Argument is a word that we use or encounter virtually every day, though the term is used differently in different contexts. This chapter will introduce you to the ways we think about argumentation in academic contexts and in some civic and public contexts. Probably the most common way we think about arguments in everyday life is that arguments are an activity people engage in when there is a conflict and they disagree with each other. Very often, these arguments are accompanied by raised voices and intense emotions. For example, one roommate might be fine with letting dirty dishes pile up in the sink and on the counter while another might find that visually and hygienically unacceptable. This situation is bound to lead to the two arguing over how often dishes should get washed (and by whom!):
Roommate 1: “What’s wrong with tackling the whole pile all at once, every other day? It’s not like we ran out of plates and forks–if we did, then I would do the dishes. Why are you such a neat-freak?”
Roommate 2: “That’s just gross! Leaving dirty dishes out will attract mice and ants, and I can’t really use the kitchen when there is stuff all over the counter! I actually think this is all a delaying tactic to get me to do the dishes for you because you know I can’t stand it.”
Beyond this more private, domestic example, we don’t have to look far to find heated disagreements in the public sphere and in the media, whether it is about a celebrity posting a photo of herself breastfeeding or whether it is about the asylum-seekers at the U.S./Mexico border. Often, the statements people make in these arguments are fired off quickly without taking the time to think critically, reflect, or consider the possible validity of what other people are saying, and the statements might constitute opinions that are not accompanied by clearly laid out logic or evidence (we will return to this concept later in the chapter).
Besides this everyday sense of argument as a heated dispute between two or more people, students entering college are usually familiar with a more cooly rational kind of argument found in formal debate and/or the argumentative writing they have composed for school or a standardized test. In both debates and the kind of argumentative writing generally found in school, the arguments that individuals make go beyond opinion and attempt to offer reasons and evidence to show support for why their position on an issue is “right.” Often, the arguments made in these speaking and writing situations respond to yes/no questions or pro/con prompts that involve taking a side, providing justification for that side, showing the flaws/problems with the “other side,” and defending against challenges from the other side. Certainly, these are worthwhile activities in that students learn to support their point of view with reasons and evidence, to create a focus and organize content around that focus, to anticipate objections, etc. However, formal debate and more formulaic formats for argumentative writing (“I am right for reasons A, B, and C, and here is the opposite argument which is wrong because D”) often limit our thinking and work in the spirit of winning and losing. Think about it: if the purpose is to “win,” as it is in formal debate, the speaker will want to project an image of themselves as strong and discuss their “opponent” (and that is the word used, isn’t it?) in ways that depict them as weak. With time limitations imposed on making their case also creating a constraint, it would be incredibly risky for debate participants to explore gray areas, acknowledge complexities, and unpack nuances. If arguments were always reduced to a two-minute mini-speech or a five-paragraph essay, we would have a difficult time trying to tackle the major, complex problems that our world faces.
If we stop and think about it, pro/con debate or for/against writing prompts suggest that there are only two possible answers to questions or two possible actions we could take. In reality, there are of course middle ground positions and often third options.
Example 1: There is an old moviehouse in a city that hasn’t been used in years and has fallen into disrepair. A fitness franchise wants to buy the property and turn in into a gym. The community views the choice as to “save the moviehouse” or “get a gym and have something actually operating on the property that serves the community.” As it turns out, there can be a middle ground: the building could repair and restore its original exterior architectural features that make it attractive but be repurposed inside to become a gym; in other words, having a gym doesn’t necessarily mean tearing the building down. There is a middle ground.
Example 2: Some animal shelters have animals that are hard to place in homes, often because the animals aren’t domesticated enough to make good house pets. At first, the choice seems to be to euthanize the animals or reject animals that cannot be placed in homes. However, there are other options: 1) have some adopted as “work” animals, such as cats who can live in a store or warehouse to prevent mice, 2) spay/neuter and release to help reduce feral populations, 3) contribute to efforts to reduce breeding (including puppy mills). There are more than two options for responding to a problem.
So, if these commonplace ways of thinking about argumentation–as heated disputes or as pro/con debate shaped by metaphors of war or games–tend to limit our thinking or encourage more conflicts than resolutions, what would be a more productive way to think about and approach argumentation? This book advocates approaching argumentation (and research) as a form of collaborative problem-solving. That is, argumentation can help us move beyond gridlock and stalemates when it is used to help us advance our understanding of an issue and when participants expect to evolve their own thinking through their interactions with others and encounters with new ideas. Ideally, our arguments grow out of examining a wide variety of perspectives and evidence and then acknowledging the complexity of issues rather than brushing complexity to the side as we offer what currently seems like a good way to look at an issue. In this way, arguments look at prior conversations and arguments about an issue; attempt to listen to multiple points of view; conduct additional research based on new data, information, and studies; and offer the writer’s assessment of how we should treat the issue or problem. What responsible writers do, in other words, is not to write and research in the effort of supporting a predetermined thesis (i.e., deciding what they think and then cherry-picking evidence to support their existing belief); rather, responsible writers try their darnedest to remain open-minded, seek the truth, and arrive at a thesis after deliberately looking for evidence that might challenge or complicate their initial beliefs.
This inquiry-based approach to writing and research–shifting into a thesis-seeking rather than thesis-supporting mindset–might necessitate you adopting new habits and practices as a writer and researcher. However, it does not mean throwing away some important skills and concepts that you might already have under your belt. Circling back to earlier, you might already recognize that arguments go beyond asserting an opinion (asserting the writer’s belief) to offering reasons and evidence to explain the writer’s point of view and to make that point of view more convincing to others. Real arguments will require reasons and evidence that go beyond personal taste. For example, “arguing” over the best ice cream flavor (mint chip, of course!) isn’t going to be very productive; our preferences for flavor and texture aren’t rational, and we really don’t expect everyone else to have the same taste buds as we do. That said, even in arenas that might seem guided by personal taste, such as movie reviews, writers usually offer arguments and not just unsupported opinions. For example, saying “The Lion King live action remake is awful” alone is not an argument. However, a reviewer could offer reasons and evidence to support their main claim to construct an argument: “The Lion King remake was a failure because it made the critical error of too closely following the original. Remakes seem most worthwhile when they at least partially break from the original, helping justify offering a new version of an old favorite. For example, the remake of Beauty and Beast attempts to develop Belle into a better role model for 21st century audiences by depicting her as an inventor and by giving her pants and boots, and it also adds new lines and humor to songs like ‘Gaston.’ In contrast, The Lion King shies away from presenting itself as a movie in its own right, following the original virtually shot for shot, begging the question of why it needed to be made at all.” This review would have an actual argument because it has:
A main claim/thesis: The Lion King remake was a failure because it made the critical error of too closely following the original.
At least one reason: Remakes seem most worthwhile when they at least partially break from the original, helping justify offering a new version of an old favorite.
Evidence to support that reason: For example, the remake of Beauty and Beast attempts to develop Belle into a better role model for 21st century audiences by depicting her as an inventor and by giving her pants and boots, and it also adds new lines and humor to songs like ‘Gaston.’ In contrast, The Lion King shies away from presenting itself as a movie in its own right, following the original virtually shot for shot . . .
An argument is not something that “proves” something for all time, for all people. When we offer an argument, we understand that other reasonable people might disagree with us. For example, the definition of a “good remake” in the example could certainly be challenged by another intelligent person; they might argue that familiarity with the original and a sense of nostalgia will always guide audiences’ responses to remakes in ways that make some belief about art and creative license a moot point. Notice, though, how this response is also going beyond personal taste by attempting to use logic and reasons that other reasonable people could discuss and consider in order to explore what makes a remake successful.