7 Situating Arguments
Arguments are all about context, and they’re designed for and by people. People have conflicting motivations, complicated views, wide varieties of values, and ideological commitments, and they carry assumptions, both examined and unexamined, that shape their receptivity toward a particular argument. If you are going to persuade anyone, you need to understand as much as you can about those values, motivations, and assumptions before you can get them to listen to you, let alone act based on your argument.
Let’s look at an example. Let’s say you’ve just moved into an apartment with three new roommates who’ve already lived together for a year before you moved in. Since you’re new to the living situation, you’d want to take some time to understand their preferences, routines, and opinions before you started making changes around the apartment. You certainly wouldn’t get a cat before realizing that one of your new roommates has a cat allergy—or if you did, it would be pretty rude.
But more subtly than that, you’d need to understand the internal dynamics of the roommate situation before you influence it yourself. Take a smaller example. Maybe your roommates have a friend that comes over frequently but acts really obnoxious in your opinion. They’re loud, they leave a mess, and they rely on your roommates to pay for food and drinks without making a contribution themselves. You want to convince your roommates to stop inviting this person over so frequently, and you start the conversation by saying, “Hey, that one friend of yours is really disruptive and rude every time they come over. Can you stop bringing them here, or at least run it past me before they come over?” You think you’re being reasonable with this request, but one of your roommates gives you a look of shock and says, “What are you talking about? That person is the best”; the other roommate goes silent; and the third roommate storms out of the room.
You’re baffled. Your roommates become awkward around you until you finally pull the first roommate aside and ask, “What’s the deal? Why did everyone react like that?” You then learn that this friend helped your roommate who stormed out of the room through an incredibly tough time back in high school, to the point that they may never have even made it to college without this friend. The friend then went through some really big struggles themselves and had to start some medications that make their behavior really uneven—causing them to act a little strange when they visit the apartment. You feel a little bit sheepish about your attitude from before, realizing that this all makes a lot of sense now that you know the full context.
Like we said before: rhetoric is all about context. You can’t have a decent conversation, let alone persuade someone, if you don’t understand the various motivations, connections, and implicit values driving the situation you’re stepping into. So that’s what a good rhetorician does—they try to understand the internal dynamics of the audience she hopes to influence. You probably understand this on an instinctual level. We use this kind of sensitivity to navigate complicated situations with our friends, families, and coworkers all the time. But you may not have applied this sort of thinking to the writing you’ve done in academic settings. This book is here to help you situate your arguments in academic conversations, just as you would situate your arguments in social settings where you know all the stakeholders involved.
“So wait—you’re saying I have to understand a person’s deepest values and moral commitments before I can persuade them? How can I do that if I don’t even know the people I’m talking to?” That may sound like mind reading at best and manipulation at worst. But it’s really about respect and ethical argumentation. The best rhetorician listens before she argues. According to Krista Ratcliffe, listening is one of the most important elements of successful communication, particularly when it takes place across cultures or in contexts when the participants might be at odds with one another (196).
Actually listening to someone else is hard work. So often we’re just looking for ways to shut the other person down or bolster our own viewpoints or we’re merely waiting for our turn to speak. But good rhetoric doesn’t work that way because it’s all about taking the time to understand the audience’s values and shape the argument around them rather than merely learning enough about a group of people in order to influence their views.
Rhetoricians use the term presuppositions to describe those tacit values that lay the foundations for arguments. Understanding the audience’s presuppositions is a prerequisite to effective argumentation. Mark Longaker and Jeffrey Walker call presuppositions “the system of ideas—the ways of thinking—that the speaker and audience share, making them a community (more or less)” (14). Presuppositions involve what both the speaker and audience “love, hate, fear, admire, yearn for; their sense of what is true…what they know as ‘fact,’ their sense of the structure of reality”—in other words, the network of beliefs that determines how they see the world (14). Note that the speaker and audience share these values in this definition. It’s not enough to pander to your audience, pretending that you believe in something you don’t in order to get them to see your way of thinking. This is about arguing from the same playing field so that everyone shares the same rules and sense of what they’re aiming for.
Here’s a classic example: in A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift expresses his outrage about the inhumane treatment of impoverished Irish by making a satirical argument for his fellow citizens to enact a program to eat the poor’s newborn babies (and worse) to solve the country’s economic problems. Swift makes an exaggerated, ironic claim to highlight the folly of his audience’s biases and beliefs, and by making his outrageous proposal seem calmly logical, well cited, and persuasive, he beguiles his audience into confronting their own hypocrisy. Not eating babies is one of the audience’s latent beliefs about what is right, and Swift uses that shared value to force his audience to see how their other latent beliefs (in this case, tacit acceptance of inhumane treatment of their country’s less well-off) are not only wrong but immoral.
That’s a rather extreme example, but we can see how it applies to the roommate example as well. The roommates share a respect for the history that shapes the visiting friend’s behavior, operating on the implicit assumption that it’s worth tolerating some of the friend’s less-than-ideal qualities in recognition of that history. This reveals some of the group’s deeper beliefs about the reciprocal nature of friendship and the importance of mutual support. You likely believe in those ideals, too, but your initial argument wasn’t effective because it didn’t recognize that those beliefs were in play. For Longaker and Walker, “Presuppositions determine not only what the speaker means and what the audience understands; they also determine both the speaker’s and the audience’s understanding of the occasion” (14). Now that you understand what’s really at issue regarding the visiting friend’s behavior, you’re in a much better position to make arguments that resonate with the presuppositions you all share about friendship.
In the quote above, Longaker and Walker say that the speaker and audience become a “community” when they’re engaging with arguments based on shared beliefs. It turns out that we’re all members of beliefs-based communities and that we’re shifting between these groups all the time in our day-to-day lives. Think about the way you might change your language, tone, or references as you switch between friend groups or social situations. You wouldn’t use the same inside jokes that you formed with your college friends with your friends from high school because they wouldn’t make sense. It also takes a little time to gain a keen sense of the underlying values in a friend group, as we saw with the roommate example.
Some of those same principles apply to our interactions with social, political, professional, or cultural communities we belong to. Rhetoricians use the term discourse community to refer to a group that uses a shared language to work toward mutual goals and operate on shared values. Discourse communities are usually organized around a specific purpose or philosophy, and they establish patterns and conventions for communication to work toward their goals. Academic disciplines, activist groups, athletic teams, and religious groups all count as discourse communities, since they all have their own patterns of communication that help them achieve concrete outcomes as a group.
The idea of shared language is crucial to understanding what makes a discourse community tick. Imagine stumbling into an advanced biochemistry class when you’d never even taken an introductory chemistry course or walking into a busy restaurant kitchen and hearing the chef shout orders to the kitchen staff. You’d have no idea what anyone was talking about! That’s because, as composition scholar Dan Melzer points out, discourse communities use “specialized terms,” which linguist John Swales has also called “lexis,” to communicate as specifically as possible about the concepts that matter to their community (102). Those specialized terms allow discourse communities to advance their knowledge and communicate in concrete ways as they work to solve problems, from ensuring consistency in a restaurant kitchen to producing reliable results in a biochemistry lab.
At this point, you might be tempted to say, “Oh, cool, so that means pretty much everything is a discourse community if it uses language to solve problems. My friends and I make up a discourse community when we’re discussing the problem of whether to get Taco Bell or Jack in the Box.” Well, not quite. A discourse community needs to have consistent, traceable goals that are at least somewhat publicly oriented so that potential members can see what the group is all about and how communication contributes to those goals. A private group chat between housemates probably wouldn’t count as a discourse community, but a subreddit devoted to discussion of the game Animal Crossing would. In order to count as a discourse community, a group needs to arrive at patterns that render its communication legible to people outside the community as well. A housemates’ group chat might have shared goals of setting chores or making plans, but it’s not designed to communicate those goals to anyone beyond your housemates. An Animal Crossing subreddit, while focused on the relatively loose goal of enjoying a video game, must establish rules and patterns that make it possible for newcomers to see how and why the community functions.
Any discourse community, regardless of its purpose, needs to use language consistently enough for anyone to be able to join, even if there is a learning curve in understanding all the patterns, terms, and expectations. In a discourse community, language functions as a system, a durable set of tools that anyone should be able to pick up and use. Dan Melzer emphasizes the centrality of genre in discourse communities, showing how the shared characteristics of genres help create predictable and accessible patterns of communication that make a group’s goals easier to achieve. You might think about a lab report as a genre in the discourse community of biochemistry: lab reports contain concrete conventions that allow experimenters to secure reliable results. Similarly, posts to the Animal Crossing subreddit need to follow the community rules to ensure that communication remains on topic, appropriate, and aligned with the broader goals of the discourse community. As Melzer points out, “Genres arise out of social purposes, and they’re a form of social action within discourse communities” (103–104). From Animal Crossing to biochem, members of a discourse community need consistent language to meet their goals. This is ultimately why rhetoricians care about discourse communities: because they show us how people use language as a system to share ideas and get things done.
So we understand that it’s important to get a well-rounded sense of an issue and determine what values are at play before we try to intervene with an argument. We also understand that we need consistent discursive tools to help us understand and pursue shared goals. One set of tools at our disposal is the stasis questions, a simple series of four questions that can help you identify where disagreement rests on a particular issue. The idea of “stasis” refers to that area of disagreement, where a given group can’t yet move forward in consensus on how they’d answer the question at hand. The following are the different types of stasis questions:
- Questions of fact: Does X exist?
- Questions of definition: What is X? How does X differ from Y?
- Questions of evaluation: Is X good? What are its causes/effects?
- Questions of policy: What should we do about X?
These look pretty simple, right? They are! Yet they can yield some really complex insights about a particular discourse community’s beliefs—and the answers to the same set of stasis questions can have completely different answers, depending on what discourse community you’re asking. Take climate change, for example. In some political contexts, there are still disagreements about whether climate change even exists or what causes it. For the scientists who believe in the data about the existence of climate change, discussions have moved into the policy realm to consider how we can combat the impacts of climate change. So while some politicians are still at the level of stasis on whether climate change is a fact, climate scientists are deliberating at the level of policy.
You can also use the stasis questions to brainstorm the inquiries that are important to be able to answer in a given topic. They can help you take stock and figure out what aspect of an issue demands further analysis. Let’s say you’re considering writing an essay about homelessness in your area but you’re not sure where to start. You might brainstorm a set of questions such as this:
- Questions of fact: Does homelessness exist in my community? How many homeless people are there in this city? How many of them are children?
- Questions of definition: Does one simply have to lack an address to be homeless? What about couch surfing or living in a car?
- Questions of evaluation: What impacts does homelessness have on people’s ability to find stable employment? What conditions lead to homelessness?
- Questions of policy: How can we combat homelessness in this community? How can we help homeless people find jobs?
You might notice that the stasis questions increase in levels of complexity: you must know the answer to the first question to proceed to the next. If you don’t understand the basic facts of an issue, you can’t make an informed argument about it. You’d need to consider the impacts and effects of homelessness before you make an argument about how to fix it.
This brings us back to Krista Ratcliffe’s rhetorical listening: while it’s very tempting to jump into a new context or encounter a new problem by immediately proposing a solution, you must first take the time to immerse yourself in the existing conversations, contexts, and complexities before trying to make a judgment call. We saw how well it went in the roommate example when the new roommate tried to take a stance on an issue they didn’t fully understand. So when in doubt, remember this tip: Listen before you argue.
- What can you do to better understand the context of an argument or position in (a) a conversation with someone you know or (b) an article or something else you are reading?
- Are there instances in which you might try to make an argument to someone who doesn’t share your presuppositions? What could go wrong in that instance? How could you reduce that risk?
- What are the presuppositions of the following arguments? How could those presuppositions be addressed to improve your paper? (a) College tuition should be free. (b) Elementary schools should not teach students about sexuality or gender identity. (c) Everyone should eat less meat to help the environment.
- How could you use the stasis questions to analyze other people’s arguments? How could you use them in your own writing process?
- Choose an article from the “Opinion” section of a newspaper or website of your choice. Read it carefully, and analyze the context, presuppositions, and stasis questions that it builds upon. How do these elements add to (or undermine) the argument for the target audience? What changes would the author need to make in these areas if they were writing for a different audience?
- Use the stasis questions to write questions of fact, definition, evaluation, and policy for a topic of your choice. How do these questions prod your thinking and raise new ideas for your argument? (If you need topic ideas for this activity, here are a few: fast fashion, vegetarianism, mask/vaccine/other public health requirements, paying college athletes.)
Longaker, Mark Garrett, and Jeffrey Walker. Rhetorical Analysis: A Brief Guide for Writers. Longman, 2011.
Melzer, Dan. “Understanding Discourse Communities.” Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, vol. 3, edited by Dana Driscoll, Mary Stewart, and Matt Vetter, Parlor Press, 2020.
Ratcliffe, Krista. “Rhetorical Listening: A Trope for Interpretive Invention and a ‘Code of Cross-Cultural Conduct.’” College Composition and Communication, vol. 51, no. 2, 1999, pp. 195–224. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/359039.
Swift, Jonathan, and Charles Allen Beaumont. A Modest Proposal. C. E. Merrill, 1969.