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Argumentation in the Headlines: Key Terms

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As a new year and a new school term begin, it’s time to look back at the key terms around which Elements of Argument is organized and which can be used to analyze whatever controversial issues appear in today’s headlines: claims, warrants, and support.

The claim part is easy. When we react to something we read or hear in the news, unless we phrase our reaction as a question, we are most likely making a statement in the form of a claim, no matter how ill- or well-conceived it is. “He’s an idiot!” and “It’s about time!” are claims, though the type of claims that, in those exact forms, seldom make it into formal written arguments. They happen to be claims of value.

Not everyone will agree with all of these statements, but in form, they are claims of value:

  • Joe Manchin is a disgrace to his party.
  • Stewart Rhodes is an American hero.
  • The verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial was unfair.
  • Joe Biden is a man of compassion.
  • The advice offered about COVID by the CDC is confusing.

If you move in one direction from claims of value, you have claims of fact. These are different from statements of fact because at least some readers or hearers would have to be convinced of their validity – while a statement of fact is always true, a claim of fact may not be:

  • Unemployment is the lowest it has been in fifty years.
  • The Omicron variant in general causes fewer severe symptoms than earlier variants of COVID-19.
  • The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill will have massive impacts on small towns across America.
  • In the last year, a number of states have passed new legislation restricting voting rights.
  • The 2020 Presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump.

Move in the other direction, and you have claims of policy, the “should” or “should not” statements of argument:

  • The Democrats should end the filibuster to pass the Voting Rights Bill.
  • Mail-in ballots should be allowed in presidential elections.
  • Everyone should be fully vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19.
  • No one should have to be vaccinated against his or her wishes.
  • Current gun laws should be enforced more stringently.

The validity of any claim in argumentation depends on the ability to offer support for it. Students studying argumentation will learn a range of different types of support to use, depending on the subject. They will also learn to analyze the evidence offered in defense of any claim they are being asked to accept. A couple of general observations: Reputable media sources will not present information that they do not have sources for. There are both legal and ethical reasons for not doing so. One of the major reasons for the political split in our country is the willingness of Americans to accept what they hear from any news source or any social media source without demanding support. Too often they are willing to accept statements that they already agree with without demanding evidence of their validity.

The element of argument that is most problematic for students—and others—is what Toulmin called the warrant, which we now call the assumption. Recognizing warrants or assumptions in the arguments that surround us takes practice. As students start thinking of the arguments they see or hear in terms of the elements of argument, it helps if they think of the assumption as the bridge linking claim and support. We are willing to accept a claim based on the support offered because of a broader belief that we hold. Why should the filibuster be done away with in order for the Voting Rights Bill to pass? Because of the broader belief that some pieces of legislation are too important to be held to the sixty-vote requirement rather than a simple majority. Why should mail-in ballots be allowed? Because of the broader belief that voting should be as easy as possible. Why should no one be required to be vaccinated against his or her wishes? Because of a broader belief that individuals have the right to make decisions about what is done to their bodies. What about the other side of the issue, the belief that everyone should be vaccinated? Because of the broader belief that the safety of the many outweighs the wishes of the individual. 

Headlines are a course in argumentation in and of themselves. In teaching argumentation, we have to stay on top of the demanding task of analyzing them in terms of the elements of argument. We are forced to analyze why we hold the opinions that we do and to present the reasoning behind even opinions that we do not agree with.

 

Photo: “Newspapers B&W (4)” by Jon S is licensed under CC BY 2.0

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.