Aristotle wrote Rhetoric, The Art of Persuasion almost 3,000 years ago, and it’s influence on the culture is significant. The idea of Ethos-Pathos-Logos seems so obvious, that it is hard to remember that a lot of my students, and our culture in general, have not been exposed to these ideas.
It’s a shame, really. In fact, it is more than a shame. It is dangerous. Yesterday’s shooting at the Congressional baseball baseball practice was evidence of that danger.
When people don’t know how to effectively argue, they also lose their ability to effectively deal with the emotion and anger of the human condition. Frustration mounts, but there is no place for the frustration to vent. Anger just builds and builds, and because the angry person cannot effectively communicate their frustration and anger, or open themselves up to see another view to mitigate their seemingly endless cycle of miscommunication, they become isolated and desperate to be understood in ways that are toxic to the society around them.
Cussing, when I stub my toe, may be temporarily effective to deal with the stress of that moment, but cussing will usually not help if I am angry about my phone bill, or the mistimed traffic lights on my commute, or the political situation in Washington. For those issues, I have to move beyond cussing and bitching and start thinking of how to formulate an argument to persuade others. I need to persuade others with sensible arguments (logic) that connect to my audience (pathos), and encourage them to do the right thing (ethos). Unfortunately, few people are capable of wielding the delicate and powerful weapon of rhetoric. Instead, they go into their home offices or stand in their kitchen and post vitriolic tantrums or, worse–they arm themselves with physical weapons and conspire to physically harm or eliminate those with whom they disagree (the most extreme form of an Argumenum Ad Hominem fallacy).
Rhetoric is not hard to learn, but it is difficult to master. It takes practice and persistence, and it also takes a clear understanding of your audience. By “audience” I do not mean the unwashed masses of social media butterflies that may retweet or repost a clever snide comment. Audience consists of the very person or people you wish to persuade. In order to make an argument, you must have true empathy for those who disagree with you. You must spend some time getting to know why they feel the way they feel, what their position is, and how you might most effectively reach them.
The simple act of understanding an audience forces the rhetorician out of their carefully buffered political or social silo, and into a meaningful study of an opposing view. This forces the rhetorician to begin consideration of alternative perspectives, and, usually, some self-reflective consideration of their own perspective. This is the beginning of critical thought.
Critical thinking is the self-reflective analysis of thought, action, and reaction. In order to be truly persuasive one must be willing to push themselves out of their own comfort zone, and away from their usual cadre of political, social, and cultural like-minders, to grasp at the brass-ring of subjective analysis: “What makes my opponent think the way they do?” Once an opponent is viewed not as a flawed human being; but as a sane, intelligent person with rational thought–civility must persist, and civil discourse blooms.
It is this tradition of civil discourse, so hopelessly forgotten in our contemporary daily lives, that has been the basis of democracy, law, and basic human decency for thousands of years.
So, with this in mind, I appeal to you to revisit rhetoric in your own life. If you don’t know how to effectively argue, begin to learn. Start with understanding those around you and practicing gentle persuasion. Watch some videos on rhetoric or maybe, if you have an opportunity, pick up that classic by Aristotle. It really is worth your time.