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The Problem of Persuasion in Politically Polarized America

In today’s internet and social media culture, opinions are flared behind the impersonal protection of the computer screen, creating the appearance of debate and dialogue where no such reality exists. America’s increasing political polarization exploits and exacerbates this problem, resulting in an environment in which we often cling to our ideological enclaves, though sometimes peering out to have heated exchanges with those with whom we disagree. These sparring matches often serve simply to justify the honor of our opinion and the shame of the opposition, not to humbly persuade the opposition to one’s point of view.1 This honor/shame exercise can also result simply from our own reading choices, making sure we keep up on the unreasonable blogs and Facebook walls just so we can continually tell ourselves how unreasonable they are. I admit that I am often one of these people I describe, choosing to read websites and Facebook walls that I believe are ridiculous, just get my daily fix that I know I am in the right. Flannery O’Connor’s story “The Barber,” though written nearly seventy years ago, convicts us in the midst of our political polarization problem, urging us to adopt a posture of humble persuasion.

Set in a barber shop in the segregationist South, the story involves a progressive college professor and an uneducated, status quo barber, both of which are sure of their own ideologies. In their initial meeting, a debate quickly arose regarding two political candidates in an upcoming election. Having readied his razor for a shave, the barber brazenly opined on what he perceives to be the race problem, advocating for Hawkson, the racist conservative candidate:

“There ain’t but two sides now, white and black. Anybody can see that from this campaign…Why listen, three black hyenas over in Mulford last month shot a white man and took half of what was in his house and you know where they are now? Settin’ in their county jail eatin’ like the President of the United States”2

The professor, not to be defeated, rebutted,

“’A good many people consider Hawkson a demagogue.’ He wondered if [the barber] knew what demagogue meant. Should have said ‘lying politician.’”3

The barber responds ever-more confidently,

“’Demagogue!’ The barber slapped his knee and whooped. [Hawkson says at a rally], ‘Am I a demagogue, you people? And they yells, ‘Naw, Hawk, you ain’t no demagogue!’ And he comes forward shouting, ‘Oh yeah I am, I’m the best damn demagogue in this state!’”4

The fascinating part of this exchange, O’Conner wants the reader to understand, is not the ignorance of the barber or the reasonableness of the professor, but the common surety with which the debaters carry themselves. Neither of the two sparring partners consider the other as a person worth reasoning with, instead treating the other as if they weren’t fellow citizens. The point of debate, for the two of them, is never to humbly persuade the other to his point of view, but instead to defend one’s honor.

Gearing up for his next haircut exchange, the well-read professor hopes to stop the barber in his tracks. He explains the purpose of the upcoming dialogue to a close friend,

“I’m going to argue. I’m going to say the right thing as fast as they can say the wrong. It’ll be a question of speed. Understand, this is no mission of conversion; I’m defending myself.”

Ready with this frame of mind, the professor prepares a speech of systematic precision to be presented to the barber. Soon thereafter, the barber enters the shop with all the confidence in the world. Having cleared his throat, he begins his oration, “Well, the way I see it, men elect…”5

Contrary to the professor’s plan, the speech was not a good one, resembling a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal. O’Conner’s writing highlights the slowly diminishing hubris of the professor as his speech went on,

“He felt [his words] pull out of his mouth like freight cars, jangling, backing up on each other, grating to a halt, sliding clinching back, jarring, and then suddenly stopping as roughly as they had begun. It was over.”6

The barber and the others in his shop, needless to say, were neither impressed nor convinced. The barber congratulatory mocks the professor, “We all thought it was a fine speech. That’s what I been saying all along—you got to think.”7 The professor responds not with a rebuttal or a clarifying point, but with a remark that saves his honor, “Listen! Do you think I’m trying to change your fat minds? What do you think I am? Do you think I’d tamper with your damn fool ignorance?”8 This remark reveals the true status of the professor’s heart, a character that cares not for the person behind the opposing opinion, but rather a character that is concerned most principally with his honor.

To add injury to insult, the professor lands a swift blow to the barber, knocking him to the floor, a parody of victory for the defeated professor. O’Conner ends the story with a portrait of his foolishness as he leaves the shop, “lather began to drip inside his collar and down the barber’s bib, dangling to his knees.”9

Instead of the culture of honor and shame of both the professor and today’s political polarization, I propose that we ought to aim at a humble persuasion in our discourse. Not that we ought to lose conviction in our voices or a serious concern for the issues, but that we ought to be concerned for the person on the other end of the debate, opening ourselves and the other up to change of mind and expression of virtue in argument. James K.A. Smith, editor of Comment magazine, argues that we ought to practice persuasion as “a mode of convicted charity—willing to meet one’s interlocutors where they are, while unapologetically hoping to change their mind.”10 Instead of the noisy gongs and clanging cymbals of internet culture and politically polarized debate, God calls us to to love. Love is “patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”11

Anne Snyder, writing in the same magazine issue as Smith, examines the Christian foundations of such a lovely, convicted charity, calling Christians to a different mode of persuasion in this political season:

“Perhaps more than anyone, Christians should be all over this. In the fruit of the Spirit we have been given patience, gentleness, kindness, love, and therein find the directive to listen before prescribing, to receive before giving. So much of the culture-making, culture-changing desire amongst believers over the last decade seems to ignore this most basic posture, this acknowledgement that we have something to receive before we have something to give.”12

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George Aldhizer

George Aldhizer

Raised in North Carolina, George works as an accountant and lives in New York with his wife and son. His writing is animated by Abraham Kuyper’s exclamation, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

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