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Figaro rips the innards out of things people say and reveals the rhetorical tricks and pratfalls. For terms and definitions, click here.
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    Monday
    Oct072013

    Socrates Interviews Boehner

    What would Socrates do if he interviewed the people responsible for shutting down the government and threatening our nation’s credit? We start with Speaker John Boehner. (The Boehner quotes are real, taken from his interview yesterday with George Stephanopoulos. The Socrates quotes are not but should be.)

    Boehner: The House has passed four bills to keep the government open and to provide fairness to the American people under ObamaCare.

    Socrates: A worthy endeavor! I am eager to know more about fairness. How would you define fairness, and how does fairness open the government?

    Boehner: Listen. ObamaCare is a law that’s gonna raise the cost of health insurance premiums and make it almost impossible for employers to hire new people.

    Socrates: So you define fairness as having to do with the cost of things, and with employers hiring new people. If everything cost less, and employers hired new people, then there would be fairness and the government would open. Would you say that the government is an employer?

    Boehner: [ObamaCare] is a law that the American people do not want and cannot afford.

    Socrates: Ah, so fairness is not about the cost of things or employment after all. It is about popularity and affordability. If laws were more popular and affordable, then the government would be open? Frankly, John, I fail to see the connection between fairness as you define it and government opening back up.

    Boehner: Why wouldn’t the president provide fairness to the American people? He’s given exemptions and waivers to all kinds of groups of people, but he hasn’t given one to the American people, who are gonna suffer under this law.

    Socrates: I sense that your definition of fairness has changed yet again. It now appears to mean treating groups of people the same as the American people. Who are these “groups of people” to whom you refer? They are not from another country, are they?

    Boehner: They give big businesses a waiver. They give unions a waiver.

    Socrates: If businesses were given a waiver, doesn’t that allow them to hire new people? So isn’t that fair, and won’t that open the government again?

    Boehner: We’re interested in having a conversation in how we open the government and how we begin to pay our bills.

    Socrates: What do you mean by “conversation”? A negotiation, or a dialectic over an amphora of wine? How will this conversation resolve the crisis? Personally, I have found that too much wine among enemies can lead to violence as easily as to friendship. But what do I know? I am interested the second topic of your proposed conversation, about paying bills. Raising the debt limit allows the paying of bills. If Congress simply voted to raise the debt limit, wouldn’t that allow the government to pay its bills?

    Boehner: So it’s my way or the highway. That’s what [the Democrats are] saying. Complete surrender, and then we’ll talk to you.

    Socrates: You misunderstand me, John. We are having a conversation now, are we not? I simply wondered why a conversation is necessary to allow the government to pay its bills. Isn’t this simply a matter of raising the debt ceiling to permit the payment of bills Congress has already approved?

    Boehner: I and my members decided that the threat of ObamaCare and what was happening was so important that it was time for us to take a stand. And we took a stand.

    Socrates: You did not take a stand before this? You opposed the Affordable Care Act when it was first proposed. Or was that opposition not a “stand”? Does your opposition become a “stand” only when Congress passes that bill, the president signs it into law, and the Supreme Court declares it constitutional? And tell me more about the “threat” of ObamaCare? Does the law threaten fairness? I remain unclear about your definition of fairness, and how the lack of fairness is keeping the government shut down. Or is a shutdown more fair than an open government?

    Boehner: I’ve made it clear to my colleagues. I don’t want to shut the government down! We voted to keep the government open. But providing fairness to the American people under ObamaCare is all we’re asking for.

    Socrates: I admire your desire to bestow fairness upon the people of America, John. Before you do that, I hope you discover what fairness is. Ask an oracle. Do it quickly, though, so that your fairness can open the government.

     

    Tuesday
    Aug062013

    Now with 30% More Persuasion!

    The new improved edition of Thank You for Arguing published today! Thanks to the many dedicated Figarists, the original version has become the bestselling rhetoric book of all time. So what’s in the new version?

    New material on modern identity rhetoric, including a device called a “halo” that attaches your choice to the audience’s best sense of self.

    Advice on screwing up—and why apologies are overrated.

    A new chapter on Obama’s oratory.

    A big section called Argument Lab, which lets you practice your argument skills. There’s an online version here. Let me know what you think.

    Finally, a bunch of corrections, improved explanations, and updated pop culture references. Homer Simpson stays, though.

    Homer always stays.

    Wednesday
    Jul242013

    What Anthony Weiner Can Teach Us (Really)

    Thanks to stupitityiscontagious.com for the image.

    Presumably you haven’t been a serial sexter, and you’re not running for mayor of New York. You haven’t quit your job as a member of Congress, apologized to your wife, gone through therapy, resumed sexting, and then restarted your political career. If you had done all those things and asked me, an expert on screwing up, what to do…

    I’d tell you to quit. Quit right now. Find a shrink who will coauthor a book on sexual addiction.

    But wait. You’re not quitting just yet? Then here’s what I’d tell you. (You’ll find more detailed advice in new edition of my book, Thank You for Arguing.) It applies directly to any kind of public mistake, as well as most private ones.

    1. Set your goals.

     Our first instinct in a screw-up is to get defensive—or, in Weiner’s miserable case, to cover up until it’s too late. But in many cases, a mistake can actually become an opportunity to improve your reputation. It’s a chance to talk about your values. I’d tell Weiner to describe himself as a man who has applied great discipline to his public life, and that drive has opened cracks in his private life. He now knows that therapy isn’t enough. He must apply that same self-control to every part of his life.

    2. Be first with the news.

    Every PR person will tell you this, for good reason. Get all the news out. All of it. And put it in a personal context. “I have made this mistake, and I made it again. Here are the sordid details. I am revealing everything so that you know how I violated my own code, and so that I can explain how I’m working to keep it from happening again.” The latest news about Weiner didn’t come from Weiner. Shame on him—literally. 

    3. Pivot to the future.

    Weiner should have given a solid reason for staying in the race, and that reason should be New York’s future. He should paint a stirring picture of a bright and shining city, and add that that future is too important to abandon to his mistakes. Part of that future, of course, needs to offer convincing proof that those mistakes won’t happen again. Maybe his wife will agree to screen all his private emails. In any case, the real future is New York, with Weiner leading the way.

    4. Enhance your ethos.

    That’s what rhetoricians call character, the leader’s projected image. Ultimately screw-ups are all about ethos. Your job, rhetorically speaking is not just to recover your reputation but to enhance it. To come out with a better, shinier, more trustworthy and likable image than you had before the scandal. Look at Obama after the Jeremiah Wright incident, or—to go way back—Richard Nixon during the Checkers affair.

    My advice has helped numerous corporate clients and individuals. Would it save Weiner? Frankly, I doubt it. Screw up once, shame on you, but we can get past it. Screw up twice—the same sordid screw-up—and, well, you might get a book deal.

     

     

    Friday
    May312013

    We Suppose "Le Slurpe" Was Taken

    For centuries the French have been kissing for without talking, but now they have to get all, like, oral. The Petit Robert dictionary (pronounced like Colbert’s first name) contains the verb galocher, meaning “to kiss with tongues.”

    The term comes from la galoche, an ice skating boot. Only the French could look at galoshes and think of sex. But apparently they were thinking about skating as well—you know, gliding tongues and all that.

    Philosophers of language say that all words are analogies, templates that connect us to reality. To a linguist, a kiss isn’t just a kiss. It’s also a figures competition.

    Sunday
    May262013

    Nerdy Dancing as Decorum

    One of the trickiest ways to practice the leaderly art of rhetoric is decorum, the practice of fitting in with an audience. Why’s it tricky? Because if you aren’t a member of the tribe, you don’t want to fit in exactly. Instead, you want to portray an audience’s most favorable sense of you.

    Huh?

    Well, watch this video. Instead of trying hip hop moves for a student audience, this teacher practices a nerdy form of Irish dancing.

     

    Tuesday
    May072013

    Should We "Invite" Instead of Manipulate?

    Kay Halasek, a professor at Ohio State, interviewed me for a writing MOOC (massive open online course). The main topic, besides rhetoric itself:  Is manipulation a good thing?