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Monday over Coffee: Slant

Need Some Words of Encouragement?

Slant

Emily Dickinson didn’t become known, much less famous, as a poet until well after her death. Dickinson asked her sister, Lavinia, to burn her papers when she died, but instead, Lavinia found her sister’s poems and took them to a publisher. If she had not, we never would have heard of Emily Dickinson and never known about her remarkable gem-like poems and the worlds of beauty and wisdom inside each one of them. 

Poems like this, entitled, Tell all the truth but tell it slant:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

What Dickinson is suggesting is that sometimes truth is a hard thing to take in. To adhere to the truth, to advocate the truth, to showcase for the truth are, of course, all important things, all important to do. But if we wish to persuadetoward the truth, there’s more to it. There has to be some thought, some strategy involved. The poet posits there’s an art to persuasion. It is something that requires more craft, more patience, more wisdom, more grace, more delicacy than force. It’s obviously become something of a lost art.

Dickinson advocates that we must unfold what we see as truth and want others to believe more slowly, “in circuit,” conversationally, disarmingly, winsomely, not so assertively, but rather “with explanation kind.” Unless we do this, she says, our audience may be left blind, without a deep sense of understanding of our contentions, or, even worse, angry and resentful of our overly strident assertions. We must come at it slant.

In social psychology, there’s something called ‘the boomerang effect.’ It refers to the unintended consequences of an attempt to forcefully persuade another person of another thing which results in the hardening of the person’s opposing position instead. Arthur Brooks writes in his book, Love Your Enemies, when there’s too much argumentative punch to our arguments, when there’s contempt or condescension and not enough persuasive “circuitry,” we’re three times more likely to strengthen an opponent’s opposing views rather than to persuade them of the truth of our own. “No one has ever been insulted into agreement,” he writes. Yet I think we’re seeing a lot of that right now.

If we have a strong view on a matter of faith or a matter of public controversy and wish to advocate for it, perhaps the first question to ask ourselves is, “What is our objective?” Is it to exile or harm the other person? Hopefully not. Is it to demonstrate an opponent’s lack of intelligence or hypocrisy? Good luck with that approach. Is it to receive a pat on the back from the like-minded even as we push the other side away? Once again, hopefully not. I could go on, but let’s cut to the chase: isn’t the goal to make the other person think differently? If so, then ask yourself: How does one most effectively do this?

Dickinson suggests a form of persuasion akin to explaining the phenomenon of lightning to the young. Of course, one would tell a child about the strange flashing lights and the terrible rumbles in the sky accompanying a storm in a way that would ease their souls, engender curiosity, exploration, questions, and wonder. 

Faced with a legalistic lawyer with a skeptical view on whom his neighbor was, Jesus unspooled the slowly dazzling story of the Good Samaritan. Confronted with a host of ornery scholars accusing Him of consorting with the wrong sort of folks, Jesus responded obliquely laying out a series of three superb images — a shepherd going after a lost sheep, a woman who turns her house over looking for a missing coin, and a father with a prodigal son. Finally, on His last night in their company, in the moment He wanted to persuade His closest friends the truth of who He really was, what His life was about, and what they should do next, He did this: 

…He got up from the meal, took off His outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around His waist. After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash His disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around Him. John 13:4–5

Do you want to persuade someone, a friend or even an enemy, of the truth? Tell it slant. Or maybe just wash their feet.

God — 
 
Help me to rediscover the nuanced art of persuasion, leaning into patience, wisdom, and sensitivity over condescension, assertion, and contempt, embracing truth with more and more of the posture of a graceful servant rather than an indignant advocate.
 
Amen.

—Greg Funderburk 


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