Loaded Language

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Logos, ethos, and pathos as modes of persuading an audience have been the basis for the study of rhetoric since at least the time of Aristotle. Logos is logical appeal; pathos is emotional appeal.


School shootings are a very emotional subject, most directly for those who lose loved ones and friends and those who survive a shooting, but also for anyone who can relate to the fear and anguish of being in either of those positions. Commentators point out that we have heard of school shootings so often that they don’t have the emotional impact they used to have. The outspokenness of some of the survivors of the recent shootings at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, however, gave a different tone to the follow-up. The survivors were grieving, yes, but they were also angry. A dominant voice for the Stoneman Douglas students in the immediate aftermath was Emma Gonzalez, who loudly declared the arguments against gun safety BS. When Gonzalez gave her speech at the March for Our Lives in Washington that grew out of the indignation of the students, it was praised for its power and its emotional appeal. Wise beyond her years, Gonzalez used the power of silence to move her audience and those who heard the speech later through the news or social media. After she called the names of those who died at her high school, she stood in silence until the clock had ticked off six minutes and twenty seconds, the length of time the shooter was active in the school. The minutes dragged as her audience wondered what she was doing. Yet her point about how many lives could be taken in a relatively short time resonated with millions of listeners.


The situation itself appeals to our emotions, as the death of young people almost always does. Added to the grief is the anger that more sensible gun laws that might have prevented the tragedy have not been passed—even in Florida in the days immediately following the shooting, as Parkland survivors looked on from the gallery of the statehouse.


More shocking than anything said by any of the Parkland students, however, have been some of the things said about them. Leslie Gordon, who was running for the Maine State House, called Gonzalez “a skinhead lesbian” and her classmate David Hogg a “moron” and a “bald-faced liar.” Mr. Gordon has since withdrawn from the race. Fox News correspondent Laura Ingraham tweeted that Hogg was “whining” about college rejection letters he had received. Ms. Ingraham has lost about a dozen advertisers since then and suddenly announced that she was taking time off for Easter. Adam Rosenberg, writing for Mashable, laments, “We've entered into a brutal era for politics, one driven more by emotion and ‘us against them’ convictions rather than the rational dissemination of conflicting beliefs. In this era, everyone is vulnerable to attacks, including mass shooting survivors who feel compelled to argue for more of a common-sense approach to gun control legislation. It doesn't matter that they're teens.”


The response some have had to the survivors is where the third mode of persuasion, ethos, comes in. Ethos is ethical appeal, appeal to an audience through the credibility or character of the speaker or writer. Critics like Gordon and Ingraham were clearly revealing more about their character than about the students they were discussing when they launched their attacks. The reaction to those attacks shows that at least some in their audience do not like what they are hearing.


Image Source: “Bullet Holes” by Tom Driggers on Flickr 3/24/18 via Creative Commons 2.0 license

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.