In his work on rhetoric, Aristotle identified the workings of various emotional appeals. One of his most ingenious accomplishments was his conceptualization of fear and his thorough account of how the emotion of fear can be manipulated by a speaker. Interestingly enough, Aristotle’s theories are still very applicable to the rhetoric in our modern world; for example, U.S. President George W. Bush has made numerous fear appeals in his speeches to the nation.
Fear appeals are not, however, limited to the speeches of politicians; we find them in popular magazines, newspapers, and even in scholarly journals. In most cases, contemporary speakers form fear appeals out of recent, frightful news, which is nearly always in abundance because fearful stories are frequently spread to the public through the mass media. For instance, the media is not likely to allow people to forget the danger of international terrorism, or the threat of rogue nuclear powers such as North Korea. The widespread effect of such news allows for an organization such as Al-Qaeda to be used as ammunition by a contemporary rhetor; this, in turn, brings about the purpose of this paper, which is to draw attention to how Aristotle’s theories of fear and confidence are still applicable today.
According to Aristotle, “fear may be defined as a pain or disturbance arising from a mental image of impeding evil of a destructive or painful sort” (107), and such an image is easy to inspire out of a reminder of an organization such as Al-Qaeda. In fact, there should be little wonder as to why the mention of Al-Qaeda induces fear; Aristotle catalogued and described the rhetorical process nearly two millennia ago. “Fear,” he says, “is caused by whatever seems to have a great power of destroying us” (108) or, otherwise, the ability to make us experience pain and suffering. That is, we fear those who have the ability and the desire to hurt us. Additionally, “those who have already done some wrong are to be feared” (Aristotle 109) by others, and, therefore, to draw once again on the example of Al-Qaeda, we can be made to fear such a terrorist group because they have killed and injured many people in the past. Moreover, terrorist groups often strike without warning, and they only claim responsibility for their actions after the attack in question has been carried out; this, in turn, makes people feel as though the danger is never remote, and a rhetor can certainly exploit this to his or her advantage.
There have been many fear appeals that have made rhetorical use of the events surrounding the World Trade Center Attack on September 11th, 2001: gas mask retailers ran effective advertisement campaigns for selling masks to civilians, insurance companies marketed new policies for covering acts of terrorism, and the Bush administration successfully convinced the majority of the American people that military action was necessary to quell the terrorist threat. Aristotle would claim that the most successful rhetors would play on the fact that the American people have suffered an attack “at the hands of people from whom they did not expect it, and things that they did not expect, and at time when they thought themselves safe” (110). Such an example of Aristotle’s notion of fear appeals is extraordinary simply because of its applicability to the modern situation. No one expected such a massive attack against the United States on September 11th, and certainly not from terrorists. It was, in some ways, the perfect catalyst of fear, something speech writers and advertisers would be able to use for a long time.
Herbert W. Simons says, in drawing upon the works of psychologists Pratkanis and Aronson, that fear appeals are most effective when four conditions apply to the situation. Firstly, the speaker must find a topic that “scares the hell out of people.” Secondly, the speaker must suggest a course of action that would give the audience the ability to circumvent the phenomenon which they fear; thirdly, the audience must actually believe that the suggested course of action will succeed, and fourthly, the audience “must be convinced that they can perform the recommended action” (205). While the last three conditions are important in their own rights, the most important condition is the first because if the audience is not afraid to begin with, then the fear appeal will be unsuccessful. In fact, it is usually difficult to find a phenomenon that is frightening enough to persuade people; this is why “the impact of fear appeals on attitudes is surprisingly small” (205).
Fear appeals are, however, used, and used successfully. For example, in George W. Bush’s 2001 State of the Union Address, he speaks on the fearful topic of the September 11th terrorist attacks against the United States. He requests that the American people give their support to tighten security in order to reduce the threat of terrorism. In particular, he says that “the thousands of FBI agents who are now at work in this investigation may need your cooperation, and I ask you to give it” (Bush). Given that the people would have already been fearful of further attacks against the country, they were, and still are to some degree, willing to give their support in reducing the perceived threat.
In this case, the fear appeal is fully functional because it describes a terrifying reality while suggesting a plausible means of circumventing any future harm. Similarly, in a later part of the very same speech, the president also asked, indirectly, for the support of the American people, Congress, and the U.N. to begin military action against nations that harbor terrorists. He reinforced this request with pure pathos by stating that “terror, unanswered, can not only bring down buildings, it can threaten the stability of legitimate governments” (Bush), a strategy that was extremely effective in achieving the desired result of a war in Afghanistan.
In general, fear appeals that pertain to matters of national security have a large chance of being effective. This is the case because the threat of a “painful evil” is extremely high and the solution is usually a simple call for support, often in the form of a ballot. If we take, for example, the Korean nuclear missile crisis, we can intuitively see the reason why people would fear North Korea; this reason simply being that the North Koreans “have the power to hurt us” (Aristotle 108). In an article from Time magazine, Robert L. Galluci makes a statement that “negotiation is by far the best course of action in dealing with North Korea, and we had better get on with it” (20). This rhetorical declaration satisfies Simons’ point of suggesting a method of circumventing the harm in question, and, as a result, is, therefore, a prudent strategy on the part of the author.
Aside from finding an adequately frightening topic, the notion of suggesting a course of action is essential for a fear appeal to be successful; that is, failing to offer a suggestion to avoid the fearful phenomenon will, consequently, diminish the effectiveness of the fear appeal. In “Slick’ems, Glick’ems, Christmas Trees, and Cookie Cutters: Nuclear Language and How We Learned to Pat the Bomb,” Carol Cohn shows us how defense intellectuals desensitize themselves from the horrific reality of discussing the use of deadly bombs. Most people would consider the topic of Cohn’s article to be rather frightening, but if the article succeeds in moving people to action, it is not likely to have done so through the fear appeal. While Cohn provides a detailed report of defense intellectuals speaking of “clean bombs,” “damage limitation weapons,” and “collateral damage,” she does not offer any suggestions as to how to avoid the fearful threat. Cohn does successfully point out that, perhaps, something needs to be done about the language of defense intellectuals in order to move towards “a more just and peaceful world” (24), but we are never told what that “something” is. When Cohn admits that she has “no solutions to this dilemma” (24), the force of any fear appeals are lost because she is, from that point on, simply complaining about the fearful issue rather than offering a means of avoiding it. Speeches or texts like Cohn’s “Slick’ems, Glick’ems, Christmas Trees, and Cookie Cutters: Nuclear Language and How We Learned to Pat the Bomb” are, then, only bringing awareness to, or reporting on, fearful topics, and are not, in most cases, manipulating people’s emotions in order to move them to a state of decisive action.
Cohn’s article is, however, different from Bush’s speech and Galluci’s article in that it is concerned not with a person or a group of people, but rather with objects and abstract occurrences. That is, while Bush may condemn “terrorists,” Cohn is condemning a type of language used to describe missiles and bombs. Aristotle does not note this distinction, but Quintilian says that “some things are hateful in themselves such as parricide, murder, [and] poisoning” (Book VI, Ch. 2). In our modern world, nuclear weapons are one of those hateful things, and the actions surrounding them are equally, if not more, detestable. According to Quintilian, there are then two kinds of fear: “the first supplies an epithet for persons, [and] the second to things” (Book VI, Ch. 2).
Fear also has its opposite, which is known as “confidence.” According to Aristotle, there are several situations where people ought to feel confident, and a rhetor can inspire confidence in an audience by making them feel as though they are in these situations. In order to achieve this effect, a speaker must make an audience feel safe by making the causes of fear seem as though they are non-existent or, at least, far away. Moreover, people who feel as though “they have succeeded much, and suffered little” (Aristotle 111) are less likely to be vulnerable to fear. The most applicable condition of confidence that applies even to modern times is, however, the belief that one’s religion will save one from harm. For “we are confident if we are sure of the favor of the gods” (Aristotle 112); this notion certainly applies to the Islamic militants of Al-Qaeda who believe that Allah will bless them for killing as many Americans and Jews as possible, so much so that some of them would even be willing to sacrifice their own lives, as in the case of the September 11th attacks, to receive this apparent blessing. Similarly, George W. Bush inspires confidence as a reward of obedience; that is, after his fear appeals he typically reassures the American public that if they side with him, they essentially side with God because, according to Bush, “freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.” (Bush)
In the fourth century B.C.E., Aristotle described the conditions that cause people to fear or to be confident. At present, more than two thousand years later, his theories are still fully applicable, and, in some cases, expanded by other rhetoricians. Our current world may be much different from the world Aristotle knew, but we still have many of the same fears. One of the most prominent of those fears is still that of being attacked by powerful aggressors who are capable of inflicting destructive or painful evil upon us. Rhetors can then use these fears to their advantage; they can, essentially, persuade people by bringing “them into the right frame of mind so that they shall take themselves to be the kind of people who are likely to suffer” (Aristotle 110). This task is not very difficult in our time, a time when terrorists fly planes into buildings and, consequently, kill thousands of people in the process. On the other hand, Westerners can, in most cases, feel confident from their secure feeling of remoteness; after all, the Americas have, for example, two oceans that separate them from the rest of the world.
However, the “composed” and persistent terrorists still manage to strike at Western countries from time to time, and it is from the seemingly unscrupulous methods of these aggressors that “we never feel the danger from them is remote” (Aristotle 109). As a result, rhetors such as George W. Bush essentially have their work done for them because people will innately fear those who are capable of harming them, especially when, in the case of the American “War on Terror,” “the remedy lies, not with us, but with the adversary” (Aristotle 109).
Aristotle. The Rhetoric of Aristotle. ed. Lane Cooper. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. 1932.
Bush, George W. State of the Union Address. 20 September 2001.
Cohn, Carol. “Slick’ems, Glick’ems, Christmas Trees, and Cookie Cutters: Nuclear Language and How We Learned to Pat the Bomb.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 4 (June 1987): 17-24.
Gallucci, Robert L. and Charles Krauthammer “Lets Make a Deal…But Not at the U.N.” Time. 168. (2001): 20-21.
Quintilian. Institutio Oratoria. Book VI.
Simons, Herbert W. Persuasion in Society. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications. 2001.