Pathos and American Politics

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.

Silence and Power

To anyone who studies rhetoric, the power of silence and silencing is not a new subject.  Cheryl Glen has published extensively on the subject, and her book Unspoken: A Rhetoric of Silence provides a comprehensive approach.

Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking about silence as power a lot lately.  This comes from a few events, most notably the recent debate between HRC and Trump. It also comes from a discussion I had with my professional writing class about gendered communication in the workplace.  And, an email I received from one of my collaborators on a book project.

Let’s start with the easiest target – the debate. In all fairness, I should admit that I will not vote for Trump. However, I don’t think many experts in politics, public speaking, or rhetoric would dispute that Hilary did a better job. She was more professional and more on target. On the other hand, Trump interrupted Hilary 51 times. Instead, Hilary just looked at the camera and waited her turn.


In response, one woman (E.Van Every) on Twitter posted: “To the men amazed Clinton hasn’t snapped: Every woman you know has learned to do this. This is our life in society. #debatenight” And she’s right.  Women are used to being interrupted, talked over, and silenced by their male counterparts. And at the same time, can any of us deny that by being silent, Hilary won the debate?  By smiling and listening, Hilary looked more presidential.

Maybe we need to address the difference between being silenced and using silence. In the workplace, women are routinely silenced in meetings by their male counterparts.  Even in academic settings, I’ve seen male professors take over panels, dominate Q&A, and monopolize friendly discussions at bars. Even in a the progressive space of Obama’s administration, women were silenced. Obama’s women staffers created a strategy they called “amplification” in which women would repeat the points of women speakers. Being silenced isn’t powerful.

Photo: Washington Post

And yet, a recent email exchange with one of my collaborators for a book project demonstrates how powerful silence can be. She emailed us about an upcoming deadline, but none of us responded immediately. A day later, she emailed and asked, “Ok y’all, I’m starting to feel weird about this. Did you make a decision that I don’t know about?” It turns out we were all just really busy and hoped someone else would answer.  As a result, our silence made her fear the worst.  Our silence had power.

Skin as Medium

Last semester, my students had a really cool conversation about whether tattoos are a medium and/or rhetorical.As I teach a new semester of digital rhetoric, I’m contemplating the nature of media and new media. Of course, I always return to Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message.” If we accept McLuhan’s premise that how a message is communicated is as important as its content, then tattoos may be the ultimate form of self expression.

For people who get tattoos, the content can be extremely personal. For example, many people get a memorial tattoo after someone close to them dies. In “‘So That They Never Forget the Holocaust:’ Memorial Tattoos and Embodied Holocaust Remembrance,” Verena Hutter (2016) argues that some of these tattoos are “embodied memory and/or performed trauma” (269). Hutter examines a New York Times piece “A Tattoo to Remember” in which the grandchildren of Auschwitz survivors remember their family’s struggle by purposefully tattooing the numbers Nazis assigned their ancestors. The tattoo represents an intersection of faith, heritage, and history.  The symbol content of the brief serial number would be empty without the medium, a tattoo.

Photo Credit: New York Times photographer Uriel Sinai

While not every tattoo has the same depth, the pain and permanence make them a deliberate statement about the self. What does that Tinkerbell tattoo on your foot say about you?  Does it say you want to be a walking billboard for Disney?  Not really. But it might say that to 18 year-old you, Tinkerbell connected to your childhood and fond memories of watching Peter Pan with your friends.

Tattoos no longer have the counter-cultural cachet they once had. Thirty years ago, tattoos usually signified drug use,enlisted military service, or carnival work. However, in the mid-90s, everyone started getting tattoos. As “alternative” music became mainstream, so did other alternative styles – tattoos, piercings, and  purple hair. More recently, the Pew Research Center found that nearly 40% of people between 18 and 29 have at least one tattoo. In other words, tattoos have different rhetorical value now.

Nevertheless, when skin is the medium and hours of pain and days of discomfort are required for communication, it seems that a tattoo is no less rhetorical than an essay. And like most writing, it’s done collaboratively, takes practice, and you usually start small before embarking on a full sleeve.

Writing without an Audience

The first time I encountered Peter Elbow’s theory, I scoffed. I thought that he was too “touchy feely” and focused on making students feel better about their writing.  I totally dismissed his notion of writing without an audience in mind.

I believed that audience awareness was essential to good writing. In fact, Elbow toptenz-clapping-audiencedoesn’t disagree. In “Closing My Eyes as I Speak: An Argument for Ignoring Audience,” Elbow (1987) claims that “It’s not that writers should never think about their audience” (51). However, he quickly suggests that audiences influence our writing: “It’s a question of when. An audience is a field of force. The closer we come-the more we think about these readers-the stronger the pull they exert on the contents of our minds” (ibid). In other words, taking the audience into consideration too soon in the drafting process can unduly influence our writing.

Writing is hard work and hostile audiences can paralyze even the most brilliant mind. In “Illiteracy at Oxford and Harvard: Reflections on the Inability to Write,” Elbow (1998) recounts professors at Williams College and Oxford University who made him feel terrible about his writing. His description of his tutor at Oxford is horrifying: “Once a week, I’d knock on the oak door and come in and read my essay to him, and be instructed, and then at the end he’d say something like, ‘Why don’t you go off and read Dryden and write me something interesting.’ My first essay was on Chaucer and he was pretty condescendingly devastating. ‘What are we going to do with these Americans they send us?'” Ironically, Elbow wrote his dissertation about Chaucer, but he could have easily fallen prey to his tutor’s terrible feedback.

I guess I am sharing this because I don’t feel like a good writer.  I often feel like good writing is an arcane art that I haven’t mastered.  I say the incantations, but I always mess up a word or forget the chicken bone in my sack. Part of my anxiety is rooted in a fear of what “They” will think.  In my mind, my audience is full of hostile old crones who will curse me for each misplaced modifier (a grammar thing I struggle with to this day). So, rather than thinking creatively, I struggle to please a fiction who can never be pleased.

Maybe we need to make writing fun again?  Or, can we find the balance for which Elbow advocates?  Instead of focusing on the audience, we focus on what the writer can do.

Rhetoric and the Law

This semester I have the privilege of teaching rhetorical theory. It’s so exciting to awaken students to the ways in which rhetoric shapes our reality. I sometimes forget how much I take for granted with trying to explain the relationship between truth, knowledge, and rhetoric. In addition to teaching that class, I am doing two independent studies on jurisprudential rhetoric. In discussions about rhetoric and the law, the gap between rhetoric and truth becomes evident.

For example, with one student I am reexamining Tudor Royal Proclamations (TRPs). I haven’t spent a lot of time with these documents since I wrote my dissertation. As a side note, it’s been fun to remember that they are very interesting and fun to study. Regardless, I’ve been reading them with an eye tcicero quoteoward instruction and working through them with fresh eyes. One thing we’ve started discussing is the need for repetition in the proclamations. Meaning, the monarch issues a proclamation about revaluing coinage and has to issue another proclamation within the same year about the same topic. Why? Because the people aren’t following the law.

If the goal of a proclamation or law is to make people comply, how is this accomplished? The TRPs are quite sophisticated in their rhetorical strategies. Each proclamation begins with an appeal to authority beyond the monarch such as God, the English people, custom, or council. In many cases, Tudor monarchs predicated their authority in divine right. The monarchs of England regularly argued that because they were selected and anointed by God, their authority was beyond reproach. For instance, Mary I (1553) reestablishes the Catholic faith in England by claiming she is divinely ordered to do so: “her majesty, being presently by the only goodness of God settled in her just possession of the imperial crown of this realm and other dominions thereunto belonging, cannot not hide that religion.” On thee other hand, her protestant sister Elizabeth also uses divine authority in her proclamations. For instance, in Elizabeth I (1579) argues the success of her reign was proof of God’s authority: “her majesty hath had so good proof of God’s singular goodness in the continual preservation of her from his first setting her in the crown as his chosen servant to reign as she hath done from the beginning” (2:445). Despite the vacillation in faiths over the century, each monarch claimed divinely inspired authority. The monarch placed an additional burden on those who disobeyed because they defied their sovereign and their God.

In other words, the royal prerogative still needs validation. The US system of laws is supposed to be beyond this. In some ways, our laws still seem grounded in an equally amorphous sense of justice. So, how do we convince people to follow the law here? Do we rely on precedent? While laws assume compliance, they do not produce it. To me, this seems like an essential difference and an important question for rhetoric.

What’s the Point?

As we near mid-terms and the piles of essays begin to litter my desk, I sometimes wonder about the purpose of teaching writing. What do students learn in a first-year composition class?  Do the skills they practice serve them for the rest of their college careers and lives? Does knowing the difference between a fragment, a run-on, and a complete sentence really matter?

Then again, are writing skills all that matter? Rhetorician James A. Berlin argues that rhetoric is inherently social. To teach students rhetoric and writing is to teach them how s8onwt1to be better citizens. By understanding how persuasion works, students may think more critically about the messages they receive from politicians and other social leaders. Understanding how rhetoric works may help students discern the difference between balanced reporting and the media spin machine. As one of my favorite professors in college said, “My job is not to provide answers, but to show you how to ask good questions.”

Now, when so much of civic engagement includes digital environments, the need to think critically about written messages is very important. Something as simple as deciding what deserves our attention can be a complex rhetorical act. Learning to find the major claim and then understanding the assumptions behind that claim are essential for true civitas. Voting is meaningless without knowledge. Serving on a jury is pointless without a sense of justice.

So, what’s the point?  To teach students how to write good questions, to interrogate everything, to distrust the authorities – especially their professors.

What is Digital Rhetoric?

Today, we worked toward a definition of “digital rhetoric.”  I think we discovered that it’s actually pretty complex.

Just trying to define authorship became messy.  Is someone an author onlyAristotle_by_eviolinist if they are famous?  How much can an author borrow and still be an author?  What makes something original?

A few times, we tossed the work media around.  However, like authorship, media has complex meanings. Many commentators consider new media a catchall for all web-based texts.

In the end, Elizabeth Losh’s definitions from Virtualpolitik (2009) may be a good place to start.  She focuses on four definitions:

  1. The conventions of new digital genres that are used for everyday discourse, as well as for special occasions, in average people’s lives.
  2. Public rhetoric, often in the form of political messages from government institutions, which is represented or recorded through digital technology and disseminated via electronic distributed networks.
  3. The emerging scholarly discipline concerned with the rhetorical interpretation of computer-generated media as objects of study.
  4. Mathematical theories of communication from the field of information science, many of which attempt to quantify the amount of uncertainty in a given linguistic exchange or the likely paths through which messages travel. (47-8)

I think definitions 1 and 3 will be of particular use to us this semester.