Pathos and American Politics

pathosbronze
From Power & Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World special exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi – Florence

During the most recent debate, a friend texted me: “This is gutter level. Really gross.” I responded, “This is what happens when we base politics on feelings and not logic.” While my text was an in the moment gut reaction, I can’t help but this there’s something to it. The debate often degraded to emotional appeals. Trump appealed to his base using fear of immigrants, lawlessness, and the government. Clinton appealed to her base citing unity and inclusivity.  In either case, I’m not particularly impressed. This is because they depend on pathetic appeals; that is to say, they use pathos to prove to their audience that they are the best candidate.

Both candidates like to use emotion evoking examples to energize their audiences. For example, Trump often cites dangerous terrorists, drug dealers, and rapists who illegally gain entry into this country. His examples are often shadowy specters that menace Americans.  On the other hand, Clinton often uses very specific examples to create an emotional response. She often brings up the parents of Army Captain Humayun Khan and Trump’s repeated denigration of American Muslims and later their family. She appeals to any parent who can’t imagine losing a child.

These rhetorical practices can be dangerous. In The Rhetoric, Aristotle warns readers against over-using pathos: “It is not right to pervert the judge [jurymen] by moving him to anger or envy or pity – one might as well warp a carpenter’s rule before using it … They will often have allowed themselves to be so much influenced by feeling of friendship or hatred or self-interest that they lose any clear vision of the truth and have their judgement obscured by considerations of personal pleasure or pain” (1.1). In other words, emotion or pathos can warp a person’s ability to make sound decisions.

So, when we listen to the debates, stump speeches, and advertisements, we’re not getting a reasoned, well-articulated argument. We’re not being persuaded through logos or even ethos. It’s all pathos – and well – that’s some gutter level rhetoric.

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