Winning over hearts requires subtlety, tact and shrewdness

January 15, 2024 23:23

In political sciences, there is often a temptation to separate theory from practice – discreetly. Whilst nominally we would insist that all theoretical models, frameworks, and paradigms ought to reflect nuances and praxis – that is, the effecting and bringing-about of change on the ground, with clearly delineted objectives and division of labour in sight, unfortunately, as with most good things in life, such talk remains at face value and lip service. There is no depth, no backing, no teeth to the claim that political theorists ought to understand real politics, let alone its more Manichean variant – realpolitik.

On the subject of winning over hearts and minds, which I have previously written rather extensively – it is worth remembering that the ultimate objective of political persuasion is not to win a debate, a discussion, or argument. It does not require, nor does it arise naturally from the presentation of the most sophisticated and rigorous syllogism. Nor, indeed, should persuasion involve cajoling, overt coercion, and explicit threat – after all, the best forms of coercion, as with the most effective manipulation, tend to take place without the subjects knowing: where they are at once subjected to the indoctrinating and insistent effects of external interference, and wholly oblivious of such influences.

Short of a virtuosic performance of psychological influence, however, it falls upon those who are seeking to persuade, to focus on what truly wins over the hearts and minds of others. This applies to consumers – prospective or returning – eagerly checking out advertisements for the latest indicators on what to and what not to consume. This applies to children, seeking to learn the ropes of the game at school, and to climb an invisible ladder or hierarchy of education – jumping through the hoops, if you will. And indeed, this most certainly applies to politics, especially electoral or open politics, where contestation is the norm, and communication is the part and parcel requirement for being a sound and decent competitor ‘in the game’.

Subtlety matters. The subconscious works in weirdly effective and equally bizarrely understated ways. Humans are very quick at picking up signals and incorporating subtext – provided they do not develop an over-defensive response to the message they have been sent, one that compels them to eschew and reject the message on grounds that it is forced unto them (allegedly). In short, force feeding doesn’t work, especially on individuals who are well accustomed to skepticism and consuming everything with a healthy pinch of salt; force feeding indeed could backfire, by playing into and reifying some of the worst stereotypes and imaginaries associated with the force-feeding party.

The example I am thinking of here, is the kind of extreme proselytism that we would see from television-based evangelicals – as much as TV-evangelism worked in the late 1990s (coinciding with the emergence of the prototype of a contemporary self-help culture), it gradually fizzled out and declined in popularity through the 2000s and 2010s, thanks to individual citizens becoming increasingly conscious (and prepared) for artificial, contrived distortions of religion. Evangelism is absolutely fine.

Mass-commercialised, mass-televised evangelism that nudges individuals to pursue faith at all costs, and enrol in questionable, commercial activities in virtue of their faith, is not. And this is a fact that many are waking up to – thanks to the in-your-face, not-so-subtle nature of TV-based proselytism. In contrast, the best TV adverts could oft be found in placement marketing (cf. the Truman Show, and the hilarious advertisements the eponymous protagonist would be confronted with in his life).

Tact is also key. Here’s an analogy (might not be a great one, but we shall settle for perfunctory comparisons). If you’re driving a car down a high way, you may hit a junction. Ahead of you lies a large rock that obstructs the high way. To your right is a path off the high way that can take you to the same destination, albeit costing you 10 to 15 more minutes. Question – do you continue pressing on, and ram yourself into the rock?

Or do you take the other path (perhaps less travelled, perhaps not), and seek another way out? Those who insist on charging full speed ahead may win a medal for their valour and audacity (or foolhardiness). Those who take the alternate path, on the other hand, should be rightly commended for their wisdom and pragmatism. Tact, at the end of the day, is about pivoting, reorienting, and rerouting to get to the intended objectives. It is neither capitulation nor deception.

Tact is also not a sign of capitulation. Indeed, only those who are weak and insecure would opt for the jettisoning of tact at times of crises. Watching Phoenix’s Napoleon was a fantastic experience – it enabled me to see both the presence and absence of tact in this mercurial yet nevertheless monumental figure. In business, in research, in life in general, tact is crucial as a lubricant to keep the engine going. So here’s to a car that does not crash.

Finally, hearts and minds are a innately delicate matter. Unlocking them requires shrewdness – not in the sense of instrumentalist, over-calculating, transactional myopia. But a kind of flexibility, openness, and willingness to seize upon the right opportunities. In Kenny Rogers’ timeless classic ‘The Gambler’ – some true words of wisdom were spoken, and I can’t put it any better than these words: “Every gambler knows, That the secret to survivin', Is knowin' what to throw away, And knowin' what to keep.” Sometimes, the best means to survivin’ is about knowing what the right time to do the right thing is – and the times at which so doing would be not just futile, but downright counterproductive.

And so, to all those amongst my students and friends who are seeking to embark upon the journey, the path of political persuasion – may you find in the above hopefully something that is useful.

Assistant Professor, HKU