The power of ethos…

This week I’ve been trying to help my students get their heads wrapped around the idea of ethos–the appeal to character, i.e. the argument that identity makes.

Howard Kurtz today looks at how the hearts and minds of editorial writers were moved by Colin Powell’s recent speech to the UN about the transgressions of Saddam Hussein. It’s an excellent example of the power of ethos. As Kurtz says:

If George Bush had given the exact same presentation, many media types would not have found it as persuasive. The cowboy, they believe, wants to go to war. Not so the Vietnam veteran turned diplomat who knows so well the horrors of war.

Some will see this as yet another example of media bias. Not so. This is an example of the power of ethos. Put the same words in another’s mouth and they can fall flat. Put those words in the mouth of someone who commands respect of a certain kind, and they become persuasive.

Bias does play a role here, but it’s not the overt ideological kind that liberals and conservatives are so fond of rooting out. Instead, as emotional beings, our hearts and minds are moved far more by appeals to character (ethos) and emotion (pathos) than by logic (logos). I would suggest that if Powell exerts a greater ethical appeal in this regard than President Bush, then it is far more the fault of Bush and his handlers than it is editorial writers and pundits (some of them supposedly liberal) reacting to the very real force of Powell’s reputation and character.

In any case, those yearning for war can rejoice in Powell’s effectiveness. We are one step closer to combat because of the power of his ethos.