Wednesday, May 3, 2017

On Constructing Political Arguments

Emotion, especially anger, is driving too much of the debate

Has our society lost the ability to engage in sensible debate?

I have often asked whether people would listen to my arguments on this site based off the evidence alone. Providing data to back up an opinion isn’t a very compelling way to win an argument.

I’ve long been a proponent that every good argument, in fact, contains three elements: pathos, ethos, and logos.

To explain these concepts further, here’s what says on each of them:

  • Ethos is an appeal to ethics, and it is a means of convincing someone of the character or credibility of the persuader.
  • Pathos is an appeal to emotion, and is a way of convincing an audience of an argument by creating an emotional response.
  • Logos is an appeal to logic, and is a way of persuading an audience by reason.
I learned to use these concepts in arguments not from some liberal propaganda book, but from a conservative instructor at UW-Milwaukee, Jessica McBride, who was teaching an opinion writing class at the time. Her invaluable insights have helped me become a better writer, even if I do disagree with her on nine issues out of every ten.

I fear, however, that America is beginning to lose the value of constructing a good argument. Rather than using pathos, ethos, or logos, we are beginning to place value on ignorance and talking points that disregard these important concepts.

With logos, we are seeing debate dwindle down to made-up facts. Whether on climate change, or even the simple concept of why there was an American Civil War, facts don’t seem to matter any longer. Donald Trump has even taken to using the term “fake news” to discredit detractors who oftentimes rightly correct the president on topics he fails to coherently grasp. The use of logos, or rather the lack of proper use of it, is reaching dangerous levels.

We’re also seeing a diminishing use of ethos in the national debate. Rather than empowering the legitimacy of the arguer, the debate has too often devolved into attacking the character of the opponent. We see this daily on cable news networks — arguments quickly shift into what an opponent’s stance was or statements were three weeks ago, rather than staying on point with the current argument at hand. Cordiality and an emphasis on why an individual is a credible source of information, is losing out to simply bringing the other side down.

Pathos seems to be a favorite arguing point among both sides these days, but it faces the opposite problem: rather than being underused, it’s being overused, so much that emotions like anger flood the debate.

Case in point: this recent op-ed from the Washington Times by Charles Hurt, which is simply an angry diatribe titled “Shut up, Jimmy Kimmel, you elitist creep.” Hurt uses his anger to make an argument against Kimmel’s recent calls for providing insurance to families that can’t afford it — and anger seems to be the only argument Hurt utilizes (emphases in bold added).
He just had a kid and the kid nearly died and he wants you to know that if you are not for bloated federal bureaucracy, socialized medicine, higher taxes and tons of more debt piled onto your grandchildren, then you are not a “decent person.”

Actually Jim, if you were a “decent person,” you would shut your fat trap about partisan politics and go care for your kid, who just nearly died, you elitist creep.


My overall point is this: a good argument is well-balanced. It contains emotion, but it also contains logic and ethical arguments.

Emotional responses to issues are important — the push for health care reform, for example, is in part based on an emotional response. But too much of anything can be problematic, and an argument based solely on emotion (and utilizing only anger) can drive the conversation away from a proper debate, turning it into a yelling match instead.

Logos, pathos, and ethos should be part of every debate — and it’s what I strive for on this blog site.

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