Consider an argument you made to your jury just before they deliberate and hand you your hard-fought victory. Did you persuade them or did you convince them? Perhaps you just dissuaded them from finding for the other side. However, if you dissuaded them, why can’t you also say that you dis-convinced them? Or disvinced them? Don’t try “deconvincing” either as that, too, is a dead end.
So, what gives? Why can you persuade and dissuade but you cannot both convince and dis-convince? It’s likely the case that you have never considered that while “dissuade” is the antonym of persuade there is no such lexicological opposite to the word “convince.” According to Professor Adelino Cattani there is a very good reason for this—and it’s not simply a trick of the tricky English language. This missing antonym is missing from other languages too and, for the advocate, it’s worth thinking about whether persuading and convincing are really the same thing. [i]
Persuading and convincing, suggests Cattani, largely employ two different methods and seek different aims. Persuading largely employs the powers of rhetoric, which can be both artful but largely manipulative, whereas convincing employs the powers of logic and sets of rules but can be spoiled by fallacious argument.[ii] The dialogue of persuasion “aims at modifying people’s opinions and behaviours” which is why persuasion and dissuasion can work as opposites and produce actions or omissions in the receiver.[iii] The dialogue of conviction, however, seems to refer “to the realm of thinking, not that of doing; it does not serve to induce someone to act, but to gain intellectual agreement or assent” and is, thus, more focused on the addressee than what the addressee can do.[iv] Persuading is more like a gaming process, artful but still manipulative to gain its advantage. Convincing, however, is more like a demonstration of one’s proofs—showing, rather than telling.[v] One can begin to see why “convince” has no antonym.
I see two quick points to ponder for the trial advocate reading this blog post: The first is that it might be worth considering which things one must persuade upon and which things one must convince one’s jury about. A closing argument can gain more structure and become more purposeful with a little meditation on these two ideas. Second, there seems to me to be a real difference in the rhetorical power of the two words in the minds of jurors and judges who will largely regard them as interchangeable. It might just be me, so let me take the two terms for a test drive in a hypothetical courtroom: It seems quite a bit more powerful to ask a jury if the state has convinced them that the defendant is the man who committed the crime than to ask them if the state has persuaded them to that fact. What do you think? Have I persuaded you or are you convinced?
* I have to give special thanks to Nathan Wilson, a rising 3L at UNC, who has helped me twice now with my Bluebook citation formatting for this blog—a task I loathe. Nathan is the kind of student I wish I could clone and hand out to other law schools.
[i] Adelino Cattani, Persuading and Convincing, U. Windsor (June 4, 2020) https://scholar.uwindsor.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2528&context=ossaarchive&fbclid=IwAR3LxAMt0MnRGpsVk1pIo3RK87C8x0gdBkriIiIgHNinoM7luHdEst8rrcI.
[ii] Id. at 2-3.
[iii] See Id. at 2.
[iv] Id. at 3-4.
[v] See Id. generally.