Honesty and the Art of Persuasion

A recent Time Magazine article by Joel Stein explores and laments the character and power of internet trolls.  According to Wikipedia, they are people “who sow discord on the internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous or off-topic messages in an online community…with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or otherwise disrupting normal, on-topic discussion, often for their own amusement.”

One line from the article especially caught my eye: “Troll culture might be affecting the way non-trolls treat one another.” Yep, I think so.

Admittedly, Stein goes on to observe, based on a study by a U. of California Irvine researcher, that reports of good deeds seem to prompt others to report good deeds.  But the reverse is also true and that is what most of the article seems to reveal.  Trolls infect the internet and, though they are actually just normal people and not monsters, their corrosive rhetoric is doing real damage to serious debate.

Which raises the question about honesty on the internet.  Trolls seem to care little for careful and accurate characterization.  They go straight for the jugular, making things nasty and personal.  What should we think when bloggers do the same for the sake of promoting their views?  There are lots of Christian bloggers and commenters on the internet and there are lots of United Methodist bloggers.   There is more than enough nastiness among us to demonstrate the point.

Christian engagement with important and sensitive topics is dreadfully important.  All the more reason for us to strive for honesty in our arguments and, most importantly, in our characterizations of others and their views.  A number of United Methodist bloggers fail miserably on this measure.  The troll mindset infects us shamefully.

Experts and teachers of good communication remind us of some crucial reference points. For a long, long time teachers have been introducing  students to the three modes relevant to appropriate means of persuasion mentioned in Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

Logos (word/reason/order) refers to our ability to reason, sort, analyze, understand, make connections and draw conclusions.  Good communication illuminates and clarifies a subject.

Pathos (passion, emotion) appeals to our feelings.  Those appeals can come understated, even matter-of-fact, or they can come with swells of drama and pageantry.  We may feel inspired, or angry, or grief-stricken.  If pathos overwhelms logos, then we fail at good communication.

Then there’s the tricky one: ethos.  You can see the connection to “ethics.”  Ethos speaks to the credibility of the communicator.  Is the person believable because she demonstrates competence in the topic?  Do her words carry weight because she is known to be a trustworthy person, a person of integrity and character?  We all know people like this: when this person speaks (or writes), we listen and we are inclined to take to heart – to believe – what they say.

Many blogs plainly stink on the “logos” measure.  We seem to have overdeveloped “pathos.”  But “ethos” is what concerns me the most.  Sometimes the line between honest error, intentional hyperbole and subtle dishonesty is as thin as gold leaf.  Heck, even open dishonesty often gets a pass in the degraded discussions happening around the internet.

It behooves Christians to keep a firm hold on the virtue of honesty and integrity when we’re trying to persuade.  This is not to say that honesty has to avoid rhetorical devices.  Satire, hyperbole, sarcasm (extra care needed here!), reductio ad absurdam arguments are all legitimate tools.  Not very many people know how to use them.

Whatever our agendas, no matter how deeply run our passions, honesty must remain.  If we Christian bloggers lose our grip on a fair treatment of facts or situations or narratives; if we play fast and loose with other person’s views, characters, and motives, then we are of all people most to be pitied.

And subject to the judgment of God.

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. Could not agree more.

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