Persuasion through the Ages

Last week we had the opportunity to read John Muir’s Sierra Club Bulletin regarding the potential damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley and discuss it with our sister Furman class. Prior to our video-conference, we examined the various persuasive techniques that Muir employs throughout the article, namely his rich, emotional imagery and his use of logic. The article spends a majority of it’s length putting the beauty of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, with “its crystal river and sublime rocks and waterfalls” (1) into words. At times his words are emotional, bordering on religious, to evoke in us an awe of the Valley’s majesty. Yet, laced throughout his majestic diction are rather scientific observations, like the elevation or the types of trees. Thus, the image conjured in the mind of the reader is both moving and realistic. But the strength of Muir’s article does not stop here. Muir notes, “The proponents of the dam scheme bring forward a lot of bad arguments,” (4) and he proceeds to knock those arguments down. He challenges their statements regarding the purity of the water, the beauty of the future lake, and the nature of the landscape.

While the article in its entirety was very persuasive, these two methods each had strengths and weaknesses that our class was able to point out. But, as the Furman class reminded us with their discussion of the demographic pressure of that era in the west, the intended audience was subject to a very different world-view than we have today. Which of Muir’s persuasive techniques do you think were most appropriate for his twentieth century audience? Which of the techniques was most effective for you? Is there a discrepancy between the two, and if so, why do you think that is?

7 thoughts on “Persuasion through the Ages

  1. These are great questions, Macrina and Travis. And while I won’t attempt to answer them here, I wanted to point out that in addition to the historical differences between 20th and 21st century conservation ethics, it could also be interesting to think about how this question applies across cultural differences, too. I wonder if living in a relatively privileged and developed nation gives Muir’s argument a currency that it might not have elsewhere?

  2. I think he hit the nail on the head with his pedestal-ing of Hetch Hetchy’s aesthetics. The beauty of the area was his most concrete argument– anything else could be excused as political bias or inaccurate science (although, beauty is in the eye of the beholder I suppose…) Pair up his words with a couple of snapshots of the area and the hearts of the members of Sierra club and would melt from the heat of “awe!”

  3. The technique that most affected me personally was definitely the aesthetics of the valley presented in the article. The way that Muir is moved by the beauty of the valley moved me personally and made me feel the personal connection that I know he must have felt.
    However, on page four when Muir begins to compare those interested in damning the valley to Satan and money grubbing farmers did nothing for his argument, in my opinion. In fact, I thought it weakened his argument and made him seem almost childish. With such a beautiful and eloquent way to describe a valley, I felt that he ruined his description by being so dark.

  4. While I agree with Ashely concerning the weakening of Muir’s argument as he begins to embark upon the Satan comparison, I do think we need to keep in my the history of the times. In today’s world (and especially Hendrix’s world) readers’ find this parallelism appalling, but I think Muir’s readers would have been exactly on the same page as him. Biblical imagery and comparison has been pervasive not only in the literary community, but especially in the realm of propaganda through out the ages. I think this element, especially the reference to the destruction of the holiness of the temple helps Muir attract a large audience of the times. Today, perhaps not so effective, but I think he absolutely knew what he was doing.

  5. Last night I attended the Sierra Club/ECC townhall meeting about Gov. Beebe’s energy policy plan. Not surprisingly, the issue of natural gas fracking came up, and there were several people in the assembled crowd who had opinions to express, and stories to tell, concerning fracking–everyone who spoke up, at least, thought fracking needed to end. Right Now.

    Interestingly, while I cannot remember anybody using the analogy of Satan in Eden, I do remember that the language of morality came up again and again. Many of the comments centered on the idea of theft (of land, of resources for future generations) and the idea of greed–one person claimed that one company had taken so much gas out of the ground that they had inadvertently driven the price down. I believe one person may have even called the practice evil. At any rate, it was interesting for me, having Muir in the back of my head, to hear how quickly the language of the discussion adopted a moral/moralizing tone, in which nearly any epithet you threw at the natural gas companies would stick–thieves, defilers, one woman even linked the death of animals on her property to the presence of a gas well there, so murderers too, in a sense. Though we could debate a long time about the correctness these charges (and I’ll confess I was very moved by a lot of what I heard), I was really struck by how this idea of ecological sin created a powerful motivator for the people in the room. Once one testimony came out, many followed, and the energy of one built on the energy of the ones that came before. Though I’m used to being skeptical of this kind of us-versus-them, good-versus-evil rhetoric because of what it tends to shut out (i.e. the possibility of a compromise), I also saw a great demonstration last night of how that kind of language enables people to talk, to build community.

  6. From our replies, it seems that most of you found Muir’s use of imagery the most effective way of broadcasting his view. However, as a Business/Economics person I found his inclusion of “scientific and logical” reasons against the dam’s construction just as compelling. Even a century after this piece was written, it seems that the use of imagery transcends our differing generations and is just as effective of a tool now as it was then. While most seem to question the religious and moral references, we feel this was a period appropriate device for evoking strong support by “demonizing” those who pushed for the dam’s construction. Perhaps the moral norms that Dr. Hagood mentions created a social environment in which moral arguments like Muir presents were more effective.

    coauthored by: macrina395

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