Monday, June 06, 2011

Ethos - Yes, Reputation Matters

One of the many challenges we face teaching rhetoric is how to admit our own biases and how those affect us as audience members. After all, we teach our students to avoid falling for various fallacies — supposedly, even those employed by our own "side" within a debate or public policy discussion. Of course, we don't actually see our side and any opposing views clearly. Not even close. Study after study reveals we are better at spotting the fallacies and errors of our opponents. We distrust the other side(s) of arguments.

Today, I was pondering the power of "ethos" to shape public debates. In some ways, our evaluations of ethos represent our biases and cultural experiences. We judge people, and those judgments feed into how we measure ethos.

In classical rhetoric, ethos is translated as meaning a mix of character, reputation, standing, and position. I summarize ethos as the amount of respect and trust extended to a person based on assumed merit. That merit is not always earned, especially in cultures with strict caste systems. In those cultures, birthright creates instant ethos. Not that any culture is immune from birthright ethos, either, including the most "modern" and "progressive" Western cultures.

We each have an ethos scale. From the moment a speaker, author, director, or other public communicator is introduced we start to apply that ethos scale to the person, and that helps determine how much "slack" we grant the speaker.

For example, I would tend to trust an epidemiologist presenting information on contagion patterns. Anyone else, I would be listening for journal article titles, research references, and more. But I'd make the human mistake of trusting someone with credentials a bit less critically than I should.

We tell ourselves that whatever our ethos scales, they must be based on logic and reason. My scale admittedly favors certain scientists, economists, reporters, and so forth. I "trust" these people and what they communicate, primarily based on my value system. I admit that I trust some universities more than others, some hospitals more than others, and some media outlets more than others.

What brought ethos to mind today was the Anthony Weiner story. Because the story first appeared in certain media, many (most) of my colleagues refused to believe one of the leading liberal activists in Congress might be guilty of idiotic behavior and lying. The "ethos scales" of my colleagues led them to trust Weiner more than various media outlets. Ethos is definitely emotional, not merely a logical scale.

I'm not merely a skeptic. I am a curmudgeonly cynic, with misanthropic tendencies. Increasingly, trust no one is my approach to public discourse. I did not believe Anthony Weiner, from the start, but I also assumed the media attacking him had doggedly pursued him. But, I suppose that's also what opposition media do, left and right.

My ethos scale might not "go up to eleven" — I start from the position of doubting a speaker. I was surprised to learn that my friends and colleagues give anyone the benefit of the doubt. I try to never assume someone is being accurate, and I never assume a politician is honest and truthful. We cannot let ourselves imagine one "side" is honest and all others are not. Giving "ethos" (as in "good reputation") based on political, regional, religious, or other simplistic attributes is dangerous.

Ethos changes over time. There was a time when I trusted everything teachers said, right up until about second or third grade. There was a time I trusted most journalists, right up until I worked in newsrooms. We come to trust some groups of people and to distrust others, and these judgments evolve.

I study body language, verbal ticks, and other aspects of unintentional communication. That interest in micro-expressions and manipulative habits affects my ethos scale, too. Few people are worthy of standing because few have good character. Yes, I assume the worst of people because what makes us so human is our struggle to be better than our natures. I admire the men and women who admit to and rise above instinct and impulse.

Yet, even with all the reading I have done, poring over research on human nature, I still grant greater ethos to some people than others. In my mind it is logical to trust scientists within their disciplines.

I ask my students to develop lists of people they trust and don't trust. How do their cultural backgrounds, educational experiences, and other factors help determine trust?

Why did so many of my colleagues blindly believe whatever Anthony Weiner said? I could tell he was lying. I'm sure most people could, if they paid attention to his words, movements, and micro-expressions. Yet, his ethos carried the debate for many people I know. Maybe they learned a lesson about trusting a speaker based solely on his status within a group identity.

We tend to grant "ethos" to members of our tribe, our nation, our community. We want to trust members of our own team. That is a huge blind spot in debates and one we all have.

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