In Thank You for Arguing, Jay Heinrichs endeavors to show why the lost art of rhetoric—the study of argument and persuasion—can help people understand the world, help them succeed, and generally improve their lives.
In Part One, “Offense,” Heinrichs lays out the basics of arguing. Every argument has three basic steps: first, stimulating the audience’s emotions, second, changing the audience’s opinion, and third, getting the audience to do or choose something. There are, furthermore, three distinct kinds of arguments. The Greek philosopher Aristotle identified these three kinds as forensic argument (which is concerned with blame, and which takes place mostly in the past tense), demonstrative argument (which is concerned with values, and which takes place mostly in the present tense), and deliberative argument (which is concerned with choices, and which takes place mostly in the future tense). One of the key rhetorical techniques is find the proper tense for a debate. Too often (and especially in politics), a deliberative debate about what to do devolves into an unwinnable demonstrative debate about values. Aristotle also developed another important rhetorical distinction: the three methods of persuasion: logos (argument by logic), ethos (argument by character), and pathos (argument by emotion).
In the rest of the first part of the book, Heinrichs discusses how to use logos, ethos, and pathos to win an argument. In order to bolster one’s ethos, or character, a good persuader will try to master decorum, or the art of fitting in with one’s audience. Decorum might involve dressing in appropriate clothing or using words with which the audience identifies. Other important ways of increasing one’s ethos in the audience’s eyes include appearing virtuous (i.e., to share the same values as the audience), appearing to have practical wisdom (i.e., being a competent, savvy person), and appearing to be morally disinterested (i.e., having the audience’s best interests in mind).
To use pathos, persuaders need to be conscious of their audience’s emotional needs. Humor is one of the most powerful emotions, and therefore, it’s one of the best ways to appeal to pathos. Another clever technique for using pathos is to appear to be holding back one’s emotions. Many advertisements use pathos by appealing to people’s desires, especially sexual desires.
One of the most important aspects of logos is the definition of terms. By defining terms in an advantageous way, rhetoricians can stack the deck against their opponents. One useful debating technique is to re-define an opponent’s definition of the terms, without being overly detailed. But on other occasions, debaters can be more successful by agreeing with their opponent’s definitions and then using these definitions to win. Heinrichs refers to this technique of tactical agreement as concession. Another important application of logos is logic. Deductive logic involves reaching conclusions through syllogisms—showing how certain categories fit together. By contrast, inductive logic involves reaching conclusions by generalizing from a series of related examples. Both inductive and deductive logic can be useful in an argument.
In Part Two, Defense, Heinrichs begins by discussing some of the major logical fallacies that show up in arguments. By mastering these fallacies, rhetoricians can take control over the argument and show that their opponents aren’t thinking rationally. Common logical fallacies include false comparisons (drawing a bad analogy), the bad example (generalizing from insufficient evidence), ignorance as proof (mistaking absence of evidence for evidence of absence), tautology (offering a conclusion as proof for itself), the false choice (narrowing an audience’s decisions), the red herring (offering distracting, irrelevant evidence or conclusions), and the wrong ending (drawing the wrong conclusion from the evidence). Heinrichs stresses that, in an argument, a good rhetorician won’t simply call out his opponent for using a logical fallacy; instead, he’ll find a clever way of exposing the fallacy while seizing the higher ground and moving the argument forward. Heinrichs further writes that the only reason to “call foul” in an argument is if someone argues the inarguable—for instance, if someone refuses to budge on their beliefs or argues only to humiliate an opponent. In the rest of Part Two, Heinrichs demonstrates how to evaluate someone’s ethos by testing their values, practical wisdom, and disinterest.
In Part Three, Advanced Offense, Heinrichs discusses some rhetorical tricks that rhetoricians can use to spice up their arguments. There are many figures of speech and figures of thought that can be used to make an argument elegantly simple or make the expression of that argument seem particularly succinct and memorable. Good rhetoricians must also use code grooming—they must immerse themselves in their audiences’ favorite words in order to use language that will persuade and boost the rhetorician’s ethos. As a consultant, Heinrichs pioneered a technique called the halo: offering a symbol that encapsulates a complex idea. Many talented speakers use halos as a kind of shorthand for their ideas.
In the rest of Part Three, Heinrichs explores two important aspects of offensive argumentation. First, he gives some pointers for how to apologize skillfully. A good apology doesn’t belittle the audience’s problems, and emphasizes the apologizer’s practical wisdom and disinterest. Second, Heinrichs explores the concept of kairos—the “right time.” A good rhetorician will be aware of his audience’s thoughts and emotions, and will be able to recognize the perfect time to launch into an important point. The study of kairos can also help a rhetorician identify the proper medium for an argument: each medium (texting, TV, phone calls) favors a different rhetorical technique, and lends itself to a particular kind of kairos.
In the final part of the book, Advanced Agreement, Heinrichs gives some examples of how to use rhetorical techniques. He delivers a short speech in a town hall about fighting noise pollution, using the five-step method of oration developed by the great Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. He also studies the oratorical techniques of Barack Obama, one of the great recent rhetoricians. In the final chapter of the book, Heinrichs observes that the study of rhetoric has almost vanished from the American educational system. Partly as a result, politics has become increasingly polarized—American leaders don’t know how to create deliberative rhetoric, and instead become bogged down in demonstrative rhetoric. If Americans were to study rhetoric in more detail, Heinrichs suggests, then they’d be able to find more common ground and reverse the growing polarization and tribalization of American society.