Context and Ethics

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October 18, 2012 by Michael

I teach college English, and the name of this blog comes from something one of my students told me. Another student had recommended my class to him, along with the advice, “You’ll be fine if you remember two things: context and ethical tone.”

It wasn’t a surprise to hear this; I often joke in class that “context” and “ethical” are two of my favorite words. To my students, those words represent two important concepts for reasonable argumentation.

First, that we understand the background—the context—of the arguments. We should be informed about the latest ideas in whatever area we’re discussing, including the position of our opponents. We need to understand the evidence for both. If it’s a reasonable argument, that means reasonable people can disagree and have good evidence to do so. It’s our job to find out what that evidence is.

Second, as reasonable people, we should present those arguments in a fair and ethical manner. Don’t exaggerate your position or understate the position of your opponents. Present both sides of the issue fairly. No name calling, logical fallacies, or excessive appeals to emotion.

This is nothing new, and certainly not my invention: Aristotle long ago divided persuasive speaking into ethos, and logos and pathos. Loosely translated, that’s presenting yourself as fair and knowledgeable; presenting logic and evidence for your position; and establishing an emotional connection with the audience.

Our society is immersed in pathos by our saccharine movies, commercials and Top 40 lyrics, to name just a few sources, but nowhere is it more present in our political system. This is, not coincidentally, where ethical and logical behavior are increasingly absent. Politicians of both parties smear each other, play fast and loose with the “facts,” appeal to the best and worst sides of their constituents, often in the pursuit of legislation that will not benefit those same constituents. Our politicians are unbalanced towards the emotional side of persuasive speech.

And this imbalance is reflected in the rest of society. We express our opinions by shouting and name-calling, with abuse and distortion, by getting so emotional that we lose sight of logic and ethics. It’s an imbalance that’s fed (if not created) by the media and breeds in the dark and trollish corners of the Internet, a technology that has allowed people to abandon their manners and humanity along with their identities.

It’s a hard trend to stop, but it doesn’t work if we shout back. I’ve been as guilty of that as anyone—it only makes matters worse, it only makes things more emotional.

But emotion sells. Emotion is interesting. Emotion puts butts in theater seats, songs on iPods, and eyeballs on blogs.

So maybe nobody will read this (at least beyond family and friends and curious students).

But I’m hoping that there are enough of us out there who are tired of the hateful language, the raised voices, the notion that anger and violence against one another are the only solutions to our predicament. Enough of us to return to reasonable conversation, to solve the important problems we are facing by discussing them and not shouting about them.

I intend to do my part with a blog focused on those two neglected legs of persuasive speaking: logos and ethos. Context and ethics. I’ll be offering facts and logic to better understand the background of current controversies, presenting arguments that present both sides of the issue without distortion or excessive emotional appeals, and highlighting other logical and ethical voices—or calling out those who aren’t.

All I ask in return is that you follow those same rules of context and ethics. I welcome your voice and input, as long as it’s equally reasonable. Trollish comments will be deleted. One-sided, unethical arguments will not be accepted, nor will distortions of fact.

Let’s all just be reasonable.

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