Column: Moving mountains, and minds, with pathos

By Jordan Fischer

We’re talking pathos this week, but if you think that means we’re starting off with Aristotle, you’re wrong.

We begin with Sarah McLachlan.

You don’t even have to be in the same room to feel a tug on your heart strings when her ASPCA commercial comes on. In fact, I bet right now, even just me mentioning the commercial has that song playing in your head. You know which song.

Pathos, Aristotle says, is the rhetorical appeal to emotion. The emotion can be vanity, or fear, or anger, or lust – it’s pathos all the same. And if you don’t believe me that pathos is powerful, ask Sarah’s snaggle-toothed kitten friends.

Here’s what Aristotle had to say about the second of the modes of persuasion:

“The Emotions are all those feelings that so change men as to affect their judgments, and that are also attended by pain or pleasure.”

Note the “affect their judgments” part. Anger and lust and even joy cloud our otherwise reasonable faculties and make us prone to things we wouldn’t normally do – like supporting an extreme policy proposal, or listening to country music. You won’t find a demagogue who explained his policy proposals in a calm, sensible manner, but you’ll find plenty who hope to take power by whipping their crowds into a frenzy.

Now, if you were, say, a candidate running for the presidency of the United States, you might appeal to fear and anger by warning that criminals and rapists were flooding over the border. That’s pathos.

And if you were an opposing candidate, you might reply that voters “cannot put the safety of our children and grandchildren” in said opponent’s hands.

That’s pathos, too.

I’m not here to tell you who to vote for. I’m not even here to talk about “truth” – because pathos isn’t about truth. It’s about emotion. As any boxer knows, if you can get your opponent angry – if you can get in their head – you’re in control of the fight. And many the politician believes if he can get us worked up, he can control our vote.

Next week we leave emotion behind and talk about the thinking man’s mode of persuasion: logos.

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