Windows and Mirrors for All: Persuasion - but no, not Jane Austen, Florence Sprague, May/June 2024

“Persuasion, I suggest, should not be understood as an exercise in argument and counter-argument, as if it were a tennis match—won by hitting shots an adversary is unable to return. Instead, persuasion is best thought of as a process of making or finding space for a given outcome in another person’s world view. Rather than looking for arguments an adversary will be unable to deny, we should look for arguments an adversary will be able to affirm. This in turn depends upon developing as full and nuanced as possible an understanding of that adversary’s view of the world. Thus persuasion depends upon imagination, and in particular upon a certain imaginative capacity to see the world from the perspective of others. Reading may be the best way to develop that capacity.”

(Sherman J. Clark, Professor of Law, University of Michigan, in an essay based on his talk “Law and Literature: Examining the Limited Legal Imagination in the Traditional Legal Canon,” delivered at a conference at Rutgers University, circa 1998, and reprinted in part in Law Quadrangle Notes, Summer 1998. Read the article here.)

Professor Clark was speaking to lawyers, but we would all be well advised to think of persuasion this way. Imagine that. The word persuasion itself brings to mind the need to bring someone along with you, not overpowering them, or “winning.”

But wait, aren’t lawyers out to win? That depends on the situation, and Clark asserts that persuasion is often better than brute force for optimizing outcomes. For example, when negotiating a contract, you are more likely to get the provisions you seek if you understand the needs and goals of the other party as you negotiate.

Let’s explore Clark’s thinking further. He points out that none of us is without a perspective, noting that too often “a dominant mode of thought becomes so familiar and accepted that it begins to seems so natural as not to seem a ‘perspective’ at all,” when in reality it is no more value free than other points of view. To train ourselves to see those other points of view, and be a better advocate, he promotes reading literature.

It is not simple to enter a worldview that is far from one’s own. Clark posits that literature can be an entry point into a wide variety of points of view. Reading can help one develop the imagination to see into the worlds of others, as well as providing an immensely diverse set of examples, training us in “the process of entering fully into those worldviews which develops the sort of imagination necessary to sympathetic engagement” with an assortment of characters and situations, not routinely a part of our lives. It is not that you come to share a character’s position, but you learn to understand it.

One example he uses comes from The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro. The English butler, Stevens, who is at the heart of this novel, makes certain choices in support of his employer, who is in support of pre-WW II appeasement of Nazis. We may decry these decisions, but Ishiguro allows us to see all of the forces of duty, of hierarchy, and more as Stevens sees them, and in learning to understand his world as he sees it, and we learn why he would act as he did, without needing to agree or approve.

To quote Professor Clark once more “The more we need to make ourselves understood, the more it becomes necessary that we strive to understand…there is no magic bullet…”

Read on.