This MRP explores the ethical dilemma inherent in the use of emotional appeals in political speeches. Taking a historical approach to the question of how ethics and emotion have played out in rhetorical theory and propaganda studies, I examine how political speakers use rhetorical appeals to pathos in order to gain support for controversial policies. I question where the “line” between legitimate rhetorical appeals to pathos and illegitimate, emotionally manipulative propaganda lies, and ask: do appeals to emotion constitute propaganda? What is the difference between a legitimate appeal to emotion and propaganda? What constitutes a “legitimate” appeal to emotion in political speech?
To answer this, I analyze three speeches made by Western political leaders justifying America’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. My analysis distinguishes different kinds of appeals to pathos, or emotion, within my data set and weighs each speaker’s use of “legitimate” appeals to pathos against emotional appeals that are classified as “propaganda,” according to Elspeth Tilley’s Propaganda Index (2005).
My findings show that a large percentage of appeals to pathos in each speech analyzed meet the requirements for propaganda as defined by Tilley. Eighty-one percent of appeals to pathos in George W. Bush’s “Message to Saddam” constitute propaganda; sixty-eight percent of appeals to pathos in Tony Blair’s Speech to the British House of Commons constitute propaganda; and seventy-three percent of appeals to pathos in Stephen Harper’s Speech to the Canadian House of Commons are considered propaganda as defined by Tilley. My findings showcase the ambiguity of “ethical” communication in political contexts, and underline the importance of critical audience engagement in political processes.