And now, a lesson on how
Daily Cougar Staff
One of the most entertaining parts of writing
opinion for the Cougar is getting "fan mail," the letters you wonderful
readers write from time to time.
While there is the occasional letter of
support, most of what we see tends to be from readers who disagree with
our viewpoints and who think they can persuade us to
change our minds.
Over time I've seen too many flawed arguments
in letters sent or published, most of which fit into four categories. With
that in mind, I'd like to offer a primer of arguments
that just don't work.
Appeal to authority: This takes numerous
forms. Sometimes the authority is God, sometimes an "expert," sometimes
an abstract concept like "justice." When invoking
God or another abstraction, the problem
is definition: one person's God may not be another's, and we all have differing
viewpoints on ideas like justice.
Too often, a supposed "expert" may have
been paid to come to a specific result, or at the very least had a specific
result in mind before beginning research. Having to
rely on a position of authority to place
yourself above your rhetorical adversary weakens your case, since any invalidation
of your authority renders your entire argument
Name-calling or "Shooting the Messenger":
If you find it necessary to address a columnist disparagingly, ridicule
that columnist's sexual organs, make fun of the
columnist's clothing or demean that columnist
in any other way, you need to rethink your approach. The idea is that by
attacking your rhetorical adversary, you can
somehow invalidate his or her argument.
In reality, personal attacks on the columnist merely signal that one's
argument as fundamentally weak or invalid to begin with.
A ready example is profanity. This is a
signal to the reader that whoever used the profane word was too lazy to
think of a substitute. At that point, any arguments the
person made are forfeited.
Proof by emphatic declaration: This is
the most basic attempt to win an argument, usually practiced by small children
who repeat "Yes it is!" and "No it isn't!" ad infinitum
until they get their way. In rhetoric,
this takes the form of ignoring the arguments made by an opponent, and
instead restating one's own argument as if it were already
proven as fact.
If you never disprove your opponent's point
or back up your own with logic, then there isn't really an argument going
on, just someone being repetitive in hopes of
making the other give in to his or her
wishes. If both sides of an argument are doing this, then it's just a shouting
Arguing the consequences: This is claiming
that an opponent's argument is invalid because it leads to an undesirable
conclusion. "If you are right, then bad things will
happen, so you must be wrong." The attempt
in this case is to change the nature of the debate in hopes of gaining
The problem with arguing the consequences
is that the initial question is never dealt with. Those who argue that
a point of view must be wrong because it is
inconvenient if right are usually the
people who wind up hearing "I told you so" six months down the road.
I hope this will help our readers and columnists
alike, making our debates a bit clearer and less hot-headed. Happy writing.