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Humanities LibreTexts

8.7: Legitimate and Illegitimate Emotional Appeals

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    31273
  • Audio Version (June 2020):

    We made the case at the beginning of this chapter that emotion is a legitimate part of argument. But there is a reason emotional appeals have a dubious reputation: they are often abused. If a writer knows there is a problem with the logic, they may use an emotional appeal to distract from the problem. Or, a writer may create a problem with the logic, knowingly or unknowingly, because they cannot resist including a particular strong emotional appeal. In Chapter 4, we looked at fallacies, or problems with arguments’ logic. Many of the fallacies we have already looked at are so common because the illogical form of the argument makes a powerful appeal. The writer chose the faulty reasoning because they thought it would affect readers emotionally. Arguments that focus on a “red herring,” for example, distract from the real issue to focus on something juicier. A straw man argument offers a distorted version of the other side to make the other side seem frighteningly extreme.

    To be legitimate, emotional appeals need to be associated with logical reasoning. Otherwise, they are an unfair tactic. The emotions should be attached to ideas that logically support the argument. Writers are responsible for thinking through their intuitive appeals to emotion to make sure that they are consistent with their claims.

    A person's hand underlines the word "legitimate" on a whiteboard.
    Photo by Nick Youngson of Alpha Stock Images, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

    Emotional appeals should not mislead readers about the true nature or the true gravity of an issue. If an argument uses a mild word to describe something horrific, that means the argument can’t connect its emotional appeal to any logical justification. A euphemism is a substitute neutral-sounding word used to forestall negative reactions. For example, calling a Nazi concentration camp like Auschwitz a “detention center” would certainly be an unjustifiable euphemism. Given the amount of evidence about what went on at Auschwitz, using the phrase “Death Camp” would be a legitimate emotional appeal.

    A more controversial question is what to call the places where people are detained if they are caught trying to cross the U.S. border without permission. An argument calling U.S. Customs and Border Patrol detention centers to “concentration camps” would need to justify its comparison by arguing for significant similarities. Otherwise, critics would claim that the comparison was a cheap shot intended to make people horrified by detention centers without good reason. Even if the argument simply called the centers “camps,” the word would still bring to mind Nazi concentration camps and also the Japanese internment camps created by our own government during World War II. The word “camp,” when referring to a place where people are held against their will, has inevitable overtones of racism and genocide. An argument should only choose a word with connotations that it can stand by and explain.

    A question like this about whether an emotional appeal is legitimate or not often is often at the heart of any disagreement or productive discussion of the argument. If we agree that the comparison to concentration camps is legitimate, we will certainly agree that the detention centers, as they are currently organized, should be done away with.

    Practice Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Read each argument below and describe the emotional appeal it makes.  Do you think this appeal is legitimate or illegitimate in relation to the argument?  Why? Do you personally find it compelling?

    1. “Please, even if you don’t feel sick, you may be transmitting this disease,” he said. “Please, please, practice common sense, common decency. Protect yourself, but also protect others. … What more evidence do we need?”-- California Governer Gavin Newsom at a press conference, June 26, 2020

    2. “Refusing to wear a mask is no more a “personal choice” than is drinking all evening and then stumbling into your car and heading down the road. In a time of plague, shunning a face mask is like driving drunk, putting everyone in your path in danger.” -- “Refusing to wear a mask is like driving drunk” by Nicholas Kristof, New York Times Op-Ed, July 1, 2020

    3. “The irony is that these men think they're manifesting the ideal of the rugged, individualistic American, when their refusal [to wear a mask] really traces in part to a fear of what other people will think about them. Drunk on a toxic brew of self-interest and that masculine ideology, they mistake their refusal to protect themselves and others as a mark of character when instead, it's a mark on their characters.”-- “The condoms of the face: why some men refuse to wear masks” by Emily Willingham, Scientific American, June 29, 2020

    4. “While mask mandates provide a comfort level that is needed to get people back to work and resume economic activity, they may also induce a false sense of security. In early April, as the Trump administration was debating whether to change its guidance on masks, Deborah Birx of the White House virus task force warned that “we don’t want people to get an artificial sense of protection because they’re behind a mask” or “send a signal that we think a mask is equivalent” to social distancing and good hygiene...Masks have benefits, but moralism can be harmful to public health.” --Allysia Finley, “The Hidden Danger of Masks,” Wall Street Journal, August 4, 2020 

    5. ““The face-covering directive is the definition of government overreach,” said Aaron Withe, national director of the Freedom Foundation, a national public policy organization based in Olympia, Wash. “If people choose to wear a mask, that’s their choice. But Inslee is going after otherwise law-abiding citizens when there are rioters destroying Washington cities such as Seattle with no punishment in sight.” The Washingtonians represented by the Freedom Foundation argue that by requiring them to wear face masks the state is essentially compelling them to support junk science in violation of their freedom of conscience, which is prohibited by the state constitution.” --Freedom Foundation press release, July 7, 2020

    6. “Think of it like the push for condom use during the AIDS epidemic, when public service announcements noted that when you have sex with someone, you’re having sex with every person that person has slept with. It’s the same idea, though transmission of the coronavirus is far easier. If you’re unprotected (mask-less) around someone, you’re effectively around anyone that person has been near. You have to assume the worst….Please put on a mask. Practice safe living. Anything less is selfish. Anything less should be straight-up embarrassing.” -- “Not wearing a mask is as dumb as not wearing a condom” by Rex Huppke, Chicago Tribune, July 14, 2020