Pathos All The Way Down: On the Lopsidedness of the Rhetorical Triangle

In my ninth grade class, we’ve been studying rhetoric and the triangle of rhetorical appeals, usually characterized as ethos, pathos, and logos.  For anyone who may not be familiar, ethos is characterized as an appeal to expertise or authority (this is the method by which the speaker builds trust and credibility with the audience); pathos is an appeal to emotion (this is how they make the audience care believe the import of their argument); logos is an appeal to logic and reasoned argument (this is where the speaker provides evidence supporting their argument).

In class we typically simplify all this information down to the basic concept of different kinds of appeals.  There’s a lot of discussion about why different appeals are effective and practice with identifying different methods through analysis of articles, commercials, and speeches.  In the end, the hope is that students walk away understanding that there are different modes of appeal in persuasive communication and how to spot these differences.  We don’t spend any time trying to explain how the rhetorical model we teach in school is based on Aristotle or how the three kinds of appeals are meant to work in concert to build a relationship of trust between the speaker and the audience.  This is all glossed over because it’s pretty abstract stuff, and a pragmatic approach to teaching critical thought tends to set aside historical foundations in favor of focusing on necessary skills.

After basic literacy, the most important skill that teachers of language arts have to teach their students (and probably the most challenging to teach) is critical thinking.  This is a broad skill that’s necessary in other academic disciplines as well, but I maintain that its foundation comes through learning how to use language for effective communication.  People with mastery of fewer words and fewer ways to arrange those words are limited in what they can communicate and understand; limited communication and understanding automatically restrict the capacity for critical thought.  This is the frame that I operate from when I think about educating my students, and it informs how I look at persuasion as well.

Persuasion is a task that seems more and more important as tribalism comes to dominate all of our public discourse.  I’ve seen it noted in a few places that one of the great fallacies of liberal thinkers and activists is that if you just keep throwing facts at conservatives they’ll wake up to the reality that their policy positions are harmful not just to others outside their tribe but to the tribe itself.  It’s this impulse that leads us to cry out over the projected economic calamity that will ensue once Republicans repeal the Affordable Care Act and to throw all the documented evidence of that man’s bigotry, misogyny, and mental instability at his supporters in the hopes they’ll realize he’s unfit to serve as our President.  We believe so strongly in the power of logos as a method of persuasion, but we forget that logos is irrelevant if we can’t also connect with others along the other two axes of rhetoric.  People ignore facts all the time.

I had a moment the other day despairing of this reality, and I declared to Rachael that “facts don’t persuade people anymore.”  She gave me one of those looks that say, “you’re thinking inside a bubble, Jason,” and told me that she didn’t think it had ever been about facts.  She told me about a non-fiction article in one of the science fiction magazines about the brain’s evolutionary function, which explains that the brain evolved as a system for making bodies move.  All the brain’s higher functions serve the purpose of helping the brain decide which movement the body should make, and the most basic form of decision-making for the brain appears in the fight or flight response.  Emotions have a much more immediate connection to our bodies than higher thought does; it leads us to react in ways that extensive reasoning shows are actually counterproductive.  Make a person feel like a decision is right, and they’ll make that decision regardless of other evidence.  When there’s a split between pathos and logos, pathos wins.

In theory, the moderating influence between pathos and logos should be ethos.  As persuasive speakers and writers, we should try to establish our credibility as sources of information and opinion.  Believing someone is credible inclines an audience to take their arguments seriously, even if the audience feels wary of what’s being said.  Build up enough confidence in the source, and their feelings shift to align positively with the arguments being presented.

So here’s the problem with American politics: all the disparate tribes in our country fall under two broad umbrellas of conservative and liberal.  Maintaining these two broad umbrellas is relatively manageable, even as different groups under the umbrellas have different interests that might only roughly align.  The moderating influence between the conservative and liberal umbrellas should be the largest umbrella that they both fall under: our collective interest as citizens of the United States.  The foundation of credibility in political discourse is supposed to be a trust that both sides are acting in good faith with the purpose of improving the welfare of the nation as a whole.  Without that guiding ethos, everything breaks down, and tribalism rears its head.  Outsiders lose all credibility, and without that, their arguments fall on deaf ears, and their appeals to emotion are treated as worthy of contempt.

This is our present political reality.

Let’s not be coy at this point; Republicans are the ones who are most guilty of perpetuating this trend.  They’ve become the party of rich white men, and they’ve built an apparatus over the last thirty years that manipulates people with endless streams of emotional appeals designed to keep the base in a constant state of panic over their receding cultural capital.  Fox News has been spewing filth nonstop for over twenty years designed to make Christians afraid of people of other faiths and people of no faith, white people afraid of people of color, men afraid of women, and old people afraid of young people.  It’s all pathos, all the time, because if you just keep your audience hooked on that emotional high you can tell them whatever bullshit you want.  When abused, pathos subsumes logos and ethos, turning the rhetorical triangle into a wedge that keeps groups with common interests divided.

I don’t know what you do with any of this, of course.  Persuasion is an art form that requires common ground, and the act of finding common ground with people who are so far into denial about what the future holds for our country because it makes them feel good is a difficult proposition.

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