Mary Fisher’s Whisper of Ethos, Pathos, and Logos

Some of the most beautiful words and coined phrases have come from speeches.  Public address is not part of our everyday reading repertoire, like magazines, newspapers, and books.  A speech is unique.  It calls for an audience–it calls for direct advocacy in which no other art form can do.  Speeches are the living words of our past, the maps of historical rights and wrongs, and the ideals we aim to reach for.  All speeches, at one time, have been spoken and have been heard.  In my public speaking class, students were asked to go on and find a speech they could connect with and apply ethos, pathos, and logos.  According to Aristotle, all great speeches, good or bad, positive or negative, incorporate ethos, pathos, and logos.  The logos represents the logic of the speech i.e., the speaker’s reasoning and main message (the speaker’s reasoning may not be your logic but it’s their logic).  The pathos represents the passion of the speech i.e., the speaker’s emotional appeals which pull at the heart-strings or boil the blood.  The top emotional appeals are guilt and fear.  The ethos represents the speaker’s goodwill and credibility i.e., who is the speaker and what makes them a believable expert.  The outward appearance, the words they speak, and the tone of voice, at times, will attribute to a speaker’s ethos.

The speech I chose was Mary Fisher’s 1992 public address, “A Whisper of AIDS”.  The main theme of Mary Fisher’s speech advocated HIV/AIDS education, prevention, and awareness. In 1992 many people still believed HIV/AIDS was a homosexual disease; a disease in which infected prostitutes and intravenous drug abusers.  A disease which was God’s way of saying, “You made your bed, now lie in it.”  Because of those stereotypes and misconceptions, the funding and research for HIV/AIDS was at a standstill–people needed awareness.  Although, today, there is still no cure for HIV/AIDS (there are drugs which aid in prolonging a person’s life) there are people like Mary Fisher to whom we owe a dept of gratitude. Her words changed public policy that night at the Republican National Convention, Houston, TX, 1992.


When we think of a hero, of a great person, we think of those who have fought endless battles.  But, what if the battle was not fought on solid ground?  Think of it…in our everyday life: Ignorance, prejudice, hatred…those are battles, too; maybe the toughest we have yet to overcome.  I want to share with you a woman who is fighting this same battle:  Mary Fisher, Republican, speaking out on the battlefield of the Republican National Convention, Houston, TX, 1992.  Mary Fisher, a woman avid for allies, battling against AIDS.  In Mary Fisher’s “A Whisper of AIDS,” Mary, a mother, who is HIV positive, speaks out about how awareness is the key to finding a cure. Her speech will be analysed using Aristotle’s approach to rhetoric. By applying logos, pathos, and ethos, Mary’s speech can be best understood.  What is her logic? What passion does she want you to feel? And what makes her credible? Those questions will be answered in this speech today.


Mary Fisher’s logic is very clear– without awareness we cannot move forward in fighting the battle against AIDS.  We should fight with our words and not our silence.  If AIDS is viewed as a homosexual disease then we have no hope in finding a cure.  Mary’s logic in her speech calls us “to recognize that AIDS virus is not a political creature.  It does not care whether you are Democrat of Republican; it does not ask whether you are black or white, male or female, gay or straight, young or old.”  This powerful logic helps redefine who the real AIDS’ victims/survivors are.  In the beginning of her speech, she uses statistics on how millions of people are infected and how, “[t]wo hundred thousand Americans are dead or dying.”  Logically, one cannot ignore there is a present problem that needs to be addressed.  AIDS is not a disease trapped in the impoverished places of Africa or between the sheets of a Shanghai prostitute’s bed.  This disease “is the third leading killer of young adult Americans today,” infecting mostly women and children.  Mary changed the whole profile in contracting HIV by being a white, married, heterosexual woman with two small children.


Mary’s pathos is evident in her startling statistics i.e., 40 million people worldwide are dying from AIDS, while 200,000 Americans, “are dead or dying.”  Mary’s first appeal is fear. She explains how AIDS, personifying it as a killer, knows where you live and where you like to hide.  By dramatizing our fear to speak out she appeals to guilt.  Her appeals move the audience to feel responsible for not speaking out against the prejudices which prevent the cure.  Our, “bold initiatives, campaign slogans, and hopeful promises” are not doing anything to promote awareness:  Our ignorance is killing innocent children and mothers; our ignorance is not saving lives. She even states, “It is not you [those who have HIV/AIDS] who should feel shame.  It is we [..].”  We are the ones capable of changing public policy.  But, Mary’s pathos does not stop with guilt and fear.  She goes on to say, “I am one with a black infant suffering with tubes in a Philadelphia hospital […], I am one with the lonely gay man sheltering a flickering candle from the cold wind of his family’s rejection.”  Mary appeals to sympathy.  If this is done right then it is not sympathy but true logic!  It is not logical to sit back and not fund for HIV/AIDS prevention when it directly helps us all.  We live in a vacuum.  The same air Julius Caesar breathed is still the same air you and I breathe (This is a scientific fact).  An act of compassion is the cure and is a ripple which affects us all.


The millions who watched on TV and those who saw Mary Fisher speak in person (bright, lively, and young) knew how she had contracted the HIV virus; she contracted it from her second husband.  Never in the speech did she blame her husband.  Never in the speech did she accuse her husband of giving her this debilitating disease.  Mary Fisher that night was the epiphany of ethos. Mary Fisher is definitely an activist and her ethos is unmistakable: She is a mother, Republican, and fighter of the HIV/AIDS virus.  She establishes her credibility by telling her audience in paragraph one, “I want your attention, not your applause.”  She represents the community, “whose members have been reluctantly drafted from every segment of American society.” She represents the people who she is fighting for.  Goodwill comes from great empathy.  Would the speech have been as powerful if Mary Fisher did not have HIV?  I believe the answer is “no.”  If Mary was a healthy woman talking about AIDS the urgency to help would not have been there.  It would have been another AIDS topic or discussion.  Mary was the topic, the embodiment, the reflection–if we cannot help our own mothers then what type of people are we?

Mary Fisher believed HIV/AIDS should not be a whisper.  Silence is not always golden.  Does it matter how a person got HIV/AIDS?  Does it matter if we care for a person with HIV/AIDS or not?  And, will there be an antidote line, in the near future, of the cans and cannots?  I hope for a cure.  I also hope when that day comes–the prejudice which draws the line between the deserving and underserving…I pray that line be diminished, too.


4 thoughts on “Mary Fisher’s Whisper of Ethos, Pathos, and Logos

  1. Wow! What a great assignment for young adults. I completely agree that her power comes from the fact she has aids herself.

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