Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Three Methods of Persuasion

Aristotle, he of such nicknames as “The Stagirite” (which refers to his birthplace, Stagira), “The Philosopher” (which St. Thomas Aquinas calls him in his works, but only when he agrees with him), or “Ari” or “Telly” to his friends, wrote on nearly every topic one could imagine: ethics, physics, metaphysics, biology, zoology, poetry… I’m surprised he didn’t release a cookbook. Today’s focus will be on another area, rhetoric, and specifically on the three ways or “proofs” into which Aristotle classified all persuasive speech. Then you’ll be able not only to use these yourself, but to defend yourself against the persuasive attempts of others, be they politicians or used car salesmen (but I repeat myself).

Aristotle said that all persuasive speech can be divided into three categories:

Logos, “the appeal to reason”: We could perhaps also call this, “Use your head!” In this sort of appeal, the speaker uses facts, figures, arguments, graphs, charts, principles, axioms, and any other method aimed at the gray matter between your ears to persuade you to adopt the speaker’s viewpoint.

Pathos, “the appeal to emotion”: We could call this, “Have a heart!” Here the speaker’s objective is to tug at your heartstrings, to incite an emotional response in you, to make you feel what they feel (or, more cynically, what they want you to feel). The aim is not to induce your head to make a calculation, but rather to put you in the emotional state the speaker thinks will compel you to adopt the speaker’s viewpoint.

Ethos, “the appeal to the integrity of the speaker”: We could perhaps call this, “Listen to your gut.” Strangely, this method often has little to do with the subject matter at hand, but instead adduces the speaker’s own trustworthiness as the criterion of persuasion. “Trust me,” “You know who I am,” “We’ve been through a lot together,” and other such phrases are typical of this type of appeal. Aristotle says that this appeal is the most powerful method of persuasion.

Let’s use a concrete example to illustrate these: taxes! Who doesn’t love a good ol’ debate on tax policy, right? It has all the excitement of a root canal and all the clarity of Gabby Johnson’s speech from Blazing Saddles. But let’s examine some typical persuasive speech on tax policy and see what we can see.

Logos: “If we keep taxes low, it will encourage businesses to grow, which means hiring more workers, which means more incomes to tax, which actually means more revenue for the government. After all, what’s a larger number: 45% of 100, or 36% of 200?” (The speaker argues that, granted his premise that low taxes means more hiring and thus more income to be taxed, that a smaller percentage of a higher number produces a greater result than a higher percentage of a lower number.)

OR: “My opponent’s numbers don’t add up. Besides, it is not guaranteed that lower taxes will necessarily make businesses hire more people, so we ought not to rely on that.” (The speaker counter-argues by challenging that premise, saying that there is no logically necessary connection between low taxes and increased revenue.)

Pathos: “The middle class is suffering in this country, while the rich take advantage of loopholes to pay less. Companies make higher profits than ever before, while you struggle to put food on the table, or send your kids to college. Enough is enough! The wealthy need to pay their fair share!” (The speaker is appealing to the listener’s desire for justice, or the speaker is trying to stir up feelings of envy.)

OR: “The government is trying to take away your hard-earned money to feed the bureaucratic fat cats in Washington! Your money belongs to, not to the federal government! What’s fair is for you to be able to keep as much of your earnings as possible.” (The speaker is appealing to the listener’s desire for security, or the speaker is trying to stir up feelings of fear.)

Ethos: “I’m a businessman with 30 years of experience, and I’ve successfully run a state, a hospital, a prison, and in one case, a state prison hospital. I know what it takes to be successful, to balance a budget.” (Here the speaker, appealing to his past success, asks you to trust him in making decisions.)

OR: “According to the non-partisan Institute for the Advanced Study of Things and Stuff, my opponent’s plan will increase the debt by eleventy-gajillion dollars by next Thursday.” (Here the speaker appeals to the prestige of an institution as a reason to trust what he says.)

After looking at these examples, can you tell why is ethos the most persuasive type of argument? Logos relies on the audience’s ability or willingness to follow a complex argument, or apprehend a large amount of data, or accept the premises of your argument as true: many times an audience is unwilling or unable to do this, or they get lost in the attempt. With pathos, one must realize how slippery it can be to try to manipulate someone’s emotions: you may not produce the effect you intended. With ethos, the task is somewhat simpler: all you have to do is get the audience to trust you. They don’t have to wade through a morass of syllogisms and propositions; they don’t have to be carefully led to the proper emotional state; they simply have to believe that you would tell them the truth. And when people trust you enough, they’ll go along with what you say, whether or not they totally understand it, as a child with a parent, a student with a teacher, a novice with a mentor. And because it is so powerful, when it backfires, things can go horribly, horribly wrong. If the audience finds that the speaker was lying to them, that betrayal can diminish the audience’s ability to trust anyone. If the an immoral speaker uses that trust to manipulate people, we can see evil on the scale of Nazi Germany, the genocide in Rwanda, or that of Charles Manson or Jim Jones, all of whom led people to do the unthinkable.

To quote Father Christmas in the film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “These are tools, not toys. Bear them well.” You can appeal to someone’s reason validly, or you can use fallacious arguments to trick them. You can appeal to their emotions to make them feel the true weight of the matter at hand, or you can manipulate them into a malleable state, ready to do your bidding. You can appeal to someone’s trust in you to make them see when they wouldn’t otherwise understand, or you can use it to stab them in the back. Be careful how you use them.

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