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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A Model of Argument, Part 1: Santa Claus, Star Wars T-Shirts, Argument Warrants, and 'Murica

By Steven S. Vrooman

Years ago I taught a course called “The Cultures of Christmas.” The class gave me a gift afterwards, a plaque (pic from my office above!) that said:

The four stages of life:

1. You believe in Santa Claus
2. You don’t believe in Santa Claus
3. You are Santa Claus
4. You look like Santa Claus.

I hung it in my office. My son, Sam, who was nine years old at the time, looked at that plaque when he would come with me to campus. Just last week, when he visited, he stared at it and said, “I looked at that thing all the time and I never got it!” But now that he no longer believes in Santa, statement #3 makes sense.

Sam and I tried to reconstruct how he read the plaque before, but his memory was fuzzy, partly because his thinking was likely fuzzy. We tend to try to ignore things that seem to conflict with our pre-existing beliefs. But it seems that he thought that #3 was about the “Spirit of Christmas,” as the movies always say. As a little child you are selfish and just want the gifts. But as you get older you become filled with the Christmas Spirit, like Scrooge, and you begin to give with generosity. You are a kind of symbolic or metaphorical Santa.

But the accurate reading of the plaque is that because (spoiler alert) Santa doesn’t exist. You become Santa when you become a parent.

So Sam was reading it with whatever set of ideas he could muster, in this case, a value judgment about generosity, but he wasn’t reading it correctly. He wasn’t critically investigating it, or he would have found out much sooner about the reality of Santa.

Now, we can excuse Sam. He was nine. You are all older. Perhaps you’ve learned to look for the facts, the pieces of evidence that are used or implied when you read. That is good. But it is not enough.

If we point out that the author of this chapter has five Star Wars T-shirts, that fact might lead even an average reader to the inevitable conclusion, or claim, that he is a massive nerd:

    evidence: Vrooman has 5 Star Wars shirts. 
    claim: Vrooman is a massive nerd. 
    That claim happens to be true, but why? The answer is in the difference between typical reading habits and critical reading. The assumption that Star Wars shirts are massively nerdy is the warrant that links the fact of the shirts with the claim. There are a couple of reasons why being able to read to find such things is hard:

    1. A warrant is a strange and difficult thing. It can be composed of value judgments, reasoning, hypotheses, theories, presumptions, expectations, articles of faith, prejudices or pieces of “common sense.” I’ll define this better in a bit, but for now it is enough to know that whatever a warrant is, it is much more abstract and less clear than a fact-based statement like “Vrooman has 5 Star Wars shirts.”

    2. We often leave those warrants out of our writing or speaking. They remain unstated, or implicit, judgments. I mean, really, isn’t it just obvious that those shirts are massively nerdy? Well, it is to us. But if we were aliens from another planet (perhaps Wookies or Ewoks, say), we wouldn’t necessarily know what pieces of pop culture are nerdy and which are not. When writing to an audience that we think shares something in common with us, we often just leave stuff like that out.

    Here is an example of students trying to puzzle out how warrants work on the chalkboard, as shared with me by a fellow professor:
    Warrants are so difficult, it has even become an Internet joke. Perhaps you have seen the arguments or memes, like the t-shirt that says: “Because science.” It’s a great trick to hint that there is some kind of super-obvious warrant out there, but which I’m simply not going to bother to explain. Or it’s an inside joke like the meme with the “chicken-fried bacon” picture that says “Because ‘Murica.” Likely you get that this is a joke about the way George W. Bush said “America” applied to a food item so over-the-top bad for you it mocks both the spread of obesity in the country and the ways we often, as Americans, like to assert our freedom to do things that are bad for us, because, well, America.

    To be continued in Part 2, where further nerdy discussion of Star Wars t-shirts takes place.

    This is part of a series of posts excerpted from my chapter, "Reading Argument: Santa, Star Wars and Uncle Sam," published in the 2014-2015 TLU Reader. Since we didn't make it available anywhere outside the TLU bookstore, I thought I'd break it into a few pieces to share. Argument is hard to do. This chapter was designed to help.

    1 comment:

    1. A Model of Argument, Part 1: Santa Claus, Star Wars T-Shirts, Argument Warrants, and 'Murica. By Steven S. Vrooman. Years ago I taught a ...