To see just how pervasive argument is, I recently attempted a whole day without persuasion—free of advertising, politics, family squabbles, or any psychological manipulation whatsoever. No one would persuade me, and I would avoid persuading them. Heck, I wouldn't even let myself persuade myself. Nobody, not even I, would tell me what to do.
Suppose your Uncle Randy decides to divorce your aunt on their thirtieth anniversary so he can marry a surfing instructor he met at Club Med. You have two issues here, one moral and the other practical. The moral issue is inarguable by our definition. Your uncle is either wrong or right. You could remind him that he is breaking a wonderful woman's heart, but you would be sermonizing, not arguing.
One of the greatest decorum scenes in movie history graces the climax of 8 Mile, Eminem's semiautobiography. He gets talked into a competition at a dance club in downtown Detroit where hip hop artists (orators, if you will) take turns insulting each other. The audience chooses the winner by applause. Eventually, the contest comes down to two people: Eminem and a sullen-looking black guy. (Well, not as sullen as Eminem. Nobody can be that sullen.) Eminem wears proper attire: stupid skullcap, clothes a few sizes too big, and as much bling as he can afford. If he showed up dressed like Cary Grant, he would look terrific—to you and me. But the dance club crowd would find him wildly indecorous.
Lincoln made his audience well disposed toward him; emancipation was easier to accept coming from a racist than from one of those insufferable abolitionists up in liberal Massachusetts. If he had sermonized about racial equality the way they did, he never would have become president.
Everyone lusts after something. If you can suss out the desire, exploit the lust, dangle the carrot, then you can bridge the gap.
Early in my publishing career, I worked for a small magazine that had no fact checkers. When Mount St. Helens erupted for the first time, I wrote a short news piece in which I cluelessly placed the volcano in Oregon. I didn't realize my mistake until after the magazine was published and a reader pointed it out to me. I walked into the editor's office and closed the door.
Me: (looking stricken): I've got bad news, Bill. Really bad news.
Different groups (such as dieters and healthy eaters) have different commonplaces. In fact, people identify with their groups through the groups’ commonplaces. These attitudes, beliefs, and values also determine a person’s self-identity—the assumptions and outlook on the world that define an individual. We will delve into identity later; right now, let's look at the commonplace as the starting point of rhetorical logic.
In the 1980s, conservatives called up the image of the “welfare cheat” who claims nonexistent children and lives high on the government dole. The political right repeated this message in speeches and ads until it was difficult for many Americans to see welfare as anything but a rip-off.
Suddenly, an intractable, emotional, values-laden issue like abortion begins to look politically arguable. Making abortions rare is to the nation's advantage, as Aristotle would say. Now, what are the most effective (and politically popular) ways to make abortions rare? The answers might give the extremes of both sides a lot to swallow; on the left, pro-choicers would have to agree that abortion is a repugnant form of contraception. On the right, pro-lifers would have to allow some abortions.
CANDIDATE: I'm a successful businessman. Elect me mayor and I'll run a successful city.
So the guy made a lot of money in business. The problem is that City Hall is not a business. Many entrepreneurs have successful political careers, but at least as many do not.
Pure logic works like organized kids’ soccer: it follows strict rules, and no one gets hurt. Argument allows tackling. You wouldn't want to put yourself in a game where the opposing team gets to tackle while your team plays hands-off. That’s what happens when you stick to logic in day-to-day argument; you play by the rules, and your opponents get to tackle you. While it is important to know how to spot and answer a logical fallacy, if you limit yourself to simply pointing them out, your opponents will clobber you. Rhetoric allows logical fallacies, unless they distract a debate or turn it into a fight.
Here’s a secret that applies to all kinds of rhetorical defense: look for the disconnects.
The old expression “There’s virtue in moderation” comes straight from Aristotle. Virtue is a state of character, concerned with choice, lying in a mean. When moderates face scorn from the faithful of both parties, what does that make our country? You can do your bit for democracy, and your own sanity, with this prefab reply:
I know reasonable people who hold that opinion. So who’s the extremist?
But here’s a secret to make a cliché practically reinvent itself: take it literally.
OPPONENT: Let's not put the cart before the horse.
YOU: No. We might try something faster.
America’s forty-third president, George W. Bush, deserves a special place in the rhetorical pantheon owing to his particular talent for code grooming. The candidates who followed him have been more articulate than Bush, but they still have a lot to learn from the man. Pundits loved to talk about his Christian code, but religion formed only a part of his grooming lingo. He also had his male code, his female code, and his military code.
“Love” and “support” are superb code words that test well among women voters, sexist as that may sound; it's a bit risky to use it on the man’s wife, though, especially if she earns the steady income. But by evoking her mother, he creates a forgiving environment that brings the couple closer together in love, harmony, and shameless manipulation.
I found a little plastic volcano and mailed it with a nice note thanking the governor for letting us borrow it. Some days later, I received a photograph signed by the governor. It showed her smilingly holding up the volcano along with a copy of the offending magazine. We published the picture with our correction in the next issue. My boss was so happy with the result that when the volcano exploded some months later he sent me out to do a cover story.
The problem with an apology is that it belittles you without enlarging your audience. Belittling yourself fails to un-belittle the victim. That’s why apologies often don’t work. They rarely seem sincere enough or extreme enough.
Cicero says I should be prepared to argue both sides of the case, starting with my opponent’s pitch. This means spending some time imagining what he will say. I’m guessing he will talk about values a lot—the rights and freedoms that a noise ordinance will trample upon.
[Obama] tells the story of parents—a goatherd who went on to study in America, a woman born “on the other side of the world, in Kenya” and ends with a moral that links his character with the American way: “l stand here knowing that my story is a part of the larger American story,” he says. “This is the true genius of America, a faith in the simple dreams of its people.”
First, though, think how you want to present that memo. Should it be printed and bound with a clear plastic binder? Or emailed as an attachment? If the boss is no reader, would he let you give a PowerPoint presentation? Or email one to him? That’s kairos again—timing plus medium.
There are plenty more answers where that came from, and maybe some alternatives would test better with focus groups. But any concession that changes the tense from the past (accusation) and present (tribalism) to the future (the advantageous) will win the attention of your audience.
The founders weren’t starry-eyed about their republic. [They] believed that the symptoms could be ameliorated by the combination of checks and balances and the “cool, candid” arbitration of the liberally educated professional class.
It is no coincidence that red and blue America split apart just when moral issues began to dominate campaigns—not because one side has morals and the other lacks them, but because values cannot be the sole subject of deliberative argument. Of course, demonstrative language—code grooming and values talk—works to bring an audience together and make it identify with you and your point of view. But eventually a deliberative argument has to get—well, deliberative.