Throughout Thank You for Arguing, Heinrichs raises the ethical question of how rhetoric can, and should, be used. Rhetoric can be a tool of manipulation and hypocrisy, with which a skillful speaker can con an audience into believing utter lies. On the other hand, it’s clear that rhetoric can introduce a level of clarity, rationality, and productivity that’s all-too rare in modern society, particularly American society. Put more dramatically, Thank You for Arguing asks whether rhetoric is a force for good or evil.
The word “manipulation” appears again and again in Thank You for Arguing, emphasizing that rhetoric is, in many ways, the art of getting people to do what the rhetorician wants them to do—a potentially unethical practice. Heinrichs lists many examples of masterful rhetoricians who effectively used their powers to cheat their audiences into supporting decisions that didn’t uphold their own best interests. For example, the book lists the totalitarian dictator Josef Stalin as a master of rhetoric, in particular the art of kairos (sensing the precise moment in which an audience is most receptive to an argument). More mildly, Heinrichs gives many examples of how he’s used rhetoric to trick or pressure his wife and family into upholding his wishes. While Heinrichs tends to laugh off these examples, or counterbalance them with examples of his wife and family tricking him, the fact remains that rhetoric can be a deceptive, even disrespectful technique, which treats an audience like a flock of sheep.
While it’s certainly true that rhetoric can be used to deceive, Thank You for Arguing emphasizes that there are still natural “checks and balances” in the art of rhetoric, which prevent even the most devious rhetorician from manipulating their audience too greatly. For example, one of the cornerstones of rhetoric is appealing to one’s audience through decorum, values, and language. Therefore, to be persuasive, one must first adapt to the audience’s expectations. This would suggest that rhetoric is a two-way street: it’s about persuaders adjusting their position and appearance to agree with their audience, not just controlling how the audience thinks and acts. Furthermore, the art of rhetoric doesn’t just teach people how to persuade; it also teaches them how to recognize and see through persuasion. Even if rhetoric can be used unethically, it empowers the audience as well as the speaker, making the overall process of persuasion much more enlightened.
While acknowledging some of the ethical pitfalls of rhetoric, Heinrichs concludes his book with a strong argument for the ethical importance of rhetoric. Rhetoric is useful, especially in contemporary American society, because it steers debates toward moderation and, in the long term, progress. American government was founded by talented rhetoricians who sought to limit the influence of factions (i.e., distinct, self-interested social groups). Furthermore, the Founding Fathers believed that rhetoric, and particularly deliberative rhetoric, would encourage different factions to work together and reach more widely accepted agreements. However, with the removal of rhetoric from the American educational system, politics has devolved into an exhausting, unwinnable war of insults. By reintroducing rhetoric into the educational system, and society in general, Americans could resolve some of their most important problems, and perhaps politics would become more civil and productive. Furthermore, studies have shown that couples who argue rhetorically are more likely to stay happy together: their rhetorical savvy helps them work together instead of bottling up their feelings and staying frustrated with each other. There’s no rule that says that rhetoric has to be helpful, productive, or enlightening—however, if America as a whole embraced the lost art of rhetoric, Heinrichs argues, it’s likely that it would mostly be a force for good.
Rhetoric and Ethics ThemeTracker
Rhetoric and Ethics Quotes in Thank You for Arguing
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.
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.
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.
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?
“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.
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.
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.