In the essay “The Human Cost of an Illiterate Society,” Jonathan Kozol objectively and vividly describes the wretched tragedies and helplessness of the poor, illiterate people. He uses specific and realistic details of illiterates’ suffering and in so doing causes his readers to become sympathetic and genuinely concerned about the issue. In “A Modest Proposal”, Jonathan Swift, depicts the poverty of the underprivileged group in Ireland. He also arouses sympathy and concern from his readers in its shocking and uncharacteristic approach.
Although both works mentioned are set in different eras and meant for different audiences, they directly or indirectly urge their audiences to act. To do this, the authors appeal beyond the readers’ logic, in a direct effort to arouse emotion or ethical consideration by using the rhetorical strategies of ethos and pathos. Swift’s proposal is calculated as a method of obliquely evoking his readers’ pathos, which is defined as “the quality in something that makes people feel pity or sadness” (Encarta, 2005).
Beaumont describes the essay as “a pitiful description of the state of Ireland, intended to appeal to the emotions of the reader,” and as filled with “statements which reflect the benevolence of the author, designed to establish the ethical proof” (15). Swift’s proposal of these unthinkable actions is indeed made in an apparent attempt to improve the conditions of these people, as these efforts he describes he implies to be better than the usual conditions of their lives.
The essay is oblique in its approach because it proposes something grotesque and terrible in order to shock readers into noticing the appalling condition under which the poor of that time lived. This shock is intended to be succeeded by pity and a willingness to offer assistance. The proposal is at first surprising, and gives its reader a sense of disgust as one considers it atrocious that someone would propose such cruel actions against the youths of Ireland.
The essay begins its satire by denoting Irish women of child-bearing age as “breeders”—a direct comparison with cattle and other pastoral animals. This comparison is meant to get the readers’ attention and to evoke their sympathy for the people who are being dehumanized in this fashion. Swift takes the metaphor further, as he explains how many infants one might count on being born in a given year, and how each would grow and provide nourishment to those who can afford it.
He writes, “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust” (Swift). His comparison of the babies to tender meat appeals to the reader’s sense of humanity, and especially the softer regard persons usually have for the helpless creatures.
Swift is aware that his readers’ thoughts would most likely reflect on those infants with whom they have had close relations, and he uses this strong attachment to strengthen his position. The emotions of anger, sympathy, or outrage that the reader displays at this point testify to the effectiveness of Swifts’ use of pathos as a means of appealing to emotions. Swift goes further in his attempt to appeal to the pathetic sentiments of his readers by placing the law in a position to perpetrate obvious cruelties upon the youth—which he sees as comparable to the current situation in his country.
His comparison of twelve-to-fourteen year old Irish youths with venison demonstrates the disregard that people have had for these citizens. It brings disgrace upon the privileged classes, and represents Swift’s attempt to evoke the sentiment of shame in order to elicit action from those who are able to ameliorate the conditions of the poor. In doing this, Swift is able to bring his reader to the conviction that these people are indeed human and deserve better treatment.
The irony of the situation comes home to the reader, and he or she realizes that the point being made is that the treatment currently offered to the citizens of Ireland is, according to Swift, comparable to these horrifying ideas that he presents. It might be said, therefore, that Swift’s proposal is effective in its use of pathos to shock and shame readers into admitting that the Irish who live in abject poverty are in fact deserving of a better life.
Ethos has been defined by the Microsoft Encarta dictionary as “the fundamental and distinctive character of a group, social context, or period of time, typically expressed in attitudes, habits and beliefs” (2005). Like Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” Jonathan Kozol’s essay evokes the pity of his readers, yet his does so by clearly depicting the ways in which people have been deprived of the “distinctive character” that ought to have been their right in this social context.
The essay serves as a method of displaying ways in which illiterates have been excluded from society by being dispossessed of their fundamental rights to understand and to express themselves. Kozol speaks to a problem that has been identified by respected researchers who report that about 25% of adults are unable to function in the society because of problems with illiteracy. They place the number of illiterates at somewhere between 17 and 21 million Americans (Wiley, 1995).
Kozol addresses this problem by alluding to the hard-won right to vote given to all through universal suffrage, and explaining how this loses its meaning to the millions of Americans who are marginalized by their illiteracy. By explaining the areas in which illiteracy strips people of their rights as human being and citizens of the United States, he uses ethos to appeal to his readers’ emotions and their sense of justice, fairness, and humanity.
Kozol understands that many people have not explored the depth of meaning that can (and must) be tied to literacy, and takes this opportunity to enlighten as well as soften his readers to the sad conditions of the illiterate American. Kozol alerts his readers to the fact that many benefits and rights of society are granted on the assumption that people are literate, and each detail he provides demonstrates a compromise of the liberty that many educated Americans consider a given in the country.
The examples he gives present situations that are inconceivable to the person reading. He begins with expressing the panic he has often felt in a dream in which he, in a foreign country, cannot understand the language of communication. He writes not of the spoken word, but describes the infinite ways in which a person is bombarded with written language. He writes, “I try to ask somebody for directions. One person stops and looks at me in a peculiar way. I lose the nerve to ask. His own feeling of panic translates to the reader, as his illiteracy of the language remands him to a sub-class of society, the appalling existence of which the reader is only now becoming aware. He reveals the stigma to which illiterates are subject every day, and in placing himself in the situation, politely asks the reader to do the same by empathizing with the illiterate person). In this way, Kozol appeals to the ethics by which his readers judge the unfairness of the situation, and evokes the strong emotion of pity in an attempt to rally their efforts toward change.
Kozol delves further into the experiences of the illiterate persons in order to show more vividly the extent to which these persons have been dehumanized in their situation. He describes how gross mistakes have been made by virtue of these peoples’ inability to read such things as pamphlets on hospital procedures. He describes women who have entered hospital for tubal ligations and have emerged with hysterectomies. His language is itself evocative of sentiment in his ethical appeal to his readers’ sense of human rights.
He writes, “What greater violation of our biological, our biblical, our spiritual humanity could possibly exist than that which takes place nightly, perhaps hourly these days, within such overburdened and benighted institutions as the Boston City Hospital? ” He goes on to describe other illiterates in situations where they cannot decipher warning labels or street signs, who cannot tell their location in the event of an emergency, and who cannot read the clauses of leases and other binding contracts that are necessary in everyday life.
People have therefore suffered eviction from their homes for such simple reasons as a baby’s crying too loudly. Such reasons are inconceivable to the common reader, and succeed in eliciting his or her pity. The seriousness of the problems that have arisen because of this illiteracy shocks Kozol’s readers into a new found understanding of them. Their sympathy is educated: exercised not just in passing, but based on true knowledge of the appalling situations to which these people have been (and continually are) exposed because of their deficiency in literacy and numeracy.
Kozol describes the most simple of tasks and details the impossibility of an illiterate performing it. The mundane task of going to the supermarket bears a lot of circumstance in the life of an illiterate or innumerate person. These people are barred from saving money on cheaper store brands because label recognition is their only means of navigation through its labyrinthine aisles. He also speaks of travel, which most people take for granted, and explains the impossibility of such a task for non-readers.
The ethos of Kozol’s argument is expressed in the simplicity with which his readers perform these tasks that prove gargantuan to the illiterate. This strategy succeeds in evoking sadness and pity of the reader, as he or she is able only at that point to imagine the anguish that such a person faces every day. The essays by Jonathan Kozol and Jonathan Swift depict an exercise in the use of ethos and pathos to evoke the sentiments of the public for the purpose of rousing them toward understanding of and action against the plight of the unfortunate citizens of Ireland and the United States.
Each author uses his rhetorical technique to draw attention to the cruelties undergone by those who have been somehow marginalized by society. Swift speaks of the ghastly living conditions of the poor, and compares their situation to that of cattle reared in commercial farming. Kozol describes the ways in which the illiterate and innumerate have been prevented from doing the things literate people usually take for granted. In doing these things, both authors are successful in appealing to the emotions and ethical considerations of their readers in order to promote change in the society.