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.

Prosuming News

prosumerAs we start reading Wikinomics, I find the news full of stories about collaboration and prosuming.  In 1980, futurist Alvin Toffler coined the term “prosumer” to describe the type of work new technologies would enable us to do.  Prosumers produce and consume the information marketplace. Or, that they actively participate in the creation new idea, products, and entertainment.

While this idea was radical in the 80s, prosuming is commonplace today. Entertainment franchises like The Matrix and Supernatural use consumer input to create storylines, build their worlds, and generate support for their shows. T-shirt shop Threadless asks consumers to rate and sometimes submit designs.

What’s more, is that more and more of our news comes from prosumers. In “How YouTube Changed Journalism,” Atlantic writer Matt Schiavenza suggests that YouTube is direct conduit between people who create/experience news and consumers. Some people claim that more direct involvement will democratize the news. If we can all participate in the message, somehow we may find more accurate and unbiased news.

However, as Schiavenza points out, this idealism maybe too simple. He cites Evgeny Morozov who warns against believing in cyber-utopias or the power of the internet to democratize the world.  I feel like I should note that I cited Morozov in my dissertation and I am sympathetic to his claims. Capturing a video does not mean justice will prevail. In fact, organizations like ISIS use YouTube and other video sites to share their extreme message and show violence.

In other words, maybe we need to be cautious about claims that being a prosumer means democratizing our information. Or, that collaborative creation always means more accurate stories and reporting.

Public/Private Blog

Today’s Atlantic ran a story about University of Marquette professor John McAdams pubprivwho being stripped of tenure because of a story he posted on his blog. While I am unwilling to weigh in on the validity of this decision or the opinions expressed, I think the medium and genre that sparked this debate has ramifications for digital rhetoric.

If we trace the story back to its beginning, we find an ideological conflict between a graduate instructor and an undergraduate student. The student recorded this after class conversation on his phone without the graduate student’s permission. Does the instructor have some expectation of privacy? Would she have spoken differently if she knew about the recording? Does that matter?

I am struck by the power of a tiny portable device; one cell phone can start a controversy that ends with a faculty member losing his job.

But more than that, I am struck by the role of technology and its mediation of public and private spaces. The cell phone, a technology often used for very personal/private conversations, records a public conversation. And, as we discussed in class, the blog is a perfect example of personal made public. Personal opinions and experiences may suddenly gain a very public readership. Examining the subtitle of McAdams’s blog points to this conundrum:

“This site has no official connection with Marquette University. Indeed, when University officials find out about it, they will doubtless want it shut down.”

He carefully notes that the blog is an independent entity. However, he also notes “when” officials discover it, they will be unhappy. By using “when” instead of “if,” McAdams implies that his blog is provocative and will draw ire. Tragically, his subtitle also suggests that the worst punishment may be shutting the blog down. In fact, he could lose his job and his livelihood.

The networked nature of blogging demonstrate that these spheres do not have rigid boundaries. McAdams’s publicized opinions have dire consequences for his private life.

Access, Access, Activism

Current debates about net neutrality have gone largely unnoticed. Ironically, this is something everyone who uses the web should be marching in the streets about. I think John Oliver sums up the issue quite well here:

Inaction could mean that corporations like Comcast and Time Warner could control how we access information. If we think about the current affordances of digital media, access to high speed internet is essential. Streaming music, video, and cat gifs all require a huge amount of bandwidth.

In his recent article for The Atlantic, Victor Pickard compares current battles for net neutrality to 1940s battles for free radio. Pickard reminds us that our current system in which a few corporations have a strangle hold on our bandwidth is the result of decades of policy decisions:

“As we again set policies that define core power relationships for a new medium, we might look to our past to discern lessons for charting our future. For the media system we’ve inherited—one dominated by a small number of corporations, lightly regulated in terms of public interest protections, and offset by weak public alternatives—was not inevitable or natural; it resulted from the outcomes of specific policy battles, and from specific logics and values triumphing over others.”

In other words, we’ve created a situation in which ISPs have this much control. Now may be our last opportunity to stop their monopoly.

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