Friday, September 11, 2009

Part 3.1: Pathos

Arguing from pathos, or the emotional appeal, is the most difficult part of the argumentation process to incorporate into your writing. The simple reason for this is that most people become very emotional while making an argument, and it would seem that this is the worst thing you can do. Most argumentation sounds less believable, less compelling, less rational, if it is overladen with emotion. The danger of losing one's audience is high if the argument over-emphasises personal feelings. Yet, without strong feelings, it's not likely the writer cares enough about her subject to write an argument in the first place.

So the negotiation is always between too much emotion, badly handled, and not enough emotion. If you do not manage to convey to your audience that you care about your subject, you're likely to lose their interest. The fascinating thing about humans is that we love a good story, and all speeches, all literature, all fiction and non-fiction, relies on a good story to move and incite the audience to feel, believe, or do something different than they already do. So your job, as a writer, is to find a way to convince your audience that your argument is not only correct (well-researched, supported, with all assertions verified) but also compelling.

The job for the academic writer, who seeks to write an effective piece of argumentation, is to balance the emotions that lead you to the topic in the first place, with the language that underlies the argument. The negotiation you make will be with your self-control. You show self-control when you prove to your audience that, through your choice of words and how you structure your argument that you understand your audience's feelings. You're not just attempting to tell your audience how strongly you feel about something, because most people turn off when they hear bitterness, invective, outrage, or any other strong emotion that causes you to lose control over your rhetorical choices. Instead, you're trying to persuade them to see the issue the way you do, and how can you do that if you alienate them with emotions that are so vehement, they're off-putting?

So what can you do to persuade your audience that your position is the right one, when you have strong feelings about your subject? You know you cannot use the language you'd use with your friends to express your umbrage; this is an academic audience, and your language must reflect not only your more articulate audience, but also the contextual expectations of the academic discourse community. Further, what if the subject you've chosen to write about is abortion, which is such a contentious issue, it is almost guaranteed to upset someone in your audience?

The first thing you must do is assess your motivations and your feelings about the subject. You must know why you have chosen this subject. Do you have any personal experience with the subject? If you do, this will affect your argument, and it could work against you if you aren't careful how you set up your argument. Let's say, for example, your sister was forced to have an abortion due to circumstances that are very painful and personal, but if she'd had the baby, her life would have been changed irrevocably. You have formed a strong opinion about abortion because of the pain and anguish your sister went through. How do you convey those emotions in your writing, yet manage to create an argument to support your assertion that abortion should be illegal, something you now believe very strongly?

In the next post, I will discuss ways to manage these conflicting needs; on the one hand, how to manage your emotions, which might be running very high, and on the other, to formulate a powerful argument that might just cause your audience to change their position.

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