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The Ethics of Controversy

Aristotle regarded the ethical appeal, the image of himself that a speaker projected, as the most potent means of persuasion. Militants today seem to think that all they need to do to move an audience is “tell it like it is.” It matters not that in the process the audience is shocked or angered or unsettled. Jim Corder has made this observation: “Argument often fails because speakers and writers assume that the right to speak, coupled with sincerity, inevitably endows their voices with worth.” Because any position we take in an argument necessarily establishes a note of partiality, we must, Corder contends, search out those ethical arguments which can make “what is partial worth someone’s time.”15 It was Kenneth Burke who, in his A Rhetoric of Motives, established identification as the crucial strategy in the persuasive process. “Identification,” Burke says, “is compensatory to division. If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity.” “You persuade a man,” Burke goes on to say, “only insofar as you can talk his’ language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his…. For the orator, following Aristotle and Cicero, will seek to display the appropriate ‘signs’ of character needed to earn the audience’s good will.”