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62 Posts authored by: Donna Winchell Expert

As the academic year ends, it’s time for me to turn to revising Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument. What do I have to keep in mind about argument in the headlines as I look ahead? Given the political situation in America, it would be easy to say that there is no such thing as logical argument anymore. Emotion sometimes so far outweighs logic that it is almost naïve to give any credit to the seemingly old-fashioned notions that were at the heart of teaching classical rhetoric. Partisan politics so distorts people’s thinking that common ground seems impossible to reach. Family members have in many cases given up trying to reason with each other and have had to agree to silently disagree—or to unfriend each other. News is condemned as fake, and journalists are labeled enemies of the people. People of all ages depend increasingly on social media for their news and their opinions about it, and we now have an idea how much those opinions were shaped the last presidential election by a foreign government. Religious leaders dictate public policy, and the system of checks and balances built into our federal government seems to be dangerously out of balance.


The next editions of my textbooks will be published shortly before the 2020 elections. I will write them not knowing how the elections will turn out. That shouldn’t make any difference, and ultimately it doesn’t. I can’t ignore the fact that young people, more than ever, need to be able to construct an argument to defend their opinions and to deconstruct an argument to reveal its flaws, even if the other side seems unwilling to listen. In looking at the current editions with revision in mind, reviewers stressed that we need to keep in mind that there are often not just two sides to an argument. We too often think in terms of a debate, pro and con. An issue like abortion cannot be reduced to those terms. Even gender cannot be viewed as a simple binary anymore. We need more emphasis on finding common ground. In some cases, it is not which side wins but what compromise can be reached. That was the idea behind having whole chapters in Elements entitled "Multiple Viewpoints."


From the time our students started using the Internet to find sources to document their writing, we have had to teach them to evaluate sources. It was so easy—and quick—to accept the first source that popped up online. Now that is most often Wikipedia, in which entries can be written by anyone. Students used papers by students no more advanced than themselves as sources. We have to teach our students to investigate the source for legitimacy and for authority. While we have always had to do that, it was a little easier when an opinion had passed the bar of finding its way into print. We aren’t very likely to force our students back to using solely print sources. After all, many print sources are available online as well. Instead, students need to learn to question who wrote the words on the screen and what authority those writers have. They need to research the organization behind a web site, not just accept information uncritically. They need to understand the biases of sources.


It seems so simple, but we have to teach our students that there still are such things as truth and facts. Yes, photos can be doctored, as we all know, but when multiple sources have on video a person making a statement, it is pretty hard to deny those words came out of his or her mouth. Facts about funding sent to victims of natural disasters, troop deployments, crowd size, voting records, redistricting, numbers of votes cast, numbers of crimes, citizenship status of those convicted of crimes—the list could go on and on—can be verified. Biased as our news sources have become, there are still facts that arguments can be built on. Sure, a writer may have to do some digging to find them, and definitely will have to consider the source, but facts are facts in spite of what anyone says. There is no such thing as an alternative fact. We have to hold our politicians, and everyone else, to a standard of truth.


Textbook authors have acknowledged for years that critical reading goes hand in hand with argumentative writing. Students need practice in understanding arguments and seeing flaws in them before and while they are learning to write their own. They need to go beyond the headlines to read whole opinion essays, to see carefully structured and well supported arguments. And those do exist, from classical readings to the most recent editorials. They need to go beyond the surface of the news to see the reasons behind it. And they need to read opinions that differ from their own. The first steps toward the common ground that we are eventually going to have to find are understanding another point of view and recognizing that on any given subject there may be more than two opposing points of view.


Photo Credit: “Calendar*” by Dafne Cholet on Flickr, 01/20/11 via a CC BY 2.0 license.

Who would have thought that an anachronistic coffee cup on the set of a television show would have outpaced a trade war with China as a news story? And that was even before the controversial penultimate episode of Game of Thrones aired. An article in USA Today sums up the significance Game of Thrones has had for its viewers: “‘Game of Thrones’ is the defining pop-cultural experience of the millennial generation.” That’s a significant burden to place on a television series, even one that spread over a decade.


The author of the USA Today article, Kelly Lawler, falls back on what can be an effective argumentative tool when used well, the analogy. She compares the Stark children, who grew up in a long and prosperous summer, to millennials: “Their world was always safe, and they were taught by their parents that if they worked hard and followed tradition, they would succeed. . . . But the Stark kids’ adolescence coincided with rapid changes in the sociopolitical environment that shattered their collective worldview.” Meanwhile, millennials grew up looking ahead to a good college, a good job, marriage, kids, a house, and a car. “The American dream and all that. But that’s not how it turned out. Just like the Starks, we were thrust into a chaotic world we didn't create, and now we try to survive. The difference is that we're worried about interest rates instead of dragons.”


Lawler goes so far as to argue that Game of Thrones may be the last television show that millennials will watch together, given the growth of streaming and other means of watching shows that fragment the audience that once tuned in at a certain time on a certain night for the latest installment of a beloved series.


The major controversy that grew out of the next-to-last-ever episode of the saga has inspired arguments that have inundated social media since the first hint it was coming. Viewers had seen Daenerys Targaryen evolve from a rather ethereal young woman with nothing but an empty title to Daenerys of the House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, The Unburnt, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Queen of Meereen, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Protector of the Realm, Lady Regnant of the Seven Kingdoms, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons. She gained the troops to cross the Narrow Sea to retake her throne—and gained the love of her people—by freeing slaves and using her dragons to incinerate their masters. She promised to make the kingdom she would rule from King’s Landing a place of freedom and prosperity. What viewers tended to forget was all the times she swore to use blood and fire if necessary to do that. Viewers loved Daenerys, though, and hundreds named their daughters after her. She was a strong, admirable woman—until she wasn’t. Viewers saw it coming, as Danerys suffered emotional blow after blow, and hoped it wouldn’t. Yet, in the moment of her victory, when everything she had ever wanted was hers, Danerys was unable to reign in her fury. Suddenly she became her father, a Targaryen who took pleasure in burning his enemies.


Seldom has a fictional character undergone such scrutiny and such condemnation. Article after article on digital newsfeeds has analyzed Daenerys’s “breaking bad,” her going “Mad Queen.” Will Jon feel morally obligated to kill her to keep her from taking the Iron Throne? Will the people ever accept her as their leader after what she has done? These are the arguments in this week’s headlines.


Kelly Lawler finds Daenerys’s fall from grace oddly fitting: “But in a dark and tragically comical way, a ‘Thrones’ finale letdown only makes it feel more millennial. Many of us expect life to only get worse from here, as we work until we die and the environment degrades around us. For the Starks and millennials alike, winter, as they say, will always be coming.”



Photo Credit: “Game of Thrones Life Size Replica Iron Throne” by Wicker Paradise on Flickr, 6/11/12 via a CC BY 2.0 license.

President Trump’s condemnations of the press as the enemy of the people has linked him immediately in some minds with dictators who have stifled the press as a means of controlling the people. Today’s press is far from stifled, however. If we never could have foreseen a president who so publicly maligns his enemies in the way that Trump does, should we have foreseen a network condemning him night after night or one defending him in the same manner? The bias is so widely accepted that it is taken as a given. But it is not the news.


Long gone are the days when news anchors simply reported the news and any brief commentary was clearly labeled as such. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, the death of the objective news report came when news coverage expanded to twenty-four hours. It is impossible to report the news twenty-four hours a day, so the anchors talk about the news and bring in panel after panel of “experts” to talk about it. I like as well as anyone to hear commentators who agree with me. I don’t object to commentary. I simply feel a line should be drawn between reporting events and expressing an opinion about them. The primary reason Russian infiltration of social media was so successful was that we grasp at “news” we want to hear and pass it along uncritically. 


What about news outlets that try to be objective? Consider this recent headline from Vox: “Coverage of Trump’s latest rally shows how major media outlets normalize his worst excesses.” The news outlets referred to tried to be objective and were criticized for that. Newspapers early in this presidency had to decide how to report on what Trump said when it clearly was not true. The Vox article explains it this way: “Major media outlets have long struggled with how exactly to cover Trump, with the Times famously coming to the word ‘lie’ in a headline late, something the paper’s own public editor criticized it for. This effort to find euphemisms for the word ‘lie’ is actually normalizing his worst excesses. Coverage of this sort makes him seem like any other politician . . . [I]n their articles about the rally, CBS, USA Today, the Associated Press, and the Hill failed to so much as mention that Trump pushed a number of false claims.” Ironically, the press was one of the primary targets of Trump’s attacks at the rally. He referred to the members of the media in attendance as “sick people.” 


In his letter resigning as Assistant Attorney General on April 29, Rod Rosenstein sums up the goal of the Department of Justice, which is also a worthy goal for members of the media working in a difficult political environment: “We ignore fleeting distractions and focus our attention on the things that matter, because a republic that endures is not governed by the news cycle.”



Photo Credit: “News Anchors” by Peter Alfred Hess on Flickr, 10/13/10 via a CC BY 2.0 license.

We know what composition curricula looked like as far back as Aristotle’s time. Students were taught to present their compositions orally, but the compositions themselves, even that far back, were introduced in an order that matched the development of cognition. The narrative and descriptive assignments we used to teach at the beginning of the first-year writing course are now relegated to the first twelve years of education, but there has long been the acknowledgment that these assignments are the least challenging cognitively. Then comes exposition, followed by argumentation.


James Moffett, in works such as Teaching the Universe of Discourse, taught us to constantly cycle back through the easier modes of writing as we built into the increasingly challenging ones. He reminded us why some assignments are harder than others, relating each to time. A narrative looks at the past—what happened. Exposition looks at the enduring present—what happens. Argumentation looks at the future—what could or should happen. No wonder writing arguments is challenging. A part of argumentation is establishing that a problem exists; the other part is predicting how a suggested change would solve the problem. Having come of age as a teacher under Moffett’s influence, I tend to have students write three essays on the topic they choose to research. Having inherited Annette Rottenberg’s Toulmin method with Elements of Argument, I have to adapt that sequence to accommodate claims of fact, value, and policy. It’s not too much of a stretch to see that writing a claim-of-policy essay is the most challenging because of its future orientation, while claims of fact and value are less challenging. Students can accumulate a body of research and first write an essay supporting a factual claim about it, incorporating as few as two sources to start to establish their knowledge of the subject. Then they can support a value claim about it, going beyond the basic information to express an opinion. With those preliminaries behind them, they are better prepared to support a claim of policy—and to have worked out problems with documenting sources before the last assignment in the course comes along and it’s too late.


An example: One of my students wanted to write about the use of thalidomide as a treatment for cancer. Anyone tackling that subject must know the history of thalidomide’s use. If nothing else, the writer must be aware of, and inform the reader, that in the 1950s and early 1960s thalidomide caused thousands of birth defects when it was taken during pregnancy. An essay supporting a claim of fact could establish why the drug, understandably, fell out of favor. An essay supporting a claim of value could argue that the use of thalidomide under carefully controlled circumstances is worth the risk. An essay supporting a claim of policy would turn this research into an argument in favor for or against the use of thalidomide. There would be similarities among the essays. They would draw on the same body of research. Whole sections of an earlier essay might be incorporated into a later one. And they would get more practice getting the documentation right.


Too often in the “real world” we find out the hard way what should have been done. There is seldom an opportunity to write about the should-haves, to practice getting it right. It’s hard to write a policy against possible future outcomes. I think of the tragic death of a young student at the University of South Carolina who got into the wrong car, thinking it was her Uber. Along with his condolences, the university president sent USC students and parents a list of ways to avoid a similar tragedy. Students may have gotten similar warnings when they arrived on campus. Lyft and Uber are implementing new safety policies. However, the narrative of Samantha Josephson’s death and the generalization that it could have happened to anyone reinforced what should be done in the future. It’s clear now – too late – what claims of policy should be implemented.



Photo credit: “Summ()n – Exploring Possible Futures” by cea+ on Flickr, 2/7/12 via a CC BY 2.0 license.

For many years the elimination of the Electoral College in the U. S. was considered a stale topic for research papers. Arguing that it should be abolished was an academic argument at best because no one really thought that there would ever be enough support for the Constitutional change required to eliminate it. The Electoral College is now back in the headlines and newly relevant as a campaign issue because in two recent presidential elections—those in 2000 and 2016—the winner based on electoral votes was not the winner of the national popular vote; several candidates running for president in 2020 have come out in favor of abolishing the College.


The Electoral College might have made sense when it was established because of the difficulties of travel and the lack of rapid communication. An elector was trusted to represent the people of his state. Today, though, the process is pro forma since everyone knows what the outcome will be before the electors officially vote. Electors are bound by state law to vote as the state dictates, and all but two states—Maine and Nebraska—have a winner-take-all system that automatically gives all of the state’s electoral votes to the winner of the state popular vote. Thus even if the state popular vote is extremely close, all of the state’s votes go to the winning candidate. We learned in the 2016 election that electors will not go against the system to vote their conscience even with strong support from some constituents.


It is no wonder that many voters feel disenfranchised, and there is a good deal of validity to the argument that their votes don’t count. It is certainly not an incentive to get out and vote.


How do we approach this issue as a subject for teaching argument?


We can ask our students to write claims of fact, value, and policy about the Electoral College. Claims of fact can help them understand what the Electoral College is before they try to support more difficult claims. Claims of value can help them formulate their opinions about the College as it now exists. Claims of policy can express what should—or should not—be done about the Electoral College. One clear choice would be that the Electoral College should remain the means of selecting the American president. At the federal level, those who support eliminating the Electoral College have really only one avenue for change to offer: changing the Constitution.


A little research will show students the current situation at both the federal and the state level. Reformers have long assumed that change in our method of electing our president will need to be at the state level. States could individually choose to have their electoral votes divided proportionately by state popular vote. The most promising state action, however, is the passage of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. This legislation dictates that all electoral votes for the state would go to the candidate winning the national popular vote. The individual state laws will go into effect only when enough state legislatures have passed Interstate Compact laws to control the number of votes needed in the Electoral College to win—270. At this point, 189 votes are committed to the compact if the total number needed is reached.


Change in the old institution that is the Electoral College is suddenly in play. Students looking at the issue as argument must consider what assumptions underlie the choice to support maintaining or eliminating the Electoral College. Partisanship at this point in history makes Republicans want to cling to an old system that for now gives them an advantage, and Democrats to change a system that for now puts them at a disadvantage. (The same partisanship-based decisions can be seen in the recent Republican-led changes to Senate rules, requiring only a simple majority for a number of confirmations – most notably, those of Supreme Court Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh.) However, it may not always be the case that systems and choices benefiting one party today will continue to give them an advantage in the future. Partisanship aside, the most basic assumption underlying any change to make the Electoral College more fairly reflect the popular vote is that in a democracy, each citizen has the right to one vote, and one vote that counts.



Photo credit: “obama romney electoral college - end june” by brandopolo on Flickr, 6/30/12 via a CC BY 2.0 license.

When he turned eighteen, Ethan Lindenberger sought advice about how to get vaccinated. The title of a Guardian article about him by Anna Almendrala sums up his situation: “‘God Knows How I’m Alive’: How a Teen Defied His Parents to Get Vaccinated.” As Almendrala explains, “Lindenberger was raised to believe that vaccines cause brain damage, autism, and other developmental issues. But nearing the end of high school, he had come to think differently.” His parents believed that vaccines were some type of government scheme and never had him vaccinated. “But doubt crept in at 13 or 14, after seeing the angry and aggressive responses to a post his mother had written on social media about the dangers of vaccines. People called his mother’s post propaganda and false information, Lindenberger told the Guardian. ‘Why has this thing that has been so black and white suddenly seem like there’s a lot more to it?’”


Lindenberger went to the authorities in his search for the truth. He read what sources like the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization had to say about vaccinations. He learned about the now-debunked and retracted 1998 article that linked vaccinations to autism. He learned the logic on the other side of what had been to him a black-and-white issue. There is no reputable scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism. A fallacy called the post hoc fallacy—propter hoc ergo post hoc (after that because of that)—has led some parents to assume a link because signs of autism often become noticeable around the time early vaccines are scheduled. The timing does not mean that one causes the other.


One cause-effect relationship that is scientifically verifiable is the increase in the incidence of mostly eradicated diseases in areas where there are clusters of anti-vaxxers, as people like Lindenberger’s parents are called. The problem has hit the headlines recently with a measles outbreak in Washington state, where an unusually large number of children have not been vaccinated.


The anti-vaxxers’ claim that their children should not be vaccinated rests on the assumption that vaccines cause developmental delays such as autism. Their claim is invalid if the assumption is not true, and the assumption is invalid if you accept the authority of organizations such as the WHO and the CDC. Another assumption behind the claim is that vaccinations are a government scheme. This assumption needs support if the claim is to be accepted. Some parents do not like for the government to interfere with their parenting, just as some motorcycle owners do not believe the government has the right to mandate the wearing of helmets. Motorcycle riders may feel they have the right to risk their own safety by not wearing helmets. A better analogy, however, would be whether a parent has the right to decide that his or her child should not wear a helmet while riding on a motorcycle.


On the other side of the debate are parents who do not believe their children should be put at risk by unvaccinated children. We would like to think that vaccination is 100% effective, but since it is not, vaccinated children who spend time with unvaccinated sick children are still at risk. Though far fewer children who have been vaccinated will contract a disease like measles, and the illness will be less severe for them, they can still become ill.


The question that then arises is whether schools can force parents to have their children vaccinated. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are no federal vaccination laws, but all fifty states have certain vaccination requirements. All fifty states also allow medical exemptions. All but three have exemptions based on religion or philosophy (for people who have sincerely held beliefs that prohibit immunizations). A partial solution under consideration by some states is tightening these exemption policies. Those states will face the difficult job of drawing a line between medical and religious reasons for opposing immunization and philosophical ones. Is a parent’s philosophical opposition to vaccination enough to let that parent’s child put other children at risk?


Lindenberger personally hopes to become a minister and “to continue to be a voice for scientific evidence on the importance of vaccines.” Few individuals so far are taking his route and having vaccination once they come of age. Teenagers are so well informed via social media, however, that they may begin questioning at an earlier age just what their parents are doing and why. The parents of another young man introduced in Almendrala’s article stopped having him vaccinated after he had a bad reaction to an immunization at an early age and had to be hospitalized. Almendrala writes, “He’d only realized his family approached things differently at the age of 16, when he began laughing at ‘anti-vaxxer memes’ on Reddit, but soon realized that his family might be the butt of the joke. ‘I thought it was funny,’ said John. ‘Then my mom started talking about it, and I was like, ‘Oh, shit, I’m one of those kids.’” For John the situation came to a decisive point when a military scholarship for college required him to be vaccinated. His mother is now helping him catch up on his immunizations so that he can attend.



Photo credit: “Flu Vaccination Grippe” by Daniel Paquet on Flickr, 10/22/10 via a CC BY 2.0 license.

One of the most common logical fallacies in argumentation is the either/or fallacy. We see this fallacy a great deal these days because our two-party political system is as deeply entrenched as it has ever been, and each party accuses the other of the most extreme positions on hot topics, as if no center ground is possible. Often, the either/or fallacy leads to the straw man fallacy, as the other side finds itself defending against a much more extreme position than what it truly supports.


President Trump wants a wall on our southern border. That leads Republicans to support the unfair assumption that anyone who opposes the wall is for open borders; Trump even went so far as to accuse House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of supporting human trafficking because she opposes the border wall. However, immigration is not an either/or proposition. Both sides are in favor of border security, but if the Democrats must defend themselves against the false charge that they want no restrictions at all on immigration, they waste time and energy that could be spent on reaching common ground. Thus the straw man that Democrats are distracted by and find themselves attacking instead of the real issue.


New York’s new legislation about abortion is another example that can be examined in light of either/or logic. Some of those who oppose abortion assume that those who cheered the passage of the legislation must be willing to accept killing an infant in the process of being delivered. The law actually stipulates very specific circumstances under which a late-term abortion can be performed. That “if” clause is what opponents of abortion do not hear. The either/or fallacy comes in accepting that either one opposes abortion under any circumstances or accepts it under any circumstances. If those who support a woman’s right to choose have to defend themselves against the charge that they think it is okay to kill a baby during delivery, they are attacking a straw man rather than addressing the real issue of why a woman would choose a late-term abortion.


Any time a speaker or writer argues that if you don’t believe this, you believe that, it is worth pausing to consider if that dichotomy really exists. Is it true that anyone who supports gun control wants to take all guns away from every law-abiding American? Is it true that parents who allow their children to be vaccinated do not care about their children’s welfare?


The whole idea behind Rogerian argument is that it seeks common ground from which to work toward reconciling opposing or differing positions. That’s not easy when the issue is something as heated as abortion or the killing of black men by white police officers. It’s not easy because the first step toward reconciliation is being able to accurately state your opponent’s position. As long as every statement is weighed first in terms of its political impact, that step toward common ground will be slow in coming.



Photo credit: “Democratic Donkey & Republican Elephant - Caricatures” by DonkeyHotey on Flickr, 2/12/14 via a CC BY 2.0 license.

Donna Winchell

Coming to Terms

Posted by Donna Winchell Expert Feb 8, 2019


On January 22, New York’s Democrat-controlled legislature passed and Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a controversial Reproductive Health Act that has conservatives crying foul. Liberals and conservatives alike can understand the law’s purpose: To protect the rights currently protected by Rowe v. Wade should that historic decision be reversed on the federal level. New York’s Reproductive Health Act goes a step farther to decriminalize abortion. As is often the case, those on both sides of the issue need to read what the law really says. And once again, definition of key terms is central to how the new law is interpreted.


Abortion legislation has long had to address the difficult concept of when life begins. Something as simple as referring to the product of conception as a fetus as opposed to a child can color how a law is viewed. Legislators have also had to confront what “late-term abortion” means. Donald Trump, Jr., recently referred to “post-term abortion,” which seems to be a medical impossibility: “And when I watch those Democrats standing there saying that, ‘Oh, it’s terrible that you can’t let someone kill a baby that is in the process of being born, in labor or shortly thereafter’ something’s very wrong.” Trump took Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s comments about how he would deal with a non-viable baby or one with severe deformities out of context to say that Northam would “execute a baby after birth.” Killing a baby in the process of being born, during labor, or shortly thereafter would not be right by anyone’s standards, and numerous charges of double homicide have been brought against those accused of killing a pregnant woman whose child consequently dies. This is not, however, the meaning of the term abortion.


Speaking out against the New York legislation, Trump, Sr., said, “Lawmakers in New York cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.” Why anyone would rip a baby from its mother’s womb moments before birth is unfathomable and is, again, hardly an abortion. Key words in the legislation explain under what circumstances abortion would be allowed. What the New York law says is this: A health care practitioner “may perform an abortion when, according to the practitioner’s judgment based on the facts of the patient’s case: the patient is within twenty-four weeks from the commencement of pregnancy, and there is an absence of fetal viability, or the abortion is necessary to protect the patient’s life or health.”


Doctors have long since defined when a fetus is viable or can survive outside of the womb. The term “viable” refers to both the fetus’s gestation period and its condition. All but seven states currently place limits on when an abortion can be performed based on viability—generally 20-24 weeks after conception. The tragedy of having to make the decision to abort a child after the point of viability usually arises because doctors have determined that the child will be stillborn or will die very soon after birth. For most women that decision is not lightly made. Before Rowe V. Wade, a pregnant woman whose fetus was dead could not abort the child under medical supervision but had to wait until her body aborted it.


Not everyone agrees whether an unborn child should be sacrificed to save the life of the mother. Even more controversial is whether that should be done to protect the mother’s health, since “health” covers a lot of territory, including mental health. The language surrounding abortion is full of pitfalls and is emotionally charged because it touches on some of Americans’ most firmly held beliefs, whether it is belief in the rights of the unborn or the right of women to make choices regarding their own bodies.


Photo Credits: “Anti-abortion protest at Planned Parenthood” by Fibonacci Blue on Flickr, 4/6/12 via a CC BY 2.0 license and "Women's March against Donald Trump " by Fibonacci Blue on Flickr, 1/21/17 via a CC BY 2.0 license.


Laura Wagner, writing for the Concourse section of Deadspin, called her post about the Covington High School controversy in Washington “Don’t Doubt What You See with Your Own Eyes.” What we have learned over the last two weeks is exactly the opposite—that we do need to question what we see. The extreme tension that exists in our nation was once again apparent after brief clips went viral showing teenagers from the school, some wearing Make America Great Again hats, seeming to taunt a Native American elder, Nathan Phillips. These clips were quickly followed by longer videos and the argument that there was more to the situation than was immediately apparent from the shorter clips. Some who posted the clips have apologized for taking them out of context. Others stand by their condemnation of the teenagers. Either way, anyone who expresses an opinion about the confrontation on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial should watch more of the most complete video than what was originally aired. In argumentation, context does matter. Even the New York Times had to admit a rush to judgment: “Interviews and additional video footage suggest that an explosive convergence of race, religion and ideological beliefs — against a national backdrop of political tension — set the stage for the viral moment. Early video excerpts from the encounter obscured the larger context, inflaming outrage.”


Those who condemn the students say they know taunting and disrespect when they see it. One young man, Nick Sandmann, faced down Phillips in what most consider a rude and rather odd and awkward way. You can read his account of what he was trying to do. His actions have led to his appearance on Today and an invitation to the White House as well as calls for his expulsion and death threats against him and his family. You can also read how Phillips felt threatened by the students, who, after he approached them, encircled him.


It may not be relevant that the students largely resisted the temptation to fight back when a small group of African American Israelites yelled all sorts of vulgar and insulting comments at them. This belligerent group turned their attention to the students only after exhausting their insults directed toward Native Americans nearby. They targeted the students because some were wearing the MAGA hats and, seemingly, because the students are Catholic. It is relevant that Phillips approached the students, trying, he says, to defuse what he saw as a volatile situation, instead of their approaching him to disrupt his chanting, as was implied by the early reports. (A typical early headline read, “Teens in MAGA hats taunt Native American elder at Lincoln Memorial.”) The students were shouting school chants—and jumping; Phillips was drumming and chanting. When he approached them, they continued chanting and jumping—and dancing—to his drumbeat. If there were chants of “Build the Wall” or “Trump 2020,” as some have claimed, they are not audible in the video.


We have all known obnoxious teenagers. Many of us were probably, at times, obnoxious teenagers ourselves. America saw Nick Sandmann with a smart-aleck smirk on his face and a red MAGA hat on his head—and attacked. When I watch with my own eyes the video of what happened before and during the encounter on the steps of the memorial and when I read what Sandmann and Phillips say about what happened, I can’t judge the honesty of what they say about their reasons for what they did. I can argue, though, that the telling of what happened by the annoying teenager matches more closely the facts of what happened than does the telling by the weathered elder.



Photo Credit: “tunnel vision” by André P. Meyer-Vitali on Flickr, 10/22/2011 via a CC BY 2.0 license.

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