"But I Just Want to Write an Unbiased Essay"
Let's begin by addressing a common concern my students raise when writing about controversial issues: neutrality. It's quite likely that you've been trained, at some point in your writing career, to avoid bias, to be objective, to be impartial. However, this is a habit you need to unlearn, because every text is biased by virtue of being rhetorical. All rhetoric has a purpose, whether declared or secret, and therefore is partial.
Instead of being impartial, I encourage you to be multipartial. In other words, you should aim to inhabit many different positions in your argument- not zero, not one, but many. This is an important distinction: no longer is your goal to be unbiased; rather, it is to be balanced. You will not provide your audience a neutral perspective, but rather a perspective conscientious of the many other perspectives out there.
Common Forms of Argumentation
In the study of argumentation, scholars and authors have developed a great variety of approaches; when it come to convincing, there are many different paths that lead to our destination. For the sake of succinctness, we will focus on two: the Aristotelian argument and the Rogerian Argument.89 While these two are not opposites, they are built on different values. Each will employ rhetorical appeals like those discussed later, but their purposes and guiding beliefs are different.
In Ancient Greece, debate was a cornerstone of social life. Intellectuals and philosophers devoted hours upon hours of each day to honing their argumentative skills. For one group of thinkers, the Sophists, the focus of argumentation was to find a distinctly "right" or "wrong" position. The more convincing argument was the right one: the content mattered less than the technique by which it was delivered.
In turn, the purpose of an Aristotelian argument is to persuade someone (the other debater and/ or the audience) that the speaker was correct. Aristotelian arguments are designed to bring the audience from one point of view to the other.
In this diagram, you can observe the tension between a point and counterpoint (or, to borrow a term from German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, "thesis" and "antithesis.") These two viewpoints move in two opposite directions, almost like a tug-of-war.
Therefore, an Aristotelian arguer tries to demonstrate the validity of their direction while addressing counterarguments: "Here's what I believe and why I'm right; here's what you believe and why it's wrong." The author seeks to persuade their audience through the sheer virtue of their truth.
You can see Aristotelian argumentation applied in "We Don't Care about Child Slaves."
In contrast, Rogerian arguments are more invested in compromise. Based on the work of psychologist Carl Rogers, Rogerian arguments are designed to enhance the connection between both sides of an issue. This kind of argument acknowledges the value of disagreement in material communities to make moral, political, and practical decisions.
Often, a Rogerian argument will begin with a fair statement of someone else's position and consideration of how that could be true. In other words, a Rogerian arguer addresses their 'opponent' more like a teammate: "What you think is not unreasonable; I disagree, but I can see how you're thinking, and I appreciate it." Notice that by taking the other ideas on their own terms, you demonstrate respect and cultivate trust and listening.
The rhetorical purpose of a Rogerian argument, then, is to come to a conclusion by negotiating common ground between moral-intellectual differences. Instead of debunking an opponent's counterargument entirely, a Rogerian arguer would say, "Here's what each of us thinks, and here's what we have in common. How can we proceed forward to honor our shared beliefs but find a new, informed position?" In Fichte's model of thesis-antithesis-synthesis,90 both debaters would pursue synthesis. The author seeks to persuade their audience by showing them respect, demonstrating a willingness to compromise, and championing the validity of truth as one among other valid truths.
You can see Rogerian argumentation applied in "Vaccines: Controversies and Miracles."
|Wool sweaters are the best clothing for cold weather.
|Wool sweaters are the best clothing for cold weather because they are fashionable and comfortable. Some people might think that wool sweaters are itchy, but those claims are ill-informed. Wool sweaters can be silky smooth if properly handled in the laundry.
|Some people might think that wool sweaters are itchy, which can certainly be the case. I've worn plenty of itchy wool sweaters. But wool sweaters can be silky smooth if properly handled in the laundry; thereforem they are the best clothing for cold weather. If you want to be cozy and in-style, consider my laundry techniques and a fuzzy wool sweater.
Before moving on, try to identify one rhetorical situation in which Aristotelian argumentation would be most effective, and one in which Rogerian argumentation would be preferable. Neither form is necessarily better, but rather both are useful in specific contexts. In what situations might you favor one approach over another?
Regardless of the style of arguments you use, you will need to consider the ways you engage your audience. Aristotle identified three kinds of rhetorical appeals: logos, pathos, and ethos. Some instructors refer to this trio as the "rhetorical triangle," though I prefer to think of them as a three-part Venn diagram.91 The best argumentation engages all three of these appeals, falling in the center where all three overlap. Unbalanced application of rhetorical appeals is likely to leave your audience suspicious, doubtful, or even bored.
You may have inferred already, but logos refers to an appeal to an audience's logical reasoning. Logos will often employ statistics, data, or other quantitative facts to demonstrate the validity of an argument. For example, an argument about the wage gap might indicate that women, on average, earn only about 80 percent of the salary that men in comparable positions earn; this would imply a logical conclusion that our economy favors men.
However, stating a fact or statistic does not alone constitute logos. For instance, when i show you this graph92, I am not yet making a logical appeal:
Yes, this graph is "fact-based," drawing on data to illustrate a phenomenon. That characteristic alone, though doesn't make a logical appeal. For my appeal to be logical, I also need to interpret the graph here:
As is illustrated here, there is a direct positive correlation between ice cream consumption and deaths by drowning: when people eat more ice cream, more people drown. Therefore, we need to be more careful about waiting 30 minutes after we eat ice cream.
Of course, this conclusion is inaccurate; it is a logical fallacy described in the table below called "post hoc, ergo propter hoc." However, the example illustrates that your logic is only complete when you've drawn a logical conclusion from your facts, statistics, or other information.
There are many other ways we draw logical conclusions. There are entire branches of academia dedicated to understanding the many kinds of logical reasoning, but we might get a better idea by looking at a specific kind of logic. Let's take for example the logical syllogism, which might look like this:
Pretty straightforward, right? We can see how a general rule (major premise) is applied to a specific situation (minor premise) to develop a logical conclusion. I like to introduce this kind of logic because students sometimes jump straight from the major premise to the conclusion; if you skip the middle step, your logic will be less convincing.
It does get a little more complex. Consider this false syllogism: it follows the same structure (general rule + specific situation), but it reaches an unlikely conclusion.
This is called a logical fallacy. Logical fallacies are part of our daily lives. Stereotypes, generalization, and misguided assumptions are fallacies you've likely encountered. You may have heard some terms about fallacies already: red herring, slippery slope, non sequitur. Fallacies follow patterns of reasoning that would otherwise be perfectly acceptable to us, but within their basic structure, they make a mistake. Aristotle identified that fallacies happen on the "material" level (the content is fallacious-something about the ideas or premises is flawed) and the "verbal" level (the writing or speech is fallacious- something about the delivery or medium is flawed).
It's important to be able to recognize these so that you can critically interrogate others' arguments and improve your own.
|Post hoc, ergo propter hoc
|"After this, therefore because of this" -a confusion of cause-and-effect with coincidence, attributing a consequence to an unrelated event. This error assumes that correlation equals causation, which is sometimes not the case.
|Statistics show that rates of ice cream consumption and deaths by drowning both increased in June. This must mean that ice cream causes drowning.
|"Does not follow" -a random digression that distracts from the train of logic (like a "red herring"), or draws an unrelated logical conclusion. John Oliver calls one manifestation of this fallacy "whataboutism," which he describes as a way to deflect attention from the subject at hand.
Sherlock is great at solving crimes; therefore, he'll also make a great father.
Sherlock Holmes smokes a pipe, which is unhealthy. But what about Bill Clinton? He eats McDonald's every day, which is also unhealthy.
|An oversimplification or cherry-picking of the opposition's argument to make them easier to attack.
|People who oppose the destruction of Confederate monuments are all white supremacists.
|"To the person" - a personal attack on the arguer, rather than a critique of their ideas.
|I don't trust Moriarty's opinion on urban planning because he wears bowties.
|An unreasonable prediction that one event will lead to a related but unlikely series of events that follows.
|If we let people of the same sex get married, then people will start marrying their dogs too!
|A simplification of a complex issue into only two sides.
|Given the choice between pizza and Chinese food for dinner, we simply must choose Chinese.
Learn more about other logical fallacies in the Additional Recommended Resources appendix.
The second rhetorical appeal we'll consider here is perhaps the most common: pathos refers to the process of engaging the reader's emotions. (You might recognize the Greek root pathos in "sympathy," "empathy," and "pathetic.") A writer can evoke a great variety of emotions to support their argument, from fear, passion, and joy to pity, kinship, and rage. By planning on the audience's feelings, writers can increase the impact of their arguments.
There are two especially effective techniques for cultivating pathos that I share with my students:
- Make the audience aware of the issue's relevance to them specifically- "How would you feel if this happened to you? What are we to do about this issue?"
- Tell stories. A story about one person or one community can have a deeper impact than broad, impersonal data or abstract, hypothetical statements. Consider the difference between
About 1.5 million pets are euthanized each year
Scooter, an energetic and loving former service dog with curly brown hair like a Brillo pad, was put down yesterday.
Both are impactful, but the latter is more memorable and more specific.
Pathos is ubiquitous in our current journalistic practices because people are more likely to act (or, at least, consume media) when they feel emotionally moved.93 Consider, as an example, the outpouring of support for detained immigrants in June 2018, reacting to the Trump administration's controversial family separation policy. As stories and images like this one surfaced, millions of dollars were raised in a matter of days on the premise of pathos, and resulted in the temporary suspension of that policy.
Your argument wouldn't be complete without an appeal to ethos. Cultivating ethos refers to the means by which you demonstrate your authority or expertise on a topic. You'll have to show your audience that you're trustworthy if they are going to buy your argument.
There are a handful of ways to demonstrate ethos:
- By personal experience: Although your lived experience might not set hard-and-fast rules about the world, it is worth noting that you may be an expert on certain facets of your life. For instance, a student who has played rugby for fifteen years of their life is in many ways an authority on the sport.
- By education or other certifications: Professional achievements demonstrate ethos by revealing status in a certain field or discipline.
- By citing other experts: The common expression is "Stand on the shoulders of giants." You can develop ethos by pointing to other people with authority and saying, "Look, this smart/experience/qualified/important person agrees with me."
A common misconception is that ethos corresponds with "ethics." However, you can remember that ethos is about credibility because it shares a root with "authority."
Sociohistorical Context of Argumentation
This textbook has emphasized consideration of your rhetorical occasion, but it bears repeating here that "good" argumentation depends largely on your place in time, space, and culture. Different cultures throughout the world value the elements of argumentation differently, and argument has different purposes in different contexts. The content of your argument and your strategies for delievering it will change in every unique rhetorical situation.
Continuing from logos, pathos, and ethos, the notion of kairos speaks to this concern. To put it in plain language, kairos is the force that determines what will be the best argumentative approach in the moment in which you're arguing; it is closely alligned with rhetorical occasion. According to rhetoricians, the characteristics of the karios determine the balance and application of logos, pathos, and ethos.
Moreover, your sociohistorical context will bear on what you an assume of your audience. What can you take for granted that your audience knows and believes? The "common sense" that your audience relies on is always changing: common sense in the U.S. in 1950 was much different from common sense in the U.S. in 1920 or common sense in the U.S. in 2018. You can make assumptions about your audience's interests, values, and background knowledge, but only with careful consideration of the time and place in which you are arguing.
As an example, let's consider the principle of logical noncontradiction. Put simply, this means that for an argument to be valid, its logical premises must not contradict one another: if A=B, then B=A. If I said that a dog is a mammal and a mammal is an animal, but a dos is not an animal, I would be contradicting myself. Or, "No one drives on I-84; there's too much traffic." This statement contradicts itself, which makes it humorous to us.
However, this principle of non-contradiction is not universal. Our understanding of cause and effect and logical consistency is defined by the millennia of knowledge that has been produced before us, and some cultures value the contradiction rather than perceive it as invalid.94 This is not to say that either way of seeing the world is more or less accurate, but rather to emphasize that your methods of argumentation depend tremendously on sociohistorical context.