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Donna Winchell

Argument and Aesthetics

Posted by Donna Winchell Expert Jan 11, 2019

All claims, whether of fact, value, or policy, are the thesis statements that arguments support. It may seem a bit counterintuitive that claims of fact need to be supported, but keep in mind that readers or listeners may need to be convinced that a statement of fact is indeed true. Consider, for example, the resistance to the claim that global warming is changing the earth’s climate.


Less surprising, perhaps, is the need to support a claim of value. One of the large areas in which to support a claim of value is aesthetics. Judgments about art are value judgments and are expressed through claims of value. Any time you express an opinion about a painting, a film, a book, a concert, or any other work of art, you are making a value claim. Others don’t have to agree with you, but well-written argument supporting a claim of value will rely on clear references to specific elements of the work and try to convince others that your opinion is valid.


The recent Golden Globe awards elicited a flurry of responses about the values implicit in the choice of winners. Two of the big winners were Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody. Audiences clearly liked Green Book, the story of talented black musician Dr. Don Shirley and his foray into the American South of the 1960s accompanied by his newfound chauffeur/bodyguard, rough cut Italian bouncer Tony Vallelonga. The film is a feel-good story that, while recording the animosity and blatant racism that Shirley faces in the American South, also focuses on Vallelonga’s growing realization of how ridiculous the rules are. The climax is reached when Dr. Shirley is preparing to perform for four hundred white guests, but he, in his elegant tuxedo, is not allowed to eat in the same room with them.


Less favorably impressed than many critics and moviegoers were the ones who knew the real Dr. Shirley best—his family. While audiences applauded the friendship that blossomed between the two men, the family denied that a friendship ever developed, arguing that it was merely a business arrangement. To his credit, Mahershala Ali, who played Shirley, acknowledged after the awards show that he was not aware that there were close family members of Shirley that he could have talked to in order to learn more about Shirley’s relationship to his family, which is presented negatively in the movie. To their credit, Shirley’s family congratulated Ali on winning the award for Best Supporting Actor for the movie, praising his acting ability. In depicting the relationship between Shirley and Vallelonga as he did, the film’s director chose a picture of racial harmony that people wanted and needed to see over fidelity to truth. As such, the value the movie is accorded depends on whether a viewer wanted accuracy or sentimentality.


A similar judgment call had to be made in the making of Bohemian Rhapsody. Ironically, what some view as the limitations of the movie were caused by the directors’ attempt to please surviving members of the rock band Queen featured in the film. One criticism is that director Bryan Singer and his replacement Dexter Fletcher tried to make the PG-13 movie that the remaining band members wanted by downplaying the reality of the life of lead singer Freddie Mercury. Mercury was brilliantly played by Rami Malek, and it is obvious that Mercury was bisexual, but the portrayal of his same-sex relationships is so delicate that it almost comes as a surprise when he is diagnosed with the AIDS that killed him. Some critics wanted a warts-and-all expose of Queen’s—and Mercury’s—backstory, but felt they got a sanitized stereotypical biopic instead.


As with most arguments, arguments about aesthetics are received differently by different audiences, as are the artworks themselves. A scene from an even more recent movie, All Is True, has Kenneth Branagh as Shakespeare state, “When I dip the ink and make the mark, all is true.” The quotation is more memorable than accurate.


Photo Credit: “Golden Globes Hosts Sandra Oh, Andy Samberg Preview "Crazy-Pants" Show”by Marco Verch on Flickr, 1/3/19 via a CC BY 2.0 license.

Donna Winchell

The Year in Review

Posted by Donna Winchell Expert Dec 21, 2018

Each year sees headlines that capture a wide range of political controversies and shape national discourse. The year drawing to a close, though, has been a banner year for controversy in a nation more divided than it has been in a long time. I have noted before that “the news” on television, radio, and the Internet is largely not the objective reporting expected in the past, but biased commentary on events. It may not be a great time to be an American, but it seems to be a great time to study argument in today’s headlines – or it would, were it not for the fact that some positions are so extreme they provide better examples of poor reasoning than of argumentative discourse. Robert Mueller and his team may be drafting the most compelling arguments here at year’s end, but they are too heavily redacted to read and analyze.


In a year of controversy, here are a few of the many questions that have shaped public discourse:


  • Is the Electoral College outdated in modern America?
  • How do we eliminate party politics as the basis for selecting Supreme Court justices?
  • How do we respect the victims of the #MeToo movement without condemning those falsely accused?
  • What should our nation’s response be to the murder in a foreign country of a journalist working for an American newspaper?
  • What are the dangers when members of the press are viewed as enemies of the state?
  • Is a tweet a formal statement of public policy?
  • Should the proposed wall on our southern border be built?
  • What is the alternative to separating children from their parents at our border with Mexico?
  • Are immigrants guilty of more crimes than other Americans? Are illegal immigrants?
  • Can a sitting president be indicted for a crime?
  • What changes are needed in the Affordable Care Act?
  • What can be done to make our elections fairer?
  • What restrictions, if any, should there be on gun ownership?
  • What should be done about foreign interference in US elections?


These are large questions. Some of them do not have clear cut answers. They are all argumentative, even those that can be answered yes or no. They won’t be answered this year, or maybe even next year. Some have been around for decades, if not centuries. They are the substance of argument, the type of argument that shapes and shakes our country every day. They are the types of questions that our students need to be able to tackle with more than emotion.


Photo Credit: “Concept of important day” by Marco Verch on Flickr, 12/11/18 via a CC BY 2.0 license.

Donna Winchell

When Reason Must Win

Posted by Donna Winchell Expert Dec 7, 2018

In the recent powerful Paul Schrader film First Reformed, a young couple seek counseling from the minister of a tiny historic church in upstate New York, played by Ethan Hawke. The wife is expecting their first child, but the husband fears bringing a child into a world that climate change will make unfit for that child to grow up in. He has studied the science and knows the facts. The young mother-to-be is at his side in his environmental activism, but her heart tells her that she wants this child.


Emotion inevitably enters in to any decision to have a child or to abort one. Many couples would never abort a pregnancy even if the scientific facts indicate that the child cannot survive or will face ultimately insurmountable physical challenges. Some people—maybe most—who fully understand and accept the realities of climate change choose to reproduce in spite of what they know about the future of the world their children will grow up in. Until I started researching the most recent edition of Elements of Argument, I had not read any articles by those who have chosen not to start a family. I have read about climate change about as much as the average citizen, but I had never really thought about my sons’ generation having to confront the question of whether to have children or not because of the direction the world is headed.


Are there situations where reason has to win out over emotion? We have seen emotion overcome reason in the anti-vax movement. And we have seen the consequential outbreaks of illnesses: one Ohio school just announced that it can no longer allow religious exemptions for vaccinations. A headline in North Carolina reads, “School with high rate of vaccine exemptions faces state’s biggest chickenpox outbreak in over 20 years.” At that school, out of 152 students, 110 have never gotten the chickenpox vaccine.


It is difficult to comprehend the magnitude of the changing climate’s effect on our world, and it is difficult to imagine climate change’s future consequences. The world’s leaders, for the most part, seem to understand that climate change is real and to accept that attempts to lessen its impact must cross national boundaries and party lines. The Paris Accord is their attempt to address their concerns globally. Responsibility applies to individuals as well as world leaders, though. And, when the future of the world is at stake, reason must win over emotion or politics.



Photo Credit: “Beaufort Sea coastline” by ShoreZone on Flickr, 8/4/12 via a CC BY 2.0 license.

During the last presidential campaign, many of us made the mistake of trusting what we read on social media. It was easy to pick up on a quote or a meme that said just exactly what we wished we had said and to pass it along to those friends and family members whom we had not already blocked due to irreconcilable political differences. Facebook and Twitter and other media have made it easy to pass along misinformation with the click of a button. We were too naïve initially to recognize the forces at work to shape our opinions. We should have known, given how quickly Facebook picks up on any search we do and plies us with ads for just that product or service. Go to, and you are hit from all sides by car ads. Start planning a trip to New York, and it is ads for flights and hotels. How could we not have known how closely our interests – including our political ones – were being digitized and studied? More importantly, how could we not have questioned the sources of political news that seemed too good to be true—or too appropriately demeaning to our opponents to resist?


It’s a simple truth of print journalism that articles do not have to be documented in the way that academic research has to be. Yes, we read direct quotes that we hope are correctly attributed to the specific speaker identified, but we also have that “source close to the White House” or that staff member who wishes to remain anonymous. It is easy to fall into the trap of trusting everything in print. Even the best journalistic writing does not come with notes and a list of works cited. Maybe that is why documentation seems such a foreign concept to students. However, good journalists, in print or on air, know the power of proper attribution. They know that statistics from the State Department about the number of American tourists killed in foreign countries are likely to be trustworthy and trusted. A report by the Department of Transportation, identified as such, about the number of accidents caused by distracted driving bears the weight of authority.


We have all learned pretty quickly as the researched essays we assign increasingly draw on electronic sources that students do the digital equivalent of trusting anything in print. They tend to assume anything that came up in a search is just as good as any other source. After all, they found it on the Internet! Of course, Wikipedia is the first source that pops up in many searches, and we have to remind our students that some of the people writing for Wikipedia are no more qualified to write about the subject than they are. A Wikipedia article can be a quick source for facts, but its author is not guaranteed to be a specialist on the subject. Somewhere along the way students must learn how to evaluate online sources.


As they incorporate those sources into their writing, in support of their arguments, they often have to be reminded to take advantage of the weight of authority. There is a reason to avoid “floating quotations,” those that appear with no lead-in or no identification of where or whom they came from. Sentence. “Quotation.” Sentence. The value of using sources is that another author can lend authority on a subject of his or her expertise that the writer does not have. If that source is identified only on a works cited page and in parenthesis by last name and page number, the claim of authority is lost. One of the most useful skills for documented essays that our students can learn is to work into their own sentences the claim to authority of the author they are quoting or paraphrasing.


A very different claim to authority is becoming more and more apparent in some of the political battles going on right now. Personal experience and anecdotal evidence can be one of the most powerful types of support because of the emotional impact it adds to the mix. This is the basis for the impact of the #MeToo movement. It is also the reason that survivors of the tragic shootings at the Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, were able to lead a march of hundreds of thousands of supporters of gun control and school safety reform. There are few types of authority greater, on an individual basis, than the ability to state, “I know it is true because it happened to me.”



Photo Credit: “Emma Gonzalez imagery at Minnesota March for Our Lives” by Fibonacci Blue on Flickr 3/24/18 via CC BY 2.0 License

Carl Rogers, for whom Rogerian argument is named, took a concept that worked in couples and small-group therapy and extended it to large groups, even nations. Rogerian therapy is based on nonconfrontational communication. This communication is hampered, whether in dealing with individuals or nations, by the fact that there is no longer anything approaching a shared worldview. Rogers wrote, “Although society has often come around eventually to agree with its dissidents . . . there is no doubt that this insistence upon a known and certain universe has been part of the cement that holds a culture together.” In the Rogerian approach to argumentation, when views of what that worldview should be collide, effective communication requires both understanding another’s reality and respecting it.


I was reminded of Rogers’s emphasis on shared common ground after the recent midterm elections when I saw headlines like this one from the Wall Street Journal: “What the Midterm Election Shows: America’s Two Parties Live in Divergent Worlds.” Almost half of voting Americans revealed through their choices that they feel very real threats to their “known and certain universe.” There is no place in that universe for abortion, same-sex marriage, gender fluidity, or immigrants. Throughout the Obama years, as liberals cheered change, there was a seething hostility that the election of Donald Trump brought to the surface. America’s (liberal) dissidents, those who threaten the security of a white Christian worldview, have increased in number to the point that they too constitute around fifty per cent of the voting public. Rogers would advocate that the two sides come together by seeking common ground—seeking that which they can agree on as a starting point for discussion. That’s hard to do, though, when the two sides live in divergent worlds.


President Trump’s strategy as the midterms approached was the opposite of Rogerian argument. He went on the offensive, attacking the other side rather than seeking common ground. He rallied his supporters around causes by attacking liberals and condemning them as threats to nationalism—which many on the other side read as white nationalism. He played on the fear of the “other.” He intentionally broadened the gap rather than trying to bring the two sides together because establishing common ground among his supporters was more important. He created common ground within his base by constantly stressing how the other side advocated policies that threatened his supporters’ world. A group of families traveling from Honduras to seek asylum in the U. S. became the equivalent of an armed force attacking our Southern border—and a threat to our way of life. A search for common ground could have focused on how to control our borders, but, with the elections looming, it was more expedient to constantly refer to the liberal desire for open borders, making liberals appear to be as far as possible from protecting the American way of life.


Having a Democrat-controlled House next year may make compromise more essential, if not more palatable, for conservatives. There are just too many differences in worldview between Republicans and Democrats to make common ground appealing to either party. While the Right can argue that they are protecting the most basic of American values, the Left can argue that their beliefs are firmly grounded in our country’s beginnings as a nation of immigrants seeking freedom from tyranny.



Photo Credit: “Anger! A couple arguing :(” by Free Images on Flickr 08/09/17 via a CC BY 2.0 License

Donna Winchell

News and Nationalism

Posted by Donna Winchell Expert Oct 26, 2018

The Global Opinions editor of the Washington Post, Karen Attiah, delayed publishing Jamal Khashoggi’s final column in hopes that they could edit it together, as had been their habit. It gradually became apparent that this was not to be, as reports of his disappearance after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul were replaced with reports of his torture and murder. Ironically, his final column was about freedom of the press—ironic because it was his history of outspoken criticism of the lack of freedom in his native Saudi Arabia that led to his death.


In the column he lamented the lack of freedom throughout the Arab world that left its citizens ignorant of or misinformed about the larger Arab world. He wrote, “They are unable to adequately address, much less publicly discuss, matters that affect the region and their day-to-day lives. A state-run narrative dominates the public psyche, and while many do not believe it, a large majority of the population falls victim to this false narrative.” Critics have been imprisoned; print journalism has been suppressed: “These actions no longer carry the consequence of a backlash from the international community. Instead, these actions may trigger condemnation quickly followed by silence. As a result, Arab governments have been given free rein to continue silencing the media at an increasing rate.” Jamal Khashoggi was silenced permanently on October 2, 2018.


As news of Kashoggi’s murder spread, the eyes of the world were on how America would respond. Then last week a single word he used in the final sentence of his final column was picked up by President Trump and immediately began ricocheting all over the media: nationalist. Definition often finds itself at the heart of political discourse, particularly leading up to critical midterm elections. Trump’s declaration that he is a nationalist certainly fits this bill, centering discourse on the connotations of nationalism.


So much depends on how nationalism is defined. In its denotation, it seems innocuous. Merriam Webster defines it thus: “loyalty and devotion to a nation, especially: a sense of national consciousness . . . exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.” That sounds pretty much like patriotism, which President Trump may have had in mind when he stated, “A globalist is a person that wants the globe to do well, frankly, not caring about our country so much. You know what I am? I’m a nationalist. Okay? A nationalist. Use that word.”


Yet, when Khashoggi used the term, it was in the context of “the influence of nationalist governments spreading hate through propaganda.” CNN reporter Jim Acosta was quick to pick up on one negative interpretation of the term. In the Oval Office the next day, he asked, “Mr. President, just to follow up on your comments about being a nationalist–there is a concern that you are sending coded language or a dog whistle to some Americans out there that what you really mean is that you’re a white nationalist?”  Trump’s response: “I’ve never even heard that, I can’t imagine that. I’ve never heard that theory about being a nationalist.” Unfortunately, many have.


Trump says the word nationalist and hears patriot. Others hear the “dog whistle” of white nationalism. Others hear Khashoggi’s “governments spreading hate through propaganda.” The term’s connotations have everything to do with context. In the context of Khashoggi’s death, its use seems ominous.




Image Source: 2018-10-22T103713Z_2_LYNXNPEE9K0IF-OCATP_RTROPTP_2_CNEWS-US-SAUDI-KHASHOGGI” by Bruce Detorres on Flickr 10/22/18 via Public Domain

Our students generally don’t remember a time when there were no twenty-four-hour news networks. They don’t remember when the news consisted of thirty minutes of local evening news and then thirty of national news on each of three networks, followed by a late-night update at ten or eleven. And it really was news because that short time period didn’t allow time for commentary, and at that point we still thought the news should be factual reporting. A short segment of opinion was clearly designated as such. The “news” changed in 1980 when CNN was founded as a twenty-four-hour all-news network. You can’t spend twenty-four hours a day reporting only the facts, so the majority of what is aired now is one opinion after another, with networks sometimes having a clear bias.


So, we and our students hear almost non-stop argument when we tune in to the news channels. The Internet added a whole new outlet for opinion, and we learned during the 2016 presidential election how willing the public was to take as fact what was actually opinion or intentionally distorted news. All I have to do to find a string of arguments, good and bad, is to read through any day’s feed on social media. There are far too many people out there who have far too much time to create the day’s memes or to ferret out just the right slant on anyone’s reasoning to arouse anger or laughter.


Here is a sampling of arguments ripe for discussion in a writing class. Some of these will hang around for a while. Most, however, will be replaced quickly by others. Any week’s news has its offerings.

  • Susan Collins’ husband is a lobbyist for Russian interests. The Republican Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of Russia.
  • Brett Kavanaugh and Merrick Garland voted the same 93 per cent of the time.
  • When asked how sure she was if Kavanaugh was the person who sexually assaulted her, Christine Blasey Ford answered 100%! She also passed a lie detector test and requested an FBI investigation!
  • I’m worried today for our young men.
  • Obama admitted to drinking whole six-packs by himself in college and to smoking weed. Why is that okay and what Kavanaugh did isn’t?
  • We got that test alert from Trump on our phones and then there were dozens of people who found their Facebook accounts hacked. There must be a connection.
  • “Texas Police Seize Yard Sign Depicting GOP Elephant Trunk Up Woman’s Skirt, Deem It ‘Pornography.’” (Headline)
  • In Illinois, none of the ads for Republicans identify them as Republican candidates. Wonder what they could possibly be afraid of.
  • “If the accuser has brought false charges you must impose on the accuser the sentence intended for the other person. In this way, you will purge such evil from among you. Then the rest of the people will hear about it and be afraid to do such an evil thing.” (Deuteronomy 19: 18-20)
  • “During Kavanaugh-Ford hearing, calls to sexual assault hotline spiked by 201 percent.” (Headline)
  • “This message is for Dr. Ford. You put yourself through so much and I want you to know it wasn’t in vain. You started a movement and we’ll see it through. If they won’t listen to our voices, they’ll listen to our vote.” (Ellen DeGeneres)



Image Source: “lisa and cheryl argue it out” by Amanda Wood on Flickr 10/1/05 via Creative Commons BY-ND 2.0 License

David Leonhardt, opinion writer for the New York Times, recently wrote an editorial entitled “The Supreme Court Is Coming Apart.” That’s a claim, or the thesis for an argument. The more precise and less colloquial claim that Leonhardt goes on to support effectively is that “over the long term, the court risks a crisis of legitimacy.”


Leonhardt offers two reasons for this potential crisis: the partisanship of the court and the radicalness of the Republicans on the court. Whether you agree with Leonhardt or not, it is possible to look at his argument as argument and to look at the wider range of arguments about the court that have become increasingly heated in recent years. There are factual claims about the court that are easy to support. If you look at the voting margins by which each court nominee has been confirmed, for example, it is easy to see that there was a time when a nominee of either political party was elected by a near-unanimous vote of the Senate. A well-qualified candidate appealed to both parties. Votes have increasingly come to be divided along party lines. That’s the sort of claim that can easily be verified.


What about this part of Leonhardt’s argument: “There are no more Republican moderates. With Anthony Kennedy gone, every Republican justice is on the far end of the spectrum — among the most conservative since World War II”? That would certainly take more proof than a tallying of votes for confirmation, but an analysis of the voting record of Republican justices could be made in support of Leonhardt’s statement.


The assumption is that the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh would tighten Republican control over every decision of the Supreme Court. Three days of questioning by the Senate did little to confirm or refute that assumption. Kavanaugh for the most part declined to take a stand on specific real cases but also declined to predict how he would vote on hypothetical ones. He essentially spent much of his testimony saying, “I can’t answer that.” The assumption, whether fair or not, is that he would vote as a conservative Republican.


The problem, of course, is that our Founding Fathers did not plan for Supreme Court justices to vote along party lines. Making their appointments for life was seen as a way to avoid such partisanship. That clearly is not working.


So what of claims of policy and the Supreme Court? Should the number of justices be increased, which would enable a Democratic-majority Congress, should one be elected, to even the playing field? That again advances partisanship, even though it lets Democrats “get even” for the Republicans’ blocking of President Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court.


Is there any way to recapture the idealism behind the creation of the court? The Founding Fathers were prescient enough to build in a federal balance of powers. They built in compromises between slave and free states that still affect our government. They created a constitution that has had relatively few amendments considering how long ago it was written. What they couldn’t foresee was the America of 2018.



Image Source: “Supreme Court” by angela n. on Flickr 5/3/17 via Creative Commons 2.0 License

The recent decision by the Opinion Desk of the New York Times to publish anonymously an op-ed essay about the Trump presidency by a senior White House official was an unusual one. Readers were invited to submit questions about the essay or the vetting process. Two days later, 23,000 of them had.


The essay, of course, started a media frenzy. Speculation continues to run rampant as to who the anonymous official is. CNN listed thirteen possible authors; by the next day, at least sixteen had denied they wrote it. The author has been called everything from heroic to gutless—but the reactions don’t divide neatly or predictably along party lines.


As is often the case with today’s headlines, the reactions to the op-ed essay can be used to teach the basics of argumentation. A statement of opinion about the writer would be a claim of value. Clear statements of policy have also grown out of the controversy: The writer should identify himself or herself. The writer should resign. The Department of Justice should investigate the authorship in the name of national security. The 25th Amendment should be invoked.


As is usually the case, it is easier to recognize the claim of an argument than to recognize the assumption underlying it. Given a specific claim, what assumptions does a reader have to accept in order to accept the claim? First, what about those who consider the author of the essay to be heroic? What assumption underlies that judgement? Something like this: It is heroic to work behind the scenes to safeguard our democracy against an incompetent president. That assumption is only valid, of course, if the president is indeed incompetent. It is reassuring for some to know, as the author puts it, that “there are adults in the room.” The author also writes, “We are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.” Assumption: It is a good thing for someone to do what’s right when the President won’t. That assumption is only valid, however, if the writer—and those who agree with him that the president needs someone working behind the scenes in the White House to keep him in check—is a better judge of what is right than the President.


That’s where those on the other side come in. Donald Trump is our duly elected President. Does anyone have the right to take over any of his duties without a mandate from the people? Even former President Obama argued, “That’s not how our democracy is supposed to work.” The 25th Amendment provides the process for removing a president from office, but for anyone to work behind the scenes against the President in the name of defending the Constitution is to circumvent due process. Can it be applauded as a heroic act? Obviously, it can be by some. Even some of Trump’s harshest critics, however, feel that to undermine the president from within is not a valid solution.


Is the author of the op-ed essay guilty of treason? No, not by the official definition of treason, which can be committed only in time of war. Those who feel that the author should make himself or herself known to the public may assume that a public servant should not continue to work for an administration as flawed as the writer judges Trump’s to be, or that the person could do more good if he or she came out from behind the mask of anonymity. Even better would be for all those the writer claims hold similar views to speak out publicly.


There are complex arguments at work here. Our students need to see the issue from all sides and recognize it for its potential to shape the future of our country.



Image Source: “16114_355136441248988_1333868535_n” by A M on Flickr 12/12/12 via Creative Commons 2.0 License

Donna Winchell

Politicizing Death

Posted by Donna Winchell Expert Aug 31, 2018

The recent disappearance of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts attracted national media attention. That in itself reflects the politicizing of crime coverage. Would the disappearance of a young woman of a different color in different circumstances have received the same attention? Since Tibbetts’s body has been recovered and a Mexican immigrant has been charged with her murder, her death has been even more politicized. Republicans have tried to get political mileage out of the fact that she was allegedly killed by an illegal immigrant who had presented falsified documents to his employer. His fear that his deception might come to light when Tibbetts threatened to call the police may have been a factor in his decision to kill her, but her death too easily becomes just one more example used to prove the stereotype that all illegal immigrants are rapists and murderers. Tibbetts’s father has declared that his daughter is no one’s victim. In fact, at her funeral he thanked the many people in the Latino community for their help in searching for her. He doesn’t want his daughter, in death, to become a pawn used to legislate for President Trump’s border wall and more restrictive immigration policies.


It is not surprising that even more recently John McCain’s death has been politicized in ways unheard of when other prominent politicians have died in office after years of service. McCain was respected by many—even many who did not agree with many of his positions over his years in the Senate—because of his military service and the five and a half years he spent as a prisoner of war. President Trump, however, so disliked Senator McCain that he ignored numerous calls to make any statement at all about McCain’s death beyond one brief tweet. He was more or less forced to finally make a more formal statement and to extend the time that the flag was flown at half mast to honor McCain’s death. Trump had to be forced to get past the memory of McCain giving a thumbs down to the President’s healthcare bill. He had made his disdain for McCain clear long before that when he refused to label McCain a hero because, in his view, a hero was one who didn’t get caught. The respect given McCain by both Republicans and Democrats in spite of this disdain led to the decision to allow his body to lie in state in the rotunda of the nation’s capital. Senator McCain himself was not above using his funeral to make a political statement. How often in our history has a prominent politician left behind the request that the President of the United States not attend his funeral or that a Russian dissident serve as a pallbearer?


Kelli Ward in McCain’s home state of Arizona may have best proved that the politicizing of death can be carried too far. On a bus tour shortly before McCain’s death, Ward wondered on Facebook if the McCain family had timed the announcement that he was discontinuing treatment for his brain cancer to hurt her campaign. The voters let their feelings be known when Ward went down to defeat in Tuesday’s primary.



Image Source: “Half Mast” by Matt DiGirolamo on Flickr 5/26/08 via Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Donna Winchell

Bad Research Papers

Posted by Donna Winchell Expert Aug 13, 2018

[This post was originally published on March 9, 2012.]


It’s research paper time in high schools and colleges across the country. I know about the high schools because my younger son is writing a research paper as part of his senior project. I’m reminded once again how easy it is these days to write a bad research paper. Students at least used to have to type up the words and ideas they got from print sources. Now they can electronically cut and paste together a bad paper in no time at all. With the freedom of the Internet comes so much online junk that they don’t have to be discriminating users of search engines. Maybe they don’t really believe the first source listed on Google is the best. It may just be the easiest. To give them the benefit of the doubt, they have grown up as Googlers, but they may not have been taught how to find the good sources among all the chaff. (The first step is to teach them that Wikipedia may provide some quick information, but it is hardly an authoritative source.)


[Photo: Research Papers on Flickr]


My son’s school tries to limit the sources the students access by introducing them to DISCUS: South Carolina’s Virtual Library! I found trying to help him locate sources via DISCUS too limiting. A search based on what seemed very logical search terms would produce no sources, where a Google search of the same terms would produce thousands. It’s not easy teaching students how to locate the happy medium in between.


They need to learn that there are databases like LexisNexis Academic and Academic Online that do much of the discriminating for them. They need to learn what databases their campus library subscribes to and how to access them–and why they are better for some course projects than more general databases. For information on the very most up-to-date news, however, they need to know which of these databases are updated daily. Journals may be wonderful sources for most academic research, but the time lag before they appear in print prevents their being the timeliest. Databases that include newspapers and weekly magazines will be more useful for researching this week’s headlines. Students can use a general search engine like Google if they develop an eye for legitimate sources. Is it a reputable publication, available online? Is it recognized as being biased politically? Is it even clear whose site it is? Is it a government site? How does that affect its usefulness as a source?


We may have to educate ourselves about the types of sources our students use or should use. After all, many of us did our college research papers back in the days when the process still required going to the library.

[This post originally published on February 1, 2013.]


In teaching argument, we tend to want to cover all the bases. We want to introduce our students to classical rhetoric, but we don’t want to leave out Toulmin or Rogers. Stasis theory is an expansion of Toulmin, offering five types of claims instead of three, and some authors introduce the rhetorical situation as an approach different from the classical modes of appeal.


Instead of teaching our students these theories as separate approaches to argumentation, we might give them a clearer understanding of how to read and write arguments if we showed them how the theories can be viewed as overlays upon each other.


Take classical rhetoric and the Toulmin model. I see a number of current texts teaching them as separate entities. If we teach the communication triangle of writer, audience, and subject that goes back to Aristotle, I like James Moffett’s idea of focusing on the legs of the triangle. The writer-audience leg represents the rhetorical relationship. The writer-subject leg represents the referential relationship. I don’t recall that Moffett gave a name to the third leg, the audience-subject relationship, but I have started to see that those three legs or relationships in the context of the Toulmin model.


This is an oversimplification, but the claim can be viewed as what the writer says about the subject, and thus the claim can be identified most directly with the writer-subject leg of the triangle. Support is the evidence the writer provides to an audience about the subject to prove the claim, or the writer-audience leg. Warrants—that concept so hard to teach our students—are assumptions about the subject that underlie the argumentation, and the audience-subject leg of the triangle. We write arguments hoping to change an audience’s thinking on a subject, but the more essential underlying assumptions or warrants are to preserving that audience’s world view, the harder it is to persuade him or her. That’s where Rogers’s theories can be useful in at least attempting to find common ground.


Difficult as warrants are, verbalizing them can help clarify why common ground is often so hard to find. Consider this warrant regarding gun control: Arming good people is the best defense against bad people with guns. Or this one: Arming the citizenry is crucial to avoiding the rise of tyranny. Audience members whose beliefs are grounded in the first of these assumptions are not going to be moved by the argument that reducing the number of assault weapons owned by Americans will reduce the number of homicides. The second blocks acceptance of any move by the government to curb gun violence because any such move will be seen as evidence of the very tyranny these people fear.


Each theory of argumentation gives students a vocabulary for discussing what they read and what they write. Too many different vocabularies can be overwhelming unless we show them how the theories work together to lend insight into how an argument works.

Donna Winchell

Selling Lies

Posted by Donna Winchell Expert Jun 1, 2018

Cato is generally credited with defining an orator as a good man skilled in speaking. A successful speech, by classical standards, was based on reason but was also strengthened by the knowledge that the person speaking was moral. As I write that, it amazes and depresses me that I have to use past tense and include the qualifying prepositional phrase. There was—and, yes, still is—an art to presenting oneself in such a way as to be trusted and believed. The term sophist was used in Cato’s time for a teacher of rhetoric in general, but eventually came to be associated with a man who presented what seemed to be a logical argument but was actually fallacious or specious. Thus the derogatory term sophistry


Donald Trump has long used the term fake news for much of the negative press that he receives. In doing so, he provides an interesting twist on rhetorical strategies used to present one’s self as an ethical speaker. A comment that he made to Lesley Stahl in passing when she interviewed him during the 2016 presidential campaign has attracted attention lately because of what it reveals about his alternative rhetorical strategy. Speaking to fellow journalists recently, Stahl reported that she asked Trump about his constant attacks on journalists. She told him, “You know, that is getting tired. Why are you doing this? You’re doing it over and over. It’s boring, and it’s time to end that.” His response: “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”


We’ve long since passed the point where news was simply news. If news was as objective as it should be, it wouldn’t matter if we got it from Fox or CNN, but we all know how much it does matter. The line between news reporting and commentary on the news has become so blurred that it doesn’t even exist anymore. And we are all aware how easily news reports can be slanted based simply on what is included and what is left out. Even our entertainment reflects this understanding. The Newsroom was a television show that ran 2012-14. One viewer explained its premise in this way: “A news team attempts to create a news show that reports the news in an ethical and reasonable way. They take real, newsworthy events from our world as they're happening (such as bin Laden's justified killing, NSA spying, etc) and report on them as if they were an actual news station that followed rational and moral guidelines, in a biting criticism of our popular press and a clever blurring of art and reality.” Unfortunately, the reality of how news is handled these days comes closer to what happens in the 1997 movie Wag the Dog, summarized in this way by a viewer: “After being caught in a scandalous situation days before the election, the president does not seem to have much of a chance of being re-elected. One of his advisers contacts a top Hollywood producer in order to manufacture a war in Albania that the president can heroically end, all through mass media.”


News as manufactured truth is not news. More importantly, it’s not truth. There have always been sophists. What we need now is a term for those willing to accept manufactured truth. 


Image Source: “truth” by Jason Eppink on Flickr 10/4/05 via Creative Commons 2.0 license

As a general rule, anyone who did not vote for Donald Trump for president wants to know why anyone else did. Along those lines, I was thinking about the way I introduce motivation when discussing argumentation, in terms of needs and values. In Elements of Argument, we explain an argument’s appeal to needs by citing Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy, explained in his 1943 “Theory of Motivation.” The most basic needs that motivate a human being are physiological: the need for food, water, sex, etc. Next comes the need for safety—security of one’s person, the family, health, property. It is difficult to focus on any other needs if one is hungry or lives in fear. Later Maslow revised his theory to explain that people’s needs on one level do not have to be completely met before they can concern themselves with the higher levels. Still, it is, as Maslow theorized, a hierarchy of needs. Only when physiological and safety needs have largely been met can people worry about the need for love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.


A surprising number of authors have applied Maslow’s Hierarchy to the 2016 presidential election. Jamie Beckland does so in this way: “The biggest lesson for any political candidate is that they must speak to the lowest common denominator need on Maslow’s hierarchy that a majority of the electorate will relate to. A political campaign that helps people believe that they can become self-actualized, and achieve their highest and best dreams, can only win if the majority of the electorate believes they are safe; that they belong; and that they have self-worth. On the other hand, if the majority of the electorate does not feel confident in having food, clothing, and shelter, then a campaign focused on self-actualization is doomed.” Beckland writes about how Clinton “spoke to building a sense of community – of being Stronger Together. This appeals to our need for ‘Love and Belonging,’ and many people voted for Clinton because she represented this need. The need for Love and Belonging manifests itself in ideas like: The need for safe spaces, where minorities and historically oppressed groups can express their perspectives without fear of persecution. The need for women to have a voice in the political establishment, and to believe that any qualified person would be judged on their qualifications for the presidency, and not by their gender. The need to see yourself as part of the great American experiment, where people of different creeds and colors assemble under a shared vision of freedom and opportunity.” Beckland argues that Clinton lost because Trump appealed to more basic needs, to which voters responded more strongly.


The fact that the Trump campaign understood the lesson Maslow had to teach is evidenced by its emphasis on job security, affordable healthcare, and security from threats posed by illegal aliens. Phil Fragasso explains, “At its most basic level, Trump’s harsh rhetoric appeals to the bottommost layers of Maslow’s hierarchy - physiological and safety needs. He’s going to deliver more jobs at higher pay, make ‘winning’ so common it becomes boring, and ensure that Americans are protected against terrorists domestic and foreign, can shout ‘Merry Christmas’ from the highest rooftops, and stop Mexicans from taking the jobs that Americans don’t want.” Fragasso differs from some other analysts in arguing that the next two levels on the hierarchy “best explain Trump’s core character and his continuing support: esteem and love/belonging.” Fragasso’s own bias is clear as he goes on, “Most tellingly, Trump provided his loyal supporters with something they rarely experience: the very same esteem and love/belonging [that Trump himself experiences]. Trump voters tend to reside on the fringes where they are often afraid to voice their politically incorrect (and often abhorrently [sic]) beliefs and opinions.”


For Trump, as for any president, success and continued support from those who voted for him depend on whether or not he is able to fill the needs to which he appealed when he won their votes.



Image Source: “Louvre Pyramid - Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs” by pshegubj on Flickr 6/30/12 via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 license.


An arrest in connection with a series of rapes and murders in California by a perpetrator known variously as the Golden State Killer, the East Area Rapist, and the Original Night Stalker promises to bring closure for victims and victims’ families who have been waiting since the 1970s and 1980s. The accused, Joseph DeAngelo, was found through an unconventional method. As millions in recent months sent their DNA to be tested to trace their genealogy “just for fun,” law enforcement officers went to an open-source genealogical platform to find first DeAngelo’s family and then DeAngelo. (They used “discarded” DNA from DeAngelo to make the final match with DNA from victims.) Advances in DNA testing have made thousands of convictions possible and have freed innocent men and women who were convicted before today’s testing methods were developed.


Use of a genealogical site to catch a criminal elicited a perhaps unexpected criticism. Those who submitted their DNA for testing hardly thought that it could be used for that purpose. Is it legitimate—is it legal, even—for the DNA samples to be used as they were used in the DeAngelo case?


There is an interesting parallel between the questions raised about the use of DNA samples submitted for one purpose being used for another and the whole controversy from a few years ago. Many universities and a smaller number of high schools use to locate plagiarism in student papers. One reason for the site’s effectiveness is that every paper submitted to be checked becomes part of the database that is checked, and so on and so on and so on. Several lawsuits grew out of students’ anger at how their work was being used without their permission. They could not pass the course the paper was written for without submitting it to Turnitin, but once they submitted it, their original work was then used by Turnitin to make profit. Some students argued that they were coerced into signing away permission to the use of their work under threat of a failing grade in the course. The fact that some even wrote their protestations into the permission form did not change the outcome of at least one court case that was decided in favor of the defendant.


Students are warned constantly, as are we all, to be cautious about what they post on the Internet. Pictures taken at a drunken Spring Break party can come back to haunt them when they apply for a job. Intimate photos shared with the love of their life can become “revenge porn” when the relationship sours. The lawsuits were an interesting reversal in which students did not want their work to become part of a huge digital database.


The difference between Turnitin and the site used by police in the DeAngelo case, GEDmatch is that, rather than being required to use it by schools (who pay for access to the Turnitin database), users of the genealogy site chose to use it, for free. An article from the Los Angeles Times tellingly called “Cracking the Golden State Killer case: Clever detective work or a violation of privacy?” explains that with GEDmatch, “consenting users upload test results from a variety of genealogy websites and cross-reference their findings to discover relatives who might have tested with different companies.” In response to the DeAngelo case, GEDmatch made this statement: While the database was created for genealogical research, it is important that GEDmatch participants understand the possible uses of their DNA, including identification of relatives that have committed crimes or were victims of crimes. If you are concerned about non-genealogical uses of your DNA, you should not upload your DNA to the database and/or you should remove your DNA that has already been uploaded.


Clever detective work or a violation of privacy? Maybe both. The Times article warns, “Ruth Dickover, director of UC Davis' forensic science program, described law enforcement's approach as a glimpse into a future in which virtually all genetic information is accessible to the government.” The larger genealogical sites, 23andMe and, try to shield the privacy of their customers. Neither has given law enforcement access to customers’ DNA, and both state their intent to resist doing so in the absence of a search warrant or court order. The danger comes when the customers themselves share their DNA results online, which is what they do with GEDmatch. We can applaud the success of law enforcement in catching a killer and rapist, and most of us do not have to worry about our DNA revealing a skeleton in our closet, but we have to remember that once we make the decision to make our results public, we are doing so not just for ourselves, but for all of those who share our DNA as well.



Image Source: “DNA representation” by Andy Leppard on Flickr 10/5/06 via Creative Commons 2.0 license