In Thank You for Arguing, Jay Heinrichs studies rhetoric, the art of arguing. Over the course of the book, he categorizes this art in many different ways; however, the most important distinction he draws is the distinction between three different methods of convincing an audience of a point. The first such method is ethos, the ancient Greek word for an argument from character. Whether they’re aware of it or not, audiences are more likely to agree with an argument when they respect the character of the person who makes it. Over the course of the book, Heinrichs writes about which aspects of a rhetorician’s character are most relevant to ethos, and how to emphasize them in an argument.
In order to analyze ethos more clearly, Heinrichs (borrowing from the Greek philosopher Aristotle) divides it into three categories. The first component of ethos is disinterest. An audience is most likely to trust speakers whom they perceive to be selfless and uninterested in bettering their own situations. The second component of ethos is virtue, understood in the sense of upholding an audience’s values. It’s not always enough for an audience to believe that a speaker respects the audience’s happiness; the speaker should also seem to respect their culture, language, traditions, and morals. Thirdly, good rhetoricians can reinforce their ethos by showing off their “practical wisdom.” Put another way, audiences are most likely to trust persuaders who project competence and experience in the field they’re speaking about. By combining all three components of ethos, a talented rhetorician can better persuade their audience that they should trust their arguments and act on their recommendations.
It might be objected that a speaker need not have good character to be persuasive—just because a speaker isn’t a good person doesn’t mean they’re wrong, after all. One could also argue that ethos is fundamentally dishonest, since the persuader need only seem virtuous, disinterested, and competent. (See “Rhetoric and Ethics” theme.) But Heinrichs argues that ethos is more than just a useful supplement to logic; it’s a fundamental part of a good argument. People choose to act based on their instincts and feelings about other people, not just pure rationality. Therefore, a relatively logical speaker who’s perceived as having great ethos will almost always be more successful than an impeccably logical speaker with poor character. Furthermore, speakers need to have good ethos in order to lead by example, inspiring their audiences to improve their own character. Heinrichs further suggests that ethos can inspire people to be better, not just seem better while making a speech. If everyone were to value good rhetoric, as Heinrichs advocates, then they could better recognize speakers with a high degree of virtue, disinterest, and practical wisdom, instead of being fooled by speakers who did a poor job of pretending to possess these qualities. By celebrating ethos in his book, Heinrichs stresses the importance of character and virtue, reminding us that rhetoric isn’t just a verbal art, but also a moral practice.
Ethos Quotes in Thank You for 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.
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.
Here’s a secret that applies to all kinds of rhetorical defense: look for the disconnects.
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.
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.