Pathos

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.

Wasn’t That a Time

With this week’s tempest in a thimble over whether or not Pete Seeger has joined the BDS “movement,” I think we can safely say that Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions has jumped the shark.

Just to sum up, on Monday press releases went out on the “Israel-Sucks” portion of the Internet announcing that Pete Seeger, the 1930s-50s folk icon, had expressed regret for participating in a 2010 online peace/environmental event entitled “With Earth and Each Other – A Virtual Rally for a Better Middle East,” sponsored by Israel’s Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. The announcement also stated that Mr. Seeger was now fully supportive of efforts to pressure/punish Israel via boycott, divestment and sanctions.

The announcement was made by ICAHD, the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions (a member of the wide-ranging constellation of anti-Israel groups with noble-sounding names that, in varying ways, support the BDS tactic as part of the overall propaganda strategy to “brand” Israel an “Apartheid state”). And, just as quickly, reporters contacted the 92-year-old singer who clarified that ICAHD’s description of his change-of-mind was (how best to describe it?) “accuracy challenged.”

The key to understanding this broo-ha-ha is the number 92 (as in the 92 years Mr. Seeger has been on the earth). Having apparently exhausted the number of 60, 70 and 80-year-old entertainers to harass, the BDSers have moved onto asking people who were famous before and during World War II to support their cause (apparently, the last veteran of World War I just died and was thus unavailable). And it is within the context of this historic timeframe that this particular Pete Seeger story takes on a level of ironic significance.

You see, Pete Seeger is a bit of a generational Rorschach Test. Members of my parent’s generation who grew up during or after World War II appreciate (some even revere) Seeger and his fellow folk singers as a link between the musically charged Progressive movements of the early 20th century and the post-war era when radical politics, Elvis, The Beatles and LSD led to a romantization of a seemingly simpler polico-musical dynamic of a (possibly imagined) past.

For my generation (who became politically aware in the 70s and 80s) Seeger and other members of his generation of folkies were those guys who kvetched during Live Aid that rockers like Bob Geldoff couldn’t have done it without their historic precedent, a deep appreciation of their own significance that founds its best articulation in the fabulous mockumentary “A Mighty Wind.” And for our kids, Seeger was the singer we put on the CD player whenever we were getting sick of hearing Raffi yammering on about baby whales and banana-phones. In other words, Seeger never succeeded (and, as far as I know, never tried) to follow the course mapped out by the similarly ancient Noam Chomsky to sell the same guff to today’s students that he once peddled to their grandparents.

There is a darker side to the Seeger story, however, one that involved his deep loyalties to the Stalinist wing of the Socialist movement in the 30s and 40s. While many other left-leaning entertainers and politicos were able to navigate between their Socialist principles and demands for supreme loyalty to the Stalinized Soviet Union, Seeger was never able to find the imagination or courage to do so, to the point where on the supreme moral question of the last century (the fight against Nazi Germany), Seeger choked. He was militantly anti-Nazi in the early 1930s (as were all good Socialists), but then turned militantly anti-war after the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 forged an alliance between Nazism and Communism to together carve up Europe. It was only when Hitler moved East, invading Germany’s Soviet neighbors and former partners, that Seeger stopped singing about “J. P. Morgan’s War” and became a gung-ho war supporter, going so far as to serve himself in the Pacific theatre.

While harassment by anti-Communists in the 1950s help burnish Seeger’s progressive brand, many people (notably many anti-Stalinist Leftists) never forgave the singer’s seeming willingness to take moral dictation from the reprehensible and murderous Soviet Union. The singer’s embrace of Israeli folk music in the 1950s (when Israel was a Socialist darling) to the conscious removal of Israeli songs from the folk pantheon in the 1960s (when the Soviets switched their alliance from Israel to the Arabs) confirmed the suspicion that, despite his earnest vocal and banjo twang, Mr. Seeger was still willing to outsource his morality to one of the world’s most despicable regimes.

Given that my people were on the receiving end of both of the major totalitarian movements of the 20th century, I can’t claim a lot of sympathy for Seeger and his ilk, even if Seeger himself tried to make amends for the past by finally writing a little ditty condemning “Uncle Joe” Stalin… in 2007! But, having grown up in a part of the world where the Christian notion of redemption permeates the culture, I do appreciate Seeger’s seeming attempt to give that concept the old college try towards the end of his life.

After all, Dante’s Hell and Heaven are populated by people who have committed many of the same sins. But the difference between an adulterous couple blowing around the Inferno and their murderer free of Hell’s torments is that the latter truly repented of his or her crime with a sincerity that even God understood to be genuine.

So is Seeger, having spent the last few decades playing banjo at community fairs, sailing down the Hudson and (last year) publically advocating peaceful dialog as the only way forward in the Middle East, trying to make up for sins of the past? Who knows, but I think it’s safe to say that whatever journey he finds himself on towards the tail end of his life, the last thing he needs is the self-serving members of ICAHD et al fraudulently using a 92-year-old whose political persona resonates with few people below the age of 60 for their own squalid and narrow political purposes.