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Jane Austen’s Persuasion

It is often argued that politics in our democratic societies consists of various parties offering their ideas on the market and individual people deciding which ones of those ides they like best. However, in practice, persuasion plays an immense role in shaping people’s belief systems in a way that corresponds to those in power. In this essay, I explore the theoretical insights about the power of persuasion and apply them to the analysis of Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion in order to illustrate how male power manifests itself in the book.

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Persuasion is one of the most powerful mechanisms known to people. It is very difficult to pin down the way in which it works even though numerous studies have been published on it. However, what is known is that individuals can have enormous influence on the lives of others if they are persuasive enough.

In his book titled Persuasion and Healing. A comparative study of psychotherapy, Frank draws on an immense amount of diverse evidence to prove the effectiveness of psychotherapy which amounts to a form of persuasion. Frank simply points to various facts known from everyday life but also confirmed by science that work for us even though they are nothing but forms of persuasion.

For instance, Frank (102) argues that cases of reported recuperations after visiting shamans or other individuals who claim to provide treatment through religion or magic are all consequences of immense persuasive power of those individuals. Our scientific medicine has its own reported version of this effect mirrored in the famous placebo effect (Frank 133).

Namely, placebo medication has absolutely no chemical potential to treat an illness but scientific studies have reported significant improvement in those patients who genuinely believed that a placebo will help them. There is absolutely no doubt that if an individual is persuasive enough to convince the other that they can help them, that very act of persuasion will have a huge impact.

It is clear that today persuasive power is perhaps the most powerful weapon that one can have. In this sense, I am not referring to the fact that a person with high communication skills who can easily win a job or a successful TV personality with the gift to attract the attention of wide audiences (Florence).

An individual’s persuasiveness has become a major political force. Namely, as Lee points out, the information technologies revolution has created a world that is very different from the world in which our parents used to live. Todays’ communication technologies enabled individuals to have open access to virtually the entire world and whether or not that connection will be established depends mostly on persuasiveness of their message (Lee).

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In terms of political life, this means that activism has become much easier today than it was in the past – “In the 1960s, only the most high-profile social movements could attract the attention of national television networks” (Lee). Television attention in the 1960s was virtually the only way to gain access to the general public. Now, a creatively and persuasively expressed political idea can go viral in a matter of days and create a mass social movement that can actually impact policy.

It is known that Occupy Wall Street movement was mostly organized through social media, and there are also other movements like the initiative to allow individuals to record their encounters with the police that are powered by the internet. Being persuasive has, thus, become a form of political power that can transform the society.

The mechanisms behind persuasiveness are illustrated quite well in one popular video on YouTube titled “What Aristotle and Joshua Bell can teach us about persuasion”. The video uses the example of one famed violinist Joshua Bell and a little experiment that he did that was tightly connected to persuasive power. Namely, after playing at a prestigious concert hall where people paid 1000 dollars for a seat to hear him, Joshua went to a subway station to play a violin and see the reaction of passers-by.

While at the concert hall, people listened to him with great attentiveness, at the subway station, few scattered people threw a few dollars in his violin case (Neill). According to the video, this experiment can teach us a lot about persuasion and where it stems from (Neill). If we analyze the experiment from the perspective offered by Aristotle in his work titled Rhetoric, we can come to immediately spot the reason why Joshua was no longer persuasive or interesting to the people when he played at the subway station (Neill).

Aristotle claimed that persuasiveness can come from only two sources. First, there is the quality of the message and its appeal to logic or aesthetic faculties; however, in Joshua’s case the message was the same so this cannot be the crucial aspect. The other two sources of rhetorical appeal are important in explaining the contrast. Namely, persuasiveness often comes from the individual’s power to present him or herself as an authority on the matter.

Clearly, at a music hall and will all the people knowing his name and achievements, Joshua is an immense authority, but at the subway, he is just another street musician. Finally, the emotional setting in which the message is couched is also crucial, and one can see how at the subway, the emotions of the audience were by no means tuned to receive sophisticated classical music unlike at a concert hall where people came precisely for that experience.

In sum, the quality of the message, the individual’s authority and the appropriateness of the emotional setting are the three factors that determine persuasiveness of a message. When we think about Ann in the novel Persuasion we can see that she is in many ways like Joshua at the subway station – her message is very appealing but she has little power or authority as she is a woman in the 19th century Britain.

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Austen (34) writes, “How eloquent could Anne Elliot have been! how eloquent, at least, were her wishes on the side of early warm attachment, and a cheerful confidence in futurity, against that over-anxious caution which seems to insult exertion and distrust Providence”. We can compare Anne’s lack of power to Wentworth’s strength and ability to withstand persuasion at every occasion – “”When once married people begin to attack me with,–‘Oh! you will think very differently, when you are married.’ I can only say, ‘No, I shall not;’ and then they say again, ‘Yes, you will,’ and there is an end of it.” (Austen and Meyers Spacks 46)

Some interesting research work has also been done on the question of when an individual becomes most easily manipulated or persuaded. The evidence suggests that there is one constellation of factors in which it is almost certain that a person will be persuaded into believing something that does not need to be true nor does it need to be a good argument.

This happens when the individual receives a message from a source which he or she regards as an authority, when it is related to the issue that is not of direct personal importance to that individual and when the level of attention is low (Petty and Wegener 148). In these situations, it is enough to repeat the key message often enough and it is accepted by the targeted individual without any critical reflection.

Therefore, it is possible to perpetuate relatively poorly constructed, false arguments simply because of the fact that people tend to suppress critical thinking and believe the authorities on issues which are not of great personal importance (Petty and Wegener 148). Of course, most of us are aware of this and the proof of it is the widespread status of quite ill-conceived political ideas in the population.

With the above insights about the power of persuasion, one can analyze the condition of women in the 19th century as presented by Jane Austen in her novel Persuasion. The sheer powerlessness of women in the 19th century is best understood once one grasps that they were denied both the opportunity to make an argument and the opportunity to train themselves to think critically. Anne captures this very powerfully towards the end of the novel:

“I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not some- thing to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all writ- ten by men… Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything” (Austen and Meyer Spacks 204).

Her final frustration with everything that she was thought comes from the fact that she realizes that much of what she learned was aimed to oppress her and perpetuate male power. Therefore, persuasion is a pervasive instrument that upholds existing power relations.

In conclusion, politics is driven by the power to persuade people. The degree to which a message is persuasive depends on the quality of the argument, the authority of the person who delivers it and the appropriateness of the emotional setting in which it is delivered. In addition, the level of critical thinking that is applied to it is also crucial. Finally, the example of subjugation of women in the 19th century offered in Austen’s novel Persuasion illustrates the fact that all of those mechanisms were applied in order to uphold the system of male domination.

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Works Cited

Austen, Jane, and Patricia Ann Meyer Spacks. Persuasion: authoritative texts, background and contexts, criticism. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2013. Print.

Florence, N. G.. “Persuasive Techniques: Speak Your Way To Success!.” Udemy Blog. N.p., 2014. Web.

Frank, Jerome David. Persuasion and Healing. A comparative study of psychotherapy. Oxford University Press: London; Johns Hopkins Press: Baltimore; Baltimore printed, 1961. Print.

Lee, Timothy. “Power of the Personal Message.” New York Times. N.p., 2010. Web.

Neill, Conor. “What Aristotle and Joshua Bell can teach us about persuasion – Conor Neill.” YouTube.

Petty, Richard, and Duane Wegener. “Thought Systems, Argument Quality and Persuasion.” The Content, Structure, and Operation of Thought Systems. Ed. Robert S. Wyer and Thomas K. Srull. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991. 147-63. Print.

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