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Why doesn’t the best argument always win?

The best argument doesn’t always win. In politics, in business, in the street, in the home. Why not?

In 2016, politics captured our attention at deeper levels

News distribution, content forms, language, culture and information consumption continued to morph (no surprise), but I consequently found myself wondering if and how public speaking guidance might also need to change. I don’t mean first at the level of specific issues and policies that appeal or not, but at the foundation. Have communication and argument principles we valued as useful, somehow become out-of-date and less relevant in any spreading new order?

Though it is neither the only nor oldest source of, let’s say for now so-called communication wisdom, Aristotle’s Rhetoric remains the major classical fount of greater Western (and some Eastern) reflection about communication. So, I returned to Rhetoric, curious to see if I would find any obvious holes.

Eight of Aristotle’s statements I enjoyed

Consider any one:

  1. Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself. (1:2) [Pointing to the three appeals of ethics, emotion and logic.]
  2. There are three things which inspire confidence in the orator’s own character—the three, namely, that induce us to believe a thing apart from any proof of it: good sense, good moral character, and goodwill. False statements and bad advice are due to one or more of the following three causes. Men either form a false opinion through want of good sense; or they form a true opinion, but because of their moral badness do not say what they really think; or finally, they are both sensible and upright, but not well disposed to their hearers, and may fail in consequence to recommend what they know to be the best course. (2:1)
  3. In making a speech one must study [Ed. at least] three points: first, the means of producing persuasion; second, the style, or language, to be used; third, the proper arrangement of the various parts of the speech. (3:1)
  4. Naturalness is persuasive, artificiality is the contrary. (3:2) [All the way to Heidegger and beyond, this remains constant. The trick is nailing it in stylised professional contexts.]
  5. It is a general rule that a written composition should be easy to read and therefore easy to deliver. (3:5) [Use effective tools for speech-delivery success.]
  6. To express emotion, you will employ the language of anger in speaking of outrage; the language of disgust and discreet reluctance to utter a word when speaking of impiety or foulness; the language of exultation for a tale of glory, and that of humiliation for a tale of pity; and so in all other cases. (3:7) [Seems obvious, yet lost so often in praxis.]
  7. The form of a prose composition should be neither metrical nor destitute of rhythm. (3:8) [A soundbite works in iambic pentameter because, like Twitter, it is a  modern form of poetry.]
  8. Hyperboles are for young men [and politicians] to use; they show vehemence of character; and this is why angry people use them more than other people. (3:11)

The need for persuasive arguments and effective communicators is great on any day

Specific content, along with contexts in which we express ourselves, are always evolving. (Autocrats who favour The Prince might read this.) Skills must also develop, but on reading Aristotle’s Rhetoric, it seems to me that across the expanse of recent human history (i.e. at least two millennia), certain common underlying qualities of human communication and argument effectiveness remain largely unchanged and relevant and therefore worthy of rumination and practice. These common sense foundations apply in any kind of communication wherein appeal matters. I looked for holes but found springs, or what Scots might call common sense.

Aristotle knew that the best argument doesn’t always win. His Rhetoric leads us a good distance in exploring why. My prediction is that Rhetoric will outlast those who ignore it.

I hope 2017 is a great year for you.

This post first appeared in Rhetorica Update Vol.8 Iss.1, 9 Feb 2017.