How to Win an Argument: Using rhetoric to bring people to your side.
Learn how to convince people of anything
I feel the time has come for me to step in and help some of you people learn how to put up an effective argument. I see so many hubs coming out these days with titles like: "Obama Hates You and Wants to Step on Your Puppy's Head," or like "Christians are All Bastards and Stink-Faced Baboons." I see this stuff getting published and I'm like, "My God, do these people actually think anyone is going to read this stuff and take it seriously?"
The truth is, yes, some people will read that "article." But the problem is, it won't be anyone that makes a difference in the end.
Here's why: The only people who go to a hub titled "Obama Hates You and Wants to Step on Your Puppy's Head" are A) people who already hate Obama and want to see someone else bash the guy they already don't support, and B) a small percentage of Obama enthusiasts who are bored and want to make fun of you for how "stupid" you are for wanting to spew against their favorite guy.
What ISN'T going to happen is that anyone is going to change his or her mind. Obama supporters will still be behind everything the president says; they will just think you are a moron now. And Obama haters will continue to bash him but with the added knowledge they have you on their side. Great. So, all that writing on your part and all you did was coddle a few friends and make a couple of new enemies. Nice work.
Arguing for an Important Cause
What happens if your cause matters in the end? What if your point was to try to get someone to see what you really had to say? I mean, what if you ACTUALLY believed that Obama was making some wrong choice on some really important and serious issue, or that some religion was truly really bad or really good? What then? What if your point was to get people to change their minds or to take some action or another, to move toward you and your opinion rather than get even farther away? What then? What if your point was to convince people, to win people over instead of just to piss them off?
Well, if you're just out to piss them off, then I guess we're at a filter point in this hub. If you just write hubs to vent your anger and frustration because the world has gotten so mixed up; if your point is just to scream across the Internet and you don't care if the only people who read it already agree with you; if you just write this stuff to hear yourself talk and maybe make some people mad... well, then you've reached the end of the useful information I have for you. Go read something else. Bye.
However, if you actually want to have a chance of changing someone's mind, if you actually want to "argue" as the term was originally meant to mean, then, if you aren't already really familiar with the idea of "rhetoric," you should consider reading on.
Aristotle wrote of the term "rhetoric" that it is "the faculty of discovering the available means of persuasion in a given situation" (Bowden 29). Basically, a person's ability to figure out the right thing to say at the right time and place and in words or language selected for the specific people being addressed.
Another pretty famous smart guy from way back then, Isocrates, went into the idea more deeply, arguing this:
... when anyone elects to speak or write discourses which are worthy of praise and honor, it is not conceivable that he will support causes which are unjust or petty or devoted to private quarrels, and not rather those which are great and honorable, devoted to the welfare of humanity and our common good. - Isocrates, Antidosis 276-277 (Bowden, 28)
What he's saying here, at least the way I read it, is that when someone takes the time to write or speak in such a way that the writing or speaking "are worthy of praise and honor," having done so, having taken the time to deliver the message in praiseworthy fashion, which means not insulting or base, then it is "not conceivable" that the writer or speaker is capable of supporting "causes which are unjust or petty or devoted to private quarrels." He's talking about credibility. He's saying if you speak fairly and well, if you deliver a message that is not just praiseworthy because you write so pretty or talk so well, but actually with "honor" then people are going to buy in; they're going to read and believe your message, trust that your cause is "great and honorable, devoted to the welfare of humanity and our common good." When people read your work and think that, guess what, they might actually agree with you, even change their mind if they thought opposite you before they read your piece. THAT is what rhetoric is about.
How Rhetoric Works
First, I want to show you an example of basic rhetoric at work. It's about word choices. Let's say that my goal is to promote the eating of Jell-O in public schools (you'll notice I'm picking a totally non-offensive topic here, because you know what, I truly want all the Christians and Atheists and Obama and whoever/whatever else people to start writing better hubs. I don't care who wins right now, I just don't want to keep reading hubs that burn my eyes because the arguments are made so horribly).
Ok, so, let's say my stance is that our kids should be eating more Jell-O in our schools. Let's see how many ways I can say that, and how many different types of emotions I can evoke based on the "rhetoric" that I use.
- Life is short and there's a lot of people out there telling us what to eat, but, guess what, Jell-O is a really healthy choice.
- Kids who don't eat Jell-O are assholes and deserve to die.
- Jell-O is a blessing from God.
- Jell-O has been proven by the FDA, the national institute of health, the AMA, the US Department of Agriculture and seven independent studies in France, England, India, Canada and the US to have specific educational benefits to children under the age of twelve.
- Metallica eats Jell-O, hell yeah!
- My mother ate Jell-O in the hospital when she had cancer; I remember that it was the only thing she looked forward to during those last days.
Alright, so there's some examples of different "rhetorical choices" up there. Take a moment to look at them again (assuming you'd like to actually change the way someone thinks some day) and think about each one. Read number one a couple of times and think about how it makes you feel. Read number two. I get it; number two is obviously crap, right? Wrong. Number two is a very specific rhetorical choice. Read it again. How does it make you feel? Seriously, it's doing something to you inside your stomach or your chest... something to your body when you concentrate on what is being said.
Read them all and take the time to consider what they are actually doing to you, to your body, your mind and to how they make you feel. Why does number two have such a totally different impact than number four? Do you like some of the speakers more than others? Why? Can you figure out why number two and three are doing very similar things rhetorically? And what the heck is the point of number five?
If you can't fathom what or why these work on different planes of psychology, hopefully what follows will help you out.
Ethos, Logos and Pathos
Ethos, Logos and Pathos are the three key elements of an argument. For the sake of clarity, an argument is what you do whenever you are trying to make a point. The way we humans do this pretty much always falls into these three categories. The easiest way to explain them is to jump right in putting them to use.
Let's say you're a hater of Jell-O. (Just play along.) So let's say you hate Jell-O eating in schools; the fact that they do it just freaking burns your hide. You can even find passages in the Bible or some other holy book that might even back this up if you're really on your game. You get so goddamn mad when you hear about Jell-O you can hardly even breathe.
Possible polemic Jell-O issue (included purely for scientific reasons and safely PG-13).
So... what do you want to do? Do you want to piss into the wind and go to your little anti-Jell-O group and swear at each other for an hour? Or do you actually want to convince someone that there are real negative consequences to eating that jiggling stuff?
Alright, I'm going to assume you want to convert someone to your side of the issue. So, for starters, you can't go with an answer like number two in that list above. Saying that "kids who don't eat Jell-O are assholes and only deserve to die" is ALL pathos. Pathos is passion. Your passion is on fire and the only people who are going to get into that message are people just as pissed off as you. It's like when your spouse comes into the room and tells you that you "F-ing suck because you never want to rub his/her feet and that you should eat shit and die for being such a selfish piece of crap."
Granted, his or her message was delivered, but let's be honest, are you actually going to WANT to rub his or her feet after all that. Are you? I mean, ok, you might actually do it a couple of times to avoid all the drama that took place, but the reality is, your actual understanding of the issue hasn't changed at all. Meaning, you aren't a convert to foot rubbing anymore than the person you told that kids eating Jell-O are assholes has changed their point of view.
Pathos is great, but it only works in very small doses. The same goes for item number six, the cancer mom eating Jell-O in the hospital. Sure, everyone is moved by an inspirational story, and you might even make people cry. But if those same sensitive people are school district accountants looking at the cost per student to provide Jell-O to the schools, the time it takes to prepare it with the subsequent labor costs, the low cost to keep and refrigerate it, not to mention the minimal energy expense... well, sorry, you still haven't made a sale. Pathos is just not an effective way to get people to your side. In fact, it generally makes people run the other way.
I'm not saying Pathos is bad, done right Pathos is the glue that binds, but if you have to leave one out of your argument, this should be the first to go. Write in Ethos and Logos first, and then pepper your Pathos back in. Pathos when done correctly is earned by your Ethos and Logos. It gets layered in as an obvious and inevitable outcome of the logic presented with your Ethos and Logos. Pathos is an earned emotion that, because X and Y are both apparent based on what I have said, then you, the reader, should be as furious or as horrified or as sad as I am, and so, with my passionate argument now in full sail, I can move you to action with me!
Logos is awesome. Number four up there is all about logos, look at it again:
- 4. Jell-O has been proven by the FDA, the national institute of health, the AMA, the US Department of Agriculture and seven independent studies in France, England, India, Canada and the US to have specific educational benefits to children under the age of twelve.
Logos is about logic and facts. Now that doesn't mean it's right, because we all know that statistics lie. "Liars figure and figures lie," they say. However, if you read number four you have to admit that as someone on the outside fringes of the Jell-O issue, you would at least consider the arguments being made in the article if it included information like this. Logos is the way into the hearts of someone with an open mind. But you have to win the mind FIRST, particularly when trying to convert people from the opposite side of the proverbial aisle. You know that an article based in research and study is at least possibly neutral when it comes to the benefits or horrors of serving Jell-O to our kids, and, as such, has the possibility of converting someone to your side of the issue.
Logos is about credibility. Logos is not just facts, it's about presenting them logically. It's about taking a fact and then pointing out how that fact impacts the point your making. It's syllogistic even.
- Major premise: Success in education is important to preparing children for life.
- Minor premise: Based on the study data, Jello has educational benefits.
- Conclusion: Jell-O should be served in schools.
See how that works? That's logos. It's not JUST facts, it's using facts logically. Logos is an issue of presenting yourself as an expert because you clearly know WTF you are talking about based in reason. Statements are clear, direct and right to the essence of what's going on; they are verifiable and, truthfully, Logos is really hard to fake. The only problem with Logos is that too much of it can be boring and dry, so you have to work in the others (Pathos and Ethos) to make it fly.
This is where a compelling argument takes place. Ethos is the balance. Ethos is, honestly, how likeable you are; it's basically your writerly personality. It's about your credibility. Ethos is the balance you make between your Logos and Pathos and that is embodied in how you craft what you have to say. Ethos is where you establish yourself as an expert (using Logos well) but that you are a compassionate one (through a dash of Pathos). It's the heart of rhetoric. It's the choices you make not only of what words you use, but of which parts of your data you reveal, how you use the data. Are you kind sometimes and only slightly mad, or are you always on the attack with your tables and stats? Ethos is basically your argumentative personality. Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ronald Reagan and even Adolf Hitler had incredible Ethos when they spoke, the last giving total proof about how the right rhetorical choices can convince people to do almost anything, can convince people that almost any cause can seem "great and honorable." (Obviously we don't see it that way now, but he sure got the German populace to buy in.)
Good rhetoric is the way to win arguments, and it is how you can change people's minds, no matter who you are.
Now think about this: Do you LIKE people who are always clinical and scientific all the time? People who seem to be all book learning but no grasp of humanity? How about the trippy hippy type? You know, all spiritual all the time, love and peace and maybe the occasional quote from the Beatles to make a point? You know, the ones who can't escape themselves and their personalities in anything they write. They may have something really great to say, but they don't have the balance right, they don't have their Ethos, Pathos and Logos in the right balance for the larger populace to care about what they have to say. The scientist needs to sound like he or she is a human being too, not just a computer puking numbers out. The hippy needs to sound like he does more than smoke grass and chain himself to trees. They have to present themselves as residents of the Earth.
That same trippy hippy or science geek could write an amazing paper that might move the entire world if they just present themselves with proper rhetoric, respectful and carefully thought out. There's a reason the pen is mightier than the sword. A great swordsman needs a strong arm and well-honed reflexes. A great "pen" wielder needs a brain and well-honed rhetoric.
Rather than saying, "Sarah Palin is a stupid bitch who hates animals and should die," consider saying, "According to the Anchorage Times, Sarah Palin vetoed down two hundred and thirty seven separate animal conservation bills, eight of which included provisions to protect species believed by the national wildlife society to be teetering on the edge of becoming endangered soon, and one of which is a primary food source and cultural icon for the northern tribes."
Now, while all of that stuff I quoted up there is made up on my part, you can clearly see how the first option is just all Pathos and will do NOTHING to help the "Everyone should hate Sarah Palin" cause. The other shows Ethos and Logos (because you would have done your homework and not just made up facts like I just did) and might actually get someone who didn't know about that issue to say to themselves, "Whoa, I didn't know that about her. Maybe I should look into that and perhaps change my vote." It's all about making good rhetorical choices.
Change the World
The next time you sit down to write a political hub or a religious one or anything else where you are going to write about something that truly matters to you, something on which you really want to get people to see how important your viewpoint is, ask yourself, "What is my purpose in writing this?"
Do you just want to type to "hear yourself talk" and "vent some steam," or would you like to have someone not already on your side actually listening to you for a change, taking you seriously and really considering their own point of view in the light of what you said? To do this you can't threaten them with vitriol and propagandist spew. You have to be reasonable. You have to deliver your message so that it is worthy of praise and honor. The MESSAGE is worthy of praise and honor, the thing that you actually wrote and how you wrote it is worthy of honor, how you respected the reader you were writing to was honorable. You have to write in a way so that it is not conceivable that you or the people who believe as you do will support causes which are unjust or petty or devoted to private quarrels. You have to write as if you are someone who is not petty, small minded and given to bickering and name calling like a child. Write with respect and you will get it back.
Rhetoric is your friend. It takes discipline and, frankly, it takes using your brain instead of just your heart. But you really can change the world if you'll take the time to make your points properly.
- Aristotle's Rehtoric
Online version of Aristotle's epic work on this, translated by W. Rhys Roberts.
- It's not just me saying this. Here's a smart take on it too.
Bowden, Melody and J. Blake Scott. Service-Learning in Technical and Professional Communication. New York: Longman, 2003.
Monty Python argument (B.T. gets credit for thinking of this)
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