Book Discussion Guide
Questions to take to your class or book group
- Choose a topic on which two of you disagree. One of you should try to win the argument by agreeing with every one of his opponent’s points—twisting them slightly or adding to them. Did it work?
- Talk about your own relationships. What are the worst fights you had? How could you have turned them into productive arguments? What tense did you use in your fights—past, present, or future?
- Invent new words using the anthimeria. Change a noun to an adjective (“She was a wonderful greeter; very doorsome”), an adjective to a noun (“I call a difficult chore a hard”), a noun to a verb (“All he does is barcalounge”), and so on. You’re Shakespearicating!
- The three basic issues—blame, values, and choice, are critical to the success or failure of an argument. Experiment: Take two tempting food items. One of you should try to persuade another to choose item A over item B, speaking in forensic rhetoric—accusing someone of something. (If this seems absurd, consider how members of Congress debate national decisions.) Now pick two more people for your food debate. This time, speak only in demonstrative rhetoric. Talk about values, good and bad, right and wrong, and speak only in the present tense. Finally, repeat the same experiment using deliberative rhetoric. Speak in terms of what’s to the other person’s advantage, and use only the future tense. What did you learn from this exercise?
- Choose a topic that entails a decision—a personal choice, a national policy, whatever. Start the argument with one person attacking the other’s character. In reply, the victim should begin, “So…” and repeat what the attacker said. Now add: “But how is this going to…” and talk about the future decision. Have you had someone attack you personally during a similar argument? Would the “So…” strategy work?
- Have you ever been caught doing something you weren’t supposed to be doing? Re-enact that scene, but this time use the Stance strategy: if the facts don’t favor you (and they certainly don’t!), redefine the terms (“It’s not stealing, it’s borrowing”). If redefining won’t work, argue why it’s not such a big deal. If that doesn’t work, explain why this has nothing to do with the accuser. That’s Stance: facts are best, but you can fall back on definition, “quality,” then relevance.
- One of the most insidious fallacies in politics is the tautology, where the politician supports a point simply by repeating it. (“National health insurance would be bad for this country because it would impact this nation’s fabric!”) Can you think of tautological arguments you’ve heard on TV or among friends and co-workers?
- The book’s last chapter speaks of the nation’s “rhetorical founding.” What does that mean? How is a rhetorical nation different from an un-rhetorical one?
- Among national figures, who comes across as the most rhetorically able?
- The author proposes changing high school and college curricula to emphasize rhetorical skills. Do you agree? How feasible would it be?