Five Ways to Win Political Debates This Christmas

Few minds have been changed by debate, if social media is any indication. But sometimes the urge is overwhelming to try anyway. So, if you must engage your Uncle Jerry during the holidays when he starts on a particularly unpalatable tangent, here are some tips borrowed from the Greeks, who kind of invented formal arguing. To have a better chance at winning, the Greeks tried a multi-pronged approach to rhetoric.

1. As a starting point, repeat Uncle Jerry’s idea back in succinct language. Get Uncle Jerry to form an actual premise that he believes, or you can’t ever argue against it. “So if I’m understanding you correctly, you read a meme on the internet that Jane Fonda is being paid by a secret ruling class of lizard overlords, so we can’t trust anything she says, ever. And because of that, she must be wrong about hot summers existing. Is that an accurate representation of what you’re saying?”

2. Use logic, or logos, the first in the Grecian rhetorical triad. Granted, few people use logic anymore, and even fewer use it accurately. Pro tip: If you really want to impress your uncle with your elitist, upstart ways, tell him he’s making logical fallacies. The ad hominem is a particularly easy one to spot. This means Uncle Jerry is saying unflattering things about Jane Fonda instead of actually addressing what Jane Fonda is saying. In this case, you can ask him: “So even if Jane is a sellout being paid by lizards, how does that make what she’s saying untrue?”

Borrow strategy from the Greeks to win debates at the holiday dinner table this year.

3. The second stop along our return to Grecian rhetoric is ethos. Ethos may involve using appropriate language and actually connecting with your audience to build credibility, rather than focusing on showing off your clearly superior intellect. However, you still need to convince Uncle Jerry that you’re qualified to discuss the topic. “Gosh dang it, Uncle Jerry. You know, I used to think exactly the same thing. But then I read through 437 field experiments done by nonpartisan peer-reviewed experts, and I made this handy chart for reference. See, it’s in red, white, and blue, for America.” 

4. Use pathos, or emotional appeal. We get the word “pathetic” from this, but pathos is not necessarily telling a pitiful sob story—it is connecting with human emotion of any kind. “Uncle Jerry, Jane Fonda is so old and frail. She has all kinds of health problems. I am not one to deny her the pleasure of revolt during her last days on earth.”

5. Put everything together and personalize it as much as possible. You may notice that politicians do this all the time. Of course, politicians may just skip logos and skate by on ethos and pathos—and not exactly in a good way. You, on the other hand, can use persuasive rhetorical tools more responsibly. “Consider this, Uncle Jerry. What if I were a lizard? Just because my skin color is different, and I was born on a different planet doesn’t mean I don’t deserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Right? My inherent rights are no different than yours, really. Plus, I’m a proven expert on the motivations of lizard aliens and Jane Fonda, and have suffered greatly due to societal ostracizing for my chosen profession.” 

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