THE RHETORICAL TRIANGLE
It’s because logos, ethos, and pathos all support one another, just as the three sides of a triangle support one another. Logos occupies the top of the triangle because the appeal to reason through the use of evidence – the most important criterion in responsible, adult-level discourse – must be met. “Rhetoric” means using writing or speaking skills that go beyond appeals to reason. Pathos (appeal to emotion) and ethos (appeal to the values and beliefs of the audience) are persuasive devices. Place pathos and ethos at either angle at the base of the triangle. Pathos can stir the audience’s emotion through tone and diction (i.e. word choice). Ethos establishes the credibility of the writer or speaker. For example, if the “I” of the text is someone who “feels your pain,” then you will identify with and trust “I,” concluding that “I” is of good character. This is what is meant by good ethos.
Logos, pathos, and ethos can be examined more carefully by considering specific rhetorical devices. Below, several devices are grouped into three categories. The categories are not meant to be hermetically sealed and in practice may blend into one another.
CATEGORY ONE: “GOD WORDS” and “DEVIL WORDS” as PATHOS
Context affects how certain words are received. For example, one group of friends might have no problem if you self-identify as “liberal” but another group of friends might react differently. Or you can turn on the radio and listen to talk show hosts rant about either “conservatives” or “liberals.” Or consider that in American politics today candidates running for office – no matter how well-educated or wealthy – work hard to be seen as “an average Jane living on Main Street, not Wall Street.” (Apparently, you can trust someone from Main Street, but someone from Wall Street – who uses “big words” and graduated from an Ivy League school – is “elitist.”)
In various contexts, some words will have positive connotations – they will be “god words” – and some words have negative connotations – hence, they will be “devil words.” The use of god and devil words marks the rhetoric of exclusion. You find it in populism. You don’t have to think about national politics to see it in action. Consider office politics. If you’ve ever experienced a situation in the workplace where the office in-crowd (to borrow from Ramsey Lewis’ hit song) has targeted an out-crowd, you know how powerful god and devil words can be in structuring how people think about and interact with one another.
If god and devil words are used enough, they promote binary thinking. People who practice this type of thinking may be regarded as immature, uneducated, manipulative, or lacking experience interacting with cultural or racial “Others.” Derisive forms of “humor” (such as ethnic jokes) can reinforce binary thinking. (See Said and Derrida for more on binary thinking or “binary oppositions.”)
CATEGORY TWO: TRUST = GOOD ETHOS (?)
If the “I” of the text is someone who you feel reflects your values and beliefs, then “I” has won your trust. You and “I” can go far together, but whether or not the journey ends up being a good one depends on how thoroughly you examine “I’s” ethos or character.
You will need to look at how “I” refers to personal experiences or credentials when discussing a topic. This is not the same thing as a cult of personality, but “I” wants to create an aura of trustworthiness. How can you evaluate the rhetorically constructed “I”? You might need to consider “I’s” personal experiences and/or behavior within various social or professional contexts. Within those contexts, does “I” routinely use poor grammar and punctuation? Does “I” employ questionable tone and diction? Does “I” demonstrate an understanding of evidence used to support an argument? If “I” relies heavily on god and devil words, flattery, and empty invocations of lofty ideals (e.g. democracy, capitalism, scholarship) then “I” is most likely using ad populum (i.e. “bandwagon” fallacy) to win your trust. You should also consider whether or not “I” offers simplistic solutions to complicated problems – a sure sign of ad populum.
CATEGORY THREE: LIES and DOUBLE-STANDARDS = NO LOGOS
Category three grows directly out of category two. If “I” gains your trust, you’ll give “I” some slack when “I” makes fallacious arguments, tells derisive “jokes,” or exhibits behavior that you find inappropriate. When questioned, “I” will find some way to rationalize the lack of logos. Since you’ve given away your trust, you’re ready to believe “I’s” lies. You might even go on to say that the lying and inappropriate behavior adds to “I’s” charm!
But think about it: Have you ever experienced high-pressure sales tactics from a salesperson who kept slapping you on the back, telling you jokes, and talking fast and loud while you tried to ask about the details of a product you wished to purchase? Did you step back and interrupt the dynamics of that situation? When you aren’t pressured or when you don’t trust someone you listen carefully, noticing contradictions, misdirection, and double-standards. If you have ever confronted a salesperson about a lie – and the salesperson simply replied that all the other salespeople lie, too – did you still make the purchase?
(Most people would agree that liars need to be confronted about their lies, but sometimes it is possible that habitually inappropriate behavior coupled with lies may be symptomatic of some disorder. If that is the case, the person cannot be permitted to continue unchecked, but that person ultimately deserves compassion. Consequently, counseling might be a more appropriate response. For a brief overview of lying see Stephanie Ericsson’s “The Ways We Lie” at http://www.marion.k12.fl.us/schools/wph/teachers/userfiles/waterst/file/thewayswelie%5B1%5D%5B1%5D.pdf. The author classifies lies in the following way: the white lie, facades, ignoring the plain facts, deflecting, omission, stereotypes and cliches, groupthink, out-and-out lies, dismissal, and delusion.)
This concludes our primer. You’ll notice that in the act of presenting these three categories the rhetorical triangle has been inverted. Please keep this image in mind as the five sketches develop.