By Martin Chechen

There is hope: everyone can try for themselves to push things a little deeper. (Deutschlandradio / Kremayr & Scheriau)

In her aggressive new book, Viennese journalist Solmaz Khorsand exposes pathos as a morally questionable instrument of manipulation. Without it, however, hardly anyone can do it, as it is addicting like a drug.

With all due respect, but a friendly warning, this book is aggressive. Over and over again, it kicks the shins of those who don’t expect it at all: the sensitive, the good, the aware – precisely because they’re so firmly convinced that they don’t really deserve it. not. In this regard, the book practices exactly what is the object of its analysis. Namely the pathetic.

Pathos is staging and simulation

First association: Pathos is kitsch, pompous exaggeration, what a bad actor does when he fakes feelings. In fact, the author Solmaz Khorsand confirms this relationship with the theater: the Pathos is a staging, that is to say a simulation.

“Pathos needs a scene,” she writes. “And above all an audience. After all, their own upset, outrage or offense has to resonate with someone somewhere” – that is, create an echo, a vibration. “Only then can the pathos unfold. Only then does it elicit a reaction of solidarity or defense, participation or exclusion – and ultimately power or helplessness. “

Empiricism and conceptual history

Khorsand’s method is, so to speak, empirical: it supports its theses with examples. She tells stories of life in a society in which almost everyone almost always struggles for attention. So: don’t be afraid of scientific fragility.

Instead, the author allows himself and his readers the luxury of delving into the history of the term. It might be easy for her as she lives in Vienna and they are a bit more relaxed about the classical culture there.

She traces the term back to Aristotle, to poetics and rhetoric, to Greek tragedy. Pathos is a central element of the dramaturgy: ethos, logos and pathos. It is a call to emotions, it arouses feelings where content and arguments reach their limits.

Timing and volume are crucial

It also makes the reference to the present immediately clear: pathos is power, or at least the attempt to create a gradient. It can be used in a targeted and clever way to achieve the desired effect. That is, everyone would be well advised to beware of the pathos of others. The title of a chapter in the book says it clearly: “Pathos is PR”.

However, Khorsand pursues a completely different goal with his argument – namely, enlightenment. She reveals how it works. Sometimes it actually looks like an instruction manual.

“If you want to surprise your pathos,” she wrote, “you have to find the right balance, the right timing, the right volume.” Otherwise, pathetic forms of self-expression may wear out. They are quickly perceived as too loud, too penetrating, their gestures go too far – and the attempt to win over others for their own cause has the opposite effect: the pathos irritates and is perceived as brazen; the roles of author and victim become their opposite.

Who ends up crying when black and white Americans talk about racism in their society? The sociologist Robin DiAngelo lived it in her seminars, Khorsand speaks about it: It is the whites who want to be comforted.

Corrected after the murder of George Floyd

The author restrains himself with moral judgment. Pathos is a fact. But it helps a lot to be aware of situations, intentions and effects. This is exactly what the author wants to achieve. He analyzes, points to ruptures and paradoxes and provides something like the effect of attrition as an explanation.

I consider it very legitimate, meritorious and often even beneficial. Who is at risk when, for example, medical professionals whisper about “Bosphorus disease” and want to imply that some people from certain cultures are just faking their disease? So use pathos. Of course, it’s the healthcare professionals themselves who end up being cynical!

Or the example of racism: Since the terrible death of the American George Floyd, we have all become very sensitive to this level of exclusion and violence. “The white mainstream had become addicted,” comments Khorsand. It may sound cold, but how else to explain the indifference with which this mainstream had reacted to all cases of racism so far? And what about the sudden zeal with which the streets were renamed and trinkets removed from store windows?

A little glimmer of hope

With the fact that pathos can be a drug. Khorsand analyzes this in a neutral tone and draws his conclusions without any pathos: It must be violent, she sums up. And he has to keep coming back. Otherwise the pathos has the opposite effect: it confirms this eternal and fundamental separation in “us” and “the others”. He consolidates the gap that he actually wants to complain about.

It may happen that a white woman, Amy Cooper, in New York’s Central Park, very effectively threatens to report a black stroller to the police for sexual assault just for asking her to put her dog on a leash. The world was outraged when video of the ugly little scene was posted on social media. However, the hope that this would spread ideas will likely be disappointed.

Pathos is a means of transport for its own cause and it is attractive and easy to use. No wonder it was so deeply declined in classical antiquity. Pathos is probably just an interpersonal constant.

How Solmaz Khorsand still gives a glimmer of hope: everyone can try it for themselves. Things hang a little lower. Just shut up.

Solmaz Khorsand: “Pathos”
Verlag Kremayr & Scheriau, Vienna 2021
128 pages, 16 euros