Saturday, November 05, 2005

Substituting Rhetoric for Argument

One issue that students commonly have trouble grasping when they are asked to write an argumentative research paper is the difference between what they commonly refer to as their “opinion” and what makes a good argument. Too often they want to substitute rhetoric for research, possibly under the assumption they glean from today’s news pundits that the louder you shout and the harder you hammer home your opinion, the better your argument is.

As I was casting about today for a way to put down on “paper” the disquieting thoughts I was having about this issue, I tried plugging “rhetoric” and “patriotism”” into google, and imagine my delight when a lovely article about George Orwell surfaced. Long a fan of his underground cult classic, “Down and Out in Paris and London,” I was also pleased to see an article in this week’s New Yorker that mentioned his Spanish Civil War experiences, which led him to write beautifully and eloquently about the subject of patriotism not from the jingoistic approach of today’s Fox News but rather from a linguistic as well as a realistic approach as he saw it first hand both as a literary scholar and as a front line soldier and reporter (much like today’s so-called embedded reporters, only with a rifle too).

Ever since I was a soldier during the Vietnam War years, I’ve been amazed at the way the word “patriotism” has been usurped and distorted for political ends. Although I was a “cold warrior”, helping stare down the Russians across the tactical nuclear battlefield of the divided Germanies, I was also a college graduate, with a minor in English literature from Duke University under my belt, so I knew a few things about language and how words weave a tale and take on meaning larger or other than their original intentions. Having lived through the tumultuous campus days of both the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-War Movement, I understood firsthand the inherent conflict at the time between long hair and a so-called “patriotic” attitude that shouted, “America, love it or leave it.”

This “patriotic” admonition begs its own question: do we really mean this? Should the Founding Fathers have left America because they weren’t satisfied with the way the lawful government at the time was being run, instead of holding to their initially unpopular beliefs and remaining here to write the Declaration of Independence?

This is the danger, of course, of not understanding the power of rhetoric – we may get what we ask for.


At 10:53 AM, Blogger Abbie said...

About your comment to my blog about the white teeth thing, did you know that in some countries they think that black teeth are beautiful! I can see that white teeth are not necessary, however I believe that it stems from a desire to keep our mouths clean. Come to think of it, that is kind of where eating disorders come from too. Our society wanted to be healthy and took it too far. huh interesting!


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