Let’s say that Suellen and I have an argument and I notice that all the verbs are in the past tense. According to Aristotle, the verbs tell us that the argument is about blame. I may think it’s about who left the door unlocked or forgot to pay the mortgage. But it’s really about blame.
Let’s also say that I win that argument. (This is very hypothetical). I’ve successfully pushed the blame away from myself and on to her. It’s not easy to win an argument, so I do a little victory dance. Meanwhile, how does Suellen feel? Probably a mixture of emotions – irritation, annoyance, anger, … perhaps even a desire to get even. Suellen is the woman I love. Why on earth would I want her to feel like that? That’s the problem with arguing in the past tense. Even if you win, you lose.
Arguing in the past tense is generally known as forensic rhetoric. In many legal situations, we do want to lay blame. We want to establish guilt and make sure that the appropriate person is appropriately punished. Most of the testimony in a trial is in the past tense. Similarly, characters in crime dramas speak almost exclusively in the past tense. The goal is to lay blame and Aristotle and others give us rules for how to argue the point.
Outside of the courtroom, however, arguing in the past tense is essentially useless. We can’t do anything about the past. We can’t change it. We can’t enhance it. We can lay blame but, even then, we will argue endlessly about whether we got it right or not. Did we blame the right person? If so, did we blame them for the right reasons? Did we learn the right lessons? Did history teach us anything? Or did it teach us nothing?
The next time you’re in an argument, notice the verbs. If they’re in the past tense, you’re simply trying to blame the other person. Does it do any good to “win” such an argument? Nope. By “winning”, you just give the other side motivation to come back stronger next time. This is how feuds get started. The Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, had it right: “Small-minded people blame others. Average people blame themselves. The wise see all blame as foolishness.”
Most historians would agree that the arts and sciences of persuasion – also known as rhetoric – originated with the Greeks approximately 2,500 years ago. Why there? Why not the Egyptians or the Phoenicians or the Chinese? And why then? What was going on in Greece that necessitated new rules for communication?
The simple answer is a single word: democracy. The Greeks invented democracy. For the first time in the history of the world, people needed to persuade each other without force or violence. So the Greeks had to invent rhetoric.
Prior to democracy, people didn’t need to disagree in any organized way. We simply followed the leader. We agreed with the monarch. We converted to the emperor’s religion. We believed in the gods that the priests proclaimed. If we disagreed, we were ignored or banished or killed. Simple enough.
With the advent of democracy, public life grew messy. We could no longer say, “You will believe this because the emperor believes it.” Rather, we had to persuade. The basic argument was simple, “You should believe this because it provides advantages.” We needed rules and pointers for making such arguments successfully. Socrates and Aristotle (and many others) rose to the challenge and invented rhetoric.
Democracy, then, is about disagreement. We recognize that we will disagree. Indeed, we recognize that we should disagree. The trick is to disagree without anger or violence. We seek to persuade, not to subdue. In fact, here’s a simple test of how democratic a society is:
What proportion of the population agrees with the following statement?
“Of course, we’re going to disagree. But we’ve agreed to resolve our disagreements without violence.”
It seems like a simple test. But we overlook it at our peril. Societies that can’t pass this test (and many can’t) are forever doomed to civil strife, violence, disruption, and dysfunction.
The chief function of rhetoric is to teach us to argue without anger. The fundamental questions of rhetoric pervade both our public and private lives. How can I persuade someone to see a different perspective? How can I persuade someone to agree with me? How can we forge a common vision?
Up through the 19th century, educated people were well versed in rhetoric. All institutions of higher education taught the trivium, which consisted of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. Having mastered the trivium, students could progress to the quadrivium – arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The trivium provided the platform upon which everything else rested.
In the 20th century, we saw the rise of mass communications, government sponsored propaganda, widespread public relations campaigns, and social media. Ironically, we also decided that we no longer needed to teach rhetoric. We considered it manipulative. To insult an idea, we called it “empty rhetoric”.
But rhetoric also helps us defend ourselves against mass manipulation, which flourished in the 20th century and continues to flourish today. (Indeed, in the 21st century, we seem to want to hone it to an even finer point). We sacrificed our defenses at the very moment that manipulation surged forward. Having no defenses, we became angrier and less tolerant.
What to do? The first step is to revive the arts of persuasion and critical thinking. Essentially, we need to revive the trivium. By doing so, we’ll be better able to argue without anger and to withstand the effects of mass manipulation. Reviving rhetoric won’t solve the world’s problems. But it will give us a tool to resolve problems – without violence and without anger.
Red people and blue people are at it again. Neither side seems to accept that the other side consists of real people with real ideas that are worth listening to. Debate is out. Contempt is in.
As a result, our nation is highly polarized. To work our way out of the current stalemate, we need to listen closely and speak wisely. We need to debate effectively rather than arguing angrily. Here are some tips:
It’s not about winning, it’s about winning over – too often we talk about winning an argument. But defeating an opponent is not the same as winning him over to your side. Aim for agreement, not a crushing blow.
It’s not about values – our values are deeply held. We don’t change them easily. You’re not going to convert a red person into a blue person or vice-versa. Aim to change their minds, not their values.
Stick to the future tense – the only reason to argue in the past tense is to assign blame. That’s useful in a court of law but not in the court of public opinion. Stick to the future tense, where you can present choices and options. That’s where you can change minds. (Tip: don’t ever argue with a loved one in the past tense. Even if you win, you lose.)
The best way to disagree is to begin by agreeing – the other side wants to know that you take them seriously. If you immediately dismiss everything they say, you’ll never persuade them. Start by finding points of agreement. Even if you’re at opposite ends of the spectrum, you can find something to agree to.
Don’t fall for the anger mongers – both red and blue commentators prey on our pride to sell anger. They say things like, “The other side hates you. They think you’re dumb. They think they’re superior to you.” The technique is known as attributed belittlement and it’s the oldest trick in the book. Don’t fall for it.
Don’t fall into the hypocrisy trap – both red and blue analysts are willing to spin for their own advantage. Don’t assume that one side is hypocritical while the other side is innocent.
Beware of demonizing words – it’s easy to use positive words for one side and demonizing words for the other side. For example: “We’re proud. They’re arrogant.” “We’re smart. They’re sneaky.” It’s another old trick. Don’t fall for it.
Show some respect – just because people disagree with you is no reason to treat them with contempt. They have their reasons. Show some respect even if you disagree.
Be skeptical – the problems we’re facing as a nation are exceptionally complex. Anyone who claims to have a simple solution is lying.
Burst your bubble – open yourself up to sources you disagree with. Talk with people on the other side. We all live in reality bubbles. Time to break out.
Give up TV — talking heads, both red and blue, want to tell you what to think. Reading your own sources can help you learn how to think.
Aim for the persuadable – you’ll never convince some people. Don’t waste your breath. Talk with open-minded people who describe themselves as moderates. How can you tell they’re open-minded? They show respect, don’t belittle, agree before disagreeing, and are skeptical of both sides.
Engage in arguments – find people who know how to argue without anger. Argue with them. If they’re red, take a blue position. If they’re blue, take a red position. Practice the art of arguing. You’re going to need it.
Remember that the only thing worse than arguing is not arguing – We know how to argue. Now we need to learn to argue without anger. Our future may depend on it.
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.
In persuasive presentations, we often appeal to commonplaces — opinions, attitudes, or perceptions that are widely held by a particular group. Like common sense, these attitudes are (supposedly) common to all members of a group. As persuaders, we can speak to a common point of view. We’re on common ground and we can move forward together.
The problem, of course, is that commonplaces aren’t so common. Indeed, many commonplaces have equal and opposite commonplaces to counterbalance them. One commonplace advises us to look before we leap. Another reminds us that he who hesitates is lost. On the one hand, we root for the underdog. On the other hand, we admire the self-made man – who is anything but an underdog.
It seems that we can find a commonplace to suit almost any argument. Want to lower taxes? There’s a commonplace for that. (The government is inefficient. You earned it. You keep it. etc.) Want to raise taxes? There’s a commonplace for that. (We’re all in this together. We need to help each other. etc.) And “good” commonplaces can be twisted to support “bad” causes. As Shakespeare reminds us in The Merchant of Venice, “The devil can cite scripture for his own purpose.”
In my persuasion class, I ask students to write papers in which they argue a point. By and large, my students are quite adept at deploying commonplaces to support their arguments. I notice that they often deploy commonplaces that they believe in. To be persuasive, however, we need to consider the commonplaces that the audience believes in. I shouldn’t assume that you think like me. Rather, I should seek to understand what you think and use that as a starting point for building my argument.
The concept of using the audience’s commonplaces is as old as Greek rhetoric. It got a boost last year when the sociologists Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg published their research on argumentation and moral values. Their basic finding: we are more persuasive when we frame arguments for a political position around “the target audience’s moral values.”
Feinberg and Willer point out that liberals and conservatives have different moral values (or commonplaces in our terminology). They write “…liberals tend to be more concerned with care and equality where conservatives are more concerned with … group loyalty, respect for authority and purity.”
They then tested how to persuade conservatives to take a liberal position or vice-versa. For instance, how would you persuade conservatives to support same-sex marriage? They found that conservatives are more likely to agree with an argument based on patriotism than one based on equality and fairness. Conservatives tended to agree with an argument that, ““same-sex couples are proud and patriotic Americans … [who] contribute to the American economy and society.” They were less likely to agree with an argument couched in terms of fairness and equality.
Aristotle taught us that the best person to judge the quality of food is the one who eats it, not the one who prepares it. The same is true for arguments. You can’t judge how effective your argument is. Only the audience can. The moral of the story? Get over yourself. Learn what the audience is thinking.