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The persuasive power of an equal but opposite point of view

The trick lies in reframing the argument by posing a different, values-based point of view – equal in power but completely opposite, if necessary (see Figure 12.2). Whenever we get attacked, it is usually because a critic has adopted a moral high ground and attacked us from that summit. That is the ultimate ‘point of view’ – the view from a moral high ground! If you now try to defend yourself against those attacks, you will look and sound defensive. You will be arguing with a critic who will never be persuaded. The people who can be persuaded, however, those who have not yet made up their minds, are watching you in this debate, and what they see is a defensive, reactive person being led, unsure of what is coming next and struggling to marshal arguments.

Figure 12.2: Taking the moral high ground

The meaning people take from things often depends on the context – so you need to control the context. We create meaning not just from the facts given in an argument but also from the elements that surround it. To provide an equal but opposite moral high ground, you have to pick out the relevant core values of an issue, then relate your value system to it. Articulate the facts and issues within this moral framing, defining ‘their argument’ in one way and yours in another (‘us’ and ‘them’). You can then articulate your point of view with a moral authority that enables you to win hearts and minds.

When working for the chemical and pharmaceutical firm Bayer I would often have to defend the company against animal testing. Critics would adopt the ultimate high ground, showing photographs of rabbits or other household pets bleeding from the eyes, then ask a mother with baby, walking in the street, to sign a petition against animal testing. Who could argue against that? Who thinks it is fun to torture animals for dubious gain? Not I, for one. And I would hate to try to justify it on that basis. No facts would help in these circumstances, either.

‘We only use 2,000 animals a year, under strict, government-controlled conditions,’ I might say. Although true, the problem is that the response to this fact would be a horrified reaction. ‘What?!! You do that to 2,000 animals every year?’ Straight away, I’ve lost.

So, best to reframe the argument from a different moral high ground. Don’t talk to the animal rights activist (who, remember, you will never persuade), address the mother with baby. Perhaps we can still persuade her? Say: ‘It is a horrible thought when expressed like that, testing on animals. I agree. However, what you are being shown is not wholly true. It is not our choice, entirely, that we do such tests. The government legally requires us to test medicines on animals, under very strictly controlled humane conditions (not the way shown here), and there is a very good reason. Untested medicines could have a potentially lethal effect on humans, so we have to do everything we can to guard against that. In our company, we believe that our products should be safe and effective, and of the highest quality. We can’t do that without testing. It is a matter of choice. Your choice! Would you prefer us to test on animals, or give your baby a medicine untested and potentially lethal? What would you have me do?’

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