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Home Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006) Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
What’s the purpose of persuasive writing?
• To make the writer’s opinions agreeable, convincing to an audience
• To convince readers who disagree to change their minds, or their behavior
• To use argumentation as a rhetorical strategy for convincing people to agree with you, even when they may initially disagree.
Notice how the word audience, readers, and people keep appearing as we try to define the purpose here? It’s the needs of the audience that you really focus on when you attempt to write persuasively. That will be crucial to remember when we talk about the parts of an argument.
In all of these definitions of purpose, you can see that the need for persuasion implies that there’s some problem or issue or disagreement out there that’s “arguable” or “debatable.” That seems obvious, but what does it really mean?
People get into ridiculous or even dangerous arguments all of the time because they try to argue or debate things they disagree about that really aren’t arguable because they are matters of belief, feeling, or faith.
Feelings. If you feel happy, will you be easily convinced that you that you shouldn’t be? Conversely, if you’re sad, can you be “persuaded” to cheer up? If you hate someone or something, will a logical explanation change the way you feel? (Logic can influence the way you think, but does it budge how you feel?) Feelings can change, obviously, and sometimes changing your mind helps you change your feelings, but in general it’s understood that feelings are not arguable. You know the cliché—“people are entitled to their feelings.”
Faith. Two people who have religious differences, for instance, can “argue” and debate all day and I guarantee neither one will “win.” We have vivid illustrations of this all over the world.
Belief. Sometimes what’s a matter of belief can be a little blurry, and what’s arguable or not arguable becomes a lot more challenging to decide. For example, should a red state evangelical Christian argue with a blue state secular humanist that the United States should observe a separation of church and state? Are we talking about “belief” when we talk about the tradition of separation between church and state? In this case, I would say no—we are arguing about how to interpret the Constitution, which is not an article of faith but an article of secular law. In that case, the stronger interpretation, the one with more logical reasoning and evidence to support it, should “win” (be the most convincing).
Of course we all know that disagreements which can’t be argued are often battled instead. Might makes right, as the saying goes. How long has that been going on? Forever, right? But this isn’t exactly satisfying for either party, and at various times in history there have been those few special individuals who have stood up to disavow the idea that “might makes right.” Because in the “might makes right” scheme of solving disagreements, the “winner” isn’t necessarily right, just more muscular; and the loser isn’t necessarily wrong, just less muscular. Nothing is really solved. So, the ancient Greeks, who invented western civilization and democracy and all the traditions that attend them, arrived at the idea that the only civilized solution in a disagreement is tolerance or negotiation; you can agree to disagree. You can respect the difference and walk away. Or you can use your rhetorical powers of persuasion to convince your opponent to agree with you.
This only works if you posit an adversary who is reasonable and open-minded, and an issue that is truly arguable, truly debatable—that is, not an issue based on feeling, belief, or faith, or “mere opinion” (opinions you hold but fail to or refuse to rationally support).
Defining “arguable.” An issue is arguable if reasonable people disagree about it for rational reasons… and both sides are interested in arriving at the most reasonable, most rational, most logical position, whether it’s the one they started with or not. Let’s look at a sample issue on which reasonable people disagree vehemently today: our war in Iraq.
SAMPLE ISSUE: THE IRAQ WAR
Expressive purpose. Approaching the subject expressively I would attempt, in various ways, to communicate my thoughts, feelings, opinions, or experiences concerning the war, focusing especially on my personal perspective of things. I might have been in Iraq and experienced the war first hand, or I might have a close friend or a relative who’s been in Iraq; maybe I follow the news closely and the war is an important moral issue for me. My writing will get readers to understand my own impressions of the war, my personal experiences relating to the war, and my opinion about the war.
Objective purpose. Approaching the subject objectively, I would attempt to explain or analyze the situation in Iraq. My writing would be informative. Through my writing, readers will be able to observe many facts about the war; I might even provide an analysis of the war’s causes and its effects of the war, or what kind of war it is compared to other wars we’ve fought, or an analysis of how to define victory. My purpose would be to observe as many facts about the war as possible in order to inform readers about what’s actually happening in Iraq. I might analyze our efforts in Iraq to draw conclusions about our success or failure there, or I might leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions about our relative success or failure to achieve our mission.
Persuasive purpose. Approaching the subject persuasively, I will state a claim relating to the war and try to persuade readers to agree with my claim. I may make it clear that I am either for or against the war and indicate my reasons (claim of judgment). I might claim that the war is to costly and that it’s time to bring it to a end (claim of policy). I may claim that, even if we grant that it was begun with the best intentions, it has failed to achieve anything positive, and has actually done more harm than good (claim of value). I may claim that the real causes of the war were other than the ones sold to the public and that the results of this deception have been catastrophic (claim of cause/effect). I may claim that our actions against Iraq and our treatment of prisoners and “detainees” is illegal and morally bankrupt according to U.N. standards and world opinion (claim of interpretation). Whatever kind of claim I make, I’m interested in making sure these claims are convincing to people who initially disagree with them.
Making a claim. A claim is a statement of your position on a debatable issue. Examine the following sample claim: “The war in Iraq is a colossal mistake that has undermined our democracy as well as our security.”
You can ask a series of questions to test whether this is an arguable claim. It obviously expresses an opinion, but will it be “mere opinion” (with nothing to prove it)? Is it a claim based on feeling, belief, or faith, or does the writer intend to prove this statement through logical reasoning and evidence? Do reasonable people disagree? Do some people hold an opposing view for rational reasons that they attempt to support with factual, objective evidence and logical reasoning? Depending on your answers to these questions, it’s either an arguable claim or it’s not.
After examining this claim, you might decide:
It’s not mere opinion; the writer intends to provide support.
It’s not based on feeling or belief; the right reasoning and evidence can prove it.
Reasonable people do disagree, and this counter-position can be supported with reasoning and evidence, too.
This is an arguable claim because there’s clearly another side to the issue. The Bush administration and its supporters strongly disagree with this claim. Their counter-position is that the war in Iraq is a necessary battle in the more general “war on terror”—that Iraq and the Al Qaeda terrorists were in league with one another, which led to the 9/11 attacks. Our war in Iraq is necessary for our nation’s security. Furthermore, our mission of bringing democracy to Iraq only strengthens, not weakens, our own democratic principles. We have done and are doing the right thing, and we can’t quit now. We have to refuse to be quitters and “stay the course.”
Examining this counter-position, the writer of the sample claim must decide how strong or weak this opponent’s claim really is. Can it be disproved? If so, how? If the writer decides to conduct this argument, a necessary part of the task will be to disprove this counter-position in an effective way—not just by contradicting it, or implying a “belief” otherwise—but by demonstrating that this position is logically flawed, based on flimsy evidence, or both. If the writer can do that, then the intellectual battle is on, but there will be no bloodshed, and no real losers, since by mutually seeking the most logical, rational position, both sides will win when that position is ultimately identified.
Engaging in this kind of debate and trying to sway your opponent to your side peacefully is the essence of persuasion using argumentation. It’s the engagement with an opposition that separates persuasive writing from objective writing. You may not have thought about it before, but it’s this kind of peaceful negotiation and conflict resolution that provides the foundation for our whole democratic system. Democracy requires involvement, choice among alternatives, and decision-making. We the people are supposed to think about these things and make intelligent decisions from among rational choices. If it turns out we can’t do this, then history has proven how someone or some group will step up to fill the void and make those decisions for us. They may not be the most rational, and they might not be in our best interest—but that won’t matter to the “might makes right” crowd, which never really goes too far away, unfortunately; it just bides its time in the corner waiting for us to get lazy and our diligence to fade so it can spring back into power. (I guess you can tell I think this is an important skill!)
It’s possible to approach learning the art (or science) of persuasion by observing how it operates in the “real world.” In the real world outside the university, the persuaders are hard at work telling us what to feel and how to act, what to buy and who to vote for. The language of advertising and the language of political propaganda are both highly successful means of persuasion, but they are both dubiously manipulative and more than a little unethical when we closely examine them. Therefore, successful as they are, they will not be our role models. The culture of the university promotes an alternative to the blunt manipulation of advertising and propaganda, and the alternative is “rational argument.”
Rational argument is the tool, the rhetorical strategy, to use to be persuasive in an ethical, non-manipulative manner. When you want to persuade someone to agree with you without resorting to trickery or violence, you turn to rational argument.
DEFINING RATIONAL ARGUMENT
Conducting a persuasive argument is somewhat complicated. It requires you to take four steps (in no particular order):
LOGICAL REASONING AND EVIDENCE
A definition of logical reasoning. Wikipedia.org explains that “reasoning” is “the act of using reason to derive a conclusion from certain premises, using a given methodology; and the two most commonly used explicit methods to reach a conclusion are deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning.” Logical reasoning involves lining up a series of statements to see what valid conclusion can be inferred. There are two slightly different models you can use: Aristotle’s ancient but ever useful “syllogism” or Stephen Toulmin’s more recent model. They are probably more alike than they are different.
Aristotle’s model involves lining up valid premises to reach a valid conclusion (truth); Toulmin’s model involves looking at specific “data” and figuring out what general truth that data suggests. Both explain how it’s possible to use inductive and deductive reasoning to arrive at an agreed upon “truth.”
Inductive reasoning begins with empirical data or specific evidence, and from this particular data infers a general truth; deductive reasoning does the opposite: it begins with a generally accepted statement of truth to arrive at an understanding of particular data. It’s always easier to grasp these concepts when you see them in action.
Start with the simple example of inductive reasoning:
MAJOR PREMISE: Ralph is human. (particular data, specific evidence)
MINOR PREMISE: All humans are mortal. (assumption of truth)
Therefore, Ralph is mortal. (conclusion, a statement of truth)
You can arrange these premises to make the line of reasoning deductive:
MAJOR PREMISE: All humans are mortal.
MINOR PREMISE: Ralph is human.
Therefore, Ralph is mortal.
The Toulmin model is also an “inductive” model:
WARRANT=Human’s are mortal. (What everyone knows to be true; what I can prove to be true; what I want to assume to be true. There can be more than one warrant.)
CLAIM=Ralph is mortal.
In each case the point is to have a series of valid premises leading to a valid conclusion. Now let’s examine a more complex line of reasoning using our sample issue: the Iraq war.
DATA=Sadaam Hussein is not cooperating with inspectors.
WARRANT=His uncooperativeness suggests he’s hiding something, and what he’s hiding is a nuclear weapons program.
CLAIM=Iraq has a nuclear weapons program that poses a threat to us.
MAJOR PREMISE: Sadaam Hussein is not cooperating with inspectors.
MINOR PREMISE: His uncooperativeness means he’s hiding a nuclear weapons program.
Therefore, Iraq has a nuclear weapons program that poses a threat to us.
When you examine this line of reasoning, you may want to challenge the validity of the conclusion (especially in hindsight!). How will you do that? You will have to prove that the premises are not valid or that the conclusion doesn’t logically (necessarily) follow from the stated premises, even if they are true. If the assumptions underlying the conclusion are false, weak, or unprovable, then the whole structure becomes weak.
What would make the above warrant more convincing? Evidence. In the Toulmin model, it’s called “backing.” What evidence is there to suggest that he is hiding a nuclear weapons program? If this evidence is strong or compelling, the conclusion gets a lot more acceptable. Sometimes people will accept a weak conclusion because they aren’t evaluating the validity of statements or examining the evidence very carefully. The evidence that was presented to support these premises and this conclusion before the war was extremely thin and even disproved, but the American public accepted it anyway. The fact that no nuclear program and no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq was not a surprise to those who closely evaluated this line of reasoning in the run-up to the war.
MAJOR PREMISE: Preemptive war is our national perogative when we feel threatened.
MINOR PREMISE: Iraq is a threat to us.
Therefore, we are justified in attacking Iraq preemptively.
The validity of this line of reasoning hinges on the writer’s ability to convince readers that “preemptive war” is legally and morally the right action to take. The underlying assumption is that a preemptive military strike (“shock and awe”) is the best action to take when a threat is perceived. That’s a tough sell for many who would argue that “preemptive war” is overly aggressive and unlawful, and that there are more effective, more peaceful means for dealing with perceived threats.
The evidence you provide to back up your reasoning is crucial to making your argument convincing. The strength or weakness of evidence is often the deciding factor when we decide whether we’re convinced or not convinced to accept a claim.
Hard evidence carries a lot of weight in an argument; it’s very convincing. Facts, the opinion of experts or authorites, and statistics can all be used as hard evidence to support your reasoning.
Soft evidence carries less weight but may be very effective if used in conjunction with harder kinds of evidence. Soft evidence might not be convincing by itself, but it can be used as a supplement. Your personal experience, personal observations, or the limited observations of others are soft evidence. Individual cases or case studies are considered soft evidence; overgeneralizing from limited data would be a logical fallacy (an error in reasoning). Hypothetical scenarios may be attention grabbing but because they are imaginary, they are also soft evidence. In the run-up to the war, President Bush, Vice President Cheyney, and Condolezza Rice all used the scary scenario of a “smoking gun” being a “mushroom cloud” as a form of soft evidence to support the the idea that Iraq was a threat, and it was very effective in getting the public’s attention.
PRESENTING THE COUNTER-POSITION
A claim is not going to be persuasive to an audience who disagrees with it unless the writer acknowledges that audience’s reasons for disagreement. The aim is to present the opposing view fairly and accurately, without ridiculing or belittling it in any way. Any perceived ridicule will have an immediate alienating effect, and you will lose the audience you are trying to persuade. Always be fair to your opponent’s position and attempt to present it as accurately as you can.
It’s not necessary to explain your opponent’s view at length, but it is necessary for you to demonstrate that you know your opponent’s counter-claim and the reasons in support of this counter claim.
NEGOTIATION OR REFUTATION
Once you’ve identified your opponents’ views you can either negotiate common ground or attempt to refute the counter position. To refute means to disprove. How can you disprove your opponents’ position? You can’t do it by mere contradiction, or by stating your “belief” to the contrary. You have to take the hard route of evaluating the quality of the reasoning and evidence that supports their claim(s). Do you find invalid premises that invalidate a conclusion? Do you find conclusions that don’t necessarily follow from premises? Do you see any logical fallacies (common, tricky flaws in reasoning)? Can you identify an assumption that’s false? Do you spot weak evidence, or a lack of evidence? Any of these things would help you refute, or disprove, your opponents’ position.
Questions? Contact me.
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