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    The Three Basic Issues


     From Thank You for Arguing, by Jay Heinrichs


    Before you begin arguing, ask yourself the question: What’s the issue? According to Aristotle, all issues boil down to just three (the Greek were crazy about that number):


    You can slot any kind of issue involving persuasion into one of these categories.

    Who moved my cheese? This, of course, is a blame issue. Whodunit?
    Should abortion be legal? Values. What’s morally right or wrong about letting a woman choose whether or not to end the budding life inside her own body? (My choice of words implies the values each side holds—a woman’s right to her own body, and the sanctity of life.)
    Should we build a plant in Oaxaca? Choice: to build or not to build, Oaxaca or not Oaxaca.
    Should Brad and Jen have split up? Values—not moral ones, necessarily, but what you and your interlocutor value. Were they just too cute to separate?
    Did OJ do it? Blame.
    Shall we dance? Choice: to dance or not to dance.

    Why should you care which question slots into which core issue? It matters because you will never meet your goals if you argue around the wrong core issue. Watch a couple as they in their living room, reading books and listening to music.

    She: Can you turn that down a little?
    He: You’re the one who set the volume last.
    She: Oh, really? Then who was it blasting “Free Bird” all over the place this afternoon?
    He: So that’s what this is about. You hate my music.

    What does she want out of this argument? Quiet. It’s a choice issue. She wants him to choose to turn the music down. But instead of choices, the argument turns to deal with blame, then values.

    Blame: You’re the one who set the volume last.
    Values: So that’s what this is about. You hate my music.

    It’s hard to make a positive choice about turning the volume knob when your argue about a past noise violation and the existential qualities of “Freebird.”

    The examples I gave of the core issues—blame, values and choice—show a certain pattern. The blame questions deal with the past. The values questions are in the present tense. And the choice questions have to do with the future.

    Blame = Past
    Values = Present
    Choice = Future

    If you find an argument spinning out of control, try switching the tense. To pin blame on the cheese thief, use the past tense. To get someone to believe that abortion is a terrible sin, use the present tense. The future, though, is the best tense for getting peace and quiet in the living room.

    Aristotle, who devised a form of rhetoric for each of the tenses, liked the future best of all.

    The rhetoric of the past, he said, deals with issues of justice. This is the judicial argument of the courtroom. Aristotle called it forensic rhetoric, because it deals with forensics. Our music-challenged couple uses the past tense for blaming each other.

    He: You’re the one who set the volume last.
    She: Then who was it blasting “Free Bird”?

    If you want to try someone on charges of volume abuse (not to mention bad taste), you’re in the right tense. Forensic argument helps us determine whodunit, not who’s-doing-it or who-will-do-it. Watch “Law and Order,” and you’ll notice that most of the dialogue is in the past tense. It works great for lawyers and cops, but a loving couple should be wary of the tense. The purpose of forensic rhetoric is to determine guilt and mete out punishment; couples who get in the habit of punishing each other usually end up miserable or divorced.

    How about the present tense? Is that any better? It can be. The rhetoric of the present handles praise and condemnation, separating the good from the bad, distinguishing groups from other groups and individuals from each other. Aristotle reserved the present for describing people who meet a community’s ideals or fail to live up to them. It is the communal language of commencement addresses, funeral orations, and sermons. It celebrates heroes or condemns a common enemy. It gives people a sort of tribal identity. (We’re great, terrorists are cowards). When a leader has trouble confronting the future, you hear similar tribal talk.

    Aristotle’s term for this kind of language is demonstrative rhetoric, because ancient orators used it to demonstrate their fanciest techniques. Our argumentative couple uses it to divide each other.

    He: So that’s what this is about. You hate my music.

    You might say that the man bears sole blame for switching tenses from past to present. But let’s not get all forensic on each other, okay? The man may be right, after all; perhaps the argument has to do with the guy’s thing for Lynyrd Skynyrd and not the volume knob. In any case, their dialogue has suddenly turned tribal: I like my music. You hate it. If the man happened to be a politician he would find it hard to resist adding, “And that’s just wrong!” We use the present tense to talk about values. That is wrong. This is right. Detesting “Free Bird” is morally wrong.

    If you want to make a joint decision, you need to focus on the future. This is the tense that Aristotle saved for his favorite rhetoric. He called it deliberative, because it argues about choices and helps us decide how to meet our mutual goals. Deliberative argument’s chief topic is “the advantageous,” according to Aristotle. This is the most pragmatic kind of rhetoric. It skips right and wrong, good and bad, in favor of expedience.

    Present-tense (demonstrative) rhetoric tends to finish with people bonding or separating.
    Past-tense (forensic) rhetoric threatens punishment.
    Future-tense (deliberative) argument promises a payoff. You can see why Aristotle dedicated the rhetoric of decision-making to the future.

    Our poor couple remains stranded in the present tense, so let’s rewind their dialogue and make them speak deliberatively—in the future tense, that is.

    She: Can you turn that down a little?
    He: Sure, I’d be happy to.

    Wait. Shouldn’t he say “I’ll be happy to”? I will, not I would? Well, sure, you’re probably right. He could. But by using the conditional voice—would instead of will—he leaves himself an opening.

    He: But is the music too loud, or do you want me to play something else?
    She: Well, now that you mention it, I’d prefer something a little less hair-bandy.

    Ouch! He plays nice, and she insults the entire classic rock genre. That makes him feel justified to retaliate; but he does it moderately.

    He: Something more elevatorish, you mean? That doesn’t really turn me on. Want to watch a movie?

    By turning the argument back to choices, the man keeps it from getting too personal—and, possibly, keeps her off balance, making her a bit more vulnerable to persuasion.

    She: What do you have in mind?
    He: We haven’t seen “Terminator 2” in ages.
    She: “Terminator 2?!” I hate that movie.

    As he well knows. This is a little off topic, but I can’t resist giving you another rhetorical trick: propose an extreme choice first. It will make the one you want sound more reasonable. I used the technique myself in getting my wife to agree to name our son after my uncle George. I proposed lots of alternatives—my personal favorite was Herman Melville Heinrichs—until she finally said, “You know, ‘George’ doesn’t really sound that bad.” I kissed her and told her how much I loved her, and notched another argument on my belt.

    Back to our couple.

    He: Well, then, how about “Lawrence of Arabia”?

    He knows she would prefer a different movie—the desert just isn’t her thing—but it doesn’t sound that bad after hearing the first choice.

    She: Okay.

    “Lawrence” it is. Which happens to be the movie he wanted in the first place.