It’s difficult to be convincing.
I like to think of myself as not just a writer, but a writer with a purpose. And while the specifics of that purpose will change with each new writing task, the ultimate purpose (or goal, if you will) is to get my audience to think. I want them to think about themselves, think about others, and think about the world they live in. The problem, however, is that not everyone has an open mind. Not everyone has the ability, capacity, or even the will to be changed – his mind is already made up.
Everybody has opinions. Morals. Ideas. Joe Schmo has a unique, one-of-a-kind upbringing that contributes to his worldview, and Jane Smith has one completely different from Joe’s. Neither of them are right or wrong, they’re just, well, different. The idea here is that people have these grand, solidified ideas about the way the world is and the way it ought to be, and these ideas are based almost entirely off of their own experiences.
With that said, how am I supposed to place myself within the context of my audience’s life? How am I supposed to be a part of that upbringing that shapes their entire perception of reality, their entire perception of truth? Is it even possible? These thoughts have often plagued and discouraged me. If the answers to any of these questions suggest that being a writer with a purpose is impossible, then there’s really no point for me to write at all. Well thank God, because I recently discovered that it is, in fact, possible to be a purpose-driven writer.
I recently read John McCain’s “Torture’s Terrible Toll;” an open letter that discusses the treatment of POWs by the American military in a post-9/11 world. At the time the letter was written, the issue of how to handle prisoners had practically spearheaded political discourse for months. John McCain’s letter, however, practically put the issue to rest.
His letter wasn’t one chock-full of political jargon. It wasn’t filled to the brim with statistics, it wasn’t overflowing with facts and numbers that diluted the point of the message completely, it was simply honest. It was almost as though McCain said, “You know what, forget about republicans and democrats. Forget about liberalism and conservatism and radicalism. Let’s lay to rest the partisan dick-measuring contest of who’s right and who’s wrong and just speak truth to one another.” And that’s exactly what he did. In a calm, well-composed manner, McCain talked about the ineffectiveness that torture has on POWs, and he spoke purely from personal experience. He talked about his time in Vietnam as a prisoner held captive for nearly 5 and a half years. He talked about how POWs are so quick to divulge false or useless information just to suspend their physical abuse. And most importantly, he talked about America’s obligation to remain a pinnacle of morality, and not stoop to the lows of our enemies.
God, it was brilliant. It was simple, honest, thoughtful, and personal. McCain never took the “I’m right, you’re wrong” stance, he never bashed others’ opinions, and he never claimed that his letter was the be-all-to-end-all to the debate. And through humble honesty and unrestricted transparency, McCain was able to nearly end the debate entirely. At a time when America hasn’t seemed more polarized on an issue since the Civil War, McCain hushed both parties. The boldest feat McCain accomplished was composing himself, and it turned out to be the most powerful feat too.
So in regards to my personal conundrum of how to properly convey thoughts and ideas to a large group of people, I found the solution in John McCain’s letter. I learned that the power of convincement lies not in statistics or self-proclaimed superiority, but rather it lies in humble honesty.
It quickly became very clear to me that the very thing I was fighting against in convincing my audience to think was the very thing I had to my advantage. Unique upbringing, personal experience, and subjective views of reality are the very (effective) tools I have to communicate with people who have unique upbringings, personal experiences, and subjective views of reality.