Ethics: Emotional Appeals, Amaris, and America’s Gun Debate

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January 17, 2013 by Michael

I mentioned in my first post that this blog omits emotion from the classical Greek triumvirate of rhetoric—the other two are ethics and logic—and that I’d be talking about why I did this later. Later seems to be now, since two events happened in December that showed good and bad uses of emotional appeals in argumentation.

An emotional appeal is an example intended to inspire emotion in the audience, usually to persuade them of the correctness of a particular perspective. As a culture, we’re immersed in emotional appeals, from advertising to politics.

Commercials try to persuade us through such emotionally-laden logical fallacies as the bandwagon appeal (like DirecTV’s “19 million people can’t be wrong” campaign), the transfer fallacy (when people transfer their love of a celebrity to the product he endorses, as when Joe Theisman promoting prostate medication), or the appeal to flattery (as when car commercials tell us to buy the car “we deserve”).

Political commercials are even more subject to logical fallacies of the emotional variety. These are more often single emotional examples that can sway opinions for or against a candidate, like the infamous “Willy Horton” ads that purported to show that Michael Dukakis was soft on crime or the Ian Malone commercials in 2000, intended to show that Al Gore would fight for patients’ rights.

Politicians use emotional appeals in speeches and commercials, and who can blame them? Emotional appeals are easy. Getting a rise out of people is easy. Want anger? Show a veteran a picture of someone burning their flag. Sadness? Tell a mother about an African woman losing her only child to cholera. Happiness? Tune into the Puppy Bowl. These appeals are all much easier than actually making a reasonable argument for or against a point.

Emotional appeals are even easier when they’re presented to an audience that already agrees with the emotion involved. We often see emotional appeals at religious services or political rallies, places where the crowds share the beliefs of the speaker. But this also shows why emotional appeals are ineffective: they usually fail to persuade people who don’t already share the speaker’s beliefs.

Imagine a Democrat at a GOP convention, or an atheist in a church. Their reactions will be much different from others around them—in fact, they’re more likely to experience precisely the opposite reaction, one of rage or disbelief. Furthermore, it’s rare for someone in that situation to suddenly change his or her beliefs as a result of the emotional appeal.

It is precisely this lack of persuasiveness that makes emotional appeals unsuited for reasonable argumentation, and it’s why I omit them from my college composition classes. Students are already quite familiar with emotional appeals from their years consuming media and advertising. Typically, they come to my class well-armed with emotional appeals, and they don’t need further encouragement.

From a logical perspective, an emotional appeal fails not only because it “preaches to the choir” but because it often appears as a single example story. Moving though these stories may be, they are among the weakest forms of evidence because they are, essentially, a statistic of one. It is only when these example stories accumulate that they gain actual logical force, as individuals amass into great enough numbers that they cannot be ignored.

So what are emotional appeals useful for? As I teach my students, they are excellent for drawing attention to a subject, or to motivating people to action. In a paper, they are effective in the introduction, to hook the reader, or in the conclusion, as a way of telling the reader what should be done about the problem (and, hopefully, solution) presented in the paper’s thesis. And, if one collects enough of them, emotional appeals can become extremely powerful statistics.

As models for good and bad argumentation, let’s look at the two emotional appeals I mentioned in the introduction to this post. First is one that not many of my readers may have heard about. Amaris Hayden, a friend and former Clark College colleague, was having difficulties with her insurance company, the Health Plan of Nevada, which insured Amaris, now a professor at the CSN College of Nevada. Amaris had a lung transplant years ago and was rejecting them last December, but HPN refused to send her to Seattle for the specialist care she needed.

Amaris’ good friend Kyra Dreiss-Mello set up a Facebook page, and, moved by this emotional appeal, many of us spread the word, sending over 3000 emails to the Nevada legislature to put pressure in HPN. Eventually, the insurance company relented, but Amaris had declined during the weeks that they had dithered, and she eventually lost her battle and passed away on Christmas Day.

Amaris’ story made an excellent emotional appeal for all of her friends to take action on her behalf. It will also, hopefully, draw attention to HPN and its policies, although her story is not (on its own) proof that HPN is corrupt or malfeasant. More stories like Amaris’ would generate the statistical proof of this—and Consumer Reports’ 52 rating of HPN, its lowest rating of any plan, suggests there are plenty more.

In and of itself, however, Amaris’ story is not proof. It was—and remains—motivation for us to remember her fondly, live our lives fully, and examine HPN more carefully to see if it is fulfilling its obligations as a healthcare provider.

The second story of emotional appeals is much more familiar to most Americans: the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut that also occurred in December. The death of 20 children and 6 staff members to a lone shooter has reinvigorated the ongoing debate about gun control that polarizes our country.

As with Amaris, however, there are right and wrong ways to use this terrible tragedy as an emotional appeal. Sandy Hook, too, should be a story that motivates those on both sides of the gun debate to take action, just as it should draw attention to the problems our country faces with gun violence.

Just as with Amaris, though, this one incident is not proof that there is a gun problem. The Sandy Hook tragedy gains statistical power when it is lined up alongside the thousands of other tragedies, large and small, publicized and unpublicized, that result from our culture’s fascinations with guns and violence and the regulatory environment around it.

As it stands right now, however, both sides are using emotional appeals to their—illogical and unethical—advantage. When announcing his executive orders intended to curb future gun violence, President Obama surrounded himself with schoolchildren who had written to him imploring him to do something in the wake of Sandy Hook. And, on the other side, the NRA and its supporters have relied on comparisons to the rise of Hitler or our own Revolution (in one case, involving emotionally threatening speech as well).

So as our country once again debates this delicate issue, one where emotions run hot on both sides, let’s remember the proper place of emotional appeals. They don’t prove anything, and they don’t persuade the opposition—in most cases, in fact, they enrage the opposition, precisely the people each side needs to reach out to.

Wherever or with whomever you’re talking about this—online or offline, with friends or with strangers—skip the emotions.

Try using reason instead.

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