Friday, February 08, 2008

just to be clear...

I had a great discussion with my students today about the video I posted yesterday. We were talking about what persuades us (or hasn't yet persuaded us) to vote. This question of "effect" is one that kind of puzzles rhetoricians. Do people really act as a result of persuasive rhetoric, or is rhetoric just one of many influences that eventually causes action. We (my class and I) looked at a bunch of posters on this site, talked a little about Mtv ads, watched that video and--in the end--came to some interesting realizations.

One of those realizations--or maybe admittances--was that young people (my students are 18 and 19) don't vote. One student said that he didn't vote because he didn't really know a lot about the candidates and didn't want to just vote to vote. It felt irresponsible. So the posters weren't really that persuasive. Another student said that he liked the posters but that it really took something spoken before he was moved in any particular direction. That made me think of the video I posted yesterday.

I didn't know if I would have time to show it because I had other stuff to cover--so I held off on it until the end of class. We did have about 5 minutes after my planned lesson on library research, so we watched the video.

I didn't know who a lot of the celebrities were in the video, but I knew they would, so I asked them to write down the names of people they knew. When the video was over, I asked them whether or not they felt the video was persuasive. They did. I asked them why-- The student who said he liked oral persuasion said "I don't know why I am persuaded, but I am! I've got goose bumps!" "And we believe what our goose bumps tell us, don't we!" I shot back. "Yes!" he said. Ha, ha--I had lured them into my trap.

Then we started talking about all the celebrities in the video and why their influence helped the message be persuasive. We didn't have a lot of time, but it was here that I revealed my purpose in showing them this video that really doesn't have any clear mention of Obama's politics or views on the issue other than that he wants change and "Yes we can" get it. We talked about ethos (credibility), pathos (emotional appeal), and logos (logical appeal) and how the video was almost completely based on pathos--the least stable of all of the appeals. It was a great teaching moment where I was able to talk about being weary of rhetoric that appeals only to the emotions (which most visual rhetoric is aimed at--at least initially). We mentioned how sad it would be if they voted for a candidate based on the feeling their TV ad gave them without doing any research (ah ha! Research!) about what that candidate really believes--where they might find some drastic personal incongruities.

If I would have had more time, I could have spoken a little about using that kind of rhetoric as a springboard to investigation. If they like a certain candidate based on his or her ads on TV, start doing that research. Start doing some soul searching.

So, my own recent decision to align myself with the Democratic party (instead of flailing as an independent) and support Obama does not come lightly and without much thought (or without some help from an understanding, very conservative, friend). And I am still doing work to figure out my exact stance on the complex issues our Nation faces. But that I am thus working is a marked change from my past apathetic political life. And at least I know now which way I lean. I hope that doesn't alienate me from my friends and family who are persuaded differently. Being a religious democrat (like being a religious academic), is often incorrectly spun--as outlined in this great speech--as a paradox or conflict of interest. I just don't think that is the case.


  1. Glad you clarified. :) I had just had a political discussion with several friends when I saw your blog, and the discussion was about how they had voted for Obama because "he seemed presidential" and "he seemed nice." I asked them if they had any idea what his political stances were, and they didn't. I asked them what they wanted a President to do once elected, and, well, it was quite the opposite of what Obama proposes.

    It was just an eye opener for me that so many people vote on "pathos," as you say, instead of really researching both the candidates and the issues. I mean, I probably would vote for Obama too, if I only based it on how he comes across.

    I have no problem with people voting for Obama or Clinton if they have done their research and really believe in the things these candidates are offering. Really, I don't. :) I do have a problem with people basing their vote on if the candidate seems nice or fake or is Mormon or a former Muslim, and not really paying attention to the things that really matter.

  2. This is your fence-sitting brother-in-law, Brandon.

    Yesterday I listened to a radio program in which the expert guest said that for most people, "pathos" trumps their voting decision almost every time. I think that I agree...hmmmmm. Sad but true?

    Four years ago I really got tired of all the e-mail forwards with pictures of a hard-at-work George W. Bush set against pictures of a windsurfing John Kerry. I felt insulted by the appeal to emotion. I think that the “yes we can” video is more of the same. Sadly, I bet the pictures, and the video, persuade many people.

    Yet, think of the good impact for a President who uses pathos to achieve positive results. But what are positive results? exercise in logos.

    Great post Jon. I still like you.

    Religious Democrat seems easy. Try being a Mormon environmentalist (especially difficult in Idaho).

  3. I wish I were one of your students.

  4. I've been following your political metamorphosis... Here in Texas we haven't yet had our primary (March 4th). Since the GOP race now looks pretty well solidified, I may vote in the Democratic primary just to have say about which of the Democrats gets the nomination.

    I did agree with much of Obama's speech about faith and politics.

  5. Anonymous1:46 PM

    I actually think Obama's strongest rhetorical appeal may be ethos. A lot of people seem to be supporting him on the basis of "I just like him." And I don't know of anyone who hates him in the way many people feel towards Clinton or McCain.

    In fact, Clinton's campaign has been doing all they can to try to make the campaign a logical discussion about experience, record, etc. They keep pointing out that in many ways Obama's record is an unknown and his platform is pretty general ("vague" in their words). But voters don't seem to be picking up on these ideas.

    Actually, the Obama campaign's use of ethos as a main appeal is not a bad strategy. Remember, Aristotle said ethos was the strongest of the rhetorical appeals. (If we don't believe someone is credible/likeable/full of good will, it doesn't matter how much logical evidence they have for their position or how many emotional appeals they try to use. If fact, we will tend to discount both their logic and their passion because of its source.)

    A good example of this that contrasts quite starkly with the Obama campaign is the campaign of John Edwards. His campaign centered around passionate appeals about issues that Democrats FEEL strongly about, but he didn't have the persona to match his position. He talked about the "two Americas" and the working poor, but he himself got $400 haircuts. By contrast, people perceive Obama as "the real deal."

    If Obama wins in November, we will be able to use it as a textbook case of the powerful role ethos plays in persuasion.

  6. Thanks, anonymous! Insightful, um.., insights! (Sorry. What a lame response to a great comment!)