Defence Against the Dark Arts: Poisonous Pathos

Out of all the rhetorical tropes stocked in our arsenal of persuasion, pathos is certainly the most powerful. Logos is like a castle, well-founded, sturdy and strong, however pathos is the wave of water which sinks it with overwhelming force.

Pathos is an appeal to the emotions. Whether that is sadness, pity, happiness or anger; whenever someone is trying to inspire any sort of emotion from the audience they are using pathos.

Pathos can be like poison to logic rotting its foundations and overpowering its reason. However, Pathos, as with all things, has its weaknesses. Like a good song played too many times pathos can lose its potency with frequency. If we’ve heard the same argument too many times we simply start developing an immunity to it. In some cases, we are faced with the most emotive of appeals and we just block our ears and close our eyes – think of those charity television adverts which society has almost become entirely immune to. Pathos is most effective when it is least expected.

Pathos can overcome reason, overwhelm logic and manipulate perspective. The most worrying thing about pathos is that it is very easy to use and people use it all the time, on both large and small scale arguments.

Even Donald Trump’s recent ‘fire and fury’ statement against North Korea can be seen as a use of pathos. It is a lot more poetic than simply saying ‘any threat from North Korea will be neutralised’. The words ‘fire’ and ‘fury’ are designed to stir emotions.  By using these words he is probably invoking fear from his enemy and patriotism from his supporters – both of which can be seen as examples of pathos.

But pathos is not only used for negative impacts. Sometimes it is well placed and well used to effectively deliver a strong and powerful message. In his maiden speech in 2015, Johnny Mercer MP spoke about his experience as a soldier and the importance of decisions made in Parliament.

“It is very difficult for those of us who have not experienced it, to truly grasp the bottomless well of grief, of losing a child, husband, brother or sister in war, as a result of a grave decision made in this house. This, Mr speaker, is the greatest sacrifice on the alter of this nation’s continuing freedom.”

These words were both highly emotive and highly effective. He uses pathos to emphasise his point and make clear that the decisions made in Parliament lead to people dying. His explanation of grief then emphasises the severity of his point. When he talks about  ‘losing a child, husband, brother or sister’ he is essentially just listing familial relations, however, it is a lot more powerful than talking about ‘losing a member or your family’. It is much more explicit and comprehensive.

One of the most famous speeches on all times is Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech.  He also uses a lot of pathos throughout his speech. One particular example is when he says:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”.

Imagine that statement as ‘I have a dream that people will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character’. It still sounds poetic but would have probably been a lot less effective. Simply by mentioning children (especially “little” ones), he has made his vision more powerful. He is no longer talking about a generic theoretical person but rather four specific people to whom everyone can relate. At that point in the speech, every parent would have thought about their own children and what is in store for the next generation. It is that relatability that makes this sentence emotive and effective.

Pathos can also be used to cloud our judgement and turn our own emotions against our reason. For example, many people have criticised Britain’s involvement in Syria. They have spoken about the children who will die and the families that will be destroyed because of British airstrikes. Others are saying that those people have lost sight of the bigger picture and they are not focusing on long-term stability. As you can imagine, it is a complicated ethical conundrum and pathos often fuels the fires of confusion.

Pathos has many faces. It can be the use of humour or sadness, hatred or love, or indeed any of the emotions that dictate our thinking. We all use pathos and we are all susceptible to it. The trick is to understand pathos within reason and know when we have lost our perspective.

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