Class Replacement: Analyzing Arguments

Since I’m ill and maybe contagious, today’s lesson will be here, on the blog. (This is also a weird meta-lesson on affordances, since today’s class would have involved youtube clips which are actually really easy to insert and discuss here.)


So, last Thursday, we covered the basic components of style and the basic ingredients of an argument. I also assigned the first major paper, the Summary-Analysis-Critique, where you choose an Arak Journal essay to write about (instructions on Canvas). To reiterate briefly:

Style is the “personality” or features of communication–you have a style of speaking, for example, and you change it up based on situation and audience. Style is recognizable and usually personal. It’s composed of four basic threads:

  1. Structure: how sentences, paragraphs, and whole essays and discussions are organized. Everybody has a different way of organizing thoughts–are you a short, choppy sentence person, or a long, run-on sentence person, and how do you tell stories?
  2. Diction: basically, word choice. You make decisions on what words (and what kinds of vocabulary–fancy, technical, slang, funny) you want to use.
  3. Persona: the version of yourself, as the speaker/author, that you present. This is a collective product of the other three aspects of style, but it’s very important to identify.
  4. Tone: the emotional register of your communication–is this essay sad, dry, funny, precise? This is a product of structure and diction, in particular.

Arguments work via four approaches, which are usually all used together to make an argument work:

  1. Ethos/Authority: moves which make the author seem credible and knowledgeable. Everything from using sources to not having stupid typos.
  2. Pathos/Emotion: moves which generate human interest or an emotional response. Things like sad stories, relatable examples, and (in the case of bad arguments) emotional blackmail (e.g. those “support our troops/kids/puppies and like the post” viral posts your weird Aunt Sharon puts on Facebook.)
  3. Logos/Reason: moves which connect points together logically and support them with relevant evidence. Self explanatory.
  4. Kairos/Occasion: the secret sauce of the argument burrito–being relevant and timely.

On Thursday, I asked you to select an essay from this year’s or 2018‘s Arak Journal and write a quick summary (350 words or less). A summary is an objective report on what occurred in an argument, usually phrased like “The author argues X. To do so, they begin by doing Y” and so on.

New Stuff: Analysis

Analysis of an argument is essentially this: go through an argument and identify the argument’s approaches, typically on the sentence or paragraph level, and explain how they work together. Here’s a checklist for analysis:

  1. Identify the thesis and its location. Why is it there?
  2. Identify the target audience and the moves the author makes to reach them. Who are they? What do they want? What does the author want (see thesis)?
  3. Identify how the author uses logic and evidence (logos)–what kinds of evidence? Where is it? Are there gaps?
  4. Identify how the author constructs authority (ethos). What’s the tone? How does their diction make them sound smart to their target audience? Who are they citing as evidence?
  5. Identify emotional aspects of the argument (pathos). How do they make the audience care about their point? How do they use relatable or relevant examples(secretly also kairos)? Is it honest or manipulative?
  6. Also, make a note of things like “Is this a moral argument or a rational one?” and “Do they undercut their point in practice at all?”

Here’s an example from Mya Soukaseum’s “The Price of Beauty” Arak Journal essay’s first paragraph (she was my student, so yay):

To do analysis on your chosen essay, you may wish to copy the text of it into a Word or Googledoc and annotate it using comments. Alternately, you can print it out and write on it. This will come in handy for this week’s blog post and homework.

Analysis Activity: Dishonest Arguments

Now that you’ve got the basics of analysis down, watch the youtube clip (from the film Thank You for Smoking) below. The first time, just watch the clip. Then watch it again, taking notes on how it performs its argument (and what the point of that argument is). It’s fairly easy since the main character is narrating at you.


Note that this clip features arguments on two levels: the most obvious one is the argument Nick is making on the talk show about cigarettes. The second is the argument he makes to the audience of this film about why you should follow him as a main character.

The clip begins with Nick building up his ethos/authority as a character you should pay attention to (while also being a toxic male, surprise.) When the talk show starts, note that he raises his hand and interrupts the host’s introduction. This move is called “out-fronting,” or more commonly “getting out in front of” an argument–politicians and celebrities do this during scandals, for example, by admitting their wrongs and talking about them before anyone else does. This lets them set the tone and the context for all following discussions, based on a psychological principle where human beings generally believe facts they hear first, rather than follow-up facts later. This is an ethos and pathos move.

The next move (about 0:40) is the “logical” argument about killing customers–Nick drops a “callous” argument that sounds logical (but which manipulates the scale of the issue–a common sophistry tactic–by pretending any one customer makes a difference in smoking’s profitability) and then panders (more pathos) to the audience. He then accuses his opponent (who he’s interrupted) of emotionally manipulating the audience and profiting off the whole controversy (pathos, but evil pathos).

The next move (about 1:17) is another scale manipulation: he announces a “50 million dollar campaign” to convince kids not to smoke, as if a cigarette company would do a good job of that, and as if 50 million dollars was a lot of money (audience awareness: it is a lot of money to one regular person, but it totally isn’t to a tobacco corp). Then he pulls more classic pathos manipulation with the “America’s children” thing. The end result is he wins over the audience at home (the whole point) even if his professional opponents are totally annoyed.

Now watch this clip, a scene between Nick Naylor and his son, where he teaches him about sophistry (dishonest or disingenuous argument about winning rather then being right) but also makes a key point about audience awareness.

Last Thing: Fallacies and Manipulation

Since apparently it’s important now to teach people how they’re being lied to (this is a joke–it’s always been important), the arguments in these two clips are both good, analyzable arguments and totally unethical, manipulative BS. (Spoilers for the movie: Nick pays for his career like I did for my old one.) There are several “fallacies,” or argument rule violations, in the clips above. Here are some common types of fallacies that you’ll see in real life, which actually invalidate arguments but which are often used to manipulate audiences into believing them:

  1. Ad hominem: attacking your opponent personally instead of attacking the point.
  2. Slippery slope: if we allow X, eventually we’ll allow Y (which has some weird, tangential relationship to X.)
  3. Straw man: where you attack a stupid or simplified version of your opponent’s argument instead of their real argument.
  4. Reducing to Absurdity: taking a point (usually one you disagree with) to an absurd degree. “If we’re going to tax cigarettes, we might as well tax butter, and red meat, and sunlight, since they all cause cancer.”
  5. Reducing to Hitler (a.k.a. Godwin’s Law of Internet Arguments): comparing your opponent to Hitler via some specious comparison. “Hitler was a vegetarian so all vegetarians are fascists.”
  6. False Binary: where a complex decision is rephrased as a yes-or-no situation to eliminate moderate or intermediate positions.
  7. Bandwagoning: appealing to popular sentiment or belief, even though things that are popular are not always right.

Homework! Yay!

Your blog post this week is an analysis outline of your chosen argument. Read and outline the argumentative moves of your chosen Arak essay and post this on the blog. You may outline in any way–bullet points, roman numeral, you can draw a diagram and then post the picture, whatever. You should read the outlines of other people working on the same essay as you–this week’s blog is a note-sharing activity. Unusually, this post is due WEDNESDAY NIGHT.

Your longer-term homework is to write your analysis of the essay’s moves and how they fit together, about 500 words. This will not be collected, but does form a large part of your future major paper, so do this writing this week.

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