Pianos, Shoes, and Rhetoric, Oh, My!

This post is part of a series on rhetoric. Check out the first, second, and third posts too, if you’re interested!

Did you know I am a classically trained pianist? Or, at least, I used to be. I don’t know how much I’m entitled to that… title, I guess… now, but I took twelve years of lessons and minored in piano performance in college.

Anyway. In high school, I began learning the first movement to Sonata “Pathetique” by Beethoven. I was really excited to learn it because the major theme was used in a Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego theme I used to play on the computer back in the dark ages when computer games required Compact Discs. But I digress.

When I first began to learn the piece, my piano teacher taught me that the name “Pathetique” is what’s called a false cognate in language learning. To native English speakers, pathetique sounds a lot like the English word pathetic. But a more accurate translation would be “emotional.”

And so it is in rhetoric, too.

One of the three rhetorical appeals discussed by Aristotle and frequently taught today in writing classrooms is the appeal to pathos, or the appeal to emotion.

The Case Against Emotion in Persuasive Communication

Appeals to emotion in persuasive communication often get a bad rap. Cries of “you’re not being rational” or “stop being so emotional” are often used to shut down or dismiss people on social media. There’s this idea that’s really prevalent in many online (and offline, tbh) spaces that if everyone can just “calm down” and “have a rational debate” about difficult topics, then we could come to some kind of agreement or compromise, even about controversial subjects.

On its face, this may seem like a nice thought: if we can just all speak rationally, then we can come to the best conclusions for everyone involved. Underneath that idea, though, are several underlying assumptions:

  1. “Rationality” has more value than emotion.
  2. People’s systems of reasoning are more or less the same.
  3. People generally have the same values.

Here’s the thing: these assumptions are not necessarily true. In fact, I’d argue that they’re all false.

I probably don’t have to convince you that the last one is false, but the first and second statements, maybe I do. Let’s start with number two, because I have more to say about number one.

For those of you who don’t know, I was born and raised in America, but I currently live in Luxembourg, a small European country nestled comfortable between France, Germany, and Belgium. Something I have struggled with here is going to sit-down restaurants. In the States, if you’re not in a fast food or fast casual restaurant, you’re going to step inside the restaurant and wait by the host stand to be seated. A host will come and take you to a table, possibly after asking after your preferences. Here in Luxembourg and the other places we’ve visited so far, that’s not the case. There are no host stands, and so what sometimes happens is this: I walk into a restaurant, panic about whether I’m supposed to wait to be seated, and then a server will indicate that I can basically sit anywhere I want to.

Why do I get nervous about these encounters? Because this is an (admittedly slight) cultural difference between the US and Europe. The cultural assumptions about behaviors in restaurants vary just enough to make me uncertain how to behave.

This idea, that assumptions about beliefs and behaviors differ, and that those assumptions lead to cultural differences in how people interpret each other’s behavior, is called cultural logic.

People in different cultures operate under different cultural logics, and that affects how they communicate. I don’t just mean national cultures, either. Cultures within the States have different cultural logics, too.

Take, for example, the recent rise in support for defunding and/or abolishing police. One way to consider the disagreements about this topic is to think through two very different assumptions about policing held by different groups in the United States.

Some groups assume that police, and the institution of policing in general, is a net good and overall produces a safer society than a society without policing.

Other groups assume that police, and the institution of policing in general, is a net negative and overall produces a less safe society than a society without policing, usually for particular minority groups (Black and Indigenous people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, homeless people, etc.).

These different groups are operating off of not just different but opposite cultural logics, and unless those logics can be broken down and examined, one group is not going to make any persuasive headway with the other group.

The Case For Emotion in Persuasive Communication

Now, about that first assumption above: “rationality” has more value than emotion.

I’m not about to say that emotions are more valuable than rationality. But I will say they are at least as important as logic because they let us know what our values are.

Remember that example of an appeal to pathos I wrote about in my first post in this series? The Sarah MacLaughlin ad for the ASPCA? I always use this as an example because it’s such an obvious appeal to emotion. People watch it and get sad about puppies and kitties and then go give money to the ASPCA. But why does it make people sad?

I’ll tell you why it makes me sad. Because I care about the well being of puppies and kitties! It’s important to me that those little babbies get well-taken care of and are not abused! My emotional response to the commercial shows me (and others) what I care about.

Emotion can also be a powerful motivator to action, sometimes more so than logic or credibility. If something makes you very emotional, be it angry or sad or joyful, you might be more inclined to act on those feelings than if you just encounter appeals to logic or credibility.

The Corporate Case for Pathos

Take for example a few major commercial campaigns from recent films. In 2018, Nike released an ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, a (former?) football player and activist who had been protesting police brutality against people of color by kneeling during the national anthem.

People who had been critical of Kaepernick for these protests were spurred to action by these protests. They tossed out or burned their Nike shoes in protest of Nike’s support of Kaepernick.

But after the ad and the associated social media storm? Nike stocks went up.

While one group saw the ads and protested Nike in a storm of emotion, others were spurred to support Nike through feelings of pride, righteousness, and hope.

Another Case Against Pathos

Here’s another thing about appeals to pathos, though. They can cue us in to our emotions, which is great, but just like any rhetorical appeal or device, appeals to pathos can be deployed for both good and ill. And, of course, a bit of both.

Take the Nike ads, for example. While supporters of Kaepernick and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement more generally may laud Nike for this ad, they may be frustrated to find that Nike has long been and continues to be scrutinized for their treatment of their workers. Specifically, Nike has historically used sweatshop labor in their factories, something they claimed to have addressed in the early 2000s. However, more recent investigations seem to indicate they may have returned to this practice. Some BLM supporters did know of these allegations, and called on Nike to end these harmful practices. Whether or not Nike listened to these critiques amide the social media storm that arose from these ads, however, remains to be seen.

The long and the short of it is best summarized by Youtuber Hbomberguy in his video on Woke Brands. In it, he reminds us that “brands aren’t [our] friends.” Brands want one thing: your money. And support. Okay, maybe two things. But really, that second thing is actually about that first thing. So yeah. They want your money.

TL;DR: Emotions are Great. Pathos just is.

So what’s the big takeaway here? Basically, I’m trying to persuade you that the use of pathos isn’t inherently good or bad. Appeals to pathos are just something that exist in the world, and, like all rhetorical tools, can be used in service of many kinds of causes. They’re not more or less important than appeals to logos or ethos, but they can give us a different kind of information–information about ourselves.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this post, help a blogger out and share it on your social platforms, please and thank you. And then go check out the other posts in this series:

3 thoughts on “Pianos, Shoes, and Rhetoric, Oh, My!

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