Adapted by Liz Delf, Rob Drummond, and Kristy Kelly
To a nonconfrontational person, argument is a dirty word. It surfaces connotations of raised voices, slammed doors, and dominance; it arouses feelings of anxiety and frustration.
But argument is not inherently bad. In fact, as a number of great thinkers have described, conflict is necessary for growth, progress, and community cohesion. Through disagreement, we challenge our commonsense assumptions and seek compromise. The negative connotations surrounding “argument” actually point to a failure in the way that we argue.
Now spend a few minutes reflecting on the last time you had an argument with a loved one. What was it about? What was it really about? What made it difficult? What made it easy?
Often, arguments hinge on the relationship between the arguers: whether written or verbal, that argument will rely on the specific language, approach, and evidence that each party deems valid. For that reason, the most important element of the rhetorical situation is audience. Making an honest, impactful, and reasonable connection with that audience is the first step to arguing better.
Unlike the argument with your loved one, it is likely that your essay will be establishing a brand-new relationship with your reader, one that is untouched by your personal history, unspoken bonds, or other assumptions about your intent. This clean slate is a double-edged sword: although you’ll have a fresh start, you must more deliberately anticipate and navigate your assumptions about the audience. What can you assume your reader already knows and believes? What kind of ideas will they be most swayed by? What life experiences have they had that inform their world view?
Impartial versus Multipartial
“But I just want to write an unbiased essay.” Let’s address a common concern that students raise when writing about controversial issues: neutrality. It’s quite likely that you’ve been trained, at some point in your writing career, to avoid bias, to be objective, to be impartial. However, this is a habit you need to unlearn, because every text is biased by virtue of being rhetorical. All rhetoric has a purpose, whether declared or secret, and therefore is partial.
Instead of being impartial, I encourage you to be multipartial. In other words, you should aim to inhabit many different positions in your argument—not zero, not one, but many. This is an important distinction: no longer is your goal to be unbiased; rather, it is to be balanced. You will provide your audience not with a neutral perspective but rather with a perspective conscientious of the many other perspectives out there.
Common Forms of Argumentation
In the study of argumentation, scholars and authors have developed a great variety of approaches: when it comes to convincing, there are many different paths that lead to our destination. For the sake of succinctness, we will focus on two: the Aristotelian argument and the Rogerian argument. While these two are not opposites, they are built on different values. Each will employ rhetorical appeals like those discussed in chapter 6, but their purposes and guiding beliefs are different.
In Ancient Greece, debate was a cornerstone of social life. Intellectuals and philosophers devoted hours upon hours of each day to honing their argumentative skills. For one group of thinkers, the Sophists, the focus of argumentation was to find a distinctly “right” or “wrong” position. The more convincing argument was the right one: the content mattered less than the technique by which it was delivered.
In turn, the purpose of an Aristotelian argument is to persuade someone (the other debater and/or the audience) that the speaker was correct. Aristotelian arguments are designed to bring the audience from one point of view to the other.
Therefore, an Aristotelian arguer tries to demonstrate the validity of their direction while addressing counterarguments: “Here’s what I believe and why I’m right; here’s what you believe and why it’s wrong.” The author seeks to persuade their audience through the sheer virtue of their truth.
In contrast, Rogerian arguments are more invested in compromise. Based on the work of psychologist Carl Rogers, Rogerian arguments are designed to enhance the connection between both sides of an issue. This kind of argument acknowledges the value of disagreement in material communities to make moral, political, and practical decisions.
Often, a Rogerian argument will begin with a fair statement of someone else’s position and consideration of how that could be true. In other words, a Rogerian arguer addresses their “opponent” more like a teammate: “What you think is not unreasonable; I disagree, but I can see how you’re thinking, and I appreciate it.” Notice that by taking the other ideas on their own terms, you demonstrate respect and cultivate trust and listening.
The rhetorical purpose of a Rogerian argument, then, is to come to a conclusion by negotiating common ground between moral-intellectual differences. Instead of debunking an opponent’s counterargument entirely, a Rogerian arguer would say, “Here’s what each of us thinks, and here’s what we have in common. How can we proceed forward to honor our shared beliefs but find a new, informed position?”
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Neither form is necessarily better, but rather both are useful in specific contexts. In what situations might you favor one approach over another?
The original chapter, Argumentation by Shane Abrams, is from EmpoWord: A Student-Centered Anthology and Handbook for College Writers
- What is one rhetorical situation where Aristotelian argumentation would be most effective? Why?
- What is one rhetorical situation where Rogerian argumentation would be most effective? Why?
- Do you personally lean more toward the Aristotelian or Rogerian model of argumentation? Why?
- Which of these approaches is most prominent in American politics and media? How might that impact the partisan divide?
- Do you have to choose Aristotelian or Rogerian argumentation for each paper that you write? Or can you combine the two approaches?
- Following the wool sweater model in this chapter, write an Aristotelian and a Rogerian approach for each of the following arguments (you can choose your position):
- Students should/shouldn’t be required to wear school uniforms.
- Dogs/cats are the best kind of pet.
- The internet is/isn’t making us stupid.