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  • A Normative Pragmatic Model of Making Fear Appeals
  • Beth Innocenti

Broadly speaking, it seems plausible to say that fear appeals are designed to induce action—to generate persuasive force for addressees to act in order to avoid a fearful outcome (Walton 2000, 1-2, 20, 22, 143; Witte 1994, 113; Witte 1992, 329). Because a fear appeal is a kind of argument about harmful consequences, and because arguments about harmful consequences are commonplace in deliberations, fear appeals are practically inevitable in civic discourse. And, as some scholars have recently confirmed, making fear appeals may be appropriate in civic discourse (Walton 2000, 139; Pfau 2007, 228). The challenge is to explain how they generate persuasive force—how they reasonably pressure addressees to act as the speaker advocates. 1 The stakes are high; playing on citizens' fears may result in poor decisions with dire results.

Leading models of fear appeals have involved two kinds of approaches, social scientific models that explain why individuals may or may not be persuaded by a message and humanistic models that explain what kinds of messages speakers ought to design in order to meet normative criteria. The problem is that these models do not capture the dynamic nature of rhetorical transactions—the interaction—and, consequently, they provide limited accounts of the persuasive force of fear appeals in civic deliberations. They locate persuasive force primarily in internal states, such as addressees' cognitions or emotions. In doing so, they omit key parts of [End Page 273] rhetorical transactions such as the speaker, message design, and bilateral communication vectors. The normative pragmatic model proposed here offers a more complete account by describing persuasive force in terms of strategies speakers use to design fear appeals. Put simply, fear appeals are designed to make manifest that the speaker has made a responsible assessment of potential fearful outcomes and how to address them and forestall criticism for poor judgment or fearmongering. Persuasive force is generated by message design features such as the claim that harmful consequences will occur unless addressees act as the speaker advocates, the presenting of grounds, and the use of intense language and is located in risks and commitments that these design features make manifest.

To support these claims, I briefly overview how a normative pragmatic model describes rhetorical transactions. I then detail three leading models of fear appeals and point to characteristics of rhetorical transactions that they account for in a limited way or not at all. Finally I make a case for a normative pragmatic model of fear appeals. In the course of discussing other models as well as illustrating and supporting a case for the plausibility of a normative pragmatic one, I also analyze how speakers design fear appeals, turning to the 1787 debates in Virginia about whether to ratify the proposed United States Constitution. Since many of the issues the participants debate center on the topic of harmful consequences—the potential harms of ratifying the Constitution or not—fear appeals are at times rampant. The three-week span of the debates, the almost equal support for and against ratification, and the high stakes contribute to the frequency and intensity of fear appeals and of comments about making fear appeals. Because the debates take place within a well-circumscribed amount of time and in a well-circumscribed location, it is possible to track both the fear appeals themselves and the commentary on them. Moreover, since the debates take place in a republican political institution and the subject matter concerns features of a republican political institution, they provide insight into appropriate places for fear appeals in republican forms of government.

A normative pragmatic model of communication takes into account all elements of a basic communication scenario: speaker, speech, audience, and context. It also takes into account bilateral communication vectors: speaker-to-speech and speech-to-speaker on the one side and speech-to-audience and audience-to-speech on the other. 2 As a result, it describes context less in terms of external elements such as time limits than in terms of rhetorical elements such as presenting evidence. In other words, it describes the context generated just by saying something. As Jean Goodwin (2007, 85) [End Page 274...


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