Ethos and appropriation: On the use of certain words and phrases

Update, August 17, 2018: Discussion of this post occurred in two threads on Google+, here and here. One point arose when Robert Hansen pushed back on my exclusion of the wealthy as a group who can be “dogwhistled.” He cited the Urban Dictionary and Wikipedia in doing so.

My inclination is to reject such a broadening of this term’s meaning. Such a broadening robs the term of its force. The rich and powerful have nothing to fear from “dogwhistling.” Subaltern groups most certainly do. This term is not (yet) authoritatively defined.[1]


Update, August 22, 2018: I have been contemplating further the use of the term “dogwhistling” as some (see above) would apply it as a defense against however mildly obscured attacks on the rich and powerful. And I am remembering that slaveholders would set hounds after fugitive slaves. Let that sink in for a moment. Hounds. To use an accusation of “dogwhistling” to defend against such attacks is a gross perversion of that term. Sorry, this cannot wash and I emphatically reject this usage.


When speech communication scholars speak of persuasion, they often refer to three words: logos, pathos, and ethos. Two of these are pretty straightforward: Logos is about whether your argument, given reasonable assumptions that often aren’t all stated, makes sense inductively or deductively. Pathos is about the emotional appeal. “Dogwhistling” relies on a certain sometimes latent animus toward subaltern groups, for example.

Ethos is harder. It has no precise English translation that I’m aware of. It is about who the speaker is to the audience. It is about the way they have about them. It’s about a myriad of things that a specialist in nonverbal communication might be able to help quantify.

For example, as an undergraduate, I took a public speaking class from a older female African-American professor. She had a sense about her that simultaneously commanded respect and conveyed a certain skepticism that co-existed with her concern for the people around her and her faith.

She has (or had) a magnificent ethos. I loved it, admired it, respected it, and knew I could never emulate it. It is an ethos I have seen with other African-American women and that they have earned—I cannot emphasize this word earned enough—through their social location, which entails a legacy that includes slavery and Jim Crow.

In a way, this is racism, but I hope of a positive kind. My claim is that some folks have earned modes of presentation that would be inauthentic if deployed by others. That inauthenticity can legitimately be considered appropriation.

So when I hear white folks deploying the N-word and justifying their use by saying they hear Black folks using it all the time, my answer is no, it doesn’t work that way. I will not attempt to define the meaning of that word when Blacks use it but I can most definitely assure you that it has a different, much more brutal meaning when a white person utters it.

That’s because of the history. Whites used the N-word viciously over a protracted period of time during which they were simultaneously brutal to Blacks. In doing so, they surrendered forevermore whites’ ability to use that word with anything other than a vicious, racist connotation.

It may seem racist to proscribe white use of the N-word, but the whites who came before us incurred a debt to Blacks that can never be repaid. The very least we whites can do is to avoid compounding that debt with the use of that word.

Again, this is ethos: Who we are to our audience affects the content of our speech. As a white male scholar, I do best when I rely on the ethos I have earned. This ethos is nowhere near as delicious as that of my public speaking professor. But it is the ethos that is available to me despite the indignities I have suffered in the job market, that no one can take from me.

That’s not to say there aren’t some very frustrating limitations.

I was retweeting a tweet by Lydia DePillis in which she posted a Slate article reporting policy changes at the Department of Housing and Urban Development:

Suffice it to say, DePillis is entirely correct to be outraged. Ben Carson’s action is unsupported by empirical evidence, is unlikely to address the problems of segregation, and instead falls into three patterns typical of the Trump administration: 1) undoing Barack Obama’s legacy, 2) being unbelievably repulsive in one or more respects, and 3) serving the interests of the powerful.[2] It is the latter of these that matches a pattern with two other prominent Blacks in or formerly in government service: Condoleezza Rice and Clarence Thomas, hence my tweet.

It is particularly painful to watch powerful Blacks serve powerful whites with the sort of glee that we see with Carson, Rice, and Thomas. I perceive a betrayal, hence my subsequent tweet:

And Robert Hansen assures me that the term I had in mind is unmistakable:

Hansen is a conservative, at least somewhat traditionalist, but an unusually knowledgeable one over an unusually broad range of fields. And, as should be obvious here, he does care about racism. He continues:

He makes a couple of errors here. First, the term “dogwhistling” can only apply to the extent that we treat Carson, Rice, and Thomas as Blacks and thus as members of a subaltern group. But they do not act as members of that subaltern group or even as ordinary people who happen to be members of that group, certainly not in the conduct I criticize. Instead, they act in service to the powerful, repeatedly at the expense of just about everyone else. I think this is a betrayal and because Carson, Rice, and Thomas are indeed Black, I think the term Hansen recognized applies.

But that term is specific to Blacks. It entails the betrayal of Blacks in favor of powerful white interests. It is for Blacks to identify this betrayal and if I do so for them, I speak for them without having consulted with them.[3] In so doing, I exceed my ethos; I am no longer the human scientist listening but rather its antithesis: a know-it-all asshole deciding what others should think.

I can certainly ‘own’ my belief that Carson, Rice, and Thomas are guilty as I would charge them. Indeed, the irony is all too obvious:

But do not confuse an accusing tweet with a verdict. And that verdict is not mine to reach.

  1. [1]Oxford Dictionary of English, 3rd ed.
  2. [2]Henry Grabar, “Ben Carson Ends Obama-Era Efforts to Reduce Housing Segregation,” Slate, August 13, 2018, https://slate.com/business/2018/08/ben-carson-ends-obama-era-efforts-to-reduce-housing-segregation.html
  3. [3]see Linda Martín Alcott, “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” in Who Can Speak? Authority and Critical Identity, Judith Roof and Robyn Wiegman, eds. (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 1995), 97-119.

Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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