In this chapter, Heinrichs will discuss how rhetoricians use the identity strategy to encourage an audience to agree with them. He’ll also talk about how to use the identity strategy to associate the audience’s identity with a symbol. For the purposes of this chapter, he’ll refer to such a symbol as a “halo.”
Good rhetoricians recognize the importance of symbols and strong images; indeed, some of the most effective speeches in history revolve around a strong symbol, or “halo,” as Heinrichs calls it.
Before Heinrichs move forward, he reviews the meaning of ethos. Consider three people: a heart surgeon, Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela. Which trait of ethos best defines each of these three people? Practical wisdom is probably the most applicable term for the surgeon, since he knows how to use his training to save lives. Mother Teresa would probably be most strongly associated with disinterest, since she was selfless in her devotion to the poor. Virtue applies to Mandela, since he embodies the ideals of his nation. Heinrichs argues that Mandela—and all great leaders—can lead the masses and change history to a degree that people like Mother Teresa and the heart surgeon cannot. Leaders lead by upholding people’s values, and by appealing to these values in strategic ways.
While it’s debatable whether practical wisdom, virtue, or disinterest is the most important aspect of character, virtue is surely the most important component of ethos when it comes to leadership. Leaders don’t just instruct other people what to do; they embody certain values and attitudes. For example, American presidents aren’t just evaluated on the merits of their policies; they’re judged for their character, because—for better or worse—leaders need to have good character (or at least the appearance of good character) in order to lead effectively.
The importance of identity strategy was apparent to all in the 2012 presidential election, in which Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney. There’s a rule of thumb that Americans will elect whichever candidate they’d rather have a beer with—i.e., whichever candidate seems more easy-going and relatable. But in the case of the 2012 election, neither candidate was seen as relatable. Both parties spent millions to make their opposing candidates seem out of touch with America—and, in many ways, the Democrats won by making Romney seem out of touch.
Politicians spend millions of dollars trying to appear as likable and “down to earth” as possible, despite the irony of this very fact. It might seem odd to characterize a presidential election as a battle between different “image campaigns,” rather than between different political ideologies or policies, but image often plays a more decisive role in an election than the issues do.
Why is it so important to identify with our leaders? A few reasons: 1) “Our leaders embody our best selves”—in other words, a leader’s duty is to uphold values with their very character and behavior; 2) “Identity motivates,” meaning that people are most likely to listen to leaders with whom they identify closely; 3) “We feel best when we live up to our values,” in the sense that a leader reminds us of what’s important in life, and what we should all be striving for.
Just as pure logic isn’t enough to win an argument, pure competence is rarely enough to make a great leader. Leaders have a much tougher job than they seem to; they need to do their jobs while also uniting their followers together and exemplifying the same strong moral values in their day-to-day lives.
During his time as a consultant, Heinrichs developed a strategy for creating a halo—a “powerful image tied to the audience’s best sense of self.” Creating a halo involves three steps: 1) Defining the issue in the simplest terms. This can be more challenging than one might think; however, a rhetorician needs to recognize what their audience is interested in, and what issues it cares about. 2) Finding common values. Usually, a rhetorician can identify common values using commonplace words and phrases. 3) Symbolizing the values. This is the most challenging step, and it involves developing powerful symbols for the values represented in commonplaces. An American flag is a great example of a powerful halo.
A halo is a very specific kind of symbol whose purpose is to condense a complex idea to a simple, memorable image. Halos appeal to the basic human desire for simplicity; they should be as concise and clear as possible. Halos also appeal to an audience by encapsulating values that the audience is already likely to support. Halos are an important part of politics, since certain beloved objects and symbols represent an entire moral or political tradition.
Once, Heinrichs consulted for the military vaccination program, MILVAX. His job was to develop a campaign that would encourage soldiers to accept a vaccine, even though it would leave a permanent scar. Heinrichs developed a halo—the scar itself—in order to symbolize strength and honor. MILVAX started an online campaign in which soldiers displayed their scars. Heinrichs has also used the halo method for an ad campaign designed to encourage middle-class British women to drink less. Heinrichs and his colleagues developed the halo of the “floor monkey”—the “dehumanized, stupid, embarrassed” girl who drinks so much she can’t stand anymore.
With the help of a powerful halo, advertisers and rhetoricians can “reframe” an issue, glamorizing what audiences might otherwise find unglamorous (such as a scar). Halos are also useful because they can encapsulate a host of strong negative associations without being too off-putting; for example, the “floor monkey” makes a strong negative point, but in a euphemistic way that avoids confronting its own sexist and dehumanizing aspects.
Halos are everywhere in politics. Figures like “Joe the Plumber” and “welfare mothers” are halos, designed to convey a specific political point. In Heinrichs’ own life, he once tried to convince his son George to ski instead of playing hockey. In retrospect, Heinrichs thinks, he could have used the halo of the bench to convince George that he’d have more fun, and see more action, as a skier. But interestingly, George chose to ski anyway—perhaps because he identified with the values of ski culture. George’s decision is a good reminder that demonstrative rhetoric isn’t “all about glorious speechmaking. It’s also about tribes.”
Again Heinrichs chooses a counterintuitive personal example to make his point—instead of giving an example of how he used a halo successfully, he gives an example of how he failed to use a halo to convince his son of something. In doing so, Heinrichs emphasizes the point that not all rhetorical maneuvers work well; sometimes, audiences can’t be swayed by persuasive rhetoric of any kind.