Rhetoric that works: Projecting Pathos

What a timely moment to be looking at the role that pathos plays in signifying authority and credibility. If you are in the UK, then this month’s general election campaign provides an excellent opportunity to journey through the anthropological safari park and observe potential leaders up and down the country stake their claim.

Meanwhile in the USA, the master of modern pathos, Donald Trump is already rebounding from his recent bruising in the court room to double down on the rhetoric as he turns up the heat on his bid to reclaim the presidency in the Autumn.

But let’s start with a reminder about what pathos is. It is one of the three pillars of persuasion (along with ethos and logos) which Aristotle identified over 2000 years ago in Ancient Greece when democracy was in its infancy.

Aristotle took this pillar from the Greek word páthos, which embodies suffering and emotion. While its modern dictionary definition focuses on pity and suffering, from the perspective of speaking to an audience, pathos is associated with appealing to the emotions.

At various times in history, politicians have risen to power by harnessing the force of pathos. Used in speeches (and presentations) pathos has its strengths as it can tap into the emotional groundswell, raise the temperature and prompt fists to pump the air in agreement!

However, that raw power comes with weaknesses too – reflected in old expressions such as ‘all mouth, no trousers’ and ‘empty vessels make the most noise.’ These infer that beyond that raw emotion there is little actual substance left and for that reason it is unsustainable.

Nevertheless, this rhetorical pillar is enjoying a cultural moment as we approach the quarter mark of the Twenty First century. According to many commentators though, the flipping point actually occurred 30 years ago this month, when a former American football star and actor, was accused of murder.

The resulting trial of OJ Simpson injected society with a shot of emotion which lit up the end of the Twentieth century. It even managed to sprinkle fairy dust over the legal profession in the process, spawning a celebrity lawyer A-list (would the Kardashians have become such a dynasty had it not been for the spotlight on Robert Kardashian during the trial?).

This charge of emotion has continued its phosphorus-like burn into the Twenty First century with the arrival of the internet and social media. One of the side effects has been the increasing fluidity of facts and this has provided a petri dish for the rhetoric of pathos to thrive. One politician who embodies this more than any, is Donald Trump.

It could be argued that he did much to legitimise the current use of pathos in politics with the ‘alternative facts’ narrative used around his 2017 inauguration. Those alternative facts kept on coming, wrapped up in layers of his customary emotional brimstone but his popularity hasn’t diminished.

Much of that is down to Trump’s charisma and ability to bend an audience to his will by reflecting the emotion back to it. His mining for emotion is on the blunter side of subtle, but it works effectively. He ‘hears’ his audience’s suffering and offers himself as a remedy as well as sharing his own ‘suffering’ as a way to claim to be in the same downtrodden pile as them.

In contrast, in the UK, neither of the leaders of the main political parties offer up much in terms of pathos. Neither is very good at signalling genuine emotion or passion and as a result, neither are popular with voters. When they do try to show empathy they seem strangely disingenuous.

Invoking pathos would be anathema for Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer, who tend to tap into the image of integrity embodied by using the rhetoric of ethos and logos (in the form ‘track record’ and ‘letting the records show’). Their respective pre-political backgrounds in business and legal professions were very much about records.

So back to Donald Trump who doesn’t care about track records or what his record shows (unless it’s yet another world-beating golf round). Recently addressing the convention of the Libertarian Party, which stands for individual liberty, self-ownership and the absence of government intervention, he was roundly booed by the crowd.

Trump flipped the crowd in a moment, by simply channelling that negative energy to his own advantage. He told them that, if elected, he would immediately release Libertarian folk hero, Ross Ulbricht (originator of the internet’s ‘darknet’ Silk Road). The boos turned to cheers and the Republican incumbent milked the adulation. It was business as usual and the Trump pathos juggernaut rumbles on…

Some of you reading this may well be standing for Parliament in the forthcoming UK election and my (unsolicited) advice to you is do not underestimate the power of the emotional connection.  Many of you won’t be standing for Parliament but will be speaking, presenting, pitching a fair bit – when you prepare your next delivery, spare a thought for the emotional connection with your audience.  Lawyers are usually very good at ethos as we saw last month, less good at pathos (and if you want a quick win here, tell a good and relevant story – always gets the pathos box ticked) and not too bad at logos… but that’s for next month.