A Pathetic Appeal

Canon Fodder

Many of my friends and colleagues in academia make an effort in their work to critique and problematize the canonical reading lists enshrined by our disciplines. This is good and important work, because it amounts to de-privileging reading lists that have historically been overwhelmingly white, male, and very, very dead. Sara Ahmed offers a comprehensive and articulate discussion of citational practices that touches upon such non-anomalies (for they cannot be anomalies if they are so commonplace), among others, as men critiquing male privilege and citing only men as they do so.

While I’ve read and heard plenty of valuable criticism about the kinds and avenues of content–what is being said–that academic disciplines enshrine, I have not witnessed as much attention being given to rhetoric–how things are said. And that’s absolutely a factor of my own reading bias! When I asked around (so as not to try to pass off the ideas I’m about to get into as something I came up with in a vacuum), a close friend suggested Hélène Cixous’ “The Laugh of the Medusa” as a useful starting point. Therein, Cixous argues that patriarchy is more-or-less baked into language, and rhetoric along with it, and that feminist writing needs to work against some of the basic tenets of argumention and reassert an embodied feminist subjectivity.

So I’m very clearly not the first to be troubled here, but here’s my own observation.

When students learn to write critically, they are most often introduced to a number of rhetorical considerations that contribute to persuasive writing. You’ve likely heard of all of them–things like audience, purpose, and context. Then there’s the so-called “Artistic Proofs,” coined by Aristotle, which are ethos, or appeal; logos; or appeal to reason; and pathos, or appeal to emotion. These concepts are ubiquitous and, in a word, canonical.

And yet the Greeks are, by and large, among the oldest and deadest men still widely read today, and I find that using their work to teach students persuasive writing is becoming an increasingly anachronistic practice amidst so many other efforts to diversify, decolonize, and/or decanonize the reading and writing we privilege as authoritative.

Invalid Argument

I think the fact that we continue to uphold logos and pathos in particular as tidy, mutually exclusive categories says a lot about how utterly gendered our notion of argumentation remains. Men, who are socialized to eschew most forms of emotional expression, are instead taught to conduct themselves via logos, which is, by its classical definition, not-emotional. This amounts to saying that to be emotional, or to have an emotional response to something, is illogical, and therefore not valid.

These are concepts that we are socialized into well before we learn the Greek words for them in a classroom. Part of my own internalized toxic masculinity is my struggle not just to be openly emotionally expressive, but to actively validate the feelings of others. When I am exposed to a situation of conflict, wherein the other person expresses themselves with emotional intensity, my oldest, most primal instinct–motivated, I think, by an overzealous sense of self-preservation–is to invalidate that emotional appeal by instead counter-appealing to logic.

That’s a lot of words, so let me summarize with an anecdote. How many of you, who have been socialized male, have been in an argument where you were accused of hurting the other person’s feelings? Was your response to acknowledge and validate those feelings of hurt, or was it to invalidate those feelings by explaining, through logic, how your intentions exonerate you from any wrongdoing?

I’m sure you meant well if your response was the latter. I know I did. But this is an extremely gendered practice, and a toxic one at that. It’s also a practice which, if my above linkages to rhetorical theory hold any water, is embedded in our most fundamental pedagogical building blocks for communication and argumentation.

Even that last word–argumentation–belies our deeply-held reverence for conflict, for debate, for argument. It’s considered more virtuous to fight and be “right”–trampling on feelings as we go–than to empathize, validate, and identify. It’s this sort of backward thinking that motivates so-called “free speech” evangelists to begrudge bigots their platform, trusting–if they truly abhor such hateful discourse (and I’m not convinced that they do)–that sounder voices will win out on the marketplace of ideas. I hope I don’t have to tell you what idiotic, privileged thinking that is.

As a person living with anxiety, I have no taste for argument, and I am absolutely terrified of conflict, but ironically enough, my gender socialization and education predispose me to both. It feels, when I anticipate an argument, as though I am about to plunge into a dark chasm, its lightless bottom an unknowable distance below. Not a very sensible thing to do, leaping into chasms of unknowable depth.

And yet I take that plunge every time, hating it all the way down, and feeling like I never had a choice in the first place. Not a very sensible thing to do, but certainly a painful one.


This is a pattern I’m tired of, one I wish to break. There are definitely some hurdles along my path–I have a tendency to catastrophize in the face of conflict and expect the worst. It will take, I think, a blend of practice and therapy to get to a point where I don’t immediately perceive conflict as a personal attack, and from there a personal threat.

I’ve been practicing validating language with, well, just about everyone. Simple steps like naming the other person’s feelings, acknowledging them, and responding to those rather than articulating my own stake in a conversation are taking a lot of work for me to get comfortable with, but that work is important. At times it may sound like I am overdoing it. I apologize a lot, often for very small things, which is not itself validating language, exactly, but something I end up doing a lot of all the same. Part of that stems from my long-standing fear of being a problem, but some of it, I think, is also a deliberate performance. I want to be small in a conflict, to not take up space, to not myself be a threat. Through self-effacement, I hope to move my reflexes away from invalidation. Maybe when I’ve learned to improve my validation and emotional labour skills, I’ll even out a bit, but for now, it’s a working strategy.

It’s also something I’m keeping in mind with my academic work. I’ve always thought “objectivity” is a harmful ruse we’ve broadly agreed to collaborate upon to some calamitous end, so I’ve always written in my own voice, as best as I can. It’s also something I’ve tried to extend to my work as an editor and curator, because I want all genres of writing to be given their due credence: the messier, the more willing to engage with feelings, the better.

I’m doing this because after falling way too many times, I think it’s time I tried my hand at climbing–toward a lighter place, toward a healthier place, toward a healthier me.



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