Note: the topic of this post is rhetoric. I don’t think I have anything new to contribute to the topic here, mostly because I’ve been preempted by Aristotle by ~2,400 years. The scaffolding for my discussion does, in fact, come from Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

Second note: this essay was directly motivated by current political discourse, although I am always generally concerned with its topic, not just when provoked.

Americans are divided about a lot of things—always have been, always will be. This is perhaps most apparent in our politics, and most recently (and perennially) in debate about gun policy. I have specific thoughts about gun policy, but my point here isn’t to address them, it’s to address how I approach discussing them: I tend toward essays and discussion, and avoid memes.

In general, whenever I enter a debate/discussion on politics or philosophy, I am worried that I am tricking myself, or being fooled by my own cognitive biases. For example: I worry that, in the face of disagreement, I will slip into defending my point to win, rather than to discover the actual truth, regardless of whether that is my point. I also worry that I am not aware that sometimes, despite using the same words as someone else, we might mean very different things (the phenomenon of “talking past each other”).

It becomes difficult to monitor oneself for all these things in middle of a discussion, especially if the other interlocutors don’t share the same concerns, so most of my improvement in persuasion and discussion has come from building good habits over time, rather than policing every thought in the moment. The habit that has been most helpful has been writing my thoughts down, and discussing problems in an extended fashion with others. I avoid cultivating the habit of meme sharing (whether on social media or in person by repeating certain kinds of soundbites).

Assuming that I am confident in my knowledge of something and attempt to persuade others to my point of view, I will be using rhetoric, the art of persuasion. It is a neutral tool that can be used to amplify both good and bad messages, which is why I have the concerns in the above paragraph.

There are three components to rhetoric:

  • Ethos: the trustworthiness of the speaker
  • Pathos: the emotion inspired by the speaker
  • Logos: the logic of the speaker

Each of these functions differently, and they all have varied effects depending on your audience. But I think it’s clear why each of these is a component of rhetoric. You won’t be persuaded by someone you don’t trust, you will have a hard time being persuaded by a dull speaker, and you will dismiss a speaker who lacks facts.

I am most concerned about striking the right balance between these three things in my own rhetoric. My tendency is to focus too much on logos and ignore pathos and ethos—but I’m aware of this tendency, so it doesn’t rule me.

But based on its contents, it appears that many individuals’ (and certainly most highly visible individuals’) contemporary political rhetoric is heavily unbalanced, with a severe over-reliance on pathos/stirring up emotions. In this kind of speech, logos is largely relegated to insignificance.

Persuasion only through pathos is dangerous, because if you get in the habit of only playing on emotions, and others get in the habit of being overly swayed by their emotions, everyone is sort of playing Russian roulette. Sure, emotions are persuading people now, but there is no guarantee that they will persuade people tomorrow (especially with that dang hedonic treadmill). It also means that everyone gets used to not dealing with facts, the province of logos.

In a world where everyone relies on pathos to persuade, facts cannot save you. That last part is scary, but it is the world we partially live in, and the world that the majority of us built.

Given all of this, I approach political persuasion with caution. But I also have a clear goal: mitigate the effects of pathos, and restore the use and reliance upon logos (sorry ethos, you will come up in another essay).

This means that I am generally suspicious of all political memes on social media—and given recent events, everyone should be. Memes, based on their nature, are ill-equipped to deal in facts. They have to be pithy and hit you somewhere in your emotions, whether those are pleasure or pain. Facts are best understood in context, with explanation—this is done with the mind through essays and books, not memes.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why memes are persuasive; it’s easier to send and share funny pictures than it is to get all your friends to read a particular book or long essay. I just don’t make memes the focus of any contemporary political persuading I do—to do so prioritizes pathos, and marginalizes facts.

Because I’m concerned with my own rhetorical propriety, I will maintain and cultivate my habit of long-form thought in reading, writing, and conversation. And because I don’t like what I see in the average use of political rhetoric, I think everyone should take a hard look at their own use of rhetoric if it is over-reliant on stirring up emotion, especially with memes. It is easy to share a meme (again, this doesn’t have to mean sharing a picture, it could be a political slogan or something else), but good political discourse isn’t easy, and there’s no way around that.

But, of course, rhetorical skill is not good if you never deploy it. Speaking up can be hard.

This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.