One might assume that scientists never use rhetorical tricks like appeals to emotion. But in fact, the format of scientific studies—written in the passive voice—appeals to emotion. By writing in the passive tense, scientists calm the passions and create the illusion that their findings “just happened.” Some advocates of intelligent design use the passive voice to make an emotional appeal: by arguing that atoms and molecules were “designed,” creationists cleverly introduce the idea of a divine creator without explicitly naming this creator. The passive voice, in short, encourages passivity—a great pathos trick.
Somewhat counterintuitively, the absence of a strong emotion is a kind of emotional appeal, too. Some readers might resent the implicit comparison between the methods favored by scientists and those favored by intelligent design advocates; however, such a comparison fits with Heinrichs’s broader point: across many different fields, people use the same rhetorical tricks to make radically different points.
On the most basic level, the brain works in two systems. System One is passive and runs on autopilot. System Two is rational, and applies skepticism to the evidence. When a speaker makes an argument that the audience dislikes, the speaker should try to appeal to the System One in the audience’s minds, and try to make the audience passive and accepting. In such a situation, it’s important for the speaker to make things very simple. They should also try to make the audience feel powerful, if possible by offering them choices (this technique works well when arguing with someone one-on-one).
Most audiences would like to think the best of themselves: they’d like to believe that they’re swayed by measured, rational arguments, not appeals to emotion—but the fact is that audiences are often more swayed by “System Two” approaches, which require them to be passive and not too skeptical. Notice that a good rhetorician can give an audience the illusion of freedom by offering them choices (even when these choices have been engineered to fit with the rhetorician’s original point).
Another technique that a rhetorician can use to pacify a hostile audience is humor. Humor can’t really be taught, and should be used sparingly (unless you’re really funny). However, it’s worth understanding different kinds of humor. There’s urbane humor, which appeals to an educated crowd and often relies on wordplay. There’s wit, which isn’t always laugh-out-loud funny, but amuses with its dryness. There’s also facetious humor—humor that’s meant to make you laugh, nothing more (i.e., most jokes). Finally, there’s banter, the style of humor that depends on clever insults and comebacks—for example a “yo mama” competition. Banter exemplifies the importance of concession: one of the best ways to make a snappy comeback is to agree with an opponent’s insult and then turn it against them.
As Heinrichs has already said, humor isn’t always the best motivator, even if it usually gets a bigger reaction than other kinds of emotional appeals. Humor underscores the importance of concession, because the funniest lines in a debate often begin with an agreement with the opponent.
Another technique to diffuse anger is to set a backfire—in other words, apologize for doing something wrong and exaggerate the audience’s own anger. Years ago, when Heinrichs was working for a magazine, he accidentally wrote a story in which he placed Mount St. Helens in Oregon instead of Washington. Instead of waiting for his boss to yell at him, Heinrichs went to see his boss and said he had “very bad news.” His boss replied, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. These things happen.” Backfires should be used carefully, however—“tell someone to kick your ass, and the danger is that they might comply.”
Setting a backfire is another great example of the power of concession. The apologizer, in this case Heinrichs himself, preempts an opponent’s scolding by scolding himself even more harshly; in doing so, Heinrichs makes it unlikely that his boss will scold him at all. Heinrichs concedes to his own mistake—a gambit which pays off big.