Plato’s Republic begins with Polemarchus, along with a group of people, stopping Socrates and Glaucon from departing the city. Upon realizing that Socrates is inclined to leave, Polemarchus highlights the size of his group and says, “…prove yourselves the stronger party, or else stay where you are.” Socrates suggests, “…there is still an alternative: suppose we persuade you that you ought to let us go.” To that, Polemarchus replies, “Could you possibly persuade us, if we refused to listen?” Glaucon, who was in Socrates’ company, responds, “Certainly not.” Finally, Polemarchus announces, “Make up your minds then that we shall refuse to listen.”
Where differences in opinions exist, the need for persuasion arises. The act of persuasion, whether or not it leads to swaying one party to change its view, does help with the exchange of ideas. Where no change of mind has occured, the process of trying to persuade may result in both parties standing their ground even more firmly than before (but with more knowledge to make informed decisions). What is very important is the presence of an open mind, and an absence of planned refusal to listen (as Polemarchus suggests above).
It may be a child placing a demand (along with justification) for a expensive toy before his parents, or an applicant writing a cover letter making the case for why he/she is the right person for the advertised job, or an attorney arguing before a jury – persuasion has many forms. I believe we all have tried to persuade someone, about something, at some point in our lives. One way to master the art of persuasion is through learning to “debate”.
When I was in fifth or sixth grade (Class 5 or 6, as they are better known in my school that followed the British curriculum of education) and growing up in Bangladesh, I was first exposed to the idea of ‘debate”. Initially, it seemed to be a new adventure that I wanted to embark upon. As a child, I was quite shy. And as I grew older, the act of debating seemed a perfect medium of expression. My school – Sunnydale – had a debating society that I joined. At first, I didn’t know what to expect. But as time went by, I learnt more about the British parliamentary form of debate.
I remember my first debate – the topic was whether schools should have uniforms or not. All the schools that I ever went to had uniforms, and still do. In the part of the world where I grew up, uniform is the norm, with hardly any exceptions. I do not recall which side I was on during the debate, but I do remember performing very poorly – holding my notes almost up to my face, lacking confidence in presentation, etc. I couldn’t wait for the debate to be over. That was an unpleasant, but transformative, experience. Our team had lost.
I do not remember how and exactly when the transformation happened, but it did. In the next debate I participated in – my confidence surpassed everyone else’s. Many people in audience, who had seen my first debate, were surprised to see the second one. I stood there, presenting my views with great energy. In my speech, there was humor, and my arguments posed challenges for the other side. I was organized in delivering evidence, and felt increasing support from the spectators as I continued to speak. The applause was loud. I was moving forward in learning the art of persuasion, through the act of debating.
Developing my skills, and building up a good reputation, I represented my class in debating tournaments within the school. I was fortunate to have excellent teachers mentoring me and helping me sharpen my talent in this regard. Over time, I had the opportunity to represent Sunnydale in debate competitions against other educational institutions. Among schools that participated in British parliamentary debate competitions, Sunnydale was well-known, and I was part of that small group of skilled students who made sure that we did our best to stay among the top-ranked debate clubs in Dhaka (the capital of Bangladesh).
Learning to debate played an important role in my life. It made me stay up-to-date on current affairs, research possible arguments for and against a specific course of action to address an issue, collect evidence to support claims, listen and analyze opposing views, prepare for rebuttal, and work as a team. Debating was more than an extra-curricular activity, it was an investment for the future. Eventually, I developed my own distinct style, with a certain degree of unpredictability. I learnt to understand my opponents, study the audience, switch from serious to light tones and vice versa, and more. Slowly, I branched out into participating in extempore debate and public speaking competitions, and received various certificates of achievements. Most importantly, I met great people, made good friends, and created beautiful memories.
Fast forward many years. In graduate school, I studied policy analysis – recognizing a policy problem, studying the background of the matter, researching and analyzing evidence for various claims, crafting policy alternatives, and making a recommendation for a course of action (or non-action). In policy analysis too, persuasion plays an important role.
As I then entered the life of politics in America, I have truly started to appreciate the path that I’ve traveled on to become who I am – an individual with strong opinions, a person with the ability to express and present arguments, someone who has the willingness to listen with an open mind, and one with the experience of persuading. Our country faces many challenges, and the level of disagreement between people and groups of opposing views has risen to enormous levels. The more I see the reality, the more I recognize the importance of persuasion in human interaction.
Perhaps where persuasion plays the biggest role is in our personal lives, in our every day communication with family and friends. In the face of foe, the hope of success of persuasion is diminished, and people resort to other means to address challenges or to accomplish what they want. But it is among people that we care about and people who wr want to have in our lives that we use persuasion to prove our point, arrive at common ground, or reduce the intensity of any discord.
As I often say, “Water will find its way.” Each human being is a combination of strengths, weaknesses, talents, desires, and have various means, subject to the realities of life. Each of us has a list of things we want to do and achieve, milestones we want to reach, problems we feel we need to solve. How and why we do all these is where the art of persuasion, and the importance of having an open mind, come into play.
Book “Republic” by Plato. Translated by John Llewelyn Davies and David James Vaughan. Wordsworth Classics of World Literature. 1997 Edition.
Some of my certificates of participation in debate competitions.