The What and Why of Mutual Persuasion

I will get right to the point: We are looking at the breakdown of communication and, by extension, civility in American society.

Our inability to communicate, especially with people with whom we disagree, has devolved substantially in recent years. People consider their positions too important to simply agree to disagree. Abortion and Gun Control are the most common of such topics, and topics like politics and religion have always been doorways to contention. However, where we were at least willing to debate, we are now content to merely go our separate ways, find likeminded people, and force and find solace in our isolated enclaves.

Talking is seen as a less and less viable option with each passing year. This inability to speak with those different from us may result in violence—either physical (mass shootings, interpersonal attacks, vandalism) or epistemological (censorship, cancellation, compelled speech)—or self-segregation into tribes in which we feel safe. We have gotten to the point where words, themselves, are considered violence in a literal sense. If words are seen as literal violence, dialogue will always be seen as a battleground and never a site of understanding and collaboration. The more this inability to dialogue across differences persists, the more imperiled is our pluralistic civil society.

From a political standpoint, the country has not been this divided since the years preceding the civil war. We project personalities onto people we don’t know and don’t care to know, thus labeling them unfairly in ways that, most often, are quite negative. We refuse to listen, already convinced that either we are right or that the other side is always acting in bad faith. We let our xenophobia and insecurities keep us from working with others to maintain a just and civil society. We put so much emphasis on our own identities that we fail to understand the identities of others, if we want to understand them at all. This isn’t sustainable; we are devolving into a nation of purposeful incivility. This is a serious problem because a pluralistic society without open and free communication cannot maintain its civility and will become an environment hostile to the ideas traditionally fundamental to American life: individuality, reason, equality, and, of course, freedom of expression. In fact, we have become so intolerant of other viewpoints we’ve resorted to degradation over understanding, i.e. cancelation over dialogue. If America is to maintain its character as a deliberative and participatory democracy, we need to be able to talk, and everyone needs to have a voice.

Because people are becoming comfortable only among likeminded people, a liberal concept like viewpoint diversity—the allowance of different viewpoints within the same society—would be seen as a societal vice, not a virtue. Having an idea and trying to convince others of its efficacy, a necessary aspect of a pluralistic and civil society, will be seen as a kind of attack. I am already seeing this play out among academics, even those who specialize in communication. One does not have to look far to see this dynamic play out elsewhere. For these reasons, we—a group of scholars specializing communication, have created Mutual Persuasion, an organization dedicated to the power of rhetoric to maintain civility in a culturally and ideologically diverse society like ours. By mutual persuasion, we mean the use of practical strategies for communication in pluralistic societies, like the United States. We seek to provide people with tools to converse across differences. Thus, mutual persuasion is a form of rhetorical practice specifically directed toward enhancing dialogue between individuals or groups with seemingly inimitable viewpoints.

The Mutual Persuasion Project is a collaborative initiative for promoting the power of communication across differences. We are scholars in rhetoric, linguistics, psychology, and other fields. We seek to empower people and maintain a civil society through education in rhetoric and communication. We draw on academic theory in rhetoric and other disciplines to provide practical strategies for communication in pluralistic societies, like the United States. We seek to provide people with tools to build bridges across differences.

We believe that rhetoric, the study and practice of effective communication, has no point in an environment without viewpoint diversity. What’s more, a society that does respect viewpoint diversity cannot function without the study and practice of effective communication. Thus, we see rhetoric and viewpoint diversity as a collective sine qua non of a pluralistic, civil, and democratic society. However, when the very people expected to uphold these ideas no longer believe in them, the dissolution of such a society is immanent.

For this reason, we have decided to create our own institution to take on this duty.

Welcome to Mutual Persuasion!