Pathos

23 Apr

Given how much more there is to learn from being wrong than right, I must send my thanks to one of our usual Anonymous commenters whose recent contribution caused me to make a major blunder.

As is frequently the case with Anons, this person chose not to respond to a point I had made, but rather to post a link to a site unrelated to the topic at hand, followed by a demand that we respond to her comment. In this case, it was a link to this site documenting house demolitions in Gaza and elsewhere. But in my haste to respond (and after looking at stuff like this for the last few days), I assumed the linked site featured horrific images of Palestinian suffering to make its case, rather than the nice clean maps and statistics which in fact are there. And so I lashed out at those who make emotional arguments at the expense of facts and reason, and was properly chastised for doing so.

To understand the lesson learned from this experience, I need to refer back to the three modes of persuasion mentioned a few posts ago that derive from the principles of rhetoric (in this case, rhetoric defined as means of persuasive political speech).

For those few of you still in the room, these three modes are logos (an appeal to logic and reason), pathos (an appeal to emotion) and ethos (a slightly more complicated notion of appeal to the moral authority of the person making the argument).

In a perfect world, all political debate would focus on logos, with everyone arguing on the basis of sound logical reasoning backed up by empirical fact. But since the only political debates worth having are ones involving competing reasonable alternatives, we must frequently mix into the discussion appeals to things other than the head, including human emotion. But for such an argument to have integrity, logos and pathos need to be mixed in just the right proportion. And any contribution of pathos must appeal to good emotion (such as compassion, courage and sense of moral duty) as opposed to bad emotion (such as fear, anger or irrational hatred.)

Since writing about this matter a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about how the BDS movement (and all its antecedents) consist primarily (if not entirely) of pathos-based arguments which is why so much of their literature and media looks like this and this. So when I saw a link to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICHAD) web site, I presumed it contained this typical content.

But of course it does not. Instead, it is filled with the aforementioned maps and tables, as well as testimonials, statistics and other elements documenting the many times Israeli authorities allegedly knocked down the home of a Palestinian family. Presumed in the argument based on this supposedly logos-based evidence is the fact that anyone who would do something as awful as knocking down a family’s house must be pretty awful altogether.

Thinking about this over the last few hours, however, it occurred to me that even with all those maps and figures, perhaps I was still looking at a pathos-based argument. After all, the image of a family house being demolished is at its core an emotional one (certainly for anyone who owns a home and raises a family in it). As such, it is similar to the statistics BDSers throw around regarding the number of children killed in conflicts like the recent Gaza campaign. Actually, the latter is even more emotionally evocative since what can be more gut wrenching (especially to a parent) than the thought of an innocent child losing his or her life?

But when these examples of house demolitions or children’s deaths are presented in isolation (absent every piece of the story that led to these horrible images or stats such as weapons tunnels under or Hamas rockets fired from those homes containing those children), then we are being asked to draw conclusions based on those images and carefully chosen statistics alone. In other words, the emotional power of a destroyed home or broken child (whether a photo or a body count) is meant to elicit in us an emotional response that leapfrogs reason to the desired conclusion.

As I’ve stated before, the arguments boycotters make in their presentations, their literature, their videos and their speeches amounts to nothing more than pure pathos aimed directly at not the heart (kindness, courage, etc.) but the gut (fear, anger, disgust). Which is why they tend to focus their messages directly at those who consider themselves to be compassionate and caring.

These pathos-laden appeals actually represent a compliment the BDSers are making to their chosen audience, assuming them to be empathetic enough to be manipulated in such a manner. In fact, if you want to see how ineffective such a technique is against someone who lacks such empathy, watch what happens when you ask a BDSer about Jews killed by terrorism, Palestinians murdered by each other, or the plight of women and gays in the Middle East. Presuming they don’t simply ignore you (their usual first choice), within seconds you will hear a “that’s terrible, BUT…” follows by their next round of accusations against you-know-who.

In one sense, pure pathos has significant rhetoric power, although only as a means of shutting down debate, rather than winning it. Which is why this is the tool the boycotters always reach for first, last and always since they know they can never win an argument fought on level ground.

Pathos is also useful for drawing those who have a visceral reaction to conflict and war who may lack the knowledge to put information like that provided by ICAHD into context, or who may not have enough experience thinking critically about matters where even raw emotional reality must be tempered by reason and judgment. Uber activists (like our Israel-disliking community) refer to such people (i.e., those who feel they must “do something” when bad things are occurring) as “loose change,” i.e., the folks who make up the bulk of bodies who march in the streets after a Middle East war breaks out (at least ones in which Israel is involved).

I’d like to think that for all its ability to short circuit reason and manipulate the inexperienced and empathetic, that pathos will always fail to win the debate and thus will never lead to political victory. And given BDS’s ten year losing streak, there is room for this type of optimism. But if we ever enter a world in which pathos rules the day, I suspect the fate that will befall Israel is only a tiny slice of the horror the rest of us can expect to descend on our lives.

5 Responses to “Pathos”

  1. Bella April 23, 2011 at 9:35 pm #

    Very good analysis. BDS and the 'solidarity' movement operate like a giant advertising agency. Just as sex sells, so do children, homes and other emotive images. Juxtapose those with simplified rhetoric and you can get to 'yes' without even trying.

  2. Anonymous April 26, 2011 at 3:10 am #

    At least to me, it's a different equation. When the Palestinians or their Western apologists attempt to equate the dispute over property with justification for the taking of people' lives. This is an inherently evil equation. It's further astounding that so called Lleftists value an Arab assertion tot land over the li ves of Jewish civiliqns, which is precisely what terrorism is.

  3. Anonymous April 26, 2011 at 11:03 pm #

    This is an interesting observation, and something that I've noticed during the divestment controversies at my institution, UC-San Diego. See, for example, this nauseating video from Anna Baltzer (?) selling the divestment effort: http://www.divestthis.com/2011/04/pathos.html#comments
    All emotion, no logic.

    During SJP's failed campaign for divestment at UCSD last spring, I heard a lot of these, including (I'm not kidding) arguments like these: “We're divesting from GE and UT so that students from Palestine don't have to go some to see their communities assaulted with weapons from a company partially owned by their own university.”

    Something else I've noticed is that the BDS'ers seem to be recognizing the futility of their efforts, yet they campaign for BDS nonetheless. They must know very well that the grown-ups who manage the UC system's money will dismiss such a resolution with a contemptuous pat on the head, yet SJP will campaign for it nonetheless, as if an essentially symbolic vote from the undergrad student council amounted to something.

  4. Anonymous April 26, 2011 at 11:04 pm #

    ^ Oops, wrong link in the previous comment.
    http://www.sjpucsd.org/ucsd-divest-for-peace.html
    There, that should fix it :)

  5. Jon April 27, 2011 at 11:43 am #

    I think you’re hitting on a couple of points here.

    First off, the arguments you’ve seen presented at Davis are typical in that they start with a powerful, emotionally evocative image (that of a person being killed through violence). Then, while asking you to strip this image of all relevant context (such as deaths attributable to warfare with clear – or at least debatable – notions of who is responsible for such a war), they then ask you to suffuse the image with a new context: that of your school having some level of responsibility for the suffering they depict. This is how pathos is used to leapfrog from the BDSers chosen “evidence” (people suffering) to their preferred conclusion (Davis must do what we say), bypassing reason altogether.

    The fact that BDSers are willing to leverage stories, images, etc. that tug at the heart (or the gut) while being impervious to such manipulation themselves is one of the things that gives them their power to manipulate places like college campuses. That and their willingness to import the Middle East conflict into a civic institution with no consideration of the cost to fellow students.

    Which gets to your main point of why they continue to drag this conflict back to campus again and again no matter how many times they lose or and no matter how clear it’s explained to them that the decision-makers at the school will never divest from Israel. To understand this, you need to realize that the audience for the BDS program is not Davis itself, but the wider community of Israel dislikers who have embraced the boycott and divestment doctrine. For this population, simply continuing to engage in their chosen political activity counts as “victory,” (which is why you hear after every BDS defeat that “in losing, we actually won”). And thus, (in their own heads anyway) can never lose (no matter how many times they lose here in this place we call reality).

    This is a form of “fantasy politics” that I’ve talked about a number of times in the past (punch “fantasy politics” into the search field over there to the right to find out more). Within this framework, you and your fellow students and other members of the Davis community are simply props in a drama playing out in the boycotter’s own heads (or, more specifically, among each other). Which is why they’ll be back again and again since the whole point of their project is to make themselves feel like part of a great revolutionary vanguard, the only ones who “see the light” (vs. you pedestrian sinners) whose every choice is justified in the name of a “higher good” (even if they are actually serving as cheerleaders for ruthless totalitarianism).

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