In the 1970s, National Lampoon magazine publishes a parody of Plato’s Republic, in which Socrates deals knockout punches to his opponents, using nothing but the force of his ideas. Throughout history, rhetoricians have imagined themselves as warriors. Nevertheless, it’s important to see the difference between arguing and fighting. In a fight, a warrior tries to defeat an opponent. But in an argument, a rhetorician is really trying to win over an audience.
It’s important to distinguish between arguing and fighting—arguing is as much about avoiding conflict as it is about facing conflict head-on. A skillful arguer like Heinrichs (presumably) or Socrates knows how to use rhetorical techniques to persuade an audience to agree voluntarily.
In the 1980s, psychologists conducted a study of married couples’ behavior, and concluded that couples with “healthy marriages” argued as much as those with “unhealthy marriages,” but in more productive ways. Heinrichs believes that the couples who stayed married were able to work out their differences with the help of argument. They didn’t treat arguing as an excuse to attack each other’s characters, and instead used more subtle, eloquent approaches to reach compromises. At the most basic level, “you fight to win; you argue to achieve agreement.” Some people might think that arguing is “wimpier” than fighting. But in fact, arguing takes courage. Arguing can also help people gain power by making “a group yield to the dominion of your voice.”
There’s no rule that says that arguing has to be good for a marriage. However, if done correctly, arguing can be an invaluable tool for married couples: the right arguments, phrased in the right way, can help a couple resolve its differences in a productive way, preventing resentment or tension from building up in the marriage. It’s significant that Heinrichs stresses the productive, positive applications of rhetoric, given that one could (and many do) fault rhetoric for being a manipulative, even unethical practice.
Imagine, Heinrichs says, that a police officer pulls you over for going fifty-five in a fifty zone. It would be tempting to make a sarcastic remark, in which case the officer will almost certainly give you a ticket. But instead, set yourself a more productive goal: not getting a ticket. It’s also important to size up your opponent in the argument—the police officer, who, in this case, is also the audience for the argument. The only person you have to convince is him.
Heinrichs lists another example with which his readers will most likely be familiar: getting pulled over. A good rhetorician may be able to get out of the ticket by recognizing the real goal (not getting ticketed) and resisting the temptation to argue with the officer.
Let’s say you try to convince the officer not to give you a ticket by lying and giving him a good excuse for speeding—your wife is in labor, e.g. It’s quite likely that the officer won’t care why you’re speeding, and will give you the ticket anyway. But you could also try to concede the officer’s point—you were speeding. You could then ask the officer for advice on how to stay under the speed limit, as long as you don’t sound sarcastic. Doing so will appeal to the officer’s expertise and, most importantly, allow him to believe that he’s “won” the argument. It’s more likely that the officer will then let you off with a warning. In short, conceding an opponent’s points doesn’t mean that you’re giving up the argument. It might seem a little wimpy to concede an opponent’s points so readily, but, Heinrichs argues, “wimps like us shall inherit the rhetorical earth.”
Heinrichs’ analysis of the traffic incident could apply to almost any argument: persuaders must always decide whether they should debate a point, concede to it, or lie about it. Often times, the best strategy is to concede a point and remain focused on the overall goal of the argument (namely, getting what one wants out of the argument). Notice that, once again, Heinrichs not only lists an example of a rhetorical concept (here, conceding a point), but also gives an example of the concept (and tries to throw in some humor as well).
Imagine, Heinrichs says, that you’re interested in becoming romantically involved with someone. If the other person is a little reluctant, then you could stand to benefit from arguing. The first step in your seduction is to put them in the mood for love—playing romantic music, pouring them wine, complimenting them, etc. The great Roman orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero, said that persuading people consists of three different steps: 1) stimulate their emotions; 2) change their opinion; 3) get them to act. In some ways, stimulating the emotions is the most important part of an argument—steps 2 and 3 couldn’t happen without step 1. For example, when filming It's a Wonderful Life, the director had to convince the actor Jimmy Stewart, who was unusually shy, to kiss the female lead, Donna Reed. The director eventually hit on the idea of staging a scene in which Stewart and Reed listen to the same phone at the same time, requiring them to sit very close to each other. By staging the scene in this intimate way, the director was able to put Stewart “in the mood,” and his resulting kiss is one of the greatest in Hollywood history.
Cicero is one of Heinrichs’s rhetorical heroes, and a prominent figure throughout Thank You for Arguing. As with many of the examples of persuasion in the book, Heinrichs’s discussion of putting someone “in the mood” might seem manipulative and belittling in the way it portrays the audience as easily pliable. Nevertheless, Heinrichs continues to bolster his argument for the importance of persuasion by citing examples that readers will be likely to know already, and which have a clear positive payoff (in this case, he cites the beloved Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life and argues that the final product, the movie itself, justifies the light emotional manipulation during the making of the movie).
One master of stimulating the audience’s emotions was Saint Augustine, one of the fathers of the Christian Church. Augustine was a professor of rhetoric, and he later used his rhetorical training to convert pagans to Christianity, frightening them with “sheer emotional pyrotechnics.” But manipulating the audience’s emotions is easy compared with making your audience choose what you want them to. One way to do so is to engineer the choices available to the audience. For example, when Heinrichs visited his daughter, Dorothy Jr., in London, she wanted to dine at her favorite restaurant, even after he offered to take her somewhere new. Dorothy hesitated to name other restaurants, pushing her father to “choose” the restaurant where she’d wanted to eat all along.
Most people would say that an argument consists of step two only—getting people to choose something. But in fact, as Heinrichs shows, this is only one third of the overall process of persuasion. One of the reasons that arguments are so often tiresome and repetitive is that most people don’t realize that there’s more to a good argument than just outlining one’s points. Nevertheless, Heinrichs also suggests that people (such as his daughter) intuitively know how to argue persuasively, even if they couldn’t really explain what they’re doing.
The third step in an argument, getting an audience to actually do something, is perhaps the most difficult. One strategy for doing so is to convince the audience that acting the way you want them to is easy. Years ago, while Heinrichs worked in publishing, his firm published a book called The South Beach Diet: The Delicious, Doctor-Designed, Foolproof Plan for Fast and Healthy Weight Loss. Although Heinrichs was skeptical that the book would be a success, it became a bestseller, partly because the title made dieting seem both desirable (since it evoked a fun, happy vacation) and easily attainable.
It’s important to understand the difference between steps 2 and 3 of a good argument. It’s one thing to convince an audience to agree with a certain choice; it’s quite another to get the audience to act on their new conviction—to translate persuasion into action. Heinrichs cites an example from his career as a publisher—the first of many such examples in the book.