Heartless Pathos for the Bleeding-Heart Neo-liberal

Recently, a friend who also teaches research in composition posted a status update on Facebook about students agreeing with Nicholas Kristof’s pro sweatshop views. My friend was surprised (well not really, he knows the political climate pretty well) that a few of his students not only agreed with Kristof, but also wrote pro-sweatshop arguments for their year end research papers.

I got a lot of papers like that my first semester teaching Composition Two. One student even cherry picked a psychology paper to support the idea that sweatshop labor was good for kids because it gave them a sense of accomplishment. The source paper was about suburban kids with jobs like babysitting for ten dollars a hour. I did have one student research the problem ethically, though. That one switched from supporting sweatshops to supporting worker rights–not closing down the factories. That semester was a real eye-opener for me. It helped me learn the importance of teaching ethical research practices and close-readings of source material.

It also taught me a lot about rhetoric.

You have to keep in mind that students have NO IDEA how to read arguments. They are used to reading in order to pass a comprehension test. So they read the questions first then skim the text to find the answers. It’s our job to teach them how augments work and what makes them persuasive. And it’s a job we should look forward to doing.

Since my first semester, I have stared using Kristof’s “Let them Sweat” essay as a way to teach differences between popular and scholarly writing. I also use it as a way to teach bad arguments–of note is various straw-man fallacies. I also ridicule is total lack of evidence, his use of the straw-man fallacy to paint all anti-sweatshop activists with the same clumsy brush strokes, and his use of the following metaphor: “it’s catastrophic for muddle-minded liberals to join in and cudgel impoverished workers for whom a sweatshop job is the first step on life’s escalator.”

That’s right, he compared working in a sweatshop to being on an escalator. That part has been particularly been fun because I get to dust off old skills I learned as a theater major and pantomime riding on an escalator. I usually get a good laugh out of that.

To be fair, Kristof is trying to use this metaphor to suggest that sweatshops are a necessary evil that eventually leads to great wealth for the nation. Adam Smith’s invisible hand has been given a technological update! It is now an escalator.

Well, at least it’s not a rollercoaster in the Mall of America.


I could take a detour here and discuss the post-Berlin wall American Ethos and what I call the Democracy Block (an inability to think of democracy without locking it in the confines of Capitalism), but I want to discuss rhetoric instead. And I don’t plan on getting deeply theoretical here. I want this accessible to beginners.

In particular, I want to discuss a maneuver that I have noticed more and more over the last few years. It’s an attempt to use pathos in a certain way. There is nothing really new in how it is used. It’s just surprising where these appeals show up — as counter points to arguments that have historically used pathos to support the opposite conclusion (or have been perceived by conservatives to have done so).

Kristof is a trickster in the worst sense. He knows that people are likely to feel bad about buying from sweatshops. So, he makes them feel bad about wanting to change the situation. It’s a brilliantly devious rhetorical maneuver. It runs solely on  pathos, flip-flopping the usual bleeding-heart angle to support a conservative agenda. (since it’s Kristof we might have to say something else. Neoliberal?? Clinton third-way??).

You can see the same move made in the recent horse slaughter debate.


I don’t care what your argument on horse slaughter is. We are discussing the way this argument is made and what makes it persuasive.

The composing process must go something like this: Bleeding hearts will usually not support horse slaughter, so let’s make them feel bad for the poor horses that are not slaughtered by throwing a lot of unfounded anecdotal evidence their way.

Kristof has a lot of strange beliefs. He comes off pretty much liberal on most counts, but his ideas about sweatshops neglect the history of the labor movement and anti-sweatshop views like that of my student who concluded that it would be best to support worker efforts to unionize. Kirstof might be strange, but he is not alone in his pro-sweatshop stance within the emerging NEW-new left. It’s Paul Krugman’s position. It’s even Scarleeeett Johansson’s position concerning her spokesmenship of SodaStream</ato

The latest and most absurd instance of this comes from Cliven Bundy, who recently brought a dead calf to the CNN studios. He is an example of what can go wrong when the heartless try to use pathos. http://www.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/us/2014/04/25/newday-cliven-bundy-interview-part-1.cnn.html

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