Permission, Persuasion, and Disdain
An article about how to convince the unvaccinated raises questions about truth and trust in public health communication
I was recently introduced to this concept of rhetoric called “permission structure.” The article below is about using this rhetorical tactic to convince people to get vaccinated.
I’m not particularly interested in this as it applies to vaccinations, but I do think the adoption of this rhetoric in order to change minds is counter-productive because, when you look at the examples they give, it involves just flat-out lying to people in order to make them think that you’re sympathetic to their concerns when, in reality, the speaker actually holds their audience in disdain.
Permission structuring (at least as it is presented here) is paternalistic, smug, and based on lies. The speaker says, “It was understandable to be wary before” when the speaker was not wary before and did not think it was understandable to be wary. They are lying about their own position because the truth is not their primary concern. The concern is influencing the actions of the listener and any number of lies are permissible to achieve the target behavior.
As my Twitter friends discussed this, a lot of people thought that this is the way of all rhetoric and was unremarkable as such. I disagree because, as Eigenrobot remarks “this is not how one speaks to free men and equals.” This strategy does not presume that the speaker and the listener are equals. It believes the speaker to be smarter than the listener, whose only role in this is to bend to the will of their intellectual superiors.
When we speak and debate in the public square, most people still presume that there is to be some meeting of the minds. As we speak together, we may not come to the same conclusion, but we hope to be heard and to hear from others. People will exit a debate unconvinced but think longer on the substance of the matter and subsequently change their position. But the foundation of this entire endeavor is that we understand that the speaker respects our minds and autonomy as they seek to persuade.
As a communication strategy, permission structuring shows none of that respect. It also has a very short half-life as an effective tactic.