Heinrichs can no longer beat his son George in arm wrestling. However, Heinrichs could beat George even after George became stronger than he, because he knew the right kind of grip. In arguments, definitions are like the “grip” in an arm wrestle—by defining ideas in the right way, one gains an advantage in the ensuing argument.
Definitions can help rhetoricians get the debate off to an excellent start: they can define terms in such a way that they can’t possibly lose the debate!
Ancient rhetoricians listed several approaches to argument. First, one should cite facts to bolster one’s point. If the facts didn’t prove the point, however, one could redefine the terms instead. If redefining terms didn’t work, one could still accept one’s opponent’s facts and terms and just argue that the opponent’s arguments weren’t as important as they seemed to be. Finally, one could claim that the argument was irrelevant. In short, the ancients laid out four strategies of descending importance: fact, definition, quality, and relevance. Each strategy is a fallback for the one before it (for example, relevance is the weakest strategy, since it risks seeming petty).
Traditionally, the best way to argue is to make a case backed up with evidence; however, if this doesn’t work well, one can always revert to another form of arguing. Arguing for irrelevance isn’t always useful, because the best the persuader can do is hope for a draw. However, it’s sometimes the best option, particularly if the opponent’s arguments really are irrelevant.
Often, the best way to define a term is to re-define it. By proposing your own definition, even if you agree with your opponent’s definition, you’ll seem agreeable while “cutting the legs out” from under your opponent’s argument. There are other times, however, when it can be useful to accept an opponent’s definition—a form of concession that allows you to turn your opponent’s arguments against him in an elegant way. For example, when someone tries to insult you for being an “egghead,” it might be funny and argumentatively advantageous to agree with your opponent. When using definitions offensively (e.g., accusing someone else of being an egghead) it’s important not to overextend by providing too much of a definition, because doing so runs the risk of giving your opponent ammunition that they can turn against you. For example, if you were to accuse someone of being an egghead, “using fancy jargon to show someone how educated you are,” your opponent could agree that he’s educated and say, “If you’re insecure about your own lack of knowledge, don’t attack me.”
Sometimes, it’s a good idea to disagree with an opponent’s definition, even if one actually agrees with it. On other occasions, however, it can be useful to agree with a definition—conceding the point in such a way that one gains an advantage in the argument. One common problem with defining terms is concision: the best definition is often short and to the point (because a longer definition runs the risk of seeming unfair and, even worse, gives the opponent more ammunition).
So far, Heinrichs has been talking about defining specific terms. Now, it’s time to talk about defining an entire concept. In the 1980s, for example, Republicans skillfully shifted the debate surrounding welfare by repeatedly referring to people as “welfare cheats,” until the term was inseparable from the concept of welfare itself. When using a term to define a big concept, it’s helpful to use a system of opposites. Heinrichs was recently involved in consulting for a publishing company, and wanted to convince an airline’s in-flight magazine that his firm would be the best company for the job. Knowing that his rivals had pitched a serious, professional magazine, he pitched a fun, lighthearted magazine, implicitly labeling his rivals’ pitch dull.
In many ways, the recent political debates between Republicans and Democrats boil down to a debate between competing sets of terms. Regardless of what one thinks of conservatism itself, conservative politicians have done a phenomenal job of controlling political debates by using the right terms—the notion of welfare cheats, for example, redefined the entire conversation about welfare in a way that gave the Republican party a tremendous advantage.
When defining terms or ideas, it’s useful to use commonplace words—buzzwords that create a clear idea for the audience. Sometimes, businesses or political focus groups spend millions of dollars trying to identify commonplace words. Contemporary examples of commonplace words include “paradigm,” “team,” “traumatized,” and “aggressive.” Using these words can be extremely effective with a big audience.
Definitions should use commonplace words so that they’re memorable for a large group of people. Defining a term or idea in the most advantageous way is a multi-million dollar industry: the stakes are so enormous that politicians and businesspeople are willing to pay top dollar to ensure that average people remember their words.
There are two sides to every issue, and therefore, two sets of commonplace words. Take the topic of abortion: one side emphasizes phrases like “the right to live,” while the other side speaks about “the right to choose.” Consultants are paid to determine how best to “frame” a political issue—i.e., which commonplace words to use. For example, in the case of abortion, pro-life consultants created a language of “life” around the issue, while pro-choice consultants successfully framed the debate as a debate about government intrusion in people’s personal lives. In many ways, pro-life consultants did a better job than their opponents: they framed their side in positive terms, and found a way to incorporate the most basic commonplace of all: life. Pro-lifers scored a series of major victories in the late 1990s when they began focusing on opposing late-term abortions, to which a greater portion of the public was opposed. By seeming to offer a more moderate position on abortion (while actually preserving the same beliefs), pro-lifers built a broader coalition of support for their cause.
Heinrichs evaluates the “argument” between abortion terms on both the Democratic and the Republican side of the debate. Setting aside his own personal beliefs, Heinrichs finds that Republicans have done a much better job of defining their side in a productive manner: the right to life is perhaps the most basic, relatable way to frame the conservative platform on abortion. Furthermore, notice that pro-lifers succeeded in the 1990s by making an effort to seem more moderate. This upholds Aristotle’s idea about people instinctively favoring the moderate, “mean” course of action. By making an effort to seem more relatable (i.e., by discussing abortion cases in which a larger portion of the population would be likely to agree with them), pro-life activists won a major victory.
After choosing commonplaces and defining the issue advantageously, the persuader must choose the proper tense for the debate. Commonplaces refer to values, expressed in the present tense; however, persuaders need to point these ideas toward the future, where deliberative rhetoric occurs. In doing so, persuaders naturally gravitate toward the middle. For example, a pro-life advocate might argue that abortion is always wrong; however, when he shifts his rhetoric to the future, he might be forced to concede that, under some circumstances, abortion is acceptable. But of course, Heinrichs concludes, many pro-life advocates “stick to their guns. And remain unpersuasive.”
Again Heinrichs draws a sharp distinction between debates about values and debates about choices. In practice, one could argue, it’s almost impossible to separate these two forms of rhetoric, since debates about what to do are almost always grounded in a discussion of what to believe. However, a good rhetorician can push the debate further into the realm of the deliberative, even if it’s impossible to omit demonstrative rhetoric altogether.