Ethos and gun rights

In my article on framing the debate of gun rights, I raised Aristotle’s advice for making an effective argument—namely the three elements of logos, pathos, and ethos.  To review, logos is the logic offered by the debater, the reasoning and evidence used to support conclusions.  Pathos involves the emotional connections we make with our audience.  In our subject, we might, for example, offer stories of good citizens who use a firearm to defend themselves against a violent attack, otherwise known as defensive gun use or DGUs.  I left the last element, ethos, for another discussion, and we’ll deal with that in this article.

Ethos is the means by which a debater establishes credibility with the audience.  We do this by showing ourselves to be trustworthy, to be knowledgeable, and to be people of good will.  In each of those three, we who support gun rights have work to do these days with the general public.

Fortunately, at the moment, things are not as bad as they have been.  As a recent Pew Center report showed, support for gun rights now is at 52%, leading support for gun control by six points.

But we mustn’t rest on our temporary laurels here.  We have gains yet to make.  With that in mind, let’s go through the parts that make up effective ethos.

Trustworthiness is hard to gain and easily lost, and some people will never regard those on the other side as being honest.  I find myself accused of being a shill for the NRA all too often in discussions about gun rights.  But we can do things to reduce the amount of tinfoil people think we wear on a routine basis.  As an illustration of this, whatever your thoughts about our current president, insisting in a gun debate that Obama is a Muslim or a Kenyan is off-topic and only serves to send things into directions that will do us no good.  Attacking someone for being pro-choice about abortion in a discussion about gun rights has the same effect.  Whatever your position happens to be on that, save it for a discussion of that topic.

Knowledge, and by extension intelligence, are another area where we certainly have work to do in winning public opinion.  In the last several years, there have been claims made that people in the left wing are more intelligent than those on the right.  Leftists grabbed onto this with glee, despite the tentativeness of the conclusions and multiple possible interpretations that we find if we delve into the details, especially the difficulty in defining “left” and “right” in any rigorously scientific manner.  Suffice it to say here that there’s plenty of doubt to be had by reasonable people.  And as I discussed in another article, gun ownership and gun rights are not exclusively the possession of one side or the other of the political spectrum.  And a spectrum is too simplistic in its linearity.

But how do we create the impression of brains and book learning here?  I’m going to step on some toes, I’m sure, but back up any assertions you make, and understand that quoting is as bad to one side as quoting Mother Jones is to the other.  As I explain to my composition students, we have to consider the biases of the sources when using them to support our arguments.  We gain credit when we use sources that themselves have the respect of people in their fields and that are primarily interested in the truth, rather than confirming a political agenda.

And then there’s the effort we must make to show ourselves to be people of good will.  Here we have to counter the claims made by gun control advocates that we’re selfish, bloodthirsty, and violent people who care nothing for the victims, including children, of gun violence.

The difficulty in this is overcoming the emotional effect created by an innocent person being shot, either by accident or malice or by the person who suffers from depression and chooses to commit suicide.  Dealing with this is hard, but if we remember empathy, we can with care remind our listeners that rights are also a valuable quality that humans possess, and giving up on rights will not soothe the pain of those who have suffered loss.

Of course, as I said above, some people cannot be reached.  But we’ll achieve more and better results by paying attention to the subject of ethos in defending these rights that we hold dear.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of

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