Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Role of Suggestion in Persuasive Writing: “What is Classic Prose?” Revisited

Thomas and Turner (Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose) describe classic prose as nonargumentative, a characteristic both paradoxical and central. Paradoxical because another characteristic of classic prose is advocacy of a thesis, which is usually explicit. (Thomas and Turner conflate introductory exercises involving presentation with full-blooded classic prose, which is fundamentally a tool of argument.) Yet the “nonargumentative” quality of classic prose, the absence of opinionation, pleading and pressure, is unmistakeable. I contend most central in classic prose is its indifference to suggestion: refusing either to wield it as a weapon or compulsively avoid it.

Suggestion is one of the two methods by which writers can influence readers’ far-mode beliefs, the other being cognitive-dissonance modulation. Most of the popular advice about persuasion involves suggestion, my main evidence concerning communication conducive to suggestion coming from the study of hypnosis and of interaction ritual chains, both enhanced by authority, simplicity, brevity, ease, repetition, and emotional involvement. The maxims of plain-talk writing amount to a guide to the forms for persuading by suggestion.

The mentioned prototypes for suggestion also demonstrate the limitation of suggestion as a tool for persuasion. Both hypnosis and interaction ritual chains require prior commitment. Hypnosis doesn’t work against a subject’s will, and confidence in the hypnotist is one of the most important determinants of trance induction. As for interaction rituals, we see today how political rallies excite only the party’s adherents.

The reason for the limitations of communication based on suggestion is the phenomenon of reactance. Attempts at suggestion against a person’s will arouses an opposing resistance often stronger than the suggestive effect, so that the target of the communication moves, by “reverse psychology,” in the opposite direction. Today’s political polarization is associated with reliance on suggestion in campaigns: how many “We’re with her” buttons can nonsupporters see before they start hating her?

Because of reactance, writers attempting to persuade the unreceptive must forswear suggestion. That includes not only avoiding the fallacies of suggestion, such as appeals to authority, assurances of sincerity and credibility (“believe me!”), and vagueness and ambiguity, but also the formal characteristics of suggestion when embodied in prose, the plain-talk techniques developed by advertising specialists: short sentences, common words, repetition (“tell them what you are going to say, say it, and say what you’ve said”)—all of which characterize hypnotic induction. By forswearing suggestion, classic prose attempts to be maximally persuasive while avoiding reactance.

There is another stylistic approach to avoiding reactance actually more extreme than forswearing intentional suggestion: striving to eliminate as much suggestion as possible. The norms and practices of “academese” express this drive to avoid suggestive content, being a systematic display of just those forms that would be avoided in hypnotic induction: long sentences, obscure words, and passive voice. (Contrast with classic prose, where sentence length varies to serve as a tool for emphasis, words are chosen for precision, and active voice enjoys a rebuttable presumption.) “Legalese” emerges as a conflicted style. The need to prevent reactance by avoiding suggestion is expressed in the same way as in academese. But the respectability of using suggestion is greater in law than in science, with the consequence that hypnotic-like incantations obtrude, such as doublets and triplets, and other routinized phrases.

To be sure, no communication can banish all suggestion, but, unlike academese, classic prose doesn’t actually try. In fact, a cynic might contend that classic prose makes suggestion acceptable by hiding it under other stylistic effects. Classic prose disdains emotional forcefulness, for example, but classic writing is in fact forceful by virtue of its employment of emphasis through variation.

If classic prose is indifferent to suggestion, that doesn’t mean it is necessarily rational. Cognitive-dissonance modulation, the other method for persuasion, is entirely compatible with irrationality, but suggestion is incompatible with rationality. It is a form of irrational influence, whereas dissonance modulation may be rational, depending on the particularities of the discrepancies

Suggestion is irrational because its mechanism is the induced refusal to make a critical evaluation of the communication. The uncriticized belief is accepted as true because of the unity of comprehension and belief.

Applying the maxim that to avoid reactance use dissonance modulation rather than suggestion has an extra wrinkle for legal writing: attorneys are charged with presenting their clients’ sides. Within these bounds, some tactics arousing excess reactance are ill advised, such as obvious opinionation, exhortation, and over-simplification. And while attorneys should say clearly what they want the court to do, the phrasing “the court must…” should probably be avoided.