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9.8: Reaching a Hostile Audience (Rogerian Argument)

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    Think of the ongoing cultural wars in America over race and policing, abortion, and immigration. We all probably know an acquaintance or a family member or a politician who we disagree with strongly on one of these topics, and who seems unlikely to ever change their mind.  

    Rather than giving up on addressing the opposing side at all, we might consider an approach called Rogerian argument, pioneered by therapist Carl Rogers. This approach seeks to shift the focus of an argument from conflict to common ground. It involves an emotional and intellectual commitment to move forward together. If a traditional combative argument is like a courtroom debate, Rogerian argument is like mediation.  In the courtroom, judge and jury have to decide between the prosecution and the defense.  In mediation, both sides are looking for a sweet spot where their needs and opinions intersect.

    We start by trying to convince the other side that we are not their enemy. If we describe their ideas and feelings with accuracy, respect and empathy, they may soften. If they feel seen rather than judged, they may be more open to what we have to say. The first step in Rogerian argument, then is to research the other side’s beliefs, values, goals, and arguments so we can summarize them in a respectful way. 

    A hand cups a white dove and extends forward as if offering the dove.
    In Rogerian argument, we seek to find empathy and common ground where there is conflict.
    Photo by Artem Podrez on Pexels under the Pexels License.

    In Rogerian argument, we also change our end goal.  We accept that we will not be able to bring the audience over entirely to our way of thinking.  Instead, we focus on a more limited claim that both sides can support. The idea is to try to make progress despite deep differences. To get there, we must find beliefs, goals, or values we genuinely share. 

    Let’s take the example of the writer who wants the U.S. to help undocumented migrants rather than criminalize them. In Chapters 2 and 3, we analyze an argument where she tries to create empathy by asking readers to put themselves in the place of a desperate migrant and imagine what they would do.  This might work with an undecided audience, but what if she wants to address a group of die-hard activists who want a crackdown on illegal immigration?  Let’s imagine that this group of activists feels strongly that the physical safety of Americans should be our priority.  They are afraid that undocumented immigrants will commit violent crimes.

    One approach would be to try to convince them that their fears are unfounded.  However, given the lack of trust between writer and audience, such an attempt might fail.  Another approach would be to argue that we must take into account the need of all people to be protected from violence, including refugees who face violence in their countries of origin.  This might clash with the activists’ nationalist belief that American policy should always prioritize the safety of Americans. 

    If the writer were to try a Rogerian approach, she would stop trying to show the activists that they are wrong.  She would instead spend some time reading about their organization and possibly watching videos of people explaining their ideas.  She might even interview one of them to find out what values and experiences led them to their opinions. 

    Then she would reflect on what goals and values she could sympathize with or even endorse. In her original argument, she called for “regulation” at the border; she too is concerned for the safety of Americans and believes that open immigration could involve some dangers that we should address in our policies.  The question is, can she shift the focus of her argument to a claim that will both increase public safety and improve the treatment of the undocumented? 

    She might decide to argue for a border that does a better job of checking each person who is attempting to enter the country.  Her policy would turn back more people with criminal backgrounds while also allowing more people to enter legally as economic refugees. In the process of forming this argument, she might actually become more sympathetic to the other side and her position might shift toward the center. She might realize that she does want to “secure the border” and that she is grateful to ICE efforts to combat weapons smuggling, drug cartel operations, and human trafficking. She might also decide that she would support deportation of documented violent criminals.  She could use those points to try to reassure her audience that she makes public safety a priority.

    Will this argument actually work to further her original goal?  Would the audience become more willing to allow in desperate undocumented immigrants if reassured that law enforcement would catch more of the dangerous elements?  As a separate question, the author needs to ask herself whether the new argument still represents a message she earnestly wants to send.  Does she miss the impassioned plea for empathy and legitimacy for desperate undocumented immigrants? Has she strayed too far from the raw expression of her deep beliefs? 

    Questions of how confrontational and how collaborative argument should be arise constantly in everyday life and in the practice of democracy. Regardless of whether we personally tend toward conflict or compromise, it’s worth learning the Rogerian process. Then when we run into a breakdown in trust, we can at least try out a collaborative approach as a thought experiment and decide whether it is worthwhile.

    Practice Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Choose a topic on which you hold a strong opinion and read about the opposing side on the website In a paragraph, summarize respectfully what you can learn about the beliefs, values, and viewpoints of the other side. Does this research suggest any goal you might share with those who disagree with you?  Can you come up with a claim that both might agree on?  Do you think it would be worth pursuing this middle ground, or does it seem more important to you to fight for your precise position?

    This page titled 9.8: Reaching a Hostile Audience (Rogerian Argument) is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anna Mills (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .