How Persuasion (Itself) Can Corrupt

It is not enough to understand that persuasion can lead us to bad outcomes, it can harm us even when the goals are good



Politics requires the skill to get someone else to do the unthinkable for you.

~Reinhard Heydrich, Nazi, SS General (1)


Most of my posts look at positive examples of persuasion in action, but there is a dark side to persuasion which is the subject of a chapter in my forthcoming book. As part of my research, I was fortunate to speak this week with Christopher D. Schmidt, an educator who wrote his doctoral thesis on Aristotle’s Rhetoric. During our discussion, we examined how persuasion can be used for immoral purposes, as history gives us numerous examples of speakers who persuaded others to support violence, racism, or even genocide.


Most everyone has studied history's tyrants who illustrate the corruptive power of persuasion employed for terrible ends. Dr. Schmidt has pointed out a subtler way in which persuasion harms. His theory is that persuasion harms not only when it leads us to bad desires or evil choices but also in the means by which we are persuaded, even if the goal of the persuasion is itself not bad. It is easy to understand that persuasion corrupts if we persuade others, for example, of racist ideas. Dr. Schmidt asks us to consider the case where a student is urged to be the best in her class through appeals to vanity or the need to outperform regardless of the costs to herself and others. He asks us to consider someone who is persuaded to give money to charity not for the good the contribution will do, but because it will make him famous and admired by millions of people. In cases such as these, Dr. Schmidt argues that although the goals may be worthy, the persuasive elements used by communicators to move others to action are corrupt and corrupting.


Dr. Schmidt makes a second point— that when corrupt persuasive practices are used over and again, those being persuaded may believe that the reasons they are persuaded to do something are the only ones that justify the end, a belief that is an even worse outcome. For example, consider a young athlete who comes to believe that the only justifiable reason for excelling in sports is to derive pleasure from watching others lose. Likewise, consider a political party that praises a candidate because he wins elections by debasing his opponents, or a boss who comes to believe that the best way to persuade his workers to excel is by humiliating them whenever they fail. In all these cases, the object of persuasion — winning in sports, shaping policy, achieving success in business— may be worthy goals, but the exposure to corrupt persuasive models makes those persuaded desensitized to the harm they suffer in the process.


It is not difficult to find the effects of corruptive persuasion at work. In too many cases, the goal of emerging political movements is not to generate positive change but to harm, often by painting the opposition as weak or less than human. We see corruptive persuasion also in social movements that hope to silence dissenting voices not through reasoned debate but through exaggerated — and often insincere — moral outrage.


I often liken persuasion to chemistry, in that a great communicator combines various elements of character, argument, and emotion in formulas that bring ideas to life. This reaction, driven by the energy of the speaker and audience, is the essence of persuasion. Reflecting on Dr. Schmidt’s comments, we can extend the metaphor to imagine that each exposure to a corrupt persuasive formulation leaves small traces of that corruption behind in our soul. Given enough exposure, the trace elements reach a high enough concentration that they begin to affect our psychology and character. After some point, the dose is high enough to kill reason and humanity, which is how an entire nation can come to commit itself to barbarous acts that seem inexplicable to those who have not been exposed to the same persuasive formulations.


My chat with Dr. Schmidt brought to mind my teacher and friend, the classicist James Arieti. When I was in college, Jim told me that he does not believe students should ever “play Devil’s advocate” or argue for positions they do not really hold, even in “academic” debates. Jim explained that we should never play with persuasion in this way because there is a harm, perhaps lurking about unseen, that comes to one’s soul from such an act. Jim’s view is one I now share, all the more so after my discussion this week. Indeed, it is worth remembering that it is not enough to use the rules of persuasion for the right goals, it is also important to use them in the right way.


1As told by Loring Mandel in Conspiracy