future might not belong to the pro-choicers. The prevalence of ultrasound images of unborn children have made the pro-life position more persuasive to more people than have 30 years of arguments. As archbishop of New York, Cardinal Edward Egan once issued a letter on abortion in which he cogently presented the position of the Catholic Church. Along with the letter, he included a photograph of an unborn child at 20 weeks of development, as human in appearance as any newborn infant. Several times in the course of the letter, he urged the reader simply to “look at that picture.”
Two years ago, the movie “Juno” inspired a great deal of commentary, not only because it was beautifully written and acted, but because it presented a young woman who decided not to end her problem pregnancy by abortion. In one of the film’s pivotal scenes, Juno approaches an abortion clinic to terminate her pregnancy and runs into one of her classmates, a simple but earnest girl who is demonstrating there. As Juno brushes by, her classmate says, “Your baby has fingernails!” Once inside the somewhat squalid clinic, Juno begins to notice the fingernails of the people who surround her, and she leaves the place.
What happened to Juno through this encounter? She did not consider a new argument. Instead, she made a connection at a visual, visceral level, and her mind changed.
John Henry Newman, Harriet Beecher Stowe and “Juno,” among others, have much to teach about changing the minds of individuals and the collective mind of a culture. It takes arguments, to be sure, but it requires much more—deft and clever use of those things that appeal to the eyes, the imagination and the gut.