Audio Version: Click to stream recording of page (June 2020):
A part of our trust in a writer or in another person in any relationship is based on our perception of their moral character. Do they share the values we find most important? The word "character" has connotations of both firmness and fairness. A person with character stands up for their beliefs and is principled rather than self-interested. Note that there is some overlap between the trust appeal through respect and goodwill we have already discussed and a trust appeal through good moral character. A basic element of good moral character is wishing others well, not ill.
Famous basketball coach John Wooden declared that “The true test of a man's character is what he does when no one is watching.” Still, as humans, we constantly watch each other and assess each other's character. A writer can seek to gain the reader's trust by drawing attention to their moral character either directly or indirectly. In a direct appeal, a writer might describe their values, tell stories that illustrate their past moral actions, mention their reputation for good character, or refer readers to others who can vouch for them.
If a writer anticipates that some will question their character, they can present disclaimers, or rejections of others' likely misconceptions. Imagine an argument that starts by asking how Robin Hood might be a relevant hero for today's America. The writer would quickly need to clarify that they are not condoning stealing: "I would never argue that we should actually steal from the rich as Robin Hood did." Such a disclaimer is usually followed by a clarification of their position which highlights their good character: "I do think that the character of Robin Hood is an inspiration for today's advocates of a wealth tax to fund education and combat rising inequality."
Direct references to a writer's moral character run the risk of coming across as arrogant or presumptuous. More common and arguably more effective are indirect attempts to demonstrate moral character in the way a writer makes their argument. As Jeanne Fahnestock and Marie Secor write in A Rhetoric of Argument, "We all know that character shows in what we say and do. It is equally obvious in what we write." Honesty and reasonableness are two aspects of character that are especially crucial to demonstrate in argument.
Abraham Lincoln was known in his day and after as "Honest Abe." His reputation as such, along with his accomplishments, formed the core of his image as an American hero. Probably nothing is more important to establishing trust than truthfulness and openness.
Even lies of omission can undermine trust. As readers, we want to believe that the writer is giving us a fair overview of what they know. If a writer fails to mention something relevant that makes them look bad, readers may well hear it from an opponent and consider the writer to have wrongly concealed it. Acknowledging points that actually hurt the writer's argument can help to demonstrate openness and honesty. This includes a writer's motivations, even those that involve self-interest. This may involve a disclaimer like the following: "It is true that I have an interest in maintaining high enrollment at our community college, since my job depends on it. But I do not think that is my main motivation for supporting the push to expand our offerings. I believe that the community will benefit when we have greater community participation in adult education."
Another aspect of honesty is emotional honesty--the writer's sincerity about the values and feelings expressed. If the writer has made an emotional appeal or an appeal to shared values, we as readers need to believe that the appeal represents the writer's authentic feelings and values. If we feel we are being manipulated, we will likely recoil and resist both the emotions and the logic of the argument. How can we tell if a writer is sincere or not? There is no formula for this, just as there is no formula when we meet someone or listen to a speech and decide if the person is sincere. Readers' intuitions will be shaped by subtleties of word choice and cultural expectations. One highly dramatic emotional appeal or declaration of values may come across as exaggerated, and another may come across as an earnest expression of the writer's strong convictions. In my own opinion, the best way for writers to create an impression of sincerity is to be sincere, not just about their feelings but about the degree of intensity of these feelings.
It is our reason that allows us to make and evaluate arguments, so it comes as no surprise that writers want to come across as reasonable. Of course, as we have seen in earlier chapters, writers must actually make reasoned arguments or readers will notice their logical flaws and lose some trust in them. But to trust a writer, readers also need to have the impression that the writer is reasonable as a character trait.
Here are some ways writers show themselves to be reasonable:
- Responding to alternate perspectives with respect. Even when you do not see any merit in the opposing argument, As Jeanne Fahnestock and Marie Secor put it, "Without conceding to the opposition, you can show your audience that you treat other positions with respect, understanding, and even kindness." We can show empathy for the motivations or perspectives of others even if we ultimately judge them to be misguided.
- Showing fairness toward alternate perspectives. We see reasonableness in the ways in which writers deal with challenges to their ideas. Do they summarize the challenge accurately without distorting it to make it seem worse or weaker than it is?
- Showing openness to possibilities that may challenge the writer's expectations. There is some overlap here with honesty as discussed above.
- Making concessions when they see some validity to an opposing point.
- Showing moderation. A writer can send the message that they are not an extremist by pointing out and disavowing more extreme positions.
- Admitting uncertainty. As Jeanne Fahnestock and Marie Secor put it "When you honestly find yourself somewhat uncertain on an issue, even after thinking through some arguments, you can shift into a lower gear by admitting your own uncertainty, the tentative nature of some of your conclusions, your openness to new ideas."
Note that too much moderation can come across as wishy-washy. Good moral character also requires conviction and backbone. A writer must balance being open and self-critical with being willing to take a stand and defend it.