Sunday, August 23, 2009

Is it possible to make an appropriate emotive appeal by just telling a story?

A post by Peter Boettke on The Austrian Economists blog has got me thinking about emotive appeals in politics. I think the point that Boettke is making is that rhetorical experts are offering poor advice when they suggest that writers try to get their message across by telling stories that appeal to the emotions, in the manner of Dickens and Steinbeck, rather than using stories to illuminate systemic forces, as Ayn Rand did in “Atlas Shrugged”.

I think it might be worth noting that it is sometimes possible to make effective emotive appeals without telling stories and that some stories are capable of speaking for themselves in illuminating systemic forces.

My example of an effective emotional appeal that does not involve a story comes from “John Stuart Mill, Victorian Firebrand”, by Richard Reeves, which I have just finished reading. When Mill was a member of the House of Commons, arguing for women to be given the right to vote, he used an accounting framework to urge rejection of the view that the political interests of women were safe in the hands of their fathers, husbands. and brothers. Mill said:
“I should like to have a return laid before this House of the number of women who are annually beaten to death, kicked to death, or trampled to death by their male protectors: and, in an opposite column, the amount of the sentences passed, in those cases in which the dastardly criminals did not get off altogether. I should also like to have, in a third column, the amount of property, the unlawful taking of which was, at the same sessions or assizes, by the same judge, thought worthy of the same amount of punishment. We should then have an arithmetical estimate of the value set by a male legislature and male tribunals on the murder of a woman, often by torture continued through years, which, if there is any shame in us, would make us hang our heads” (Available at: Online Library of Liberty).

Richard Reeves comments that this passage “vividly captures the combination of sinewy logic and controlled anger employed by Mill’s best pieces of oratory” (p 423).

It can also be possible in some circumstances for a simple story to evoke an appropriate emotive response without any interpretation. For example, last night I read a story in a news magazine about a respected business man who is co-owner and general manager of a travel agency in the country in which he lives. A few months ago this man moved in with his parents while his own house was being renovated. Four days after he left the house his next door neighbours decided to take advantage of his absence by forcing open the front door and changing the locks. They are now occupying the house and refusing to leave. As soon as he found out what had happened the man contacted the police expecting that they would evict the squatters, but the police took them food and supplies. The man has taken the matter to court but the case has still not been resolved.

I have left out some details of this story such as the country where this is alleged to be happening, and the man’s name and ethnicity because I don’t think such details should be relevant to one’s emotive response. (If anyone is interested in following up the story it is in The Weekend Australian Magazine for August 22-23, 2009.)

How do you respond to this story? My initial reaction was anger at the way property rights were apparently being disregarded and dismay that the rule of law seemed to be breaking down in the country concerned.

I hope there is another side to this story that will make my initial reaction inappropriate. For present purposes, however, the only point I want to make is that the story speaks for itself. I don’t think many people would need to be told explicitly that the story illustrates that there may be something wrong with the justice system of a country in which such things can occur.

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