An Emotional Break-Up: Historical Pathos Rhetoric in the Brexit Debate

London_June_13_2016_Vote_Leave_in_Islington_Brexit_(27576083301)

By Liz Goodwin

In an impassioned speech to assembled campaigners in Leeds on the eve of the EU Referendum, Ukip leader Nigel Farage tried to convince his audience to #Vote_Leave. His argument was not new to the campaign as a whole – focused on encouraging ordinary people to make a stand against the lazy European elite – but the way in which he phrased his case was even older.

In suggesting that ‘this is our chance as a people to get back at a political class that has given away everything this nation has ever stood for, everything our forebears ever fought for and everything we want to hand to our children and grandchildren’, Farage employed one of the most deep-rooted and consistently utilised rhetorical talents – that of pathos.[1]

In this roaring speech, intended to invoke and elicit feelings of patriotism, love and loyalty to family, and anger at a sense of disenfranchisement and anti-elitism in his audience, Farage used language to appeal firmly to the heart – yet his linguistic mode of doing so is inherently linked to a pan-European intellectual tradition going back millennia.

Both campaign sides were characterised by emotional rhetoric: the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition were frequently criticised for lacking passion in presenting their Remain case.[2] Leave financial backers like John Caudwell of high street retailer Phones4U denounced ‘Project Fear’ on the opposite side, branding such claims made by experts as ‘subjective’ and ‘hysterical.’[3]

Even campaign tweets were aimed at provoking emotional responses – in an analysis of language used in both camps’ social media, ‘fear words’ relating to immigration and the economy were shown to be demonstrably more frequently in use than across Twitter as a whole.[4]

I’ve just started work on the use of pathos as a rhetorical tool in Reformation debates in sixteenth-century Germany, and it strikes me as appropriate, following a campaign so imbued with emotionally-charged language intended to move the voter to action, to examine the context of this tried-and-tested rhetoric device. Emotional rhetoric is something that, somewhat ironically, connects politicians and political regimes across the spectrum – it’s a linguistic tool that works for the authoritarian and the liberal.

Pathos was theoretically recognised and utilised by some of the greatest European minds of the Medieval world. Aristotle established it as one of the three modes of persuasion: alongside ethos (a kind of charismatic authority on behalf of the speaker) and logical explanation (or proof), it was the emotionally-charged pathos, appealing to something in the listener, that was the most highly valued.[5]

In a highly Farage-esque move, Cicero advised the orator ‘to prefer emotion to reason’, so that the audience is ‘so affected as to be swayed [by emotion]… rather than by judgement or deliberation. For men decide far more problems by hate, or love, or fear, or illusion… than by reality.’[6]

Caritas
Abbess Caritas Pirckheimer frequently employed pathos in her writings

St Augustine would justify this rhetoric concept for the Christian Middle Ages, stating that emotionally-laden language appeals were key to ‘moving the minds of listeners, not that they may know what is done, but that they may do what they already know should be done.’[7] He even used pathos to explain that fundamental, Medieval theological issue, the Fall of Man – it was an emotional appeal from Eve that caused Adam to be persuaded, rather than that of logical reason.[8]

 

Throughout the Middle Ages, pathos can be seen within preaching, aimed at moving the audience through emotionally-loaded language to be better Christians. In his thorough and influential preaching ‘manual’, near-anonymous fourteenth-century writer Robert of Basevorn defined the role of Christian sermonising to be to move the listener ‘to meritorious conduct.’[9] Fire-and-brimstone preachers like Savanarola in Florence would frequently incite audiences with apocalyptic visions of Godly judgement if they didn’t change their ways – surely the most emotive of language is that which threatens Hellish punishment to listeners.

During the religious upheavals of the Reformation, Abbess Caritas Pirckheimer utilised pathos throughout her Journal, detailing what happened to her convent amidst Lutheran attacks. She was one of many active, Classically-inspired, highly educated Humanists to engage with this emotional language as a form of defensive Catholic argument; her work aimed to move the reader to empathy and compassion for the plight of those in the religious life, threatened by new Protestant doctrine.

The use of emotional language in the construction of political argument, then, is nothing new. Nor is it the preserve of the right, or those with more ‘authoritarian’ worldviews. Whether this altered the vote outcome or not – and many media think pieces have claimed one way or the other – the fact remains that the moving rhetoric that broadly characterised the Brexit debate was built on the linguistic practice of pathos.

In light of Michael Gove’s assertion that ‘the British people have had enough of experts’ in the run up to the EU Referendum, it seems worth pointing out that the language used and the arguments utilised were actually built on centuries-old, highly intellectual, philosophical and, crucially, pan-European rhetoric tradition. Then again, our charismatic and Classics-educated new Foreign Secretary could probably have told you that already.

Liz Goodwin recently completed an AHRC-funded PhD at the University of Sheffield on the impact of reform on female monastic communities in sixteenth-century England. Find her on Twitter @ElizMGoodwin.

[1] Nick Gutteridge, ‘Nigel Farage: Vote Brexit to take UK back from ‘contemptible’ Cameron and his rich cronies’, The Telegraph, 1/6/2016.

[2] Andy McSmith, ‘Brexit: Project Fear had reason on its side, but anti-experts caught public mood’, The Independent, 24/6/2016.

[3] ‘Project Fear gets personal: Cameron equates Brexit to ‘self-harm’, RT, 5/4/2016. 

[4] Ashley Kirk, ‘EU referendum: Remain uses Project Fear more in tweets than Leave’, The Telegraph, 22/6/2016.

[5] Gary Remer, Humanism and the Rhetoric of Toleration (Pennsylvania, 1996), p. 20.

[6] Ibid., pp. 20-21.

[7] Ibid., p. 21.

[8] Eric Jager, The Tempter’s Voice: Language and the Fall in Medieval Literature (London, 1993), p. 114.

[9] Cheryl Glenn, Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity through the Renaissance (Illinois 1997), p. 91.

Image credits

Banner: Wikicommons

Abbess Caritas Pirckheimer: Wikicommons

 

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