Throughout the course of a semester, students had to prepare and perform a series of standard lectures. Styles included (but were not limited to) informative, narrative, and persuasive. I have no clue how I ended up on the topic of my persuasive speech but I do know that I chose it; topics were not assigned. And the topic I chose was … euthanasia.
I was unfamiliar with the practice. Hell, in 10th grade I was entirely ignorant of the word “euthanasia,” much less it’s meaning. But the more I read, the more intriguing I found the subject. The idea people could be in control of their own medical decisions, especially one that would end their life? Fascinating.
When it was my turn, I stood before the class and delivered a matter-of-fact talk. Allowing people with debilitating diseases to exit their life with grace and dignity made euthanasia a “this just makes sense” idea. If my words contained empathy, it was generated, like an actor might emote for a scene. Nothing I did was felt by me; I did not speak from the heart. I was catering to reason; pleading with people to do what was right just for the sake of being right.
Whether or not my speech was any good or changed any minds, I do not remember. What is at the forefront of my mind is the final speech that year. For the final speech, students could choose from the variety of stiles learned over the semester—informative, narrative, persuasive, etc.
A boy in my class, “Mike,” chose persuasion. Not just persuasion, but also the topic of euthanasia. Mike wanted to go head-to-head with my pro stance with a hard anti; Mike was 100% against it.
Where I had spoken emotionlessly of the benefits of euthanasia, Mike stood in front of the class and cried. He broke down and openly wept as he said the words, “I don’t want anyone to kill my grandpa.”
Numerous students welled up, and after all was said and done Mike received many, many hugs.
Meanwhile, I sat in the back of the class with a furrowed brow.
Mike hadn’t actually challenged anything I said; he didn’t discuss personal rights or dignified exits or gone into patient’s decisions or medical costs. What Mike did was to ignore everything but emotion.
It was a killer move.
Whether or not his grandfather was suffering or wanted to escape whatever was ailing him—cancer, Parkinson’s, what have you—was immaterial. Mike just didn’t want anyone to “kill” his grandpa. Mike took the idea people could make their own decisions and turned it into something an uneducated politician would later call “Death Panels.”
In his mind, Mike’s grandpa wasn’t deciding to end his own suffering; someone was killing him.
I learned a valuable lesson that day: people are emotional creatures. You can give them facts, proof, and solid intellectual arguments, but in the end they will follow their heart or gut. In short, people respond to any given emotion more than they will dispassionate intellect.
For fun—and because I’m a horrible person—over the course of the 2016 election cycle I used my Facebook friends as a test group for a social experiment. Every so often, I’d drop a fiery, explicative-laced opinion into my status box for all the world to see.
Almost immediately people would like or dislike the post, then leave their own impassioned thoughts of agreement or disagreement below it. Sometimes it would start discussions; sometimes it would start fights. Regardless, people responded to passion every single time.
A few days later, I’d find what I thought was an interesting, well-written thought article and share that. Only I wouldn’t add much in the way of opinion or verbiage. I’d write “This is worth reading,” or add nothing at all.
The post would sit there like a leper; ignored, unread, unliked.
Where my expressive posts would light fires, my neutral ones would gather minimal notice at best. As much as everyone says they despise negativity, they are drawn to it. No matter how much we complain, every election cycle we see pervasive fear-based advertising. People would rather have their passions enflamed than contemplate.
The positive side to this is: I have friends who can combine fury with both empathy, and intelligence. I’ve also seen wonderful articles accomplish this difficult mixture.
Over the course of election 2016, I’ve seen pro-life female Republicans write impassioned and tearful endorsements of Hillary Clinton. I’ve friends in the LGBTQ community who have knocked my socks off with their emotional pleas to friends and family to not cast votes against their rights. These posts are so much more effective than my approach, which starts with reason and logic, and ends with belittlement and put downs.
Of course, positivity doesn’t always work; hysterics can trump anything wonderful. I watched as a thoughtless person maintained an ALL CAPS approach to her point-of-view after reading a post that moved every other reader to tears. I’ve seen the most heartfelt and well-reasoned posts about individual rights tossed aside using the response of “That’s not what my ancient tome of fairy tales says!”
Sad, but it is what it is.
But even when positivity doesn’t open or change minds, it makes so much more sense than any other method of persuasion. Reason alone doesn’t work, because baseless emotion usually forgoes logic. Fear and anger do work, because the weak-minded are easily manipulated, but only other weak-minded people resort to such tactics.
(Maybe they don’t actually resort to them, chances are fear and anger are all they know.)
I’m not always good at reaching people, but I’m forever attempting to improve.
Photo: Getty Images