Teaching the Tensions

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This blog was originally posted on January 30th, 2015.

The last few weeks have seen two threats to freedom of speech that have generated international attention. The first was North Korea’s threats against Sony if the movie The Interview was released because the comedy was about the assassination of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. Although the threats were enough to delay the release, within days the movie opened peacefully nationwide and was soon available on demand. It may have been only a movie—and a mediocre one at best—but it was a matter of principle. Threats to freedom of speech became much more serious with the massacre of twelve journalists at the French weekly Charlie Hebdofollowing the publication of cartoons mocking the prophet Mohammed. They may have been only cartoons, but twelve people died for the right to publish them, and hundreds of thousands marched in support of that right.

How can these episodes become teaching points rather than simply the triggers for either heated renunciation of those parties seen to be in the wrong or unexamined championing of those seen to be in the right? That’s where the terminology of argumentation can be used to force students to examine and talk about arguments instead of simply arguing.

In the Sony movie controversy, North Korea’s claim was simply that the movie should not be released. (The North Koreans had earlier argued that the movie should not be made.) The other side of that argument was that it should. North Korea backed up its argument not with rhetoric, but with threats. Once those threats were made, even to the point of hints of 9/11-style retaliation, Americans were divided about whether or not the movie should open in spite of the possible danger. Most argued that it should. In class discussion or in a writing assignment, ask students to consider the following: What type of support was offered in support of the claim that The Interview should open? In support of the claim that it should not? What needs and values were being appealed to in each case? What warrants were behind each?

We hope that no right-minded individuals would argue that people should be killed for publishing cartoons, although clearly an extreme minority hold that view. Ask students, What is the argument to analyze in the Charlie Hebdo tragedy? Consider how the elements of argument apply in that case.

[Photo by H.Kopp, Flikr]

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.