Yesterday a fellow by the name of Travis (firstname.lastname@example.org) sent a nasty note to my colleagues, Dean, Chair, and U.T. regents calling on them to fire me. My colleague Josh Gunn responded most eloquently, suggesting to Mr. Travis that he needs some education in how to make a decent argument:
Dear Mr. Travis,
Thank you for taking the time to express your views. Clearly you are
upset about the educational enterprise today; you find Dr. Cloud
particularly emblematic of an “extreme left-wing bias” among the
professoriate, and worry academics like Cloud are “brainwashing”
young people. You seem to suggest that educators have the power to:
(a) convince young people the United States is a bad place to live;
(b) force young people to accept feminist philosophies; (c) and
encourage young people to accept or become gay or lesbian, which
Unfortunately, your claims are not convincing. It would certainly be
interesting if professors had the power to mold students, however,
students are independent, freethinking human beings with brains and,
in my experience, the intelligence to distinguish between learning
and brainwashing. I’m always disappointed to learn that
non-academics think so poorly of our students. As a teacher, I can
assure you, Mr. Travis, our students are a bright bunch.
Nevertheless, one of the subjects that many of us in the Department
of Communication Studies teach is argumentation. Let me illustrate
what you might learn if you took classes from myself or Dr. Cloud.
First, we need some basics: most arguments are characterized with
three elements. There is the claim, which is either a statement of
fact, of value, or of policy. Claims are supported by data, usually
in the form of evidence, of which there are many types (for example,
one can appeal to a scientific study, or an eyewitness, and so on).
Finally, and this is probably the most important part, there is the
logic connecting up the “data” to the claim, the reasoning. We tend
to refer to this area as “the warrant.” Whenever there is an
logically improper connecting of the claim to the data, we usually
call this a fallacy. Now, in general, everyday arguments–especially
persuasive ones–are fallacious. We’re only human, which means
logical short-cuts are our habit. In fact, there is some brain
research to suggest fallacious thinking helps us get along in the
world better. Nevertheless, in Communication Studies what we train
students to do is spot the fallacies in their own arguments, and
those of others with whom they converse, because it helps clear up
misunderstanding, eases the communication process, and encourages
students to be civically engaged. Heck, it also helps us get things
accomplished: arguments change minds, policies, and the course of
Ok, so you advance three claims:
>1. America is the bastion of freedom and liberty and justice, with
>its western institutions
>and capitalist practices that have elevated billions worldwide. To
>the extent this claim is
>inaccurate, Dana Cloud and her “life partner” are invited to cite
>the countries, particularly
>Marxist countries, which they find superior, and then move there immediately.
>May I suggest North Korea.
First, you need to define your terms. What is “freedom,” “liberty,”
and “justice.” By freedom do you mean that you are free to bash pets
with baseball bats? Probably not. Some sense of the kind of freedom
you are referencing would be helpful. What about liberty? Do you
mean positive or negative liberty? And justice? What qualifies as
justice? Lex Talonis? Distributive? Reparative? Alastair
MacIntyre, a political and social philosopher, has famously written
that justice always serves those in power. Is that the kind of
justice you refer to, “might makes right,” or something else?
Nevertheless, bracketing for the moment these glittering yet “empty”
terms, your claim is, basically, that the United States is “good.”
Fine. This is a claim of value. Now, what evidence do you have to
suggest that Cloud does not also similarly belive the United States
is “good.” She certainly values its many laws, like that of the
freedom of speech. And do we mean the United States as a people, a
public, or a government? As a sovereign nation, or as a community?
Furthermore, what evidence do you have to support the claim that the
United States is good? I see none. You follow this claim with the
suggestion Dr. Cloud and her partner might move to North Korea, a
claim of policy. Why would she want to do that? North Korea is not
necessarily a socialist state (in fact, many Marxists would agree it
is a dictatorship).
So we have a claim, but no evidence, and thus no real logic to
examine other than what is obviously hasty induction. By definition,
what you offer with your first claim is not an argument.
You then state:
> 2. When “feminists” like Dana Cloud aren’t whining about how
>mistreated and underpriveleged
>women are in America, they’re insisting that women are, in Al Gore’s
>famous words, “just as equal
>as men, if not more so.” How, one might argue, can women be so
>victimized while being so utterly equal? Well, the “feminists” like
>Dana Cloud will certainly have excuses for that ploy.
Again, your terms go undefined. What do you mean by “feminists,” and
why the scare quotations? Do you mean first, second, or third wave
feminism? How do you know what kind of feminism Dr. Cloud espouses?
Is she as pro- or anti- pleasure feminist? Perhaps she is a
postfeminist feminist? What evidence do you have to support Cloud is
a feminist at all? (You and I know very well she claims feminist
principles, but which ones?) You seem to suggest that feminism
concerns speaking out against the mistreatment of women. I think
most feminists, including myself, would agree with that. But I’m a
little fuzzy on what you understand feminism to be.
Now, bracketing the fact we are uncertain about your terms, you offer
a claim here: feminism contradicts itself. On the one hand, you
assert, feminism concerns speaking out against women. On the other
hand, however, feminism demands equality for women. First, there is
no one feminism, but many feminisms; saying that feminism contradicts
itself is akin to saying Christianity contradicts itself: which one?
Protestant? Catholic? There is no monolithic feminism, just as much
as there is no one kind of conservative or liberal.
Further, you offer no evidence to support the claim that feminism
contradicts itself, other than a general statement about feminism
that I think is true of most feminisms (speaking out against
mistreatment) and a statement from Al Gore. I’m unsure why Gore
would be a spokesperson for any feminism (ecofeminism, perhaps?).
The bottom line here is that you have no credible evidence to back up
your claim, and so there is not an argument.
Now, if we look at the warrant or logic connecting up your claim with
the “evidence,” you appeal to a principle: ending the mistreatment of
women contradicts demands for equality. This simply doesn’t make
sense, and there is no fallacy to label such a logic. You are trying
to create what we call a “false dichotomy,” but there is not an
apparent dichotomy. This is not an argument.
Third, you say:
>3. Homosexuals are far more violent than heterosexuals. What would
>account for their brutality
>against one another and their increased incidence of murdering one
>another? To name but a few
>homosexual mass murderers, there were Randy Kraft, Juan Corona, John
>Donald Harvey, and Jeffrey Dahmer.
Lets take this series of claims step-by-step. Your major claim (a)
is that “homosexuals are more violent than heterosexuals.” Your
evidence, and you offer some this time, is a subclaim (b), supported
by evidence. That subclaim is that, “there is an increase of murder
among the homosexual community.” You offer evidence in support of
this subclaim: five mass murderers were homosexual.
First, let’s take the subclaim and its evidence. (b) asserts an
increase in murder rates. Now, we must ask “from when to when?”
Presumably the end of the measure is “now.” So you mean an increase
from what point? From last year? From 1988? The period of measure
is unclear. Second, a claim such as this requires evidence from a
longitudinal study (e.g., morbidity reports from the CDC) to support
an increase in homicide among what is called (unfortunately) a
“suspect population.” In short, you have no data to suggest an
increase of homicides among gay men or lesbians.
Although it appears to be offered in support of (b), the evidence you
offer in support of this claim is actually, then, in support of your
first claim: “homosexuals are far more violent because five mass
murderers were homosexuals.” This commits the “questionable cause”
fallacy. The reasoning or warrant, in other words, is bad: The
reasoning is that X (gayness) and Y (violence) are regularly
associated, and therefore X is the cause of Y. For you to even get
to this level of fallacious reasoning, you first have to prove that 5
individuals are enough to represent a class of people, a “false” or
“perverted sample” to be sure. Every cheerleader I have met in my
life is blonde, therefore all cheerleaders are blonde? Your
reasoning here is so convoluted a chalkboard would be helpful to
diagram it. Suffice it to say you commit a hasty generalization
based on unwarranted inferences, and then use this hasty
generalization to support the fallacy of questionable cause.
You continue making a number of unsupported claims. You then state:
>Dana Cloud is indecent. She is an embarrassment not just to UT, but
>to higher education in
>America. The tragedy is how many like her, and Ward Churchill, there are.
>Each of you reading this shares the blame for that.
Each of the people addressed in your message, you argue, are
responsible for “that.” “That,” here, is an unclear referent–not a
problem of argument, but a problem of basic grammar. Are we
responsible for “the tragedy?” (The character of this “tragedy” is
unclear.) Are we responsible for Dr. Cloud’s “indecency?” (You imply
indecency is evil, which I would not agree to.) Are we responsible
for “embarrassment?” If you wish for us to “share the blame,” we
need to know what the blame is for and what we need to take
Insofar as your email makes no solid arguments, only a series of
claims, and insofar as it is woefully unclear, and finally, insofar
as your final statement is one of shaming, it does not appear that
you mean to send my colleagues and me a message, nor does it seem you
have a desire for an exchange. The fallacy of the final claim is
what one calls, simply, “guilt by association.” I am not responsible
for hiring Dr. Cloud, nor am I responsible for any thing she says or
chooses to do. Nevertheless, I am proud to be associated with Dr.
Cloud and support her freedom of speech.
I stand in solidarity with Dr. Cloud as a colleague, as an
intellectual, as a friend, and most importantly, as a teacher of
argumentation and someone who helps young people find and use their
voices, “liberal” and “conservative” alike. For your cause, I think
you could learn a lot from her example. Indeed, you could learn a
lot from professors in our department. Writing an argument is an art,
and apparently one that you have not taken the time to learn.