Daniel T. Richards

Daniel T. Richards

Digital Strategist. Rhetorician. All Around Swell Guy.

What Are You Arguing About?

E-loquence: What Are You Arguing About?“What do you want from me?!” The battle cry of an exhausted rhetor. Whether it’s at work, the kitchen table, or in the bedroom, everyone has felt the frustration of not knowing what an argument is about. Is there anything else in the rhetorical world that makes you feel as helpless? (Aside from bad puns?)

Many times you and your opponent are arguing about different things, so it’s necessary, in order to have a successful debate, to identify the “sticking point” of an argument. What are you really arguing about? What should you be debating? How do you reconcile the difference?

The Greek rhetorician Hermagoras of Temnos theorized that all arguments have four possible sticking points (and scholars later added a fifth):

  1. Fact
  2. Definition
  3. Quality
  4. Jurisdiction
  5. Action

Hermagoras called each point a “stasis.” Cicero later organized the stases into a method for determining the point of dispute, and called the method “stasis theory.”

Knowing the central point of an argument largely depends on your goals and your audience’s context. Regardless it’s essential to uncover the central dispute if you want to successfully persuade. Let’s see how it plays out with an example argument. Suppose a passenger gets in a debate with a cab driver about the merits of Uber or Lyft

1. Just the facts, Jack.

Sometimes the issue at hand is just a matter of fact. Cold, hard fact. Simple, right?

“How much does a taxi license cost?”
“How many taxis are in Los Angeles?”
“How much is a fare from LAX to downtown?”

Luckily, we live in a world where most factual information can be accessed in a matter of seconds via the pseudo-Hitchhiker’s Guide in our pockets. When in doubt, ask Siri. Pay close attention, though, not to confuse a factual dispute with a different stasis. It happens often:

Vander: In my 10 years as a cab driver, we’ve only had two fare increases. Taxis are the cheapest option for people.
Elroy: But I’ve heard that Uber provides better service.

Elroy’s point may be correct, but he’s not addressing the issue at hand. And if he wants to convince his tough audience, changing the stasis to “quality” is not a good start. Instead, he might reply:

Elroy: It’s not cheaper in all cases—especially with Lyft, UberX, and new ride-sharing options. Per person, it’s usually 20% cheaper than a taxi.

2. Define your terms.

But with a deluge of factual information comes the inevitable misunderstanding of terms. Disputes over definition make up a significant percentage of arguments—especially arguments among people who share similar beliefs. But to continue the taxi debate:

Vander: It may be slightly cheaper, but it’s not really a taxi service. It’s no different from you paying a friend to pick you up and drop you off.
Elroy: In some cases that’s true, but when you use Uber a black car picks you up just like a limousine. There’s really no difference that I can see. But what do you mean by “taxi”?

Here Elroy is taking an important step to keep the debate civil and winnable. He’s asking his opponent to define his terms. Crucial. Likewise, you should always define your terms if introducing a new idea or using a concept in a way that’s unfamiliar to your audience.

Vander: A taxi is a certain type of car, usually with a specific paint job, that has a government license to transport people.

Terrible definition. But at least Elroy’s on his way to getting at the issue in dispute.

3. My X is better than your Y.

Now we come to everyone’s favorite stasis: quality. Just as the most common rhetoric topic is greater/lesser, the most common stasis is the quality of a given person, place, things, or idea. We like to argue about stuff we value.

Elroy: Uber and Lyft drivers are often more personable and friendly than cab drivers. Present company excluded, of course!

Probably not rhetorically smart to insult your opponent.

Also when the dispute is about quality (or any topic, really) be sure you’re addressing the same qualification. And be sure not to drift into a grey stasis:

Vander: Nicer, maybe. But cabs are safer! We go through rigorous background checks and drug testing.

Vander’s argument may or may not be true, but it’s an issue of both quality and of fact. (All things are, really. But I don’t want to get philosophical…) Keep this distinction in mind when making arguments of quality, and prepare for your opponent to quickly switch stases on you.

4. You can’t do that here!

Sometimes your disagreement might result from a dispute in authority or jurisdiction. This is probably the easiest stasis to identify and one that most relies on other stases:

Vander: Regardless of what you think of Uber and Lyft, it’s illegal for them to operate within the limits of Los Angeles. If they want to compete, they should have to do so legally—like cab drivers do.

Arguments about permission usually have another issue at their core—an “unofficial” stasis that isn’t particularly accepted and usually gets lumped into quality: principles. That being said, what you need to know about the jurisdiction stasis is that it’s usually the first step in an argument or the last ditch effort. Rarely does it stand on its own unless you or your opponent knows that you agree on a given set of rules or laws.

5. Action Jackson.

Finally, we have the stasis that Hermagoras did not include with his fantastic four: the dispute of action. Even when throwing facts, definitions, qualities, and jurisdictions back and forth, sometimes the argument, at its heart, has to do with what your opponent wants you to do:

Vander: Even if you find Uber and Lyft to be better, I hope you’ll continue to take taxis when possible. Many people make their livelihoods driving a cab.
Elroy: I’ll definitely take cabs when it’s more convenient. I’m not anti-taxi. Just as I hope you won’t be anti-innovation. The taxi business can’t stay the same forever. I hope, instead of actively denouncing Uber and Lyft to your customers, you’ll consider what the innovation means for your business and how all transportation will ultimately benefit.

And sometimes the actions aren’t mutually exclusive.

* * * * *

Rhetoricians have discovered many great ways to invent arguments and pinpoint disagreement. Stasis theory is an old standard, but one that has proven useful for thousands of years. Know yourself, know your audience, and know what you’re arguing about; then you’re well on your way to being a better rhetor.

Happy persuading!