How can I trust you?

Authority has to be built through experience.

Trent M. Kays

Over 2000 years ago, Aristotle wrote about rhetoric. His theories on rhetoric continue to hold sway over our understanding of many things in the world. How we think about language, writing, argument, new media and various other issues are all influenced in one way or another by rhetoric.

Most notable are Aristotle’s Three Appeals: pathos, the appeal to passion; logos, the appeal to logic; and ethos, the appeal to authority. These appeals can often help us construct arguments and understand the writing we encounter in both offline and online environments. However, despite the importance of all these appeals, ethos is the one I often first notice in the interactions between writers.

But, what does ethos actually mean? It is an appeal to authority, or more specifically, to the authority of someone to speak on a topic. For example: When you take a history course, you assume the instructor has the authority to speak about history. If you didn’t, you’d probably drop the course.

You encounter and evaluate another person’s authority all the time. Most often, we do this without even knowing it. If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone and thought, “That doesn’t sound right,” then you’ve evaluated another’s authority and found it lacking.

Given the nature of the digital age, it has become easy to evaluate the authority of another. Unfortunately, even if you find another’s argument capricious, it doesn’t mean that they don’t believe they have a right to speak. The queerness of the American system allows anyone to speak on anything regardless of intelligence, authority or experience.

This happens too often to be a mere thorn in one’s side. A space particularly prone to this ill-mannered transgression is Facebook, which for better or worse has allowed a greater democratization of speech and experience. How often do you get into a conversation with someone on Facebook only to find his or her argument ill-informed and untrustworthy? It’s hard to trust the argument of someone who you know doesn’t have experience.

What makes a student think he or she knows more than the teacher? Or, what makes a white male Republican think he knows more about women’s bodies than the women themselves? His authority is lacking for many reasons, but the primary reason is he simply doesn’t have the experience. He has no attributes that make others trust or lend credence to what he is saying.

This isn’t, of course, to suggest that he can’t think and talk about such things. It just means he has to do extra work to encourage people to trust his opinion, which is not something accomplished easily.

But then, how do we build authority to speak on topics? Moreover, how do we get other people to trust our authority to speak on topics? We need to be explicit, especially in venues like Facebook. Our authority can only be known by our experience, study and previous conversations. We need to show our evidence, our qualifications and willingness to acquiesce. If you engage in a conversation and have no evidence to support your position, you walk a tenuous tightrope that could break at any moment.

The “because I said so” rule your parents threw out when you were a child will not work. “Because I said so,” means nothing in the digital age. I can simply Google the topic and then decide if your opinion is to be trusted.

It doesn’t matter how many hollow words you write: If your ethos is non-existent, much of what you say will be inconsequential.