The second major element of ethos is practical wisdom. Consider the famous scene from the movie Animal House in which John Belushi’s character tries to rouse his fraternity brothers into action with the speech, “When the goin’ gets tough … the tough get goin’!” Belushi’s speech doesn’t go over well—nobody joins him when he races out of the room. The problem is that Belushi’s character isn’t seen as a trustworthy person. To be a persuasive speaker, one must be seen as a sensible, knowledgeable person.
John Belushi’s character in Animal House is an obnoxious fraternity brother—he’s liked by his friends, but few people would trust him to get things done. Heinrichs’ point is that there’s a major distinction between likability and competence: sometimes, it’s better to seem competent than to be well-liked.
There’s a difference between practical wisdom and intelligence. Some people are smart but lack the ability to think flexibly and adapt to new situations. Successful leaders, however, project an image of experience and expertise. They’re skillful at bending rules and seeming to take the middle course. For example, many presidents have chosen running mates with more extreme views than their own, allowing them to appear moderate, even if they’re not.
Once again, Heinrichs suggests that people intuitively gravitate toward the solutions they perceive as moderate and balanced. This seems debatable, however, especially in light of Heinrichs’ later argument that American politics has become more polarized than ever.
Altogether, projecting real-world experience, bending the rules, and appearing moderate can be important persuasive tactics. Heinrichs and his wife have made an effort to not treat their two children equally. In doing so, they’ve often upset their children; however, they’ve also trained their children to listen more attentively (instead of simply trusting that they’ll be treated equally) and trust that their parents will make careful decisions and weigh all the factors, instead of simply enforcing the rules (by treating them equally). In this way, Heinrichs and his wife appear practically wise to their children.
Many parents think they have a moral responsibility to treat their children the same, in the sense that they should give their children the same resources and allow them to do the same things, starting at the same age. The problem with such a mindset, Heinrichs argues, is that it makes children less respectful of their parents’ authority: for example, a child who knows that he’s going to be allowed to watch PG-13 movies at the age of the ten because his older brother did will probably behave worse than his older brother did, because he won’t try to earn the right to watch PG-13 movies. By refusing to treat their children equally, Heinrichs and his wife establish themselves as “deciders” and encourage their children to behave better.