Teaching Logic in the Age of Emotion

As an instructor of English, I'm in the business of helping college students become writers. In order to write well, they have to be able to think critically. To help facilitate the thinking process, I encourage attention to the appeals to rhetoric practiced by the ancient Greeks. I'm talking about the appeals to Logos (logic), Ethos (ethics/credibility) and Pathos (emotion). There's no official hierarchy in these appeals, but logic, well, leads us to recognize the premium on being logical. You know, of having an understanding of the evidence at hand in order to draw solid conclusions based on good reasons. It also seems logical to next defer to the importance of ethos since the credibility and intention of the source(s) of information should also be given great consideration. Simple enough. Finally, there's pathos, the appeal to emotion. This appeal is selectively employed, and it can be uplifting or manipulative, depending - of course - on the ethos of the source. I warn my students of the danger of emotions since it's most difficult - even for thinkers - to be reasonable when overly emotional. I ask them to recall times when they've behaved foolishly, and to question the role emotions played (my personal list is way long). I also advise them to be skeptical of anyone who tries to appeal primarily to their emotions - especially fear - without any appeal to logic and ethics. It happens. Now more than ever.

In these remarkable times, it seems this scenario - of emotion besting logic and credibility - is happening all over at great cost to our country. I attribute much of the emotional chaos to technology. The first major casualty of the technological age appears to be logic. Think about the manner in which emotions - mostly negative ones - are fostered by the internet. Consider the ease in which the gangs of Chicago and elsewhere taunt each other on Social Media and how this explains the awful uptick in street violence. Or the teenagers who are mocked or ignored on popular apps and, as a result, suffer from profound issues with self-esteem that often manifest in mutilation and/or opioid use. It's not just our youth who are emotionally victimized by technology. The discourse that is supposed to be part of a functioning democracy has been reduced to comment box mudslinging and twitter feuds and ginned-up news stories intended to stoke anger through acrimony and misinformation. Look at the lives that are regularly ruined by hordes of virtual (and usually anonymous) vigilantes who have the means to directly threaten the safety of someone they deem an enemy. Or the utterly absurd things large swaths of our adult population actually believe. Online propaganda influenced our last election.

And here we are. Our new President is pathos writ large without any indication of the other appeals. While we don't know how the Presidency of Donald Trump will play out, it is already clear that logic and credibility need to be restored for the sake of the nation. We need to put party (and pathos) aside to let logic and credibility rule. Together - as a functioning democracy - we can restore a more reasonable rhetorical hierarchy and move us away from cultural pathologies and political acrimony toward a more perfect, peaceful and productive union. Think about it.