Debating Over the Holidays? Channel Frank Oppenheimer, Not Robert Oppenheimer.

The state of the universe.
Dec. 21 2012 4:14 PM

Persuasion vs. Coercion at the Holiday Table

Pro tips on communication strategies from Frank and Robert Oppenheimer.

Frank Oppenheimer and the author, K.C. Cole.
Frank Oppenheimer and the author, K.C. Cole.

Courtesy © Exploratorium.

Ah, the holidays: Harder to swallow even than a regifted fruitcake is the stubborn inability of our loved ones to see our (obviously correct) points of view on almost everything. Vegans dine with hard-core carnivores; drinkers and smokers sit across the table from abstainers; NRA members trade niceties with advocates of gun control; lovers of shiny new toys trade gifts with serious recyclers; Obama voters gloat (or try to hold their tongues) among the Romneyites. 

You’d think it would be a great time to try to convince one another of the merits of our different points of view. But what we think is persuasion is more often just poorly disguised coercion.

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And the difference is crucial: Persuasion requires understanding. Coercion requires only power. We usually equate coercion with obvious force, but sometimes it’s far more subtle. If you want people to stop smoking, for example, you don’t need to make it illegal; you can simply make smoking expensive (raise taxes) or offer bribes (lower health insurance premiums). Both are still coercive in that the power to give or take away resides entirely in the hands of the “coercer.”

Persuasion is fundamentally different because it relies on understanding what smoking does to the human body. Someone who’s persuaded of its dangers has an incentive to stop that’s entirely independent of anyone else’s actions.

So if your sister gets you to spend more than you’d like on gifts by making you feel cheap or guilty if you don’t, that’s a form of coercion. It goes both ways, of course. Get her to spend less by making her feel materialistic (or conversely reward her with affection for donating to the food bank), and you haven’t convinced her of anything. You’ve only gotten your way—for now.

It’s a distinction I think about often in teaching. If I get students do things a certain way for fear of getting an F or hopes of getting an A, it means I’ve influenced their behavior for the duration of the class. If I’ve managed to persuade them that my method has merit, I’ve likely made converts for life.

I first heard about this distinction from a fellow who spent most of his life trying to show that coercion was a lousy way to stop anyone from doing anything. He was the physicist Frank Oppenheimer, and he had quite a falling out with his famous older brother, Robert, over this very issue. Robert, of course, was the father of the atomic bomb. Frank helped, too; he was a key player in creating enough enriched uranium to build the Hiroshima bomb and deputy safety inspector at the Trinity site where the first bomb exploded. The brothers witnessed the test together, face down in the dirt for the initial explosion, then watching the unearthly bright purple cloud that hovered long after the blast, listening to the echoing thunder.

Robert was a national hero, an intimate of generals and Cabinet members. After the war, he used the pulpit of physics and his considerable charm and intelligence to try to stop nuclear proliferation in its infancy. One could say the testimony to his failure is the thousands of nuclear weapons around the world today on hair-trigger alert, each vastly more powerful than the bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many good people, many of them co-creators of the bomb, devoted substantial parts of their lives to tame the threat. They mostly failed.

It’s impossible to say whether another approach would have worked, but Frank thought his brother’s efforts fell short at least in part because they stayed within a circle of people much like himself: clever, well-educated, technically proficient. The general public, it went almost without saying, had neither the smarts nor the knowledge to engage in the issue. Robert’s attitude, Frank thought, boiled down essentially to saying: We physicists have the knowledge and the power. We’ll take care of things for you.

Frank didn’t buy that a bit. You didn’t need to be a physicist to understand the basics. “The ability to solve a differential equation was only an infinitesimal advance over the ability to read and write,” he argued. But “no one was explaining anything,” he complained.

Except for people like Frank, who were talking to everyone they could, trying to persuade them that nuclear weapons required a new kind of thinking. The weapons were not just ordinary bombs made bigger; they were something new under the sun, 1,000 times more powerful than ordinary bombs. He compared the difference to inviting four people to dinner at your house and getting 4,000. Or reducing your salary from $20,000 a year to $20.

The brothers couldn’t have disagreed more on how to approach the problem. The most haunting lines I unearthed while writing a biography of Frank appear in a letter to his best friend and Los Alamos colleague, physicist Robert Wilson. “I saw my bro in Chicago,” Frank wrote. “In brotherly love, I told him I was still confident that some day he would do something that I was proud of …”

While Robert (perhaps understandably) brushed off his little brother, Frank was deadly serious. The only way to stop nuclear insanity was to convince people it was insanity; to make them understand why it was insanity. The real danger of coercion, Frank thought, is it doesn’t value understanding.

It may be difficult to see that simply dismissing groups of people as not worth taking seriously is a form of coercion. It’s intellectual overpowering: “Trust us; you wouldn’t understand anyway.” Whatever we call it, the chance for persuasion is lost.

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