It’s Down To Pathos, Apparently

Wild Bill wrote, “Mr. Clarke has offered an example of the Logic of Luntz.  Frank Luntz published Words That Work, as my co-author noted, to convey to readers how easily one may mislead people through marketing, spin, and propaganda.  Mr. McCarthy makes bold in The National Review to praise ‘words that work.’  Those words work because they are so far from truth that many citizens repeat false alarms.

“Once falsehoods become widely believed and tenaciously held, those who spread the misleading language may then proclaim their innocence, shock, and chagrin.  Having derived benefits for their side, they then deny responsibility or complicity.  This works especially well for partisans and ideologues who disseminate populism but despise democracy.  They abet righteous indignation against newcomers or longstanding ‘out groups,’ disown the mob once it forms [think Fred MacMurray in ‘The Caine Mutiny’], and remind all who will listen that the mob necessitates elitism and top-down rule.  They horde their cake, enjoy their cake, and hurl their cake into the faces of those who believe in democratic self-governance through mass participation.”

Through the lens of classical rhetoric, one might deduce that, given the attitudes exhibited by Mr. Luntz and Mr. McCarthy (and others) toward communication, the venerable rhetorical triad of ethos, pathos, and logos has been reduced to pathos, and to a corrupted form of pathos, at that.

A thumbnail definition of the terms: Aristotle more-or-less defined an appeal, in an argument (written or oral), to logos as an appeal to the reasoning faculty; such an appeal might take the form of citing evidence, expressing a chain of logic (syllogism), and so on.  He defined an appeal to ethos as an appeal to the character of the one making the argument.  Consequently, an auto mechanic, attempting to convince an audience that he or she knows what he or she is talking about, might say, “And I might point out that I’ve been a successful professional mechanic for 18 years.”  It doesn’t necessarily follow that 18 years of experience will produce good results, but it’s likely to follow (and the assumption is that the mechanic is describing the record of experience accurately); therefore, such an appeal makes sense, and it is rhetorically legitimate.

Aristotle defined an appeal to pathos as an appeal to the emotions of the audience hearing the argument.  He did not advocate manipulating such emotions but simply appealing to them: a fine line to observe and respect, to be sure.  For more information about the terms, one might consult “The Forest of Rhetoric” site to which we’ve provided a link (at right) or review Aristotle On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civil Discourse, edited with commentary by George A. Kennedy and published in 2006 (second edition) by Oxford University Press.

Once someone adopts the attitude of Luntz and McCarthy toward persuasive discourse, one has surrendered the power of logic and even come close to admitting that, indeed, one’s argument does not have the force of logic on its side.  Additionally, one must abandon a notion of appealing to the character of the persuader because one has admitted that deception is a “virtue.” At different points, Richard Nixon, Wilbur Mills, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and Mark Sanford (for example) had to relinquish the appeal to character because their characters were shown to have been unreliable.  (Restoring one’s character, or the public’s perception of it, is not impossible, of course.  See Erving Goffman, Stigma:  Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.)

Consequently, Luntz, McCarthy, et alia have reduced “civil discourse” to a crass appeal to emotion–pathos.  By praising, in the National Review, “words that work”—words that deliberately confuse, deceive, mislead, and incite—McCarthy has abandoned a conservative, respectful approach to rhetoric (the Aristotelian one, for example). The best that McCarthy (and Luntz) can hope for, then, is to rely on the justification that “the ends justify the means.”  The means, however, seem to be the ends because the goal seems only to be to confuse, deceive, mislead, and incite. Wither conservatism?

The question of how to teach rhetoric—or civil discourse—has become especially confusing for college teachers of writing (for example) because if one relies on a venerable model like Aristotle’s, one may sense that students are being equipped with a form of argumentation and a respectful view of the audience that are naïve and that’s not reflected in the prevailing modes of discourse that saturate politics and the media, which are governed by the values of Luntz, McCarthy, et al., not by the values of Aristotle and Orwell (et al.)


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