When Heinrichs was a child, his mother bought his father a pool table for Father’s Day. Heinrichs’ father was baffled—he’d never played pool or expressed any interest in the game. Later, Heinrichs realized that the salesman who’d sold his mother the table must have been a good rhetorician. In this chapter, Heinrichs will explain how to detect the ethos tools of persuasion: disinterest, virtue, and practical wisdom.
Persuading someone to buy something is one of the most common ways to use rhetoric. Good salesmen can use verbal trickery to convince customers to spend their money on products that they don’t necessarily need.
In the ethos of rhetoric, one must begin with what the audience needs. When Heinrichs’ mother bought the pool table from the salesman, for example, the salesman made her feel comfortable right away. He acted like he and Heinrichs’ mother were partners, trying to figure out what to get Heinrichs’ father; furthermore, he recognized what Heinrichs’ mother’s needs were—feeling satisfied with her gift for her husband. One way to avoid ethos trickery is to look out for disconnects in an argument. What Heinrichs’ mother wanted was very different from what her husband wanted, and also different from what the salesman wanted. The salesman tried to gloss over these disconnects and pretend that his interests were aligned with his customer’s. In doing so, he implicitly conveyed financial disinterest. When evaluating an argument, it’s worth emulating the Romans and asking, Cui bono? or “who benefits?”
The purpose of emphasizing one’s ethos is to connect with an audience—to persuade them that the persuader’s interests and the audience’s are one and the same. A good salesman, like any skilled rhetorician, knows some tricks for convincing a customer that the salesman is interested in helping the customer, not making money. However, by understanding the rhetorical principles underlying sales techniques (such as the Cui Bono principle), readers of Heinrichs’ book can train themselves to see through a salesperson’s tricks.
Let’s imagine Heinrichs’ mother talking to the salesman again. The salesman asks to show her “something,” but instead of playing along, Heinrichs’ mother asks, “who’s it for?” and then, “If I look at it, will you take me to the shirt department?” By keeping in mind that the salesman’s interests aren’t her own, she avoids buying an expensive pool table.
As in the previous chapters, Heinrichs shows how to resist rhetorical techniques without grinding the conversation to a halt. By remaining pleasant and subtly deflecting, Heinrichs’ mother can continue the conversation without any real awkwardness.
The second aspect of ethos is virtue. Aristotle defined virtue as “a state of character, concerned with choice, lying in the mean.” In effect, Aristotle was saying that virtue is a rhetorical image that a speaker projects to the audience (a state of character), revolving around convincing the audience to do or choose something, and it usually involves convincing people to choose a moderate option (lying in the mean).
Note that Aristotle distinguishes between the appearance of virtue and the real thing—a good rhetorician need only project virtue, not live a consistently virtuous life. Aristotle also emphasizes once more the importance of balance and moderation (the “mean”).
When testing someone’s rhetorical virtue, it’s important to ask if they’re offering the “sweet spot” between extremes or not. Honest salesmen will most likely ask customers for a price range, and try to find something in the middle of that range. But sometimes when numbers aren’t involved, it’s difficult to tell if the salesman is describing a mean or not (especially because salesmen are talented at making extreme choices seem moderate). One good test is to ask the persuader what they think of a moderate course—if they describe that course as extreme, they’re probably extremists themselves. For example, parents who describe the conventional wisdom about childrearing as “abusive” or “cruel” probably have some extreme views. Or consider the politicians who characterize their opponents as extremists—a liberal who thinks that Christians who demand prayer in schools want to impose their religion on others is probably an extremist himself.
Heinrichs appears to be assuming that moderation usually signifies the most honest and rhetorically (and logically) sound argument. However, there would seem to be many situations in which people with extreme views really are right, and moderate people aren’t (for example, everybody should have “extreme” views about murder, slavery, or rape—everyone should be emphatically against these things). But regardless of the correctness of an extreme position, Heinrichs’ “extremism test” can still be useful, though maybe not in all the situations he proposes.
Aristotle famously said, “There is virtue in moderation.” However, in modern times, moderate people are often criticized for being extreme—an accusation that says more about the accuser than about them. Whenever someone accuses another person of being an extremist, Heinrichs recommends a “prefab reply”—“I know reasonable people who hold that opinion. So who’s the extremist?”
Heinrichs suggests that perhaps good rhetoric can help society “reclaim the middle” and cut through some of extremists’ more frustrating claims—in particular, the claim that their views aren’t extreme at all.