Performing ethos in administrative hearings: constructing a credible persona under the Chinese Exclusion Act over time

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Ethos or credibility of a speaker is often defined as the speaker's character (Aristotle). Contemporary scholars however, have contended that ethos lies with the audience because while the speaker may

Ethos or credibility of a speaker is often defined as the speaker's character (Aristotle). Contemporary scholars however, have contended that ethos lies with the audience because while the speaker may efficiently persuade, the audience will decide if it wants to be persuaded (Farrell). Missing from the scholarly conversation is attention to how ethos is performed between speaker and audience under institutional structures that produce inequitable power relations subject to changing political contexts over time. In this dissertation I analyze how ethos is performed that is a function of a specific social and political environment.

My grandfather, Al Foon Lai, was a paper son. As an adult, I learned that paper sons were members of paper families that may or may not actually exist except on paper; furthermore paper immigration was the way many Chinese entered the United States to get around the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943). Grandfather held legal status, but grandfather's name was fictitious and thus his entry to the United States in 1920 was illegal. Today by some authorities he would be classified as an illegal immigrant. As Grandfather's status as a paper son suggest, Grandfather's credibility as someone with the legal prerogative to reside in the U.S. was a dynamic construct that was negotiated in light of the changing cultural norms encoded in shifting immigration policies. Grandfather constructed his ethos "to do persuasion" in administrative hearings mandated under the Chinese Exclusion Act that produced asymmetrical power relations. By asymmetrical power relations I mean the unequal status between the administrator overseeing the hearing and Lai the immigrant. The unequal status was manifest in the techniques and procedures employed by the administrative body empowered to implement the Chinese Exclusion Act and subsequent laws that affected Chinese immigrants. Combining tools from narrative analysis and feminists rhetorical methods I analyze excerpts from Al Foon Lai's transcripts from three administrative hearings between 1926 and 1965. It finds that Grandfather employed narrative strategies that show the nature of negotiating ethos in asymmetrical power situations and the link between the performance of ethos and the political and social context.