Are They Using Pressure or Persuasion?
The tactic chosen reveals much.
When someone wants you to change your behavior, do they try to change your mind or attempt to force you to act differently?
In my article Is The Problem Persuasion Or Complicity?, I discuss how what motivates people to participate in harmful systems often isn’t a personal belief but mere complicity. Likewise, when someone tries to change your behavior, they will appeal to one of these motivations: conviction or fear.
If someone is appealing to your mind, they will use persuasion. They will attempt to convince you that what they want you to do is correct. They will make a compelling argument for their perspective. They will appeal to your sense of morality or personal truth. They will want you to not just “go along” with them but actually change your mind.
If someone just wants to force you to act differently, they will apply pressure. They will create consequences and punishments for the behavior they want you to avoid. They might offer rewards or relief if you surrender to their will. They will appeal to your fear and desire. They won’t care if you change your mind, only that you do what they want.
No one likes being pressured. The reason pressure campaigns sometimes work is that a weak target finds submission easier than the discomfort of withstanding pressure. However, when pressure is applied to a person with real moral convictions, it often fails. There are many historical examples of people who were persecuted, imprisoned, and even martyred for beliefs they refused to recant. In these cases, no amount of pressure could change their mind, because pressure isn’t designed to appeal to the mind at all. It appeals to fear.
No one can force you to do anything. Only pressure you. You always have a choice, right up until death. They might be hard choices, but they are always yours to decide. In writing, you learn that characters are revealed through their choices. Your characters might say all sorts of things, but the dramatic arc of the story will reveal what they actually believe. If a character in a story claimed to believe in something but folded under the first hint of pressure, what would you think of them?
Pressure and persuasion might be combined when applied to third parties. For example, one might attempt to persuade a third party to participate in a pressure campaign or pressure someone to persuade others. You can know which is the underlying intention behind any action by asking: is this meant to appeal to my truth or fear?
Whether someone is using pressure or persuasion reveals as much about them as their target. Do they think you are open to reason? Do they not think their arguments are convincing? What do they think will cause you to fold? What do they think scares you? Their actions reveal their perception of you. In many cases, these are projections. People will threaten you with what they fear or attempt to convince you with what they find persuasive, rather than trying to understand your way of thinking.
Both effective persuasion and pressure require empathy. In order to persuade someone, you have to understand what they believe and what arguments will appeal to their current worldview. Effective pressure also requires understanding what another person wants to avoid, what motivates them, and what they value. Even if someone is your enemy, you have to get into their reality to know what will impact them.
For example, if someone insults a married man with a child by calling them an “incel” or insinuating that they “can’t get laid” this isn’t going to do much other than reveal the insecurities of the person hurling insults. Yet not all miscalculations are so obvious. I once had someone suggest I should change my writing because it reminded them of an influencer they didn’t like. I’d met this influencer in real life and knew they were making six figures a year. I wouldn’t mind making that kind of money just for being opinionated on the internet. Needless to say, comparing my work to the rich and famous was not effective pressure or persuasion to change course. (P.S. Help me realize my dream of making that kind of money by subscribing.)
I am where I am because I have withstood pressure. While working on my film American Circumcision, organizations opposed to a ban on circumcision in San Francisco ran a pressure campaign against Intactivists that attempted to brand anyone against circumcision as antisemitic. I knew that if I continued working on my film, I risked the same accusations. I made a choice. Now, here we are.1
You want people on your side with conviction. Cowards are a liability. Those without conviction will turn on you if pressured to do so. I am grateful for pressure because it clears out weak people. If we want to change the world, it will only be possible with people with conviction. Any campaign for the good will be met with resistance. Only those who withstand pressure can claim their convictions.
Conviction is shown through actions. No matter how many times you say you believe something, your choices reveal what you really believe. There is a spectrum of conviction all the way from being unable to stand the lightest pressure to being willing to die for what you believe. A coward dies a thousand times. Those with conviction, only once.
I’ve told a longer version of this story here:
“My Role On The Issue Of Circumcision Is Changing.” Brendon Marotta. 2019.
“The Path To Children’s Justice.” Brendon Marotta Show. 2022.