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.”
I teach two classes at the University of Denver: Applied Critical Thinking and Persuasion Methods and Techniques. Sometimes I use the same teaching example for both classes. Take the dying grandmother gambit, for instance
In this persuasive gambit, the speaker plays on our heartstrings by telling a very sad story about a dying grandmother (or some other close relative). The speaker aims to gain our agreement and encourages us to act. Notice that thinking is not required. In fact, it’s discouraged. The story often goes like this:
My grandmother was the salt of the earth. She worked hard her entire life. She raised good kids and played by the rules. She never complained; she just worked harder. She worked her fingers to the bone but she was always the picture of health … until her dying days when our government simply abandoned her. As her health failed, she moved into a nursing home. She wanted to stay. She thought she had earned it. But the government did X (or didn’t do Y). As a result, my dying grandmother was abandoned to her fate. She was kicked to the curb like an old soda can. In her last days, she was a tiny, wrinkled prune. She couldn’t hear or see. She just curled up in her bed and waited to die. But our faceless bureaucrats couldn’t have cared less. My grandmother never complained. That was not her way. But she cried. Oh lord, did she cry. I can still see the big salty tears rolling slowly down her cheeks. Sometimes her gown was soaked with tears. How much did the government care? Not a whit. It would have been so easy for the government to change its policy. They could have cancelled X (or done Y). But no, they let her die. Folks, I don’t want your grandparents to die this way. So I’ve dedicated my candidacy to changing the government policy. If I can save just one grandma from the same fate, I’ll consider my job done.
So, do I tell my classes this is a good thing or a bad thing? It depends on which class I’m teaching.
In my critical thinking class I point out the weakness of the evidence. It doesn’t make sense to decide government policy on a sample of one. Perhaps the grandmother represents a broader population. Or perhaps not. We have no way of knowing how representative her story is.
Further, we didn’t meet the dear old lady. We didn’t directly and dispassionately observe her conditions. We didn’t speak to her caretakers. Or to those faceless bureaucrats. We only heard the story and we heard it from a person who stands to benefit from our reaction. She may well have embroidered or embellished the story.
Further, the speaker is playing on the vividness fallacy. We remember vivid things, especially things that result in loss, or death, or dismemberment. Because we remember them, we overestimate their probability. We think they’re far more likely to happen than they really are. If we invoke our critical thinking skills, we may recognize this. But the speaker aims to drown our thinking in a flood of emotions.
In my critical thinking class, I point out the hazards of succumbing to the story. In my persuasion class, on the other hand, I suggest that it’s a very good way to influence people.
The dying grandmother is a vivid and emotional story. It flies below our System 2 radar and aims directly at our System 1. It aims to influence us emotionally, not conceptually. It’s influential because it’s a good story. A story can do what data can never do. It can engage us and enrage us.
Further, the dying grandmother puts a very effective face on the issue. The issue is no longer about numbers. It’s about flesh and blood. We would be very hardhearted to ignore it. So we don’t ignore it. Instead, our emotions pull us closer to the speaker’s position.
So is the dying grandmother gambit good or bad? It’s neither. It just is. We need to recognize when someone manipulates our emotions. Then we need to put on our critical thinking caps.
In my Persuasion class, I teach that the best way to disagree is to begin by agreeing. By acknowledging common ground – or common objectives – we show that we respect the other side, even if we disagree. This helps us build trust, which ultimately is the basis of all persuasion.
In today’s world of hyper-partisanship and angry denunciations, how do we begin by agreeing? How do we find points of common interest? The simple answer is that we begin by understanding the other side’s perspective. We read articles and authors that we disagree with. (This may be good for our mental health a well as our political wellbeing).
But trolls are everywhere – on both the left and the right. How do we find conscientious authors and sources that can help us understand a worldview and not just an angry index of insults? Here are some resources:
Bridge-The-Divide.com – this website has two CEO’s – a West Virginia Republican and a California Democrat. They aim to “understand each other’s point of view without compromising their own values.” The organization seems small but promising and has already recruited ambassadors in 22 countries. You might want to apply.
Cortico.ai – where bridge-the-divide.com relies on ambassadors, Cortico.ai focuses more on artificial intelligence and media analytics. They aim to “analyze the public sphere” and “give voice to the common ground”. Though small, they partner with MIT’s Media Lab and are backed by Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, so they may have some staying power.
Renewing The Center – a service of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, this service publishes a newsletter that seeks to explain why traditional left/right distinctions matter less than they used to.
The Guardian/Burst Your Bubble – this English newspaper tilts to the left but publishes a “Burst Your Bubble” feature every week. The editors select interesting conservative articles and videos – usually about a given topic – succinctly summarize the key ideas and explain why you should read them. For recent examples, click here and here.
New York Times/Right and Left – similar to Burst Your Bubble (but not as pithy), The New York Times regularly surveys how authors on the left and right treat a given topic. For recent examples, click here and here.
These five sources provide a pretty good starting point for finding a balance in a partisan world. But I hope that there are more. If you know of others, please let me know and I’ll update the list.
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.
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.