Don’t give battle in vain. When audiences hold entrenched views, full frontal assaults only deepen the entrenchment.
by Peter Watts
King Richard III causes just such entrenched reactions here in the UK, and it looks like we’ve just dug him up from his resting place of 500 years beneath a public car-park in the northern English city of Leicester.
When “bad King Richard” was originally interred, the poor chap had just suffered a particularly fatal piece of Tudor military hardware to the back of the head before being tied naked to a horse and put on public display for 48 hours. By that time very dead, the ex-King had been buried in what was then a Priory.
The rule of the Tudor Dynasty saw Richard III’s reputation buried along with him. Chief among the cultural stars of the period was William Shakespeare, and when he wrote his play, Richard III, it was with both eyes firmly set on pleasing his Tudor sponsors.
Shakespeare’s Richard was penned as as a dwarf and hunchback, with one arm shriveled to a stump. In the cultural shorthand of Tudor England, all three conditions were cruelly synonymous with evil.
The image stuck, and came to be regarded as fact. A neat demonstration that it is always the victor who gets to write history. Despite this however, a tiny minority have always continued to claim that Richard III was a good, if short-lived monarch. That he passed laws to protect the poor, and made early moves toward enshrining freedom of speech. The cult of good King Richard has always been regarded as a perverse, minority view.
If you wanted to stand up and present that minority argument for good King Richard though, how would you go about it when audiences have been conditioned to have closed minds?
Hyperbole will fail. Force will fail. Every blow you make will be met by an equal and opposite counter-blow.
Gentleness is the only solution, along with structural use of facts in such a way that they can create doubt.
For example, let’s take that skeleton of Richard III. If it turns out to be consistent with the physical descriptions of Shakespeare, then the Shakespearean portrayal may be true, but if the skeleton is that of a strapping man, then the Shakespearean version must be questioned.
We can express this with the rhetorical form if A equals B, then C. If skeleton equals twisted, then Shakespeare equals true (or at least more likely to be so).
If B however can be proved invalid, so that A no longer equals B, then the preposition C must also fall, and Shakespeare’s Richard III along with it.
There is a saying “tread lightly on my dreams, for they are my own”. The same logic applies to people’s deeply held opinions.
When you need to challenge those opinions, do not, as Richard III is said to have done, do battle in vain.
Tread lightly, carefully position new facts, and whereas it would be too much to expect to effect change in one blow, know that you may have opened up cracks that allow new insights to shine through.
PS: That skeleton? It turned out to be a tall, muscular man, with both arms very much functional, and only a slight deformation of the left shoulder, causing it to appear slightly higher than the right. Maybe that perverse minority were right, all along.