Let’s Make Hypocrites!:
Reclaim Five Misunderstood Words to Build Better Citizens
As a devoted hypocrite, I’d
like to make a pathetic plea for rhetoric. Although I respect
your right to be an idiot, I’m counting on your candid attention.
Those words—hypocrite, pathetic, rhetoric,
idiot, and candid—would say something
very different to someone born two hundred years ago than they
do to us today (assuming the words make sense to you at all).
If we want to get young people fully engaged in the issues that
face this country, we need to rescue these five terms and to restore
them to their former glory.
I learned the stories of these words while researching my book
on rhetoric, Thank
You for Arguing. My newfound understanding changed the
way I teach writing. Instead of stressing self-expression, I now
reveal to students the magic and power of sympathetic expression.
Before we get to that subject, however, I suppose I should lead
you through the sordid tales of these words and their origins.
Early in American history, these five terms broke loose from their
etymological moorings and wound up saying almost the opposite
of what they originally meant.
Hypocrite now means an individual who says one thing but does
the opposite. The ancient Greeks, who came up with the word, used
it instead to refer to the person who delivered a speech.
What could have a more pathetic meaning than “pathetic”?
This word has made a strange odyssey from its original intent:
the skillful use of an audience’s emotions through rhetoric.
“Rhetoric”, for its part, now rarely shows up without
“empty,” implied or otherwise, in front of it. In
our common usage, it means useless or manipulative talk. Back
before the nineteenth century, however, rhetoric had a much grander
sense: It was one of the original liberal arts, the art of persuasion.
“Idiot” took on its current, mentally handicapped
designation only after we forgot the nature of its use by the
Greeks: An idiotes was an individualist who had no use
Finally, there’s “candid”, close cousin to the
word candidate. Both of these words (as well as the word “candy”)
derive from the Latin word “candere”, meaning “white
and glistening” or “pure.” Candidates in ancient
Rome would wrap their sweet selves in white togas when they gave
orations. It made them seem pure, if not glistening.
Let’s look at each term in greater detail and see how each
might be used in your teaching.
To dig beneath this word for
its original meaning, we need an extra word: “crisis”.
Krisis in ancient Greek referred to an audience’s
decision. A crisis, in other words, was the act of coming to a
consensus. Funny, isn’t it, that crisis now means something
more disastrous? So hypocrisy—the hypo-crisis—is what
comes before the audience’s decision. There we have it:
A hypocrite is someone who delivers a speech, an individual who
acts before the crisis.
We consider hypocrites to be liars. That’s because those
who are absorbed in self-expression—sticking to their guns,
marching to the beat of a different drummer—rarely manage
to persuade an audience. To do that, a speaker needs to stand
in the audience’s shoes, to make the audience believe that
the speaker is one of them and is capable of leading them. A good
hypocrite may have to swallow some of her own opinions to gain
the audience’s trust and approval. Is this fakery? Well,
yes, I suppose it is. Call it benign fakery, much like leaving
out of a résumé the time the student cut class to
see a movie. Good hypocrisy leads to decisions. Self-expression
Exercise: Have Student A interview Student B about what she believes
or values-global warming, Harry Potter, tacos, whatever. Which
of these things does Student A disagree with the most or value
the least? Suppose they choose NASCAR as their subject. Have Student
A express intense interest in the sport. (“Tell me more
about positive tire camber!”) Challenge him to use what
he has learned to talk her into something else. (“Have they
tried alternative fuels in those cars? What if NASCAR helped solve
global warming!”) Let other students suggest tactics.
That’s hypocrisy at its best.
When students write essays or
speak to a class, we normally expect them to stick to logical
argument. The philosopher Aristotle might not have approved. For
informal arguments, he would have added emotion, or pathos,
to grease the argumentative wheels. You can certainly persuade
someone with logic alone, but it’s hard to get someone out
of his chair actually to do something without making him desire
to act. Pathos is where desire enters the situation.
Pathos lies at the roots of several English words, including "pathetic",
"sympathy", and, interestingly, "pathology".
(Some Greeks believed that emotions came from pain or from the
absence of pain. And a fun bunch they were, too.)
Persuasive pathos requires sympathy. You cannot manipulate someone’s
emotions without first understanding him or her. Out of the worst
motives, therefore, rhetoric forces people to think beyond themselves.
What a great art!
Exercise: Have your students write a short persuasive essay, employing
a device that the great Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero recommended:
Get a little emotional at the end. Urge your students to keep
a particular person or group of people in mind as they write.
What emotion will be most persuasive?
The ancients considered rhetoric
the essential skill of leadership, a type of knowledge so important
that they placed it at the center of higher education. Rhetoric
taught students how to speak and write persuasively, how to produce
something to say on every occasion, and how to make people like
them when they spoke.
Aristotle defined rhetoric as the art of “finding the available
means of persuasion.” Notice that he didn’t define
it as “the art of winning an argument in three seconds”
or “the art of having your way.” With rhetoric, you
don’t so much think up your argument as gather it; you pluck
it from cultural traditions and from the audience’s beliefs
and opinions. This highly social attitude, this ability to find
inspiration outside oneself, is different from our own culture’s
approach, isn’t it? That is exactly why we need to teach
rhetoric at all levels. Our republic depends on it.
Exercise: I’m offering speakerphone conferences with classes
that use Thank You for Arguing. Students go nuts over
discussions of rhetoric. You can almost see the light bulbs go
on over their heads. For the first time in their lives, they understand
that words aren’t just for self-expression. Words can actually
do things. They can make other people do things. How cool is that?
Author’s note: If you have adopted my book and are interested
in setting up a conference call, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Aristotle said, “He who
is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is
sufficient unto himself, must be either a beast or a god.”
I doubt that Aristotle would find us very godlike. Would he consider
us beastly? No matter how individualistic we try to be, though,
humans remain a tribal species. It’s in our genes. When
we don’t work in common as a society—when we lose
our faith in the possibility of consensus—we form tribes.
That’s another bonus word, by the way. Tribes (pronounced
TREE-bays in Latin) were family-based factions in ancient Rome.
Tribal factions destroyed the Roman Republic and gave rise to
a charming, charismatic dictator named Julius Caesar. If your
students think ancient Rome has nothing to do with modern America,
have them read an article written by Bill Bishop that appeared
in the Austin American-Statesman on April 4, 2004. Bishop
reported that the number of “landslide counties” (counties
in which more than sixty percent of residents voted for one party
in presidential elections) had doubled since 1976. A majority
of Americans now occupy these ideological bubbles.
Idiots form tribes. That’s exactly what we’re doing.
So what is the cure for national idiocy? A public willing to be
candid (which just happens to be our next word).
Exercise: Have your students debate this question: When does individualism
turn into idiocy?
"Candid" once meant
being open to possibilities. Now it means being closed to all
but your own truth: saying what’s on your mind and ignoring
what’s on everyone else’s mind. Getting your facts
straight is important in any argument, of course. Deliberative
rhetoric (the kind that leads to consensual decisions) nevertheless
works best in the future tense, because decisions lie in the future.
The problem with facts is that they’ll take you only so
far into the future.
Universal truths, which we call “values,” also have
a problem with deliberative argument. A permanent “truth”
might not fit the circumstances of the moment. Conditions change.
When your horse collapses in midstream, for example, it might
be a very good idea to change horses. A candid student, in the
original sense of the word, is open to the possibility that he
or she just may be wrong.
Exercise: Have two volunteers argue about a choice: where to go
on a class field trip, what to eat for lunch, whatever. Before
they begin, though, have the volunteers leave the room for a moment.
While they’re away, tell your class to write down the verb
tenses the volunteer students use in their arguments. Deliberative
argument, which was Aristotle’s favorite rhetoric, uses
the future tense. It’s the language of politics and choices.
When does the students’ debate get a little uncomfortable?
What verb tense is being used at that point? Now have the students
evaluate the websites and web-posted videos of the presidential
candidates. Which candidate most often employs the future tense?
Does one party use the future tense more than the other? What
tenses do attack ads use most frequently?
Bright students love to learn
what etymology reveals about our society.
Such knowledge improves their writing, and they enjoy the added
benefit of annoying their parents by replying “Thank you”
every time a parent says that the student’s room looks pathetic.
In addition, teaching students to express themselves more outwardly
promises a still grander payoff: They become full participants
in our republic.
As an example, here’s a bonus exercise: the ethopoeia.
This technique has been entertaining students for some 2,500 years,
and it works in this way: Participants play the roles of prominent
people, plucking characters out of different eras as they debate
each other. For example, one student pretending to be Achilles
debates another student who is playing Julius Caesar. I’d
like to see a student playing Eleanor Roosevelt as she debates
the role of workers’ unions with a student who has assumed
the persona of Ronald Reagan. Alternatively, we could stick to
the present: Have a virtual Osama Bin Laden argue with Quentin
Tarantino about violence in the media.
Exercises like the ethopoeia get participants used to talking
on their feet and to delivering orations without notes while learning
to enjoy debate. These exercises focus not on self-expression
but on expressing the audience’s beliefs and desires—endowing
their purposes, as Shakespeare put it, with words that make them
known. Students become hypocrites who employ their pathetic
rhetoric in the candid pursuit of consensus.
In other words, they move beyond being idiots. They become
JAY HEINRICHS is the author
of Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln and Homer
Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion. A magazine
executive consultant, he frequently lectures on rhetoric to high
school and college classes