According to Aristotle, there are three kinds of arguments: 1) blame, 2) values, and 3) choice. Imagine, Heinrichs says, a woman trying to convince her husband to turn his music down. She begins criticizing him for playing “Free Bird” too loudly, and the husband responds, “So that’s what this is about. You hate my music.” The woman’s mistake was to turn an argument about choice (turning down the music) into one about values (whether the music is good or bad).
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle was one of the greatest intellectuals in Western history; he was also one of the most devoted “categorizers” in history. Aristotle’s insightful, tripartite distinction between different forms of rhetoric will come in handy throughout the book—and often, arguments devolve into bickering because people aren’t aware of the Aristotelian distinction.
Aristotle also argued that each of the three kinds of argument corresponds to a different tense: blame corresponds to the past, values to the present, and choice to the future. On shows like CSI, for example, the detectives speak in the past tense, trying to determine who should be blamed for a crime. Aristotle referred to this kind of arguing as “forensic rhetoric.” The present tense, however, is more commonly associated with arguments about what is and isn’t good. For instance, sermons are almost exclusively delivered in the present tense. Aristotle referred to this kind of speaking as “demonstrative rhetoric.” Finally, Aristotle used the term “deliberative rhetoric” to refer to arguments about what to do in the future.
Each kind of argument correlates with a certain topic and a certain tense. For example, it makes sense that people would talk about values and beliefs in the present tense—people think that their beliefs are eternal and unchanging. The further implication of Aristotle’s distinction is that, by controlling the “tense” of an argument, people can implicitly control the content of that debate—by shifting the debate to the future tense, for example, a rhetorician can shift from discussing values to discussing actions.
Heinrichs returns to the couple arguing about the husband’s music. This time, instead of arguing about the merits of the music (demonstrative rhetoric), the husband suggests watching a movie instead (deliberative rhetoric). The husband proposes watching a movie he knows his wife hates, so that his second suggestion (the movie he really wants to watch) sounds more appealing, and she agrees. Switching the tense—in this case, from present to future—is a good way to control the argument.
By switching to a discussion of the future, the husband takes control over the argument while seeming to be passive and accommodating in his manner: even though his wife is the one naming options, the husband is controlling the scope and direction of the conversation.
When arguing in the future tense, Heinrichs says, it’s important to remember Little Orphan Annie, who sings, “the sun will come out tomorrow.” But even Annie isn’t sure that the sun will come out—she has to bet her “bottom dollar” that it’ll happen. Thus, readers should keep in mind that, in deliberate rhetoric, they cannot stick to the facts—we have to make conjectures about the future. Deliberation is about uncertain choices, not eternal truths or the hard, cold facts of life.
Deliberation is about uncertain choices, which means that people can’t just fall back on their core values and beliefs. It could be argued that Heinrichs’s distinction between past and future tense debates is overly simplistic, because people’s beliefs are often about how to behave in the future.
Imagine that a couple is arguing over whether to invest in stocks or bonds. The husband wants to invest in stocks, while the wife wants to be more cautious, since she’s heard that the market is going to tank. This is an inherently deliberative, future-tense argument, based in probabilities, not certainties. Or imagine that you’re trying to convince your uncle not to divorce his wife and marry a younger woman. You could tell him that he’s morally wrong (demonstrative rhetoric), but you’d probably have more success arguing that his life will turn out worse if he divorces his wife (deliberative rhetoric). The way to win the argument is to recognize which issues are debatable (his future) and which issues are difficult or impossible to debate (the morality of divorce). Most arguments take place in the wrong tense. Rhetoricians must remember what the proper tense for the debate should be, in order to control the scope of the debate.
When beginning an argument, one should always consider the most appropriate tense for the argument—in fact, determining the correct tense could be considered the most important part of making an argument. Here, the best strategy for convincing one’s uncle is to situate the debate in the future, and, implicitly, the realm of choices, decisions, and uncertainties. The reason that deliberative debates are usually more productive than demonstrative debates is that people are almost always more willing to budge on their actions than on their core beliefs.