Author Steve Canyon
Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF): Persuasion is an art, but not all art is beautiful.
When considering the Language of Liberty in our constitutional republic, one needs to consider how language is employed to convince citizens of that which they should care.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle identified three methods utilized in persuading others; he called these logos, ethos, and pathos. Each has its place in thoughtful discourse; each has benefits and pitfalls.
Logos seeks to convince the audience based on facts, statistics, historical examples, and appeal to authority. Logical appeal is powerful in that it provides tangible, verifiable proof that something is true; effectively creating a disturbing dissonance in the receiver if a poorly crafted counter argument is presented. Logos’ weakness is it is hard—it requires an engaged, interested, and knowledgable receiver to be effective, and it requires work on the part of the transmitter to uncover and present the truth. Additionally, faux authority or ersatz research—a seemingly knowledgable source or purportedly valid information that is corrupted—can turn a logical argument to propaganda.
Ethos seeks to convince the receiver based on the credibility of the source. The ethical value of the transmitter is key, but so too is the language used and the unbiased delivery of the message. Ethical appeal, therefore, may be viewed as dependent upon the character of the source. It’s power and weakness is the transmitter. A strong delivery can have incredible influence over people, while a weak delivery might barely move the needle. Similarly, an ethically compromised source will destroy the audience’s trust in the message.
Pathos attempts to evoke either positive or negative feelings to convince the audience of the message being delivered. Emotional appeal is incredibly powerful as it activates the limbic system within the brain, creating a physiological response from neurochemical release.[i] Pathos is therefore visceral and immediate. Research has shown emotional appeal is more powerful than objective logical appeal,[ii] and can actually override logical thinking.[iii] While important to help a transmitter connect with their audience, history is replete with examples of monstrous leaders using pathos to lead humanity to very dark corners.
Lessons from the Past
In 1787, our fledgling nation was at a perilous crossroads. The Articles of Confederation, written in the aftermath of the victorious Revolutionary War, had proven problematic and unsuitable for the long term survival of the nation. As the Constitutional Convention began in Philadelphia, various participants began to express concerns of the unrestrained use of pathos by some future leader to usurp control for their own interests.[iv] These Constitutional framers thus installed checks and balances to intentionally slow the decision making process, creating an environment less conducive to unrestrained pathos.
In the same vein, James Madison viewed a Senate of more seasoned lawmakers as “a necessary fence” from the transitory passions generated in the lower chamber of Congress.[v] At the time, the Senate was further insulated from the passions of the citizenry through their direct appointment by state legislatures. Passage of the 17th Amendment changed that, perhaps leading to a less deliberative present day condition.
American Persuasion, 21st Century Style
Few would argue our politics have become more heated and our politicians less believable. Current Congressional job approval sits at -32.5%.[vi] Similarly, 30% more Americans believe the nation is on the wrong track than their more optimistic countrymen.[vii] This strongly suggests an environment, perhaps purposefully cultivated, that is more amenable to emotional appeal than the other two persuasion styles.
Compounding this development are the twin issues of mortgaged ethical credibility and promotion of ersatz research as truth.
One need look no further than Anthony Fauci for an example of the former. Fauci, initially hailed as the expert who would lead us through the COVID pandemic, has been exposed as knowledgable of, and possibly complicit in, Chinese gain of function research that led to development of the novel coronavirus.[viii] While in the early days of the pandemic Fauci was vacillating on the value of masking (an issue itself that exposed Fauci as lying[ix]), he was feverishly trying to bury his own role in creating this disaster.
Colin Powell’s 2003 presentation to the United Nations regarding purported Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programs is perhaps history’s most egregious example of ersatz research posing as objective fact. Powell, highly respected throughout the world community, unknowingly presented a case built upon specious research and outright fabrication.[x] The result was public acceptance and a rush towards an epoch shaking foreign policy blunder.
It is important to note how pathos plays a significant role in suppressing dissent and furthering chosen narratives. Any question of COVID’s origins was met with emotional cries of “racism” or “science denial,” obviating the need to validate the postulation. Similarly, a still-reeling United States, angry about 9-11 and fearful of another attack, was easily convinced to rush to war on shaky evidence.
Simply put, Americans must reject unrestrained use of emotion in our political discourse and demand transparent, fact based arguments from our officials in positions of trust. This is not a partisan issue; both sides employ emotion, shade the truth, and present as authority those who are anything but authoritative. The accelerating diminution of the American education system hampers any long term effort to reverse this trend and reinstate the public’s critical review of decision making.[xi] [xii] Nonetheless, if we are ever to return balance to the arena of political discourse, it must start with recognition of the over emphasis on pathos and the attendant weakening of the other two methods of persuasion.
Steve Canyon is a retired military officer.
The Language of Liberty series is an outreach project of the Center for Self Governance, a non-profit, non-partisan educational organization, dedicated to training citizens in principles of liberty. The views expressed by the authors are their own and may not reflect the views of CSG. CenterForSelfGovernance.com
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