Media and the history of political rhetoric

What is persuasion?

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Illustration Kelly Blair

O’Donnell and Kable define persuasion as “a complex, continuing, interactive process in which a sender and a receiver are linked by symbols, verbal and non-verbal, through which the persuader attempts to influence the persuadee to adopt a change in a given attitude or behavior because the persuadee has had perceptions enlarged or changed” (O’Donnell & Kable 1982, p. 9 in Jowett & O’Donnell 2012, p. 32). Main points here are 1) interactive or transactive and ongoing practice, 2) sender wants to guide receiver to voluntarily land in a certain response or reaction, 3) reciprocal in that both sender’s and receiver’s needs are fulfilled. The related feature of propaganda (as Jowett and O’Donnell’s definition in previous post) and this definition of persuasion is that both wish to communicate a message that will persuade the receiver to response or react in a specific way. The ways to distinguish the two is in their difference in interactivity and reciprocity where persuasion involves turn taking which entail never seeing the audience as passive. There is also a key difference in the intent of the sender where in persuasion the sender wants to make the purpose as clear as possible in order to achieve a voluntary change which meets the needs of the persuade as well as the sender, while in propaganda the source wishes to achieve a certain reaction based on their desired intent no matter if it is in the best interest of the receiver or not. The purpose can therefor very well be hidden or unclear, as well as the identity of the source. Distinguishing persuasion from propaganda might however not always be so straightforward, since it could boil down to the reader’s perspective on the intent of the sender, or the perception of the communication process as being interactive as well as the achieved response or behavior mutually beneficial. Consider parenting as an example; a mother and father wishes for their daughter to attend the London School of Economics (LSE) since they from much experience and reasoning deem this will give their daughter the best platform for enjoying a beneficial lifestyle. They continually encourage her to take this path, emphasizing the benefits from studying at LSE such as gaining a beneficial network for future work opportunities. If the daughter then does apply and get accepted to LSE, has she been persuaded or has she been influenced by white propaganda? This depends on how you define the intent and process: if the daughter was in fact able to take part in the meaning making of the communication and if she as well as her parents did in deed at the end value it as the best path. This would label it as persuasion. But if you would believe the intent of the parents were to impose a certain lifestyle on their daughter which suited them best due to other reasons than putting her well-being first, or that she thought she acted on her own opinions but was manipulated into believing so by the pressure and arguments coming from her parents communication on the matter, then this could label it as propaganda. Defining a propaganda campaign from a government during wartime might be a straightforward procedure, however outlining it in our everyday life can prove to be difficult as well as a question of approach and philosophy of what is an “authentic” belief, attitude or need. Depending on your own culture with values and norms you will consider certain things true and false, right and wrong, which will affect how you eventually judge.

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