Most social sciences have a bad case of physics envy. They covet physics’ certainty, precision, and predictability. That’s certainly the case with rhetoric, the discipline that deals with the art and science of persuasion.
Physics allows us to make precise this-then-that statements. If we do this, then that is certain to happen. Those of us who teach rhetoric would love to have the same certainty. We would love to say, “If we arrange our argument like this, then the audience will certainly agree with us”.
But rhetoric deals with human beings whose behavior is anything but certain. Rhetoric teaches us to argue without anger so that we may find the best choice among multiple options. If we allow the rhetorical process to work, we can often find the best alternative. But we can never guarantee it. Rhetoric reigns in any human endeavor where uncertainty is certain.
So let’s compare physics and rhetoric. What are they good for and how do they complement each other? Further, let’s ask a simple question: which discipline is best for the planet? I’ll focus on deliberative rhetoric, which asks us to make choices about the future. (Two other major forms are demonstrative and forensic rhetoric).
Physics starts from what is true. Rhetoric starts from what we agree to.
Both physics and rhetoric use arguments in which propositions lead to a conclusion. We typically call these syllogisms, with major premises and minor premises. In physics, the major premise is always verifiably true. Here’s an example of a syllogism in physics:
Major premise: Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light
Minor premise: We are travelling in a nuclear-powered space ship.
Conclusion: We are travelling slower than the speed of light.
The point of this somewhat simplistic syllogism is that the major premise is verifiably true. We start from the truth.
Now let’s look at a rhetorical syllogism, which is often referred to as an enthymeme (though the technical definition of an enthymeme is slightly different).
Major premise: Lower taxes are better for our society.
Minor premise: My party will lower taxes (more than the other party)
Conclusion: You should vote for my party.
Note that the major premise (also known as a commonplace) is debatable. But, if your audience agrees with the commonplace, you can proceed step by step to a conclusion that they will also agree with. It’s important to know what the audience believes. Rhetoric start where they are, not where we are.
Physics seeks the truth. Rhetoric seeks the best choice.
Physics makes predictions and tests them to determine if they’re true. Typically, a prediction is either true or not.
Rhetoric, on the other hand, deals with choices. To discover the best choice, we first have to identify all possible choices. We then present evidence (which may or may not be verifiably true) to identify the best choice.
Physics is based on facts. Rhetoric is based on benefits.
Physics has a well-defined set of verifiable facts. Rhetoric, by contrast, depends on benefits, which may or may not accrue to a given set of people.
We state the benefits (often known as the Advantageous) to persuade people to agree with us. We might say, for instance that lower taxes will benefit the middle class. This may well be true but, again, there is no certainty.
Physics cannot live without facts. Rhetoric cannot live solely with facts. We must be able to state benefits and advantages to persuade people to agree with a given proposition.
Physics follows rules of logic. Rhetoric follows rules of agreement.
The rules of logic are formal and specific. It’s easy to tell if we have violated logic. Even a computer can do it.
The rules of agreement are much more open-ended. Credibility is important. Arguments may be emotional and may include enticing benefits and emoluments. Arguments do not have to be strictly logical. We may use various psychological and sociological tools of influence, including consistency or social proof or scarcity. We may do favors for you and influence you to like us. The goal is to gain agreement.
Physics is more like chess. Rhetoric is more like poker.
In chess, we first need to know the rules and the pieces. After that, logic takes over and guides our efforts.
In poker, we need to know the rules and the cards and the people. Thinking logically is important. But reading people is probably more important.
Physics is about the past. Rhetoric is about the future.
Physics explains what happened. Rhetoric probes what will happen. If we can argue without anger, we can consider and evaluate all possible options. We can evaluate benefits and possibilities. We can decide what’s fair and what’s not fair. We can agree on the best possible course of action.
Of course, we can’t prove that we’ve made the best choice. But the process of considering, evaluating, arguing, and influencing, gives us a better chance of success than any other alternative.
The act of reaching an agreement also improves our chances of future success. As Lincoln noted, a house divided against itself cannot stand. The opposite is not necessarily true. A house united in agreement may not stand … but it has a much better chance than a house divided.
So, which discipline is more important to our future: physics or rhetoric? Physics has brought us awe-inspiring insights into the world around us. It has also given us the knowledge to destroy the world. Rhetoric, on the other hand, has taught us to argue without anger, gain agreement, and move people to action. Physics is about knowledge. Rhetoric is about wisdom. Physics could destroy the world. Rhetoric could possibly – just possibly – save it.
The 2017 World Happiness Report was released yesterday. The headlines today are all about Norway, which supplanted Denmark as the happiest country in the world. That’s nice and I’m sure that Norwegians are celebrating today. But what intrigues me is the relationship between happiness and creativity. (See also here, here and here).
In 2015, the Martin Prosperity Institute published the Global Creativity Index. Reviewing the two lists together suggests that the relationship between happiness and creativity is very tight indeed. Here are the top ten countries on each list.
|Rank||Happiness (2017)||Most Creative (2015)|
Of the ten happiest countries in the world, eight also make the top ten list for most creative countries in the world. The two that miss — Norway and Switzerland — don’t miss by much. Norway is 11th on the most creative list; Switzerland is 16th.
Conversely, of the ten most creative countries in the world, eight also make the list of the happiest countries in the world. Again, the two that don’t make the list — the United States and Singapore — don’t miss by much. The United States is 14th; Singapore is 26th.
What’s it all mean? I can think of at least four ways to interpret the data:
It’s also interesting to delve into which countries have the best combination of happiness and creativity. We can make some crude judgments by adding up the national position in each survey. Like golf, the low score wins. For instance, Denmark is second in happiness and fifth in creativity, for a combined score of seven. As it happens, that’ s the lowest score — so Denmark takes first place in the combined league table. Here are the top five combined scores. I don’t know about you but I think I’ll soon pay a visit to Denmark.
|3 (tie)||New Zealand||11|
Let’s say that you’re the mayor of a big city that’s growing rapidly. Traffic jams last the entire day. Tempers fray and drivers become more and more aggressive. People ignore traffic laws. Pedestrians cross the streets whenever and wherever. Accidents happen constantly. Police can’t keep track of the chaos.
You’ve tried cracking down with more police writing more traffic tickets. That only makes the drivers angrier. Traffic is constantly tangled. The air is increasingly polluted. Your popularity is plummeting. You need a persuasion strategy to convince drivers to play fair and obey the rules. What to do?
How about putting some zebras in the streets? That’s what the mayor of La Paz, Bolivia did. Here’s how the magazine Veinte Mundos described the situation:
“Vehicular and pedestrian traffic is increasing every day in the Bolivian capital. Automobiles don’t respect the traffic signals and pedestrians cross the street wherever they want. It’s total chaos. People’s lives – especially children’s lives – are in constant danger. As a result, local authorities decided to take concrete steps to improve the situation. Thus were born the ‘zebras.'”
Each day in La Paz, roughly 400 to 500 young people dressed in zebra costumes disperse through the city to guide and direct traffic. But they’re not traffic cops. They’re not there to enforce the rules. They’re behavior modifiers. Ultimately, they hope to persuade people to behave – and drive — better.
The zebras dance and chatter and interact with both pedestrians and drivers. They remind people to mind the traffic lights, buckle up, cross with the light, and generally behave like good citizens. They reward good behavior with a dance, a pat on the back, and some kind words. They make fun of bad behavior by miming “Can you believe that? WTF?”
According to El País, the zebra program began in 2001 and quickly captured the attention of Kathia Salazar, a popular local actress. Salazar volunteered to run the program and soon became known as mamá cebra. Salazar says that the program started slowly: “When we first began, people yelled at the zebras, cursed them, and even tried to run them over. Slowly, things changed. Today, pedestrians are the ones who are protecting the zebras.”
The zebra program is sufficiently popular that it is now spreading to other cities, like Tarija, Sucre, and El Alto. It’s also expanding into new services. Zebras are now visiting schools and retirement homes. Their message has expanded, too. It’s not just about traffic. More generally, it’s about good citizenship and a positive attitude. As Amanda Pinos, a 29-year-old zebra puts it: “Our principal task as urban educators is to ask citizens to reflect on their own behavior and create a kinder, more respectful attitude.”
A similar program in Bogotá, Colombia inspired the zebra program in La Paz. The Bogotá program, which used mimes rather than zebras, began in the early 1990s and claimed to have reduced traffic fatalities by as much as 50%. I haven’t seen similar statistics for La Paz but it’s a fair bet that the zebras have calmed and smoothed and enhanced traffic in a traditionally tumultuous city. Think about it. Wouldn’t you drive more safely if zebras were around?
Is Donald Trump vilifying the press or playing the press?
Take a recent example: someone leaked a draft memo to the Washington Post suggesting that the government will activate 100,000 National Guard troops to arrest illegal aliens. The Post printed the story and the reactions from both sides were predictable. The left was outraged that the government might do such a thing. The right pitched a hissy fit over leaks.
But here’s another way to interpret the story. The Trump administration wants to rid the country of approximately 11 million illegal aliens. Deporting them all would be a difficult, expensive, and lengthy task. So here’s another way: scare at least some of them into leaving on their own. The National Guard story – though false – undoubtedly started rumors in immigrant neighborhoods that the Feds were about to launch massive sweeps. Better to depart sooner rather than later.
Seen in this light, the Trump administration wins in two ways. First, the story sows fear in immigrant communities and may lead to “self-deportations”. Second, the administration continues to build the narrative that the media promotes fake news and is the enemy of the people.
Another tactic to control the conversation is what academics call availability cascades. We humans estimate how risky something is based on information that’s available to us. An availability cascade makes a cascade of information – about one and only one topic – readily available to us.
The Ebola scare of 2014 provides a good example. Somebody gets sick with a dread disease. The press writes vivid stories about the illness and makes grim images easily available to us. It’s top of mind. Then people push the government to “do something” about the menace. The press writes about that. Then the government actually does something. The press writes about that. Then people protest what the government has done. The press writes about that. Soon, the entire world seems to be chattering about Ebola. If everybody’s talking about it, it must be dangerous.
The Trump administration creates an availability cascade when it lures the press into writing more about Islamic terrorism. The administration has accused the press of underreporting terrorist incidents. In response, the press has written numerous articles pointing out just how many stories they’ve written on terrorist incidents. The net effect? Terrorism is in the headlines every day. Everybody is talking about it. It must be dangerous.
Even fake news can help keep availability cascades in the headlines. The administration makes a far-fetched claim and the press naturally wants to set the record straight. By doing so, the press adds fuel to the availability fire. The story lingers on. As long as the press plays along, the administration will keep creating alternative facts. Think of it as the media equivalent of rope-a-dope.
Trump’s obsession with himself creates another availability cascade. Trump regularly talks about himself and his accomplishments – how smart he is, how many electoral votes he won, and so on. He often repeats himself; the news is no longer new. Yet the press keeps writing about it. Apparently, they want to show how self-obsessed he is. But the practical effect is that Trump dominates the headlines very day. If everybody is chattering about him, he must be very powerful.
Bernard Cohen wrote that, “The press may not be successful … in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling them what to think about.” The Trump administration is using the press to frame the discussion and tell us what to think about. Perhaps it’s time for the press to change the subject.
Let’s say you’re about to give an important speech to a large audience. You’re nervous and your palms start sweating. Which of the following statements is true?
I never really thought about this before I started teaching critical thinking. However, if you had asked me, I would have guessed that the first statement is right. Over the past several years, I’ve switched my position. Today, I think that the second statement is much more likely to be correct.
Each time I teach critical thinking, some students tell me that they’ve seen the light. From now on, they will ignore their emotions and make decisions based solely on logic and critical thinking. They will emulate Mr. Spock on Star Trek. In my opinion, that’s the wrong thing to do.
Our emotions are a source of information. They tell us something. What they tell us is not always clear. Further, it’s not always correct. But they are worth listening to. In fact, I now think of intuition as the body communicating to the brain, through mechanisms like sweaty palms, shallow breathing, shortness of breath, and so on. Our bodies sense our surroundings and communicate information to the brain.
According to Susan David, a professor at Harvard, our emotions can help us clarify our values – but only if we listen to them. In a recent HBR Management Tip of The Day, she writes: “Our emotions are signals that can give us data about what is important to us, but only if we pay attention. Next time you feel emotional at work, take a step back and consider what it’s telling you.” (Literally taking a step back can help you see your options more clearly, too).
She then goes on to explain how emotions can help us understand our core priorities. She suggests that we can’t get to those core priorities solely by thinking – we need to tune in to our emotions. The Heath brothers, in their book, Decisive, also emphasize the need to identify core priorities and offer some tips on how to do it. Between David and the Heaths, you can identify your priorities and learn ways to focus on them.
I’d suggest that you treat your emotions as just another information source. Treat the information that comes through the “emotion channel” just the same as any other information. Evaluate it in the same way as any other piece of information, using the same go-to questions and evaluation processes. Your emotions may be right or they may be wrong. But they’re always worth listening to.