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  • Writer's pictureA.F. McAllister

Book Review: Thank You for Arguing...

Updated: Apr 21

To argue or not to argue. That is the question. Well, maybe not for most people, but for a rhetorician, the art of a good argument is what they live for. It is what holds their interest and, in fact, many of them study the composition and rules for arguing, which of course may sound odd to most people. Who wants to fight all the time? But in that simple question lies a key point of rhetoric. To argue effectively is not to fight. Fighting is unproductive and, in most cases, does not lead to the desired result. Arguing is an art. It is a method that someone can use to turn another person’s views to their own. It is subtle and if you are good at it, its manipulations can be almost unseen. In the book Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion by Jay Heinrichs, he discusses the tools and strategies for swaying the audience to see and accept your point of view.


How do you win an argument? To begin his work, Heinrichs quotes Cicero, “change the audience’s mood, mind, or willingness to act” (2020, p. 15). While this seems like a simplified approach to rhetoric and the art of winning an argument, it seems to sum up the approach that Heinrich takes throughout his book. All the tools and hints for manipulating an exchange with others are centered on the quote above. What can you say that will sway the audience to see things in your favor, or how can you persuade them to accept a new idea? Many of the ideas that Heinrichs presented are geared toward winning the conversation, no matter the cost. A little lie, appearing to side with the audience when in reality you do not, or bending the reality surrounding the argument—putting it in a different context where your opinion is correct—are all acceptable “tools” in the author’s opinion. But is this really acceptable to the ancient authors, which he quotes throughout the novel? At a cursory glance, it may seem like this is the case, but in reality, we know Plato was a big stickler for the truth and may have a few unpleasant things to say to the author if they were ever to meet for an exchange of ideas. Other ancient authors, such as Aristotle and Cicero are quoted and paraphrased throughout the book, and it can be seen as helpful that the author takes their rules and ideas of rhetoric and applies them to modern figures, but in some cases, it is a bit insulting. The author chooses Homer Simpson as an example for several of the argument techniques, but who can truly believe that Homer is actually applying any type of forethought to what he is saying? This reviewer for one does not buy that for a moment. There is no evidence that Homer Simpson applies forethought to anything he does—ever. Besides Homer, the author uses examples from misguided experiences with his own children, in which he manipulates them simply for the sole reason of making a point. While these examples are simple to understand and can illustrate rhetorical ideas, in this reviewer’s opinion, they help little in conveying the brilliance of the ancient writers and teachers.


All complaints aside, the book does an adequate job of explaining some difficult-to-understand ideas. The explanation of Aristotle’s big three: pathos, logos, and ethos is presented in a way that is easy to understand, as well as numerous tools for gaining the upper hand in an argument. Ideas, such as finding a commonplace with the audience, using their desires against them, and breaking down ethos into understandable parts. As a whole, rhetoric and some of the tools that people can use are well explained for the average reader, which makes the novel a decent starting place to learn about the art of persuasion and argument. It is clear that the author has a firm understanding of the subject and he even offers various exercises and quizzes to test the reader’s knowledge in the appendices. However, it could have been done in a better way. As stated above, the manipulations of the author’s children were difficult to read at times, and honestly, if this had not been an assignment for school, the book would have been put down unfinished. Yes, it had humor. Yes, it had its points that were entertaining. But rhetoric (good rhetoric) is not only about messing with people just to say that you can do it, and the fact that practice is offered to encourage these skills is sad. This type of thought could be damaging to relationships with family and friends and may cause irreparable damage or trust issues. Who can trust someone they know is always trying to manipulate them? In this reviewer’s opinion, this book failed to be persuasive. The author lacked ethos. His many examples of manipulative behavior did not persuade the reader to believe that he was an expert in his field. Yes, he illustrated he could twist words around when dealing with his children, but it raises a question about his character. Is he trustworthy? Sure, he has the knowledge of rhetoric tools, but is he using it in a good way? Are his examples of rhetorical techniques and the way in which he uses them to his advantage or disadvantage? This reviewer is unconvinced that they are being used to his advantage and remains unpersuaded by the author’s views of successful rhetoric.


In regard to helping or hindering the study of classic rhetoric, this book seems to help in some instances. People who struggle with the concepts of rhetoric will find this book useful because, as stated previously, it breaks these ideas into manageable pieces and it does it in a simple manner. This could be a great help to a person who is just entering the study of rhetoric. For a more advanced reader, these simplified explanations and examples may not be as helpful. Also, the application of some of the ancient writer’s quotes could have been done better. The lack of any type of citations throughout the book does not assist with the believability of the author’s words. How does the reader know he is applying the words of the original author correctly? Where is he getting these ideas? Citations would have helped the reader be assured that the author has done his research and it would allow them to read the words for themselves with the full context. While it seems that the author knows the words of the ancient rhetoricians, it would have helped strengthen both his ethos and logos by providing proof of the texts. His facts (logos), and his attempt to fit in with the ancient authors (decorum) would have been stronger with the use of citations. Despite this omission, overall the book could help classic rhetoric because it could get an average reader interested in the subject. This may lead to more exploration into the craft, which could make this a stepping stone to more study. Some exercises could be useful in learning about rhetoric. It provides ways to break an argument into logos, ethos, and pathos, which would be helpful for someone just dipping a toe into the subject. People often need a spark to explore new thoughts and ideas, and this book could provide that for someone new to the concepts.


Rhetoric is a complex subject that has many different moving parts, and this book could help a new person become interested in the concept. Despite many attempts to nail down all the rules, there will more than likely never be a complete handbook. People view rhetoric and its tools in many ways. There are no two sets of rules that will describe the use, purpose, and form of rhetoric that are exactly the same or one version that is absolute. People have to read the words of the men who first wrote about rhetoric and peruse the words of modern people who write about the subject, and in the end, they have to come to their own conclusions about what rhetoric means to them. Is it an art that is only good for manipulation, or can it have its uses in good ways? It seems to come down to the choice of the speaker or writer. Are they trying to sway people with facts? Or are they sinking to a level that uses lies? Rhetoric could be seen as an art form of conscience, and it may come down to a person’s sense of right and wrong that keeps them from using rhetoric in an unfavorable manner. If this battle of conscience is of interest, then this book may be a decent starting place for these complex ideas, but keep in mind that it seems to be biased toward manipulating the audience rather than forming a truthful argument.


References


Heinrichs, J. (2020).Thank you for arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson can teach us about the art of persuasion. (4th Ed.)Broadway Books New York.

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