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Overcoming Oppression through Persuasion
Morton Deutsch

March 2005

Persuasion and power strategies are the two main strategies available to those in low power to overcome their oppression. Persuasion is discussed in this essay; power in the next.

Persuasion Strategies

These strategies are aimed at convincing those in high power to change so that power is shared more equitably and oppressive practices are reduced or eliminated. There are three main types:

1. appeals to moral values (the super-ego);

2. appeals to self-interest (the ego); and

3. appeals to self-realization (the id).

Appeals to Moral Values

These assume that the oppressor is not fully aware of the unjust situation of the oppressed and that if he were so, his conscience or moral values would move him to take action to remedy the situation. The appeals are aimed at both cognitions and affect, so that the oppressor can understand how his moral values are being violated by the injustices, and can feel sufficiently guilty or outraged to take action to eliminate the injustices. This sort of empathic understanding of the injustices experienced by various subordinated groups can be developed in many ways. The most effective way is by experiencing, directly or indirectly, what it is like to suffer the injustices. Indirect experiences would include conversations with members of an oppressed group about their life experiences; tutored role playing of being a member of such groups; reading autobiographies and novels, watching films and videos which dramatize and make emotionally vivid the experience of injustices; and hearing lectures and sermons which make salient the moral values being violated.

If the oppressor believes that he has the moral right to engage in oppressive practices (e.g. beating his wife when she disobeys him), then attempts to create empathic understanding of the situation of the oppressed is not likely to be successful. Here, what is needed is moral authority which he accepts as superior to his (e.g. the legal system, religious authority, the consensus of his peers) to persuade him that he is morally wrong. However, unfortunately, in many situations, the powerful are not responsive to moral persuasion because moral authority endorses the oppression or the oppressor is indifferent to moral claims.

Appeals to Self-Interest

Such appeals are often more effective for people who are embedded in an individualistic or competitive society. In such cases, the process of persuasion starts with the communicator's having a message that he wants to get across to the other. He must have an objective if he is to be able to articulate a clear and compelling message. Further, in formulating and communicating his message, it is important to recognize that it will be heard not only by the other, but by also one's own group and by other interested audiences. The desirable effects of a message on its intended audience may be negated by its unanticipated effects on those for whom it was not intended.

I suggest that Acme's (the oppressed) message to Bolt (the oppressor), to be effective, should include the following elements:

1) A clear statement of the specific actions and changes being requested of Bolt. Bolt should know what is expected of him so that he can fulfill Acme's expectations if he so desires. Presumably, Bolt is more apt to do what Acme wishes if Bolt believes that it is possible for him to do so. He is more likely to believe that this is the case if Acme's wants are perceived to be specific and limited rather than if they are viewed as vague and unbounded.

2) An appreciation of the difficulties, problems, and costs that Bolt anticipates if he complies with Acme's wishes. Such an appreciation should be combined with an expressed willingness to cooperate with Bolt to overcome the difficulties and reduce the costs. This willingness entails a readiness on Acme's part to consider Bolt's proposals and counterproposals and to modify his own initial proposals so that a mutually responsive agreement can be reached.

3) A depiction of the values and benefits that Bolt will realize by cooperating with Acme. In effect, if Bolt can be persuaded that he has more to gain than to lose by doing what Acme wants, obviously, he is more likely to do it. The important gains reside in the possibility that Bolt, sharing power with Acme, may enhance Acme's general cooperativeness and thus markedly increase Bolt's fulfillment of his own objectives. There are many instances in labor-management, student-faculty, and warden-prisoner relations that indicate that the more powerful party has gained enormously through enhancing the power (and thus sense of responsibility) of the weaker party. In addition, other dissatisfactions that Bolt has experienced in his relationship with Acme may be reduced by Acme's enhanced cooperativeness. Other sources of potential gain for Bolt reside in the enhanced reputation and goodwill that he will obtain from influential third parties and in the greater fulfillment he will experience when Acme is content rather than dissatisfied with their relationship.

4) A statement of the negative, harmful consequences that is inevitable for Bolt's values and objectives if Acme's wishes are not responded to positively. In effect, Bolt has to be led to understand the costs of nonagreement -- so that he can realize that the costs of agreement are not the only costs to be taken into account. Potential costs for Bolt of a failure to come to an agreement include: the losses resulting from a decrease in Acme's future cooperativeness, including the possibility of Acme's total noncooperation; losses in esteem and goodwill; possibly the loss of cooperation of significant third parties; and losses due to active attempts to embarrass, harass, obstruct, or destroy the interests of Bolt by Acme or by his sympathizers.

5) An expression of the power and resolve of Acme to act effectively and unwaveringly to induce Bolt to come to an acceptable agreement. Acme's unshakable commitment to induce a change may affect Bolt by convincing him that Acme's needs are serious, rather than whimsical, and thus deserve fulfillment. It may also persuade Bolt that the pressure from Acme will not diminish until an acceptable agreement has been reached. However, if Bolt has no concern whatsoever for Acme's needs and no belief that Acme's pressure will be sufficiently strong to be disturbing, Acme must attempt to develop, mobilize, and publicize its power sufficiently to convince Bolt that negotiation would be a prudent course of action.

A message that contains the above elements strongly commits Acme to his objective, yet suggests that the means of attaining it are flexible and potentially responsive to Bolt's views. Because the objective is articulated so as to be specific and limited, it is more likely to be considered by Bolt as feasible for him to accept than is one stated in more generalized and grandiose terms. The message provided Bolt with the positive prospect that changes will result in enhanced social and self-esteem and will yield the benefits to be derived from increased cooperation from Acme. It also indicates the negative results to be expected from lack of change. Although Acme's firm intent to alter the status quo is made evident, his stance throughout is cooperative. The possibility of a true mutual exchange is kept open with explicit recognition that the dissatisfactions and the problems are not one-sided.

Appeals to Self-Realization

These are, also, involved in appeals to self-interest. But here, I am more specifically referring to the distortions of self that are involved in the distorted relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed. As Lichtenberg asks: ... "if the rich are doing so well why aren't they happy? Why is there so much alcoholism among the power elite, so much drunkenness, so much attachment to non-essentials, like 'pinstripes on one's Mercedes'?"[1]

For the oppressor to attain an undistorted self, Lichtenberg suggests that, not only must he withdraw form the processes of domination, he must re-own and resolve his feelings of vulnerability, guilt and self-hatred, his rage and terror, and to undo the projection of these feelings onto the oppressed.[2] How can the oppressor be helped to this self-realization? Psychologists, in their roles as psychotherapists, marriage counselors, organizational consultants, and educators have a role to play in demystifying the psychological processes involved in the dominators. So too, I believe, do the oppressed, by not accepting their distorted roles in the distorted relationship of the oppressor and the oppressed.

Difficulties that Interfere with use of Persuasive Messages by Low Power Groups

Rage or fear in the low-power group often make it impossible for the members of that group to communicate persuasive messages of the sort described above. Rage leads to an emphasis on destructive, coercive techniques and precludes offers of authentic cooperation. Fear, on the other hand, weakens the commitment to the steps necessary to induce a change and lessens the credibility regarding the idea that compliance will be withdrawn if change does not occur. Rage is potentially a more useful emotion than fear, since it leads to actions that are less damaging to the development of a sense of power and, hence, of self-esteem. Harnessed rage or outrage can be a powerful energizer for determined action, and if this action is directed toward building one's own power, rather than destroying the other's power, the outrage may have a socially constructive outcome.

In any case, it is evident that when intense rage or fear is the dominant emotion, the cooperative message outlined here is largely irrelevant. Both rage and fear are rooted in a sense of helplessness and powerlessness; they are emotions associated with a state of dependency. Those in low power can overcome these debilitating emotions by their own successful action on matters of significance to them. In the current slang, they have to "do their own thing"; it cannot be given to them or done for them. This is why my emphasis is on the sharing of power, and thus increasing one's power to affect one's fate, rather than on the sharing of affluence. While the sharing of affluence is desirable, it is not sufficient. In its most debilitating sense, poverty is a lack of power and not merely a lack of money. Money is, of course, a base for power, but it is not the only one. If one chooses to be poor, as some members of religious or pioneering groups do, the psychological syndrome usually associated with imposed poverty -- a mixture of humiliation, dependency, victimhood, apathy, small time-perspective, suspicion, fear and rage -- is not present.

Thus, the ability to offer and engage in authentic cooperation presupposes an awareness that one is neither helpless nor powerless, even though one is at a relative disadvantage. Not only independent action, but also cooperative action, requires a recognition and confirmation of one's capacity to "go it alone" if necessary. Unless one has the freedom to choose not to cooperate, there can be no free choice to cooperate. Powerlessness and the associated lack of self- and group-esteem are not conducive to either internal group cohesiveness or external cooperation. Power does not, however, necessarily lead to cooperation. This is partly because, in its origin and rhetoric, power of the oppressed group may be oriented against the power of the established and thus likely to intensify the defensiveness of those with high power.

However, even if power is "for" rather than "against," and even if it provides a basis for authentic cooperation, cooperation may not occur because it is of little importance to the high-power group. This group may be unaffected by the positive or negative incentives that the low-power group controls; it does not need their compliance. Universities can obtain new students; the affluent nations no longer are so dependent upon the raw materials produced in the underdeveloped nations; the white industrial society does not need many unskilled black workers.

Apart from resigning into depression, what can a low power group do when the dominant group is unwilling to negotiate a change in the status quo? Basically, there is only the possibility of increasing its relative power sufficiently to compel the other to negotiate, as is discussed in the next essay on Overcoming Oppression: Power Strategies.


Note: This was originally one long article on oppression, which we have broken up to post on Beyond Intractability. The next article in the series is: Overcoming Oppression with Power.

[1] Lichtenberg, P. (1990). Community and Confluence. Cleveland, OH: Gestalt Institute of Cleveland Press, Pp 191-2.

[2] Ibid.

Use the following to cite this article:
Deutsch, Morton. "Overcoming Oppression through Persuasion." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: March 2005 <>.

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