Ethos and the Two Johns

I was disappointed, a few days ago, when I saw that “Strike Lawyer” John Regan was the “John R.” who has commented extensively on Simple Justice. I’m not going to beat up on John—even though I did say that I would—because I don’t think that would help anyone. I don’t know that any good ever came of a tour of Bedlam.

But I do want to talk about ad hominems, about anonymity, and about ethos. Because before John R. and Strike Lawyer became John Regan, I communicated with them both about those topics.

I formed an opinion of John R. based on his writings and on exchanges we had had. When Strike Lawyer was not John R., I had one opinion of Strike Lawyer and another of John R.

Strike Lawyer seemed to have a tenuous grasp on political reality; John R. (when I thought he was a different person) seemed a dabbler in the criminal courthouse, dangerous to those who might trust him with their future. When Regan revealed his identity and his backstory, my opinion of Strike Lawyer changed.

When I read about John Regan’s act of symbolic protest against the New York criminal-justice system, I didn’t disparage it: when our hearts get broken by the unfairness of the system, some of us keep plugging along, some make grand gestures, some give up entirely, and some go mad. I wondered if the last might be Regan’s case, but—not knowing that Regan was John R.—gave Regan the benefit of the doubt as a competent and impassioned advocate who had taken more than he could stand, but might some day return to the fight. He hadn’t, after all, given up entirely.

When Greenfield connected Regan with John R., though, my opinion of Regan changed and my opinion of John R. was confirmed. For my refusal to continue to cheer on actions that won’t help Regan’s client and might hurt her, Strike Lawyer’s fellow emitter of more heat than light, Bugliosi groupie John Kindley, who also apparently has a blog, took me to task.

(A propos de bottes: An argumentum ad hominem is not, as the Internet seems to believe, a personal attack or insult. It is, rather, a specific type of logical fallacy of the form, “the speaker is an X, and therefore cannot be believed.” The truth of the speaker’s statement generally does not depend on who he is—everyone gets things right sometimes. So “he is an idiot, and is therefore wrong” is an ad hominem. “He is loudly and persistently wrong, and is therefore an idiot” is, by contrast, not. (For an excellent rundown of what is and isn’t an ad hominem, see here.))

There are, traditionally, three persuasive audience appeals: logos, pathos, and ethos. Logos is sound argument based on demonstrable (or agreed) data. Pathos is an appeal to the emotions. And ethos is personality—character, knowledge, expertise. Ethos is important to persuasion, and if you can diminish the other side’s ethos without reducing your own (“so are they all: all honorable men”), they will be less persuasive.

Some (generally those of poor character, little knowledge, and sparse expertise) find it objectionable that arguments are affected by the ethos of the arguers. While anonymous commenters often style themselves after the anonymous commenters of the Revolutionary era, the idea that a person’s personality should not affect his persuasiveness is, I think, a modern one. Anonymity is a popular mode for people online.

An anonymous speaker may also make his point with an emotional appeal, though any audience that can be persuaded by an anonymous speaker with emotion alone probably agrees with him already. An anonymous speaker may make his point through well-marshaled facts and sound reasoning; this is what Paine, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton, Jay, and others did. But the self-styled Publii of the Internet engage in precious little sound reasoning, and less marshaling of facts. Because barriers to publication are much lower today than they were two hundred years ago, they don’t have to.

Ethos is important, but not critical to persuasion. It is critical to leadership. If, hiding your identity, you ask people to follow you, they will not, unless they were going that way already.

When Strike Lawyer was anonymous, he sought to lead: he wanted lawyers to take direct action to protest injustice. He had little pathos, little logos, and no ethos. He was entirely unpersuasive—not even worth a read, as far as I was concerned. When Regan took off the mask and was no longer anonymous, he became more interesting: his story had emotional appeal, though his reasoning and his facts were unconvincing to me.

But when the connection was made between him and John R., his ethos came into play. And I had formed a set opinion of John R.’s character, knowledge, and expertise based on interchanges with him; that opinion transformed my view of Regan and his actions. Regan’s story, as he told it when he reclaimed his name, is a fairy tale: knight in shining armor tries to rescue fair maiden from dragon. I like fairy tales, but the truth—in which the prince is deeply flawed and the maiden has mixed feelings about the dragon—is much more interesting.

3 responses to “Ethos and the Two Johns”

  1. Wow. I love this line:

    “I like fairy tales, but the truth—in which the prince is deeply flawed and the maiden has mixed feelings about the dragon—is much more interesting.”

    I may be compelled to steal it.

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