On the opening evening of the 2017 AIHEC Student Conference in Rapid City, students from an array of TCUs entertained conference goers with the spoken word at the annual poetry slam. Watch the video →
“The Fierce Urgency of Now”: Persuasive Writing
We writers are passionate advocates for our causes. We post to social media, compose essays for classes, and circulate our views in tribal college and university (TCU) publications. Some of us have written words that instigate change, but too many of us see our aspirations fail to reach fruition. We may get discouraged by our readers’ inaction, and that’s understandable. But the reality is that while passionate, unscripted rants may warrant us some catharsis, it’s well-defined arguments that change minds, mobilize the apathetic, and even inspire legislation. Writers should consider the following when crafting persuasive appeals, so we can fortify our positions and forge a path for others to follow.
We need to be specific. We need to clearly define the problem, describe how best to fix it, and explain how each one of our readers can help with the remedy. Every election cycle, candidates’ campaign ads are inherently specific. We’re told who to vote for, why that person has our best interests in mind, and when we should flock to the ballot box. Elected officials have learned that involving an audience in their cause keeps them invested, just as we writers must learn to focus on the specifics of our arguments to rally readers. For example, those who value higher education need to explain to both peers and elected leaders why equal access to post-secondary schooling must be a nonnegotiable national investment. Similarly, those of us who see the harm that racist sports mascots inflict upon Native people need to argue why they must be banned and who we should petition. And those who are passionate about protecting the environment from unnecessary development must articulate their fervor in a way that will inspire others to assemble in peaceful protest. To make an impact, we need to rouse the masses, but if we don’t define what’s expected of them or what success looks like then we’ve only done half our job.
We need to be convincing. If everyone already agreed with our causes, then our passion projects wouldn’t need our voices. Writers have to anticipate all counterarguments and refute them, because if we don’t address our audience’s concerns we’ll never convince them to act. We can expect that those who favor cutting federal student financial aid will cite the rising cost of education, but we can point out that over a lifetime, an educated individual will earn more than his or her uneducated peers, contribute more in taxes, and thereby make the government’s initial investment well worthwhile. We know that Washington’s professional football team will claim that their mascot honors Native people, but we can cite the Harjo et al. v. Pro-football, Inc. court case to show that such an argument is contrived and has no factual basis. We’re well aware that developers will claim that their environmentally destructive projects create jobs and bolster the economy, but we can question whether local individuals have the skill set needed to gain employment or if it’ll be outside workers who capitalize on the destruction. Writers can overcome most faulty logic through diligent fact-checking, but a failure to engage with critics’ stances only allows unchecked claims to proliferate.
We need to be urgent. We can rouse others to our causes by practicing what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “the fierce urgency of now.” During the height of the Civil Rights movement, King stated, “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” Of course, Dr. King was talking about taking a national stand for racial equality, but his call to arms resonated throughout the country because he clearly articulated that America was at a crossroads and needed to be nudged to take the next step. Every writer should explain why the time to act is now. Every issue we propose may not be comparable to the fight for civil rights, but those unmoved by issues such as reductions in education funding, disparaging racial mascots, and environmental degradation need to be convinced that if they don’t act now their lethargy may have disastrous consequences tomorrow.
No one changes the world alone, but through good writing we can motivate the masses. The framers of the U.S. Constitution secured our freedom to speak and publish our opinions, and numerous Americans have relied on those rights to initiate change. Now it’s our turn. There are many challenges that face us, and by honing our voices we can convince others to do their part to make our world a better place for future generations.
Hirschfelder, A., & Molin, P. F. (Eds.). (2012). The Extraordinary Book of Native American Lists. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
King Jr., M.L. (1963). I Have a Dream. Retrieved October 2014 from http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm
Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communications at College of Menominee Nation where he also serves as chair of the Humanities Department.