Monday, August 26, 2013

Let's Talk About Rhetoric, Baby

Let's talk. By which I mean: I'm going to talk.
Excuse me? Was you saying something?
Uh-uh, you can't tell me nothing,
You can't tell me nothing,
Uh-uh, you can't tell me nothing.

—"Can't Tell Me Nothing," Kanye West

This morning, I read this article about how to persuade someone to come round to your point of view. It points out that, if you have a strongly held belief (the moon is made of cheese, say), that belief becomes tied to your self-worth. If you are presented with evidence that the belief is untrue (astronauts went there and said it was made of rocks and dust and whatnot oh no!), you will tend to become more certain that it is true (seeking out evidence and coming up with counterarguments: the moon landing was faked, obviously!) in order to avoid having your self-worth taken down a notch. The article's proposed solution: either make your arguments right after affirming the listener's self-worth, or make weaker arguments that are less likely to feel like a direct blow to someone's ego because of their relatively low strength.

All this led me to start thinking about rhetoric.

"Rhetoric" has a bad rap (think "this is just empty rhetoric" or "what's all this rhetorical mumbo-jumbo; let's get real"), but the word itself simply refers to the methods we use to try to persuade others to see things our way. And persuasion is arguably an incredibly important thing: it is a non-violent tool used to get people who disagree with us to do what we want them to do, which is really hard.

This is Aristotle, yo.

Aristotle said that there are three main tools for persuading people: logos (logical, reasoned arguments), ethos (appeals to authority or character), and pathos (emotional arguments). For example, if I wanted to convince my sister to give me her cookies, here is how each kind of argument might work:

Logos: Cookies are not very good for you. If you give me your cookies, you will be healthier.
Ethos: I'm your older brother, I've seen more of the world than you, and I know what's best. And what's best is for me to have those cookies.
Pathos: I'm super hungry right now. So hungry it hurts. Please give me some cookies!

(For a more engaging take, check out this article on teaching kids to argue persuasively. It's the other big inspiration for today's post.)

Most truly effective arguments will take advantage of all three tools in order to have the best chance of being convincing to the listener. As listeners, it can be helpful to know what kinds of arguments we are hearing so that we can evaluate them critically; for example, if I hear a persuasive argument in favor of me going to see a movie I'm not interested in, it can help to realize that the argument is appealing to my emotions and that I haven't yet been convinced that I will really enjoy, say, Grown Ups 2.

In part 2 of this post, I'll take a look at a highly charged political argument, showing just how the tools of rhetoric can be used to one's advantage in convincing a listener.


  1. Let's get rhetorical, rhetorical
    I wanna get rhetorical
    Let's get into rhetorical
    Let me hear your logic talk, your logic talk
    Let me hear your logic talk

    [hum along with Olivia Newton John to maximize results]

  2. Exactly the response I hoped for, Dad. It's perfect.