Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A Model of Argument, Part 5: Practicing with Propaganda

Last time we started our analysis of World War 2 propaganda posters. In this, the final post on argument, we will use a few more posters to provide some practice in unpacking arguments. 

Here's the first poster to consider:
This one is tough because there are two arguments here. They both have implicit parts. Even more complicated, they interlock like Legos. The first claim, “When you ride alone you ride with Hitler,” is based on evidence that the poster creators assumed Americans at the time already knew: “Driving alone uses more gas than car-sharing.” There was rationing. The troops needed gas. The warrant is also so obvious to the audience that it didn’t need stating: “Wasting gas helps Hitler.”

The second argument is based on the first. It uses the claim from the first argument, which has just been “proven,” as the evidence for the second argument, whose claim is “[You want to] Join a car-sharing club today [to not ride alone].” The warrant is another that is obvious to the readers at the time: “You don’t want to ride with Hitler.”

The anti-Hitler question is a bit of context you might already know. But if not, you would need to look up Hitler. We could understand the gas rationing, for example, if we were to research World War 2 era car-sharing clubs.

Here’s another one with an implicit warrant on the same subject:
In this case the evidence is completely visual. He is bleeding. Given that he is looking straight at the viewer and the text is awash with guilt, we are supposed to see the evidence as “He is bleeding for you.” The implicit warrant is “You should want to save gas for soldiers who bleed for you.” The claim is “You should want to save gas.”

“Wait a minute!” you exclaim (Again?!? You already exclaimed this in a previous section!). That’s not all that’s there. (See? Look at that! You’re getting it now.) Absolutely. There’s another argument there. The simplest argument is that you should repay him. But that argument merely supports the main argument, which is about this question of REALLY trying. The thesis level argument is the argument that pulls it all together.

The evidence: “You think you’ve tried to get into a car-sharing club.” Warrant: “We often say we’re trying something when we really aren’t.” Implicit claim: “You really aren’t trying to get into a car sharing club.”

I’m going to give you one last example. It would be reasonable to have the following reaction to all of this: “But, Vrooman, I can’t get these right. I muddle them up. What I think is the warrant is never what you think is the warrant. Bleaerghhhhhhh!!!”

That’s okay. I’ve had lots of practice. But the kind of really detailed argument analysis we’ve just done is not always what critical reading is about, so maybe there’s another way you can go about this.

Let’s look at one more example to see:
Almost everything here is implicit except the claim, “[You should] Buy war bonds.” This poster is interesting because it is both really vague and super-specific at the same time. Kind of like writing.

In this case your task would be to figure out, from the images, the evidence that supports this claim. Then you figure out a cloud of values/warrants that are connected to that evidence. If you can link them all together into specific evidence-warrants arguments, great! But it doesn’t mean you are failing if you can’t. Let’s try this another way.

First, we need some context. War bonds were sold by the government to raise money to fund the war. Plus, that guy in the middle is Uncle Sam. If you are not familiar with America’s mascot, look him up, too. Use your phone for school. Look it up. I’ll wait.


(Seriously! Look it up. Now. You should always read with a context-providing tool at the ready. Back in my day, we called those thing books. We used to throw them at the dinosaurs when we were done with them. Now that we’re no longer in the Cretaceous Period, you have more knowledge than fit in my hometown library at your fingertips. Aaaaaaannnnd, you use it for cat videos.)

 Okay, now here we go:

Facts (evidence)
Values (warrants)
There are more soldiers charging than we can even see.
You want the American military to succeed.
Those soldiers have/need rifles.
You want the American military (soldiers and pilots) to have the supplies it needs.
Same thing with the planes.
You love America.
Uncle Sam’s flag kind of looks like Santa’s bag filled with toys (look at the tassels).
You are willing to sacrifice to vanquish the enemy.

Soldiers need supplies to succeed.

The trouble here is with the soldiers need rifles/supplies idea, which shows up in both columns. That’s why all of this can be super hard. Remember, a warrant is simply a more abstract judgment than the fact it is connected with. So really simple kinds of evidence will have warrants that seem so simple they could be evidence for more complex arguments. And that’s what’s happened here. We have one argument that’s simple:

  • Evidence: America has lots of soldiers.
  • Warrant: Soldiers need supplies to succeed.
  • Claim: America needs a lot of supplies to succeed.
We also have another that is more complex:      

  • Evidence: American soldiers need supplies.
  • Warrant:  You should want the soldiers to have what they need.
  • Claim: You should help soldiers get their supplies.
So let’s sum this all up. First, sometimes arguments are explicit and simply stated. Second, sometimes they are complex and leave most of the parts implicit, asking us to figure out, from the context, what those parts really are. Third, there can be a lot of different arguments even in a simple and short sample. Fourth, sometimes those multiple arguments overlap and use different parts for different purposes.

Yeah, I know. That makes you want to give up, right? But think about it from an author’s perspective. You just want the readers to understand and agree with you. But you know that your diverse audience will all respond to different things. So you’re going to try a few ways of looking at something to try to draw in as many people as possible. That is good, but perhaps messy.

Think about all of these posters as one large text. The government is trying to get Americans to sacrifice and contribute financially to the war and post-war effort. Taking the posters in order, they are doing this by inducing you to feel four different things: 1) heroic, 2) paranoid, 3) guilty, and 4) patriotic. Different things work on different people, so it all ends up in the mix.

Still, if you are tempted to give up, think of it this way: if all of this haze of ideas and argument parts is out there, working on you, grabbing pieces of shared context to get you to believe things without even being upfront about what they are selling you, wouldn’t you rather have some kind of tool to help you figure that out, even if it is frustrating and difficult?

I would say yes. I would say that’s why you're reading the blog.

Well, there you are. You are no longer a typical reader. You can now identify explicit elements of context and deduce implicit elements of context. You can link these contextual elements to the implicit and explicit evidence and warrants that support the claims made by a text. And you can figure out what all those arguments add up to, the thesis.


The thing is, this is hard stuff. It will take a lot of practice to be able to do it reliably. I feel like I still have a lot of learn about it. But to me, giving up on it and just accepting everything I read as truth without questioning it, or being vaguely skeptical but not sure what to do about it, are not options I can live with.

I could try to leave you with a few reasons why you should want to persist in this, even though it can be dauntingly hard. But it's the end of the semester here at TLU, and I'm fresh out of motivation.

Instead, I’ll give you the kind of thing that always worked on me, a problem without a solution. Here’s one last poster.

Please identify the evidence, warrant and claim for me. There is a comment section below. Use it! :)

UPDATE: I just developed a follow-up to this sequence of posts. If you want to see how arguments chain and scaffold together, it is the post for you. Really. There is a super cool diagram if you just click here!

This is the final 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. The whole series starts here.

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