When Heinrichs was in junior high, he and his friends would banter and try to gross each other out. Without knowing it, they were behaving like the ancient Sophists, who used sleazy rhetorical tactics to win arguments, essentially turning their arguments into fights. In rhetoric, however, it’s important to recognize the difference between logic and logos. Sometimes, it can be useful to commit mild logical fallacies in order to emphasize one’s point.
In this chapter, Heinrichs emphasizes the difference between strictly logical arguments and arguments which incorporate logos. Remember what Heinrichs said in the previous chapter: some commonly accepted rhetorical maneuvers are actually logically fallacious.
If deliberative argument has one rule, it is this: “Never argue the inarguable.” In other words, a good rhetorician doesn’t try to block the argument and prevent both sides from reaching a satisfactory conclusion. In a way, rhetoric is like a game of no-rules soccer, where there’s no referee and no bounds. Technically, you can say and do whatever you want in this game of soccer; however, it’s in everybody’s best interests to agree on a few basic things: not to fight, not to distract from the game, etc. The same is true of rhetoric: arguments should include some ad hominem attacks, some intense emotions, etc., but it’s better for everyone when people stick to a few basic rules and don’t argue the inarguable. Heinrichs will discuss what constitutes “the inarguable” in this chapter.
When he says that people shouldn’t argue the inarguable, Heinrichs means that people shouldn’t stop the debate dead in its tracks whenever somebody commits a logical fallacy. Instead, good debaters know how to exploit their opponents’ logical fallacies, even while moving the debate forward. Heinrichs isn’t saying that “anything goes” in a debate; rather, he’s suggesting that good debaters shouldn’t limit themselves to the strictly logical, and should be able to continue debating instead of appealing to some logical authority whenever anybody commits a fallacy.
In an argument, arguing the inarguable makes the conversation stop or turn into a fight. Consider a politician who claims (speaking about involvement in a war), “If we pull out now, our soldiers will have died in vain.” This is a logical fallacy for sure: the wrong ending fallacy. If you were debating against this politician, one could call him out for committing a logical fallacy, which might make you seem cold and heartless. Or one could turn the politician’s words against him and say, “By successfully ending the war, we’ll be honoring our dead soldiers.” In short, one should fight back against the politician using his fallacy against him, instead of explicitly identifying the fallacy.
When it comes to responding to logical fallacies, Heinrichs argues for a method that continues the debate instead of shutting it down. A savvy rhetorician would be able to call out a politician for making a logically fallacious statement without relying strictly upon the rules of logic—in other words, a good rhetorician could use emotional appeals and appeals to character, as well as logic, to convince an audience not to agree with the politician.
Take the 1988 presidential elections, during which the Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis was asked if he’d support the death penalty for someone who killed Dukakis’s own wife. Dukakis simply replied, “No, I don’t.” His reply was overly logical, seemingly confirming suspicions that he was unemotional. But should Dukakis have called out his questioner for creating a logical fallacy? Absolutely not; instead, he should have gotten “strategically angry,” calling a foul by asking the questioner to apologize to him. Then, having gained the moral high ground, he could have talked about his reasons for opposing the death penalty.
Dukakis’s response illustrates the limitations of purely logical argumentation. Dukakis’s reply was perfectly logical, but it didn’t emphasize his character or make use of emotional rhetoric; as a result, Dukakis looked inhuman and emotionless. A better rhetorician would have called out the questioner for asking an inappropriate question (an appeal to character) and appealed to emotion by showing outrage over the question.
Take another example: a politician who opposes reforming social security and accuses his opponents of “attacking our senior citizens.” The problem here is that the politician is focusing on the present tense when he should be talking about the future. Instead, he could make a more productive argument about how people should “bear the burden of the federal deficit” together, moving the conversation forward. It’s important to situate the debate in the right tense, usually the future tense. When someone situates the debate in the present tense, you can try to move things forward by asking, “What are we going to do?”, returning the discussion to the future.
Echoing some of his earlier examples, Heinrichs suggests that one of the major problems with American politics is that politicians prefer to fall back on the same tiresome deliberative rhetoric. A much more productive, illuminating way to talk about politics would be to frame the conversation in the future tense, bringing in the language of actions and choices. The resulting discussion would not only be more interesting from a rhetorical standpoint, but more likely to result in concrete political actions.
Another argumentative foul is sticking to the “right way” and the “wrong way” instead of having a productive conversation. Heinrichs often argued with his wife about her fondness for serving canned peaches at Christmas, even though nobody in the family, his wife included, liked them. Dorothy insisted that she served peaches because they were traditional—in other words, canned peaches were the “right way” to celebrate Christmas. Arguing for the “right way” is a rhetorical foul because it precludes any further discussion; therefore, one should find a way of calling foul. (In Heinrichs’ case, however, he just ate the peaches silently; next year, to his surprise, Dorothy served peach pie instead.)
Sometimes it’s impossible to get other people to argue about certain points; however, the people who are most stubborn about their beliefs are often the same people who like to argue the most! In such a situation, Heinrichs recommends calling out such people for their refusal to argue the case honestly and completely. However, there are plenty of situations where it’s not prudent to call out an opponent for refusing to budge—for example, in the case of Heinrichs’s wife’s Christmas tradition.
Another rhetorical foul is arguing simply to humiliate the opponent, rather than to move the discussion forward. There’s also innuendo, a kind of insulting, humiliating hint. Sometimes, people use threats in their arguments, which the Romans called “argumentum ad baculum (“argument by the stick”). Most basically of all, there’s the foul of utter stupidity—an opponent who fails to recognize his own logical fallacies. When confronted with rhetorical fouls like this, people should call out their opponents, albeit in a subtle, strategic way.
Heinrichs concludes by emphasizing that, just as there’s a right way and a wrong way to argue, there’s a right way and a wrong way to call out one’s opponents for arguing improperly. A skillful rhetorician can call out an opponent for improper argumentation while still moving the debate forward.