Here’s some more thoughts/explanations/examples on ethos, which I wrote after my students last semester asked for more resources.
Ethos is the credibility/reliability/trustworthiness (or PERCEIVED credibility/reliability/trustworthiness) of the speaker.
The story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is a fable about ethos. Because the boy cries “Wolf!” even when there is no wolf so many times, the villagers don’t believe him when there actually is a wolf. He ruined his ethos by lying and pranking them.
In professional settings, I often don’t have a lot of ethos, because I’m young and don’t have my PhD (yet!!). So in order to convince people that I know what I’m talking about, I may choose to dress extra professionally, talk extra formally, or make a point of mentioning the experience and qualifications that I do have. Think about a resume– that’s a genre that basically only uses ethos. It’s just a list of all the things you’ve done that make you good for a job.
Trump and Ethos
Trump is an interesting person to analyze when we think about ethos. During the 2016 election, and again now, many people who supported Trump said they liked him because he was a successful businessman, so he knows how to run things. Trump’s reputation as a rich person (and owner of a business) made some people trust/believe that he would be a good president.
People who didn’t like Trump would say, “But he has no experience in politics” or “Running a business is different from running a government, so that doesn’t matter.” They did not feel like he had a lot of ethos.
Now, people who don’t like Trump will say, “He lies all the time about everything” — he has no ethos! If he lies, why would you trust him about any given piece of information? Trump supporters say that Trump has a lot of ethos, but the media is not reliable– they say the media has no ethos because they are out to get Trump even if it means lying.
Some Other Examples of Ethos
Ethos is often the source of tension in horror movies. For example, in The Invisible Man, a woman’s abusive ex is stalking and continuing to abuse her, but he’s invisible, so nobody believes her.
(Note: Discussion of assault and racism below)
Ethos is also SUPER important in sexual assault cases. Many times, people try to discredit the victim’s ethos– they were drunk, they’re exaggerating, they just want attention or money or to punish the perpetrator, etc. That’s about whether the accuser is trustworthy. But ethos isn’t just about trust– it’s about ethics, or goodness. We see that on the flip side. Often, when people talk about the perpetrator, they portray the perpetrator as wholesome (“just a kid, has his whole life ahead of him”) or normal (“Brock Turner, a star swimmer at Stanford University”), etc. This builds up the perpetrator’s ethos so people are more likely to believe them, or more likely to be lenient.
Racial profiling is also an example of an ethos problem. Because of racism, anyone who isn’t white is often viewed as less trustworthy– having less ethos– than a white person. They didn’t do anything to earn that lack of ethos– it’s just assigned to them by other people. A given action (walking down the street, holding a toy gun, wearing a turban, etc.) that is interpreted as non-threatening when a white person does it becomes rhetorically threatening when a not-white person does it– because the “speaker” (do-er of the action) lacks ethos. In this case, because of racism, not because of anything they did.
Ethos is not about whether or not someone is ACTUALLY saying true information/doing a particular thing. It’s about whether or not their audience PERCEIVES them to be telling the truth/doing a particular thing.
Ethos and Research/Your Writing
Let’s pretend I want to write a scholarly paper about Black Panther and its significance to African American readers. I’ve only seen the movie once, I haven’t read any of the comics, I’m not part of the fandom, I don’t really know much about comics in general or about African American literature in general, and I’m not African American myself. So I have basically no ethos! I can tell you my opinion about Black Panther, but you have no reason to trust my opinion more than anybody else’s.
In contrast, Professor Jonathan Gray (here at John Jay and at the Graduate Center) could just say his opinion about Black Panther and it would mean a lot, because he has a lot of ethos. He is a professor with a PhD whose specialities are African American literature, pop culture, and comics. He has written books and articles about these topics. He has a lot of knowledge, not only about Black Panther specifically but about related topics in history and culture. He is also personally African American and a comics fan himself, so he can speak from his own personal experience and feelings about Black Panther too.
So one way I could boost my own ethos is by citing Professor Gray. My opinion might not mean much by itself, but if someone with a lot of ethos on this topic like him agrees with me, you might trust my analysis more!
For your research projects, you all will have at least a little knowledge about your topics, but probably not a lot. You are not experts. So you find information written by experts instead. You boost your own ethos by showing that you are filling in the gaps in your knowledge by seeking out reliable information. As a writer, you’re saying, “You can trust me, because I worked really hard to find true information from reliable sources.”