Thank You for Arguing

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Themes and Colors
Ethos Theme Icon
Pathos Theme Icon
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Demonstrative vs. Deliberative Rhetoric Theme Icon
Rhetoric and Ethics Theme Icon
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Throughout Thank You for Arguing, Heinrichs raises the ethical question of how rhetoric can, and should, be used. Rhetoric can be a tool of manipulation and hypocrisy, with which a skillful speaker can con an audience into believing utter lies. On the other hand, it’s clear that rhetoric can introduce a level of clarity, rationality, and productivity that’s all-too rare in modern society, particularly American society. Put more dramatically, Thank You for Arguing asks whether rhetoric is a force for good or evil.

The word “manipulation” appears again and again in Thank You for Arguing, emphasizing that rhetoric is, in many ways, the art of getting people to do what the rhetorician wants them to do—a potentially unethical practice. Heinrichs lists many examples of masterful rhetoricians who effectively used their powers to cheat their audiences into supporting decisions that didn’t uphold their own best interests. For example, the book lists the totalitarian dictator Josef Stalin as a master of rhetoric, in particular the art of kairos (sensing the precise moment in which an audience is most receptive to an argument). More mildly, Heinrichs gives many examples of how he’s used rhetoric to trick or pressure his wife and family into upholding his wishes. While Heinrichs tends to laugh off these examples, or counterbalance them with examples of his wife and family tricking him, the fact remains that rhetoric can be a deceptive, even disrespectful technique, which treats an audience like a flock of sheep.

While it’s certainly true that rhetoric can be used to deceive, Thank You for Arguing emphasizes that there are still natural “checks and balances” in the art of rhetoric, which prevent even the most devious rhetorician from manipulating their audience too greatly. For example, one of the cornerstones of rhetoric is appealing to one’s audience through decorum, values, and language. Therefore, to be persuasive, one must first adapt to the audience’s expectations. This would suggest that rhetoric is a two-way street: it’s about persuaders adjusting their position and appearance to agree with their audience, not just controlling how the audience thinks and acts. Furthermore, the art of rhetoric doesn’t just teach people how to persuade; it also teaches them how to recognize and see through persuasion. Even if rhetoric can be used unethically, it empowers the audience as well as the speaker, making the overall process of persuasion much more enlightened.

While acknowledging some of the ethical pitfalls of rhetoric, Heinrichs concludes his book with a strong argument for the ethical importance of rhetoric. Rhetoric is useful, especially in contemporary American society, because it steers debates toward moderation and, in the long term, progress. American government was founded by talented rhetoricians who sought to limit the influence of factions (i.e., distinct, self-interested social groups). Furthermore, the Founding Fathers believed that rhetoric, and particularly deliberative rhetoric, would encourage different factions to work together and reach more widely accepted agreements. However, with the removal of rhetoric from the American educational system, politics has devolved into an exhausting, unwinnable war of insults. By reintroducing rhetoric into the educational system, and society in general, Americans could resolve some of their most important problems, and perhaps politics would become more civil and productive. Furthermore, studies have shown that couples who argue rhetorically are more likely to stay happy together: their rhetorical savvy helps them work together instead of bottling up their feelings and staying frustrated with each other. There’s no rule that says that rhetoric has to be helpful, productive, or enlightening—however, if America as a whole embraced the lost art of rhetoric, Heinrichs argues, it’s likely that it would mostly be a force for good.

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Rhetoric and Ethics Quotes in Thank You for Arguing

Below you will find the important quotes in Thank You for Arguing related to the theme of Rhetoric and Ethics.
Chapter 1 Quotes

To see just how pervasive argument is, I recently attempted a whole day without persuasion—free of advertising, politics, family squabbles, or any psychological manipulation whatsoever. No one would persuade me, and I would avoid persuading them. Heck, I wouldn't even let myself persuade myself. Nobody, not even I, would tell me what to do.

Related Characters: Jay Heinrichs (speaker)
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter One, Heinrichs tries an experiment: going one full day without rhetoric or arguing of any kind. Naturally, the experiment fails; as soon as Heinrichs wakes up, he’s confronted with ads that use rhetorical techniques to persuade him, people who use rhetorical figures of speech to make their points, and even animals who could be said to use rhetorical techniques. Heinrichs’ experiment could be considered an example of the logical technique known as reductio absurdum—proving a point by showing the absurdity of its opposite. Heinrichs effectively shows that rhetoric is an inescapable fact of life—and, therefore, people might as well learn about it.

The passage is useful in that it establishes the importance of rhetoric; furthermore, it responds to a potential objection to Heinrichs’s project—namely, that it’s devious and manipulative to engage in rhetorical displays. Heinrichs’ answer to such a criticism, it would appear, is that whether we like it or not, rhetoric is here to stay—therefore, people should learn about it and learn how to use it to their advantage.


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Chapter 6 Quotes

Lincoln made his audience well disposed toward him; emancipation was easier to accept coming from a racist than from one of those insufferable abolitionists up in liberal Massachusetts. If he had sermonized about racial equality the way they did, he never would have become president.

Related Characters: Jay Heinrichs (speaker), Abraham Lincoln
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Heinrichs talks about Abraham Lincoln, probably one of the greatest rhetoricians in history. Lincoln was an effective politician, Heinrichs suggests, because he was willing to build connections between himself and his audiences—even if doing so required him to sacrifice some of his values. Lincoln would tell offensive jokes and even use the “n-word”—however, Heinrichs argues that in doing so, he was able to work with (some of) the opposition and build a coalition, which eventually proceeded to abolish slavery in America. (Heinrichs doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that Lincoln might not have been “sacrificing” his values at all, but that he could have been racist and still opposed slavery as an institution—these are not mutually exclusive worldviews.) In general, though, Heinrichs uses Lincoln’s life to illustrate one of his most important points: through the power of rhetoric, people can overcome their differences, move past their fundamental values, and make progress.

Chapter 9 Quotes

Everyone lusts after something. If you can suss out the desire, exploit the lust, dangle the carrot, then you can bridge the gap.

Related Characters: Jay Heinrichs (speaker)
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Heinrichs articulates some of the aims and tactics of the advertising industry—arguably the contemporary institution that makes use of rhetoric most successful and frequently. Ad agencies know how to appeal to people’s desires; indeed, they spend billions of dollars every year determining what, precisely, people want. Then they find ways to associate their products with people’s desires.

Notice that Heinrichs isn’t judging the process by which advertisers sell their products. However, it wouldn’t be hard to conclude that advertising is an unethical industry—in effect, it manipulates people into buying things that they don’t really need, to satisfy desires that have nothing, fundamentally, to do with the product itself. In his book, Heinrichs shows readers how to see through the cheap trickery of the advertising industry, but also how to participate in this kind of trickery, using the tools of rhetoric to persuade and even manipulate other people.

Chapter 11 Quotes

Different groups (such as dieters and healthy eaters) have different commonplaces. In fact, people identify with their groups through the groups’ commonplaces. These attitudes, beliefs, and values also determine a person’s self-identity—the assumptions and outlook on the world that define an individual. We will delve into identity later; right now, let's look at the commonplace as the starting point of rhetorical logic.

Related Characters: Jay Heinrichs (speaker)
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Heinrichs introduces an important concept: the commonplace. He defines a commonplace as a commonly-accepted, well-known rule or formulation that helps express the attitudes of a group of people. There are many different kinds of commonplaces—visual, verbal, even musical. However, the purpose of a commonplace is always the same: to simplify a complex set of ideas into a simple, easily digestible form. The importance of commonplaces in rhetoric is enormous: if a speaker can master the audience’s commonplaces, then the speaker is already halfway toward persuading them.

Commonplaces also represent what is potentially unethical and duplicitous about rhetoric: a talented rhetorician can used commonplaces to manipulate an audience into acting against its own interests by making people believe that the speaker is more in touch with their values and beliefs than they actually are. (For example, as Heinrichs later shows, George W. Bush was able to evoke the commonplaces of the Christian right simply by using the phrase “I believe.”) However, commonplaces are a two-way street: rhetoricians can use them to manipulate their audiences, but commonplaces also push rhetoricians to remain loyal to their audiences’ interests.

Chapter 12 Quotes

In the 1980s, conservatives called up the image of the “welfare cheat” who claims nonexistent children and lives high on the government dole. The political right repeated this message in speeches and ads until it was difficult for many Americans to see welfare as anything but a rip-off.

Related Characters: Jay Heinrichs (speaker)
Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Heinrichs discusses the importance of framing a debate. At times, inventing certain key phrases and concepts can be more important than making prolonged, rational arguments for or against a point. For example, in the case of the longstanding debate over welfare in the United States, Republican advocates developed the image of the “welfare cheat,” thereby reframing the debate over welfare and forcing Democrats to go on the defensive (i.e., argue that welfare was not, in fact, a way for lazy people to steal from the government).

Heinrichs’ discussion of the welfare debate emphasizes one of his most important points: argumentation and rhetoric are logical, but they’re not only logic-based. A savvy debater knows how to use appeals to emotion, appeals to authority, and—as we see in this passage—powerful images and phrases in order to sway an audience. Whether or not one accepts that the idea of welfare cheats is valid, one should recognize how successful politicians have been in using such an idea to frame the welfare debate.

Chapter 16 Quotes

Here’s a secret that applies to all kinds of rhetorical defense: look for the disconnects.

Related Characters: Jay Heinrichs (speaker)
Page Number: 183
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter Sixteen, Heinrichs writes about the tactics of the typical American salesman: in particular, the practice of building an unspoken connection with a client, based on disinterest (i.e., the salesman supposedly acting out of selfless concern for the client, rather than a selfish desire to turn a profit). From the client’s perspective, it’s important to understand these tactics in order to avoid being manipulated by them. As Heinrichs puts it, the audience should try to recognize the disconnects in an argument—in other words, the steps in an argument that remain unstated, or, to return to the salesman and the client, the gap between what the salesman wants and what the client wants. In recognizing the disconnects, a good audience member can understand more clearly how rhetorical manipulation works.

The passage emphasizes that Heinrichs is writing both for rhetoricians and for audience members: by learning about rhetoric, his readers can become better persuaders themselves while also building up an immunity to persuasive tactics.

The old expression “There’s virtue in moderation” comes straight from Aristotle. Virtue is a state of character, concerned with choice, lying in a mean. When moderates face scorn from the faithful of both parties, what does that make our country? You can do your bit for democracy, and your own sanity, with this prefab reply:
I know reasonable people who hold that opinion. So who’s the extremist?

Related Characters: Jay Heinrichs (speaker), Aristotle
Page Number: 190
Explanation and Analysis:

Toward the end of the chapter, Heinrichs discusses the importance of moderation in arguing. Since ancient times, rhetoricians have understood the importance of framing a decision as the “mean” between two extremes. Such a method arose from the philosophy of Aristotle, who argued that the good is always the mean of two extreme options. In modern times, Aristotle’s ideas can seem unusual, especially since American politics (an important site of rhetoric) has become increasingly polarized in the last twenty years or so. Nevertheless, Heinrichs suggests, most people intuitively favor what they perceive to be moderation.

The passage is important because it brings up one of Heinrichs’ key ideas: rhetoric can be a moral force. One of Heinrichs’ most frequent targets in the book is the polarization of American politics, and the political quagmire that results from it. Perhaps by using the art of rhetoric to resolve differences and move the conversation forward, people can pursue a moderate course of action and fight extremism in all its forms.

Chapter 20 Quotes

“Love” and “support” are superb code words that test well among women voters, sexist as that may sound; it's a bit risky to use it on the man’s wife, though, especially if she earns the steady income. But by evoking her mother, he creates a forgiving environment that brings the couple closer together in love, harmony, and shameless manipulation.

Related Characters: Jay Heinrichs (speaker)
Page Number: 232
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Heinrichs talks about a hypothetical couple: the husband is trying to convince the wife to stay home for Thanksgiving, instead of flying to visit her parents. Heinrichs shows how the husband can use important code words like “love” and “support” to pressure and guilt his wife into staying home, while also tricking her into thinking that doing so would actually be the best thing for all concerned.

The passage is a good example of the manipulative, morally unsavory aspects of rhetoric. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion by any means necessary—there’s no requirement that a good rhetorician argue fairly or honestly. Heinrichs occasionally admits that rhetoric can be unethical or manipulative (here, for example, he seems to acknowledge that the hypothetical husband is disrespecting or condescending to his hypothetical wife by pressuring her into agreement). However, he argues that, overall, rhetoric can be a “force for good” because it forces people to reach productive, mutually beneficial compromises.

Chapter 22 Quotes

The problem with an apology is that it belittles you without enlarging your audience. Belittling yourself fails to un-belittle the victim. That’s why apologies often don’t work. They rarely seem sincere enough or extreme enough.

Related Characters: Jay Heinrichs (speaker)
Page Number: 252
Explanation and Analysis:

Heinrichs makes the somewhat counterintuitive argument that apologizing is often a bad idea. By making an apology, one admits a mistake; however, admitting a mistake is often not enough to pacify or satisfy the victim of the mistake. The victim continues to feel belittled and ignored—thus, the apology doesn’t always solve the problem. A more effective strategy for dealing with a mistake is to offer an immediate solution to the problem and—more subtly—frame one’s admission of a mistake in terms that strategically make one seem skillful. For example, one might apologize for a mistake at work by saying, “I’m a perfectionist, and I want to do this again.” In doing so, one emphasizes one’s virtues (“perfectionist”) and changes the discussion from the present tense to the future tense (“I want to do this again”). Morality tells us that apologizing is the “right” thing to do; however, Heinrichs counters by showing that apologizing isn’t always the most productive, mutually satisfactory thing to do.

Chapter 25 Quotes

Cicero says I should be prepared to argue both sides of the case, starting with my opponent’s pitch. This means spending some time imagining what he will say. I’m guessing he will talk about values a lot—the rights and freedoms that a noise ordinance will trample upon.

Related Characters: Jay Heinrichs (speaker), Marcus Tullius Cicero
Page Number: 282
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter 25, Heinrichs talks about a hypothetical speech he might make at a town hall meeting, in which he argues that local townspeople shouldn’t use leaf blowers, since the noise is distracting. Throughout the chapter, Heinrichs talks about the classical structure of a speech, as articulated by Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Roman politican and rhetorician. Here, Heinrichs honors one of Cicero’s rules by planning to anticipate his opponent’s argument during his own speech. Heinrichs will preempt his opponent’s discussion of rights and freedoms by arguing that leaf blowers interfere with homeowners’ freedoms to enjoy their own property. In doing so, he’ll take the wind out of his unfortunate opponent’s sails and gain a major advantage in the debate.

Chapter 28 Quotes

The founders weren’t starry-eyed about their republic. [They] believed that the symptoms could be ameliorated by the combination of checks and balances and the “cool, candid” arbitration of the liberally educated professional class.

Related Characters: Jay Heinrichs (speaker)
Page Number: 323
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final chapter of Thank You for Arguing, Heinrichs makes his most eloquent and ambitious argument for the continued relevance of rhetoric. Situating rhetoric in a lengthy American tradition of democracy and freedom, Heinrichs suggests that the Founding Fathers believed that rhetoric would be a crucial component of the United States of America, and even suggested that politicians and leaders needed rhetoric to work together. In other words, the system of checks and balances that’s essential to American government can only function smoothly when politicians use the arts of logos, ethos, and pathos to convince people to cooperate with them and reach compromises. One could say that deliberative rhetoric is the art of reaching a compromise in order to move things forward, and the Founding Fathers supported the use of strong deliberative rhetoric. In the 21st century, when the different branches of government and political parties refuse to work together much of the time, people would do well to remember the importance of rhetoric in American history.

It is no coincidence that red and blue America split apart just when moral issues began to dominate campaigns—not because one side has morals and the other lacks them, but because values cannot be the sole subject of deliberative argument. Of course, demonstrative language—code grooming and values talk—works to bring an audience together and make it identify with you and your point of view. But eventually a deliberative argument has to get—well, deliberative.

Related Characters: Jay Heinrichs (speaker)
Page Number: 325
Explanation and Analysis:

Heinrichs continues to argue for the importance of rhetoric in general and deliberative rhetoric in particular in American politics. Too often, politicians fight with one another over basic moral values. While moral values are obviously important, Heinrichs suggests that a more productive form of argument would revolve around choices and actions, situated in the future tense. Politicians made a huge tactical error when they framed global warming in primarily moral terms; in doing so, they forced their opponents to frame their own opposition in conflicting moral terms, leading to a stalemate on the issue of global warming. By embracing deliberative rhetoric, politicians could reach compromises and undo the stereotype that politics is a dull, tedious business where nothing ever gets done—just one of the many useful applications of rhetoric that Heinrichs talks about in his book.