We need to allow ourselves to be persuaded by beauty
This article is part of a new series called “On Persuasion.” We asked thought leaders to consider what persuasion means to them. What works in terms of persuading people? Is it moot in 2020? What is the Jewish value of persuasion? Should we be opening our minds to other points of view, or closing them to dangerous ideas? Read all the pieces here.
Watching yourself in the act of being persuaded can feel like measuring your own pulse: Sometimes it’s steady, and then it jumps. You know it when you feel it, hopping up against your skin. Or else persuasion might feel like the tide on a warm day at the beach, first lapping your toes, then your feet, and then crashing against your ankles.
You might think that persuasion has little to do with the ocean, or your heartbeat. You might think it has everything to do with its entry in the dictionary, or a specific example of when you changed your mind about something. But I’d like to persuade you that you’re wrong.
We live in a culture where debating can feel like a contact sport, defined by brute force. Everyone shouts, and the loudest voices win. Or else something happens in the world, and everyone is a smug Cassandra, thrilled that their most dire warnings have come to pass.
There is another kind of persuasion, and another way of being persuaded, that we already know about but need to fully recover: We should demand to be persuaded by beauty.
The shape of things matters just as much as what’s inside them. Beauty is argument, one that gets ideas in through the side door and dresses them in show-stopping clothing. We should welcome the swoon because being persuaded isn’t about being bludgeoned into submission. It is an invitation to think differently. Persuasion requires complicity.
Think about how persuasive a painting is, how it can take you someplace else and make your sympathies roam and shake your perspectives to the core. Rilke’s famous injunction to “change your life” happens in front of a sculpture. Beauty is there to persuade us if we give it time. The workaday and purely functional have rapid metabolisms: They burn through op-ed pages and tweets with ferocious speed. Art has a longer gestation, and the truths it offers are less snack-size. It is hard to read on your phone.
Tuning in to art’s arguments will be uncomfortable. It means being attuned to extremity and partial views. Sometimes beauty doesn’t give us happy endings: Just think of Oedipus Rex, or Romeo and Juliet. Beauty persuades us because it is not interested in our safety. It asks us to risk being unsafe for greater rewards: provocation, growth, and transformation.
We should all be deeply invested in expanding the forms that persuasion can take, because its present form isn’t working for us. Social media has overheated debates and prioritized sound and fury. Political and cultural polarization has made loyalty to tribe and talking points the path of most rewards and least resistance. There are bright spots of resistance, diverse thinkers who have banded together to defend the space we all share.
Feeling nostalgic? Meet Frank Crosswaith, Black labor organizer, and browse other old Forward photos via Urban Archive.
These deserve our wholehearted support. But the underlying stunting of our capacity to learn and change from and with each other needs to be addressed, and tuning in to beauty’s wavelength can help grow our ability to see different kinds of wisdom.
If certainty and dogmatism seal us off, beauty opens us up. Arguments too often fail to surprise us: Beauty is always a shock, and often a scandal. It yanks us through the looking glass and delivers us to a world that makes no promises about justice or happiness.
So why invite beauty into the persuasion business, when it doesn’t give a fig for politics or policies? Because it brings a welcome sense of instability to both. Think of how it is when you desire a person or a thing intently and intensely, the way you’re both content to look and wild to possess. Beauty’s spell is desire, and desire makes us close readers and uncertain thinkers, both focused and distracted. It makes us think not so much about good or bad, but in terms of bolts: risk, daring, sensation.
Making beauty the center of our persuasive life will mean opening to a wider range of argumentative forms. But it will also make us more demanding of those who seek to persuade via bad thinking and inelegant writing. Whenever someone tells us that quality of work is secondary to correctness of politics or the brute fact of identity, we should resist. Shopworn phrases indicate secondhand and tattered ideas. An openness to not only new ideas but new languages and sources of inspiration will make us better stewards of the ideas that we eventually decide to champion.
Rilke’s poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which ordered the life-change, begins “we cannot know his legendary head:” the statue has been broken and its wholeness chipped away. This life-altering moment happens before a paragraph without a lede, an argument without a thesis.
Still, its beauty is persuasive. What we do with it is entirely up to us.
Ari Hoffman is a contributing columnist at the Forward, where he writes about politics and culture. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Tablet Magazine, The New York Observer, Mosaic Magazine, The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, and The Tel Aviv Review of Books. He holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Harvard and a law degree from Stanford.