Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Metaphors as Persuasion

I've already written about how metaphors are the fuel of the mind, and how we would be unable to think without them. This can make it quite difficult to displace a set of poor metaphors in our mind, since we must replace them almost instantly.

However, there are occasions when such a paradigm shift becomes feasible, when we are able to consciously identify and sort through our mental metaphors, determining which to preserve or permit and which we wish to discard. In some cases this may be an easy process, especially when the metaphors relate to a subject or idea to which we have not given much thought. If an idea arose without undergoing strict scrutiny at the beginning, and has not given rise to any other ideas, then it is so isolated that it might be easily uprooted and removed.

But when the life of the mind is active, such cases are vanishingly rare. In any other cases, the process of sorting and shifting paradigms can take considerable time and effort. It may even require emotional endurance, when opinions run high on an issue or when there is personal history involved. In any event, persuasion can be quite difficult, even when you are yourself both the agent and the object of such persuasion.

Yet in many cases we are not the primary agent of our own persuasion. Often we find ourselves receiving new metaphor-sets en masse from others.

This is the power of fiction. By presenting a coherent world, or a narrative within that world, in which a different set of images and metaphors is tacitly accepted, fiction enables us to envision a world in which we might ourselves accept such images or metaphors. Alternately, by offering up such images and metaphors within the story itself, fiction may provide the fuel for our mental fires, and may serve as a catalyst for our rational imaginations.

This is also the power of rhetoric.

Why do we imagine that good rhetoricians and persuasive public speakers are so apt to use emotive or metaphoric language. Surely they would tire from it if it were merely decorative. Thus, the imagery they use is not meant to merely beautify their main argument. Rather, the imagery carries the argument within itself.

There are three essential elements of classical rhetoric: the ethos, or the credibility of the speaker; the logos, or the rational content of a speech; and the pathos, or the emotional content of the speech. Many classic texts on rhetoric tend to minimize the importance of pathos. They treat it as the ugly stepsister of the family, or (more accurately) as the gorgeous blonde sister who looks the part but has nothing going on upstairs. Pathos may beautify a speech or add emotional resonance to a message, but without logos, without true and substantial content for a message, rhetoric becomes an endeavor in futility.

This simple formulation ignores the vital role that pathos and emotions generally play in the persuasion process. Adding emotional resonance to a speech is good for more than grabbing and holding the attention of an audience. Emotional resonance is necessary to changes minds in the first place.

Good rhetoric doesn't merely feed a listener a stream of statements in propositional logic form. Good rhetoric must also feed the listener a stream of images.

We think in terms of images. If all we hear are propositional statements of logic, the only way we will be persuaded is if we construct the images for ourselves. But if we receive them along with the logical content, we are able to take a shortcut and find ourselves at home with the speaker's position much more easily.

The function of pathos, the emotional content of a speech, is not limited to mere decoration. Pathos is not inert; it is not moribund. The non-rational content provided by images is both the spoonful of sugar and the medicine itself. If persuasion is a specialty car, metaphors serve as both the custom paint job and the engine.

Metaphors are the essential vehicles of persuasion. The pun was regrettable, but the point is not. Metaphors are, quite simply, the means by which we are moved.

No comments:

Post a Comment