The news has recently been full of raucous town hall meetings and angry protesters. These meetings with Congressional representatives—once quiet, sparsely attended affairs—have become scenes of shouting, disruptions, threats, accusations, and great passion.
We haven’t seen protests of such ferocity since the 1960s, when young Americans—perhaps some of the same people protesting health care policy today—disrupted cities and college campuses.
Of course, it would be interesting to know Benjamin Franklin’s opinion about a new, government-run health care program. But we believe he would want to address the issue of civil discourse before the problem concerning health insurance.
Don’t Be Fooled by the Stuffy Portraits
Franklin was a man of strong passions. Yet he forced himself to shape his outrage for effectiveness. He succeeded so well that he became America’s first, and perhaps most important, diplomat. His persuasive power secured the vital support of France, which proved essential for the success of our revolution.
He was not always such an effective speaker. His mastery began when, as a young man, a Quaker friend “kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud; that my pride showed itself frequently in conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing, and rather insolent, of which he convinced me by mentioning several instances; I determined endeavoring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice.”
“I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it. I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself … the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fixed opinion, such as ‘certainly,’ ‘undoubtedly,’ etc., and I adopted, instead of them, ‘I conceive,’ ‘I apprehend,’ or ‘I imagine a thing to be so or so,’ or ‘it so appears to me at present.’”
Being right, Franklin discovered, wasn’t enough. If he wanted the support of reasonable people, he had to appeal to their reason.
“When another asserted something that I thought an error, I denied myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appeared or seemed to me some difference, etc.”
The benefit, Franklin discovered, was far more than a control of his passions. It earned him an unexpected persuasiveness.
“I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the conversations I engaged in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I proposed my opinions procured them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevailed with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.
“And this mode, which I at first put on with some violence to my natural inclination, became at length so easy, and so habitual to me, that perhaps for these fifty years past no one has ever heard a dogmatical expression escape me. And to this habit … I think it principally owing that I had early so much weight with my fellow-citizens when I proposed new institutions, or alterations in the old, and so much influence in public councils when I became a member; for I was but a bad speaker, never eloquent, subject to much hesitation in my choice of words, hardly correct in language, and yet I generally carried my points.”