We hear repeatedly throughout our educations that appeals to emotion are forms of argumentative fallacy. In many cases, they are exactly such, and the interjection of emotion obscures the underlining problem and makes it difficult to resolve productively. However, in other cases appeals to emotion operate as (the only) viable forms of evidence. In these cases, the interjection of emotion into an argument should not be seen as a fallacy, but as evidence needed initially to push a conversation forward. Of course, we are familiar with the risks that come when we voice emotion, and, as a strategy, we should strongly consider looking for non-emotional forms of evidence in order to avoid these problems. But in this post I’m not interested in the good reasons to avoid emotion. Those are discussed enough. I’m concerned with the often-overlooked phenomenon that occurs when emotion used as evidence is dismissed by the fallacy of appealing to intellectual tones or modes of argument. As members of an organization that values harmony, we shy away from topics that raise strong emotions that risk causing tension and controversy. Our collective failure to respond productively to the concerns raised by feminism, race, and, more recently, by SSM stems at least in part from the ease with which we dismiss claims to strong emotion. As a case in point, examine this paragraph from the Church’s press release on the Big Love controversy, a press release I otherwise think is quite on the mark and greatly appreciate, for the way it calls attention to the tone of a debate:
In recent months, some gay activists have barraged the media with accusations about “hateful” attitudes of Latter-day Saints in supporting Proposition 8 in California, which maintained the traditional definition of marriage. They even organized a protest march around the Salt Lake Temple. Again, the Church has refused to be goaded into a Mormons versus gays battle and has simply stated its position in tones that are reasonable and respectful.
Here, the newsroom attempts to show its effectiveness, to claim the moral high ground, and to justify its non-response by painting those who are concerned as having excess emotion—they “barrage,” “accuse,” “protest,” “battle,” and “goad”—while the Church employs “tones that are reasonable and respectful.” By claiming that their methods of argument are reasonable and respectful and their opponents’ are not, they dismiss the conversation and justify their positions. While there are certainly strategic, valid reasons for them to avoid engagement, an appeal to intellectual tone should be seen as a strategy; saying that you are reasonable is not good evidence that you are.
And, yet, perhaps as Mormon intellectuals, we, too, are particularly prone to dissecting strong emotions and rephrasing them in more dispassionate, academically palatable tones in ways that inhibit conversations. In fact, we often pride ourselves on being above the fray and more “complex” in our analysis, but our very desire to keep debating and complicating analysis can at times contribute to the failure to solve problems by putting them off. We are likely to be uncomfortable when members seek to raise and address institutional issues that can often only be thoroughly understood by an appeal to emotion, including those spiritual emotions that testify to us of gospel principles. Yet, if members feel that attitudes about race or gender or SSM within the church are problematic because they have produce personal pain, then often the only viable way to establish the truth of that claim is for the person voicing the complaint to also voice the pain that he or she feels. Similarly, members whose personal pain or experience gives them strong motivation to support the church’s policies might voice their personal emotions in testimony for the other side of the issue. The desire to voice pain can fall on any side of an ideological divide.
In such situations, appeals to emotion are not argumentative fallacies; they are valid evidence that when echoed and repeated by enough people should amount to something we can’t ignore. They establish that something about a system is causing pain and thereby warrants scrutiny. But revealing the evidence exacts a personal cost on the testifier. He or she risks being dismissed as “irrational” or “emotional,” his or her feelings risk being dismissed as personal rather than products of systemic conditions, and he or she must also relive her pain and publicly position herself as a victim through the process of testifying, a process that makes him or her often sensitive to perceived or real criticism of the emotion. Those are risks the person speaking up must accept and try to mitigate.
But, when people present emotion as evidence, as people trained in proper argument, we are likely to instinctively reduce the emotional force of the evidence, to dismiss it as emotional, or to reframe the complaint in intellectual terms. While all of these responses are normally appropriate and productive, when emotion is evidence, then the problem is that in the eyes of the person expressing the emotion, these intellectualizing responses can be perceived as invalidating the evidence (if the evidence is dismissed because it’s emotional or if the feeling is questioned) or as a means of ignoring the evidence (if the fact that the emotion cannot be sympathized with is used as a means to end the conversation or if the desire to debate the topic is seen to lead to inaction). This can lead to miscommunication amongst even people genuinely interested in engaging in productive conversation.
Thus in the particular cases where the nature of the evidence collides with the biases against emotion that surround proper argumentative strategy, both testifier and listener must be more careful than ever to understand the reasoning behind their comments, responses, and rhetoric and to be attuned to the context the argument develops within. Otherwise, we risk confusing evidence with argumentative fallacy, improperly using argumentative skills to end conversations that need to be had, or, if we are the one voicing the emotion, not realizing why a testimony of pain is not evoking the desired response.
If we are to move forward in addressing the issues in our church that provoke pain, and that thus should concern all of us even if we cannot relate, then we need to make sure that emotion as evidence is responded to properly. We need a legitimate, productive response to the pain and outrage that people present as evidence that helps us engage in a conversation. That does not mean that we need to agree with the reforms they seek, but we do need to give legitimacy to the emotions and refrain from the fallacy of feigning or appealing to intellectualism as a way of ignoring the issue.