Persuasion in the Age of Why Not?


Believing that the world is flat is a thing these days, proving again the persuasive power of “why not?”

I mean, why couldn’t it be true? It looks flat to me, so the idea jibes with my personal experience. I don’t know who took pictures of the Earth as a globe floating in space (and floating on what, since space is a vacuum…or is it?), so they could be fake, as could all this nonsense about us orbiting the Sun (any fool can tell it’s the Sun that moves across the sky).

Who cares that every expert for the past few thousand years has so-called “proven” the earth is a globe? It all sounds like groupthink to me. And, if they’re so convinced that they’re right, why do they angrily attack other ideas as wrong?

I could make the same case for any other subject that used to be considered a fact.

Belief is as old as humankind, but the logic and rhetorical device of why not? is somewhat new, and it has made debate into a shouting match, and persuasion all but a thing of the past.

I blame technology, at least partially.

Each of us has deep personal needs for the universe to have meaning, suffering a cause, expertise its exceptions, and people their purposes.

Today, it’s far easier to find answers for these “whys” — mathematician John Allen Paulos once said that “the Internet is the world’s largest library. It’s just that all the books are on the floor” — and, once discovered, it’s easier to defend them (or never encounter alternate viewpoints whatsoever). Technology doesn’t cause this somewhat reflexive behavior, but it makes it more likely.

Once we’ve chanced upon the books we want to read, tech allows us to look up from the floor and gaze adoringly at that content on our smartphones; freed (and isolated) from the constraints of real, diverse community, we can only dig evermore deeply into what we want to see.

Forget fake news; the Age of Why Not? has given us no news, only opinions that are equally valid because we believe in them equally. Everyone is an expert on everything, especially their own personal experiences, so the only fact that matters is that I’m the only person qualified to say that I’m right and you’re wrong.

I blame people, mostly.

It’s no big deal if there’s no way to convince some folks that the Earth isn’t flat. Maybe some of them have been abducted by aliens, too, for all I care.

But living in the Age of Why Not? means we can’t agree on anything that matters, because we bring separate and incompatible worldview to debates on the environment, economics, race, even health.

Since facts are no more persuasive than raised voices, I wonder if marketing theology might help resolve those arguments.

Buying toothpaste or a new car has little to do with capacities to fight cavities or turn corners, and everything to do with feeling better or empowered. The miracle of consumerism is that people can purchase things that actualize their deep, personal needs for expository meaning.

The purpose of life? Acquire stuff. Worried about the unknown? Build a fence, or drink expensive hootch. Mad at the injustices of life? Refute it with what you wear, and where you go.

Features and functionality matter, of course, but most of the time people buy stuff to address their underlying “whys.”

Would it be more persuasive to first address those factors before ever debating their implications? Perhaps there are common truths underlying otherwise opposed beliefs about climate change, or any other contentious topic.

A conversation about our shared needs to protect our children’s lives might be a good starting point. Perhaps everyone could agree that they don’t like being told what they have to do about things they can’t see, and instead start building together a shared model based on what we know from personal experience.

Our symptoms might be different, but perhaps our ailments are alike?

Ultimately, persuasion — like selling — is not about convincing someone through sheer force of argument or factual veracity…it’s a nuanced, collaborative conversation in which change occurs for all participants.

We change minds when our own minds are open to change, and perhaps that starts with changing how we talk about the issues that we find most difficult to talk about.

Think it won’t work? I say why not?

[This essay originally appeared at Medium]