Via Tom Stafford’s excellent email newsletter comes this quote from US President Abraham Lincoln on the mistakes that temperance campaigners made in 19th century America:
Too much denunciation against dram sellers and dram drinkers was indulged in. This, I think, was both impolitic and unjust. It was impolitic, because, it is not much in the nature of man to be driven to anything; still less to be driven about that which is exclusively his own business; and least of all, where such driving is to be submitted to, at the expense of pecuniary interest, or burning appetite.
When the dram-seller and drinker, were incessantly told, not in accents of entreaty and persuasion, diffidently addressed by erring man to an erring brother; but in the thundering tones of anathema and denunciation … that they were the authors of all the vice and misery and crime in the land; that they were the manufacturers and material of all the thieves and robbers and murderers that infested the earth; that their houses were the workshops of the devil; and that their persons should be shunned by all the good and virtuous, as moral pestilences — I say, when they were told all this, and in this way, it is not wonderful that they were slow, very slow, to acknowledge the truth of such denunciations …
To have expected them to do otherwise than they did — to have expected them not to meet denunciation with denunciation, crimination with crimination, and anathema with anathema, was to expect a reversal of human nature …
When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion, kind, unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted. It is an old and a true maxim, that a “drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.” So with men.
If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great highroad to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one.
On the contrary, assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart; and though your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and though you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall be no more be able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.
Such is man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him, even to his own best interest.
One of Abraham Lincoln’s successors, Barack Obama, made a similar point when he said, “If all you are doing is casting stones, you are not going to get very far in changing things”. In other words, rather than just declaiming the evil of those who disagree with you, you need to understand their views and use that understanding to win them over.
Those lessons are very applicable to modern campaigning too, such as in how to approach persuading people that Britain’s long-term position should be in the European Union.
Fun fact: Abraham Lincoln also had some wise advice on swing voters.
UPDATE: How Minds Change expands on Lincoln’s insight into how to persuade people.
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