Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Wisconsin Shout Out

Today on How We Argue...
Examining Persuasive Rhetoric & Arguments with False Evidence

Okay, for my first crack at this 'How We Argue' thing, I decided to pull a quote from a rising star in the House of Representatives who also happens to be from my home state.

What We Saw in the Public Discourse

It was reported today that Chairman of the House Budget Committee Paul Ryan (R-WI) recently said, "We must reject the notion that a centrally planned, bureaucratically run health care system can produce more favorable outcomes than the one managed by doctors and patients."

I don't want to wade too far into the health care debate on this first post, but I think this is a great quote.  It demonstrates so much about persuasion and argument.

Congressman Ryan starts with a call to action: We must reject something.

He goes on to characterize the plan he is arguing against with some charged yet accurate descriptors: centrally planned & bureaucratically run.

What a great way to describe the plan we must reject.  With just a few words Ryan has exposed the characteristics that most people don't like about the plan.

Then we get an alternative plan: the plan managed by doctors and patients.

Nice move.  Doctors and patients are the most logical managers of health care. It's a great alternative.

Ryan's rhetoric is spot on: We should reject a demonstrably bad plan because there is a better plan available.

But be careful. 
Persuasive rhetoric is a powerful tool, and it must be wielded with care. Ryan crosses a line in this quote. 

He starts off fine.  A lot of people don't want a centrally planned & bureaucratically run health care system, and for that reason his call to reject such a plan is reasonable.

But what about that alternative he presents: the plan managed by doctors and patients.

The plan?

There is such a plan?  I've never seen such a plan.  Health care is not currently managed by doctors or patients.  It is managed by large bureaucratic insurance companies.
The Republicans have not presented a plan in which health care is run by patients and doctors.

Ryan's use of the definite article "the" suggests that we have a health care plan (somewhere) that is managed by doctors and patents.  This rhetorical move may be persuasive, but it is problematic.  It suggests the existence of evidence that is never presented - that doesn't exist.  Decision makers are led to believe there is a strong alternative, but there is not.

In an effort to be persuasive, Ryan is trying to keep that information away from his audience.

What We Would See in the Composition Classroom

If this sentence was in a persuasive paper, I would applaud the student's command of language and the clarity of the argument.
I would, however, ding the student's grade for suggesting the existence of evidence but failing to present that evidence.  

My constructive feedback would be as follows:
For the next draft, go out and find a reliable source that can attest to the existence of a health care plan run by doctors and patients.

Failing that, do not refer to evidence if that evidence is questionable or non-existent.  

At the very least, lose the definite article.
"We must reject the notion that a centrally planned, bureaucratically run health care system can produce more favorable outcomes than the one managed by doctors and patients."
That way the alternative is only hypothetical.

How We Argue

Since I moved back from Hungary, the impetus for this blog has lost some of its edge. 

Let's face it, the ramblings of a Midwesterner living in Central Europe are a bit more exotic than the thoughts of a Midwesterner studying in the Central Valley

So it's time to shift the subject to something more specific - something this blog has flirted with for years: the critique of public discourse

I had this idea last month, but after the shootings in Arizona, I decided to hold off. 

Odd choice, I know, but I didn't feel right jumping into that fray

Here in Davis, I'm studying writing instruction.  Since 2003, the teaching of writing has become increasingly important to me.  I believe the ability to express oneself to multiple audiences is a critical skill, and the tools of composition are essential in the building of that ability. 

I like my work, and I find a great deal of motivation for it in this belief: Students who can articulate and analyze an argument will become capable contributors to a healthy public discourse. 

I'd like to test that belief here, in an admittedly less-than-direct way. 

I'm going to use the concepts and tools we discuss in the composition classroom to examine the way issues are addressed in the public discourse. 

I'll try to get a new post up today or tomorrow, but for now, let me know if you like the idea - or if there are issues being discussed that you think I should examine.