The third aspect of ethos is “disinterested goodwill,” or “caring”—in short, the ability to appear selfless. The Founding Fathers went to elaborate lengths to appear financially disinterested in their own political decisions; a few of them even gave away fortunes to appear virtuous. In the 19th century, many presidents claimed to have been born in log cabins in order to seem rugged and financially disinterested.
Sometimes “disinterested” is used as a synonym for “uninterested”; however, Heinrichs uses it to mean selfless or unbiased. Many politicians (though not all!) pretend to be less financially invested in their own policy decisions than they really are.
A great way to seem disinterested is to pretend to be reluctant about dealing with an issue you’re actually eager to address. A teenager who wants to borrow his father’s car for a date might pretend to be reluctant to ask to borrow it, claiming that he just wants to protect his date’s safety. Another useful technique is to pretend that you’re pained by your own choice. A parent who tries to convince her child to eat Brussels sprouts might pretend that she doesn’t like them either.
By feigning reluctance or even pain, a talented persuader can make a more nuanced, effective argument: for example, in the case of the parent trying to feed her child, claiming not to like Brussels sprouts builds a connection between the parent and her “audience” (the child) and makes the final point (“eat the Brussels sprouts”) more convincing.
If one studies American history, it’s easy to see that some presidents have failed to exemplify different kinds of ethos. Herbert Hoover failed to exemplify practical wisdom in handling the Depression; Richard Nixon failed to live up to Americans’ expectations of virtue. In all, ethos is a crucial way for a speaker to persuade an audience to trust him.
Without delving into much detail, Heinrichs establishes the importance of ethos in American politics: a good president will go to great lengths to seem like an authority on all moral matters.
Perhaps the best ethos trick of all is to seem as if you have no tricks. One of the greatest Roman rhetoricians, Quintilian, noted that the best speeches begin with a speaker feigning helplessness in order to seem trustworthy. Abraham Lincoln was a master of this technique, known as dubitatio. His “country bumpkin” act made his opponents underestimate him and his audiences trust him. Sometimes, when making a speech, it’s better to begin hesitatingly. When interacting one-on-one with someone, it can be useful to look down right before making a point, thereby making the point seem spontaneous and sincere. These tricks might seem manipulative, and in a way they are. But, Heinrichs concludes, ‘rhetorical caring” is “like real caring only better.”
Pretending to be humble and candid is a powerful rhetorical trick, and it emphasizes the point that rhetoric is an inherently “tricky,” manipulative art—even having no tricks is just a trick! Heinrichs acknowledges that rhetoric is, in fact, manipulative, but given that rhetoric is everywhere in society whether we like it or not, people need to be aware of rhetoric and learn how to use it to their advantage.