Part Two: Clarifying Arguments
His reasons are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff; you shall seek all day ’ere you find them.
—William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
“When you come tomorrow, bring my football boots. Also, if humanly possible, Irish water spaniel. Urgent. Regards. Tuppy.”
“What do you make of that, Jeeves?”
“As I interpret the document, sir, Mr. Glossop wishes you, when you come tomorrow, to bring his football boots. Also, if humanly possible, an Irish water spaniel. He hints that the matter is urgent, and sends his regards.”
“Yes, that’s how I read it, too. . . .”
—P. G. Wodehouse, “The Ordeal of Young Tuppy”
- Paraphrasing Only with Statements
- Eliminating Unnecessary Words
- Neutralizing Slanted Language
Streamlined objects, like airplanes or torpedoes, have had nonessential features removed so that those features will not impede movement. The of arguments has the same purpose. Nonessential features of the argument are removed so that they will not get in the way of evaluation. Streamlining is one important aspect of paraphrasing. Not every passage needs to be streamlined before it can be evaluated—take, for example, the letter from Mr. Glossop in the lead quotation. But many are closer to Shakespeare’s two grains of wheat in two bushels of chaff—they are far easier to evaluate if you first discard the chaff.
4.1 Paraphrasing Only with Statements
In everyday language—as noted in Chapter 2—arguments often include expressions that are not in statement form, but that nevertheless function as statements. It is necessary to reword these sentences so that in your clarification they are in statement form.
Practical reasoning provides an important opportunity for this sort of paraphrasing. Practical reasoning is concerned with reasons for doing things. I might, for example, deliberate over reasons that bear on whether to move to a new town, or I might give you reasons for changing your major. But conclusions like Move to a new town and Change your major could not be true or false (though they could be wise or foolish, followed or ignored). They are in imperative, not declarative, form. Notice, however, that reasons offered for doing something are also reasons offered for believing something—believing, namely, that it should be done. Imperative sentences, then, should be paraphrased to statements such as I should move to a new town or You should change your major. Either of these statements can be true or false.
Consider this cheerful argument:
Be glad of life because it gives you the chance to love and to work and to play and to look up at the stars.
The explicit premise, based on the inference indicator term because, is this:
- Life gives you the chance to love and to work and to play and to look up at the stars.
And the conclusion, apparently, is Be glad of life. But—so that we’re working with sentences that can be true or false—it should be paraphrased as the statement:
- ∴You should be glad of life.
Rhetorical questions—questions that do not call for an answer, but rather assert something—also should be paraphrased as statements, since, phrased as they are in interrogative form, they cannot be true or false. Consider this little passage from Raymond Smullyan’s This Book Needs No Title:
But that doesn’t seem to bother him! As he says, “Why should I worry about dying? It’s not going to happen in my lifetime!”
The explicit premise is this:
- Dying is not going to happen in my lifetime.
But the conclusion Why should I worry about dying? must be paraphrased, since, as a question, it cannot be true or false. A much clearer version of the conclusion is this:
- ∴I should not worry about dying.
Fragments—partial sentences—can also function as statements, and when they do should be paraphrased accordingly. For example, look at this tongue-in-cheek passage from Ambrose Bierce:
In his great work on Divergent Lines of Racial Evolution, the learned Professor Brayfugle argues from the prevalence of this gesture—the shrug—among Frenchmen, that they are descended from turtles and it is simply a survival of the habit of retracting the head inside the shell.
The explicit premise of this argument doesn’t even appear as a complete sentence. It is easy to find it—the inference indicator argues from makes it clear that a premise is coming next. But all that comes next is the series of prepositional phrases from the prevalence of this gesture—the shrug—among Frenchmen. So, the fragment must be converted into a statement, namely:
- The shrug is prevalent among Frenchmen.
The conclusion, of course, is this:
- ∴Frenchmen are descended from turtles.
It goes beyond the scope of this book to judge whether this is true or false.
Remember that the ultimate aim of reasoning is to know the truth. Premises and conclusions will not be true if they cannot be true; and they cannot be true if they are not statements.
- Imperatives that conclude practical reasoning.
- Rhetorical questions.
In each of the following passages, paraphrase the highlighted portion in statement form.
Sample exercise. “I was dismayed, in fact, when talking recently to a group of aspiring young writers to discover that none of them had read Mr. DeVries and that they had indeed hardly even heard of him. Which is their loss, of course, for his works make up a shelf of some of the funniest books written in America during the last 30 years.”—Thomas Meehan, New York Times Book Review
Sample answer. Aspiring young writers who have not read Peter DeVries have been deprived of something valuable.
- “Beware, for I am fearless and therefore powerful.”—Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
- On the TV screen: a white-haired woman sits in an overstuffed chair and says, “All this talk of cutting Social Security is really making me nervous. How can I be so sure Barney will do the right thing by us older people? She smiles. “Because he’s my son.”—ad for Barney Frank for Representative
- “Go in through the narrow gate, because the gate to hell is wide and the road that leads to it is easy, and there are many who travel it. But the gate to life is narrow and the way that leads to it is hard, and there are few people who find it.”—Matthew 7:13-14
- “Barry Setterfield was alone one night when the Lord invisibly entered his room and spoke to him. They argued about creation for four hours. When Setterfield awoke next morning, he was a creationist, but he whispered one lingering doubt: If the earth is young, as the Bible says, how can we see distant galaxies? Instantly the Lord replied aloud, ‘What makes you think the speed of light is constant?’”—Skeptical Inquirer
- “In Newport, realtors play nearly religious roles. They deliver their clients to terrestrial glory. ‘What is wrong with hedonism?’ the broker asked. ‘What is wrong with clear-skinned people raising their children and living athletically? What responsibility do these people have to those who live elsewhere?’”—Steve Oney, California (not an argument)
- “But isn’t $2,700 for a wall-sized TV too steep for most people’s budgets? Goldberg is ready for that one, too. ‘If you sell somebody a mountain cabin, a boat, or a piano, how much enjoyment are they really going to get out of it, compared to something like this that they will use every day?’”
4.2 Eliminating Unnecessary Words
4.2.1 Eliminating Discounts
Often an arguer acknowledges possible objections to the argument and explicitly sets aside those objections. That is to say, arguers discount possible objections to the argument. Discounts are best understood in contrast to premises. As we have seen, premises are statements the arguer offers as supporting the conclusion. are statements the arguer offers as not undermining the conclusion, but discounts are typically neither premises nor conclusions and should usually not be included in your clarification.
Suppose I really want you to read a certain book. I might say to you, “Look, I know that you don’t have much time for fiction nowadays and I admit that the reviews have mostly been negative. But you should read it anyway. It will give you more insight into yourself than anything else you’ve ever read.” My conclusion is You should read the book. By pointing out the poor reviews and your lack of time, I surely am not giving reasons for reading it; these would normally be reasons for not reading it.
I achieve, however, at least two important things. First, I make it less likely that you misunderstand my meaning. Otherwise you might think, “Perhaps he means some other book, since he must know that book got terrible reviews.” So discounts help in the interpretation of the argument. Second, I make it less likely that you underestimate how thoroughly I have considered my argument and how serious I am about it. Had I not mentioned the two possible objections, you might have supposed I did not know about them and that I might well give up my argument upon learning about them. As a result of my mentioning them, you are probably less likely to raise those objections yourself. Discounts help to frame the dialogue—they are conversationally useful.
But they do not normally have any bearing on the logic of the argument. Being reminded that you have little time to read and that the reviews have been bad does not provide you with a reason to read the book I recommend. So you should look to discounts to help you understand the arguer’s intent, but you should normally not include them in your clarification.
Rewrite each of the following short arguments, adding one discount but otherwise leaving it the same.
Sample exercise. You need the money and the hours are good, so you should go ahead and take the job waiting tables.
Sample answer. Even though you never were very good with people, you need the money and the hours are good, so you should go ahead and take the job waiting tables.
- I think you should just sell your car and use a ride-hailing service, since you hardly ever drive anyway.
- My high school biology teacher was better than my college biology teacher, since he really cared about us students.
- Because of all the cultural diversity, Louisiana is a great state to live in.
- The tax system should be reformed—it’s so complicated that nobody can understand it.
- Cats are not nearly as emotionally needy as dogs, so they make better pets.
4.2.2 Discount Indicators
The best clues to the presence of discounts are (sometimes also called adversatives, since they indicate a nonsupportive, or adversarial, relationship). In the previous argument I urged, “but you should read it anyway.” But is perhaps the most common discount indicator. It typically points backward to discount the previous clause. Other backward-pointing discount indicators are illustrated in the brief passages (not arguments) below:
I woke up with a fever. I decided, however, that I should go to work.
It rained all day. Nevertheless, we had a wonderful time.
Other discount indicators typically point forward to discount the clause that immediately follows. These include:
In spite of the great care I took, I managed to put my foot in my mouth.
Although I’m unhappy with her views on healthcare, I voted for the incumbent anyway.
Regardless of how hard you have worked, we have to fire you.
Note that in clarifying an argument, you are to eliminate not only the indicator term but also the entire discounted clause. Consider the following passage adapted from Charles Peirce:
Though those who claim to know everything there is to know about science seem to me comical, I highly respect them, for they make up the majority of those who have anything interesting to say.
The first clause—that those who think they know everything about science are comical—is discounted by the forward-pointing though. The argument comes next:
- Those who claim to know everything about science make up the majority of those who have anything interesting to say.
- ∴Those who claim to know everything about science are worthy
The discounted clause is not a part of the argument, so it is eliminated from the clarification.
These terms are not perfectly reliable indicators of the presence of discounts; sometimes they merely introduce a negatively stated premise—for example, We are either mortal or immortal; however, we are not going to live forever, so we are mortal. This may be clarified as follows:
- We are either mortal or immortal.
- We are not immortal.
- ∴We are mortal.
Although it is introduced by the term however, the statement We are not immortal is essential to the support of the conclusion. It is not merely a “statement that does not undermine the conclusion,” as it would be were it a mere discount. Before eliminating the presumed discount, be sure the argument can function without it.
|But||In spite of|
Identify the discount and the discount indicator in each of the following passages (many of which are not arguments).
Sample exercise. The following is an excerpt from a letter from Mozart to his father shortly after Mozart left Paris:
Le Gros purchased from me the two overtures and the sinfonia concertante. He thinks that he alone has them, but he is wrong, for they are still fresh in my mind, and as soon as I get home, I shall write them down again.—Musical Heritage Review
Sample answer. Discount: He thinks that he alone has them. Indicator: but. (Note that the discount is important here for making clear the conclusion He is wrong to think that he alone has them.)
- “It’s illegal,” said a 17-year-old computer student. . . . “But it’s fun.” The teenager was talking about stealing computer programs.—television interview
- “Gandhi won the Oscar, but I doubt that many men will hold Mahatma Gandhi up to their sons as a role model, even though his non-violent methods liberated an entire nation without bloodshed.”—Los Angeles Times (Note: there are two discounts in this passage.)
- “Ours may be an age of reason—or at least high-tech reducibility—but belief in the irrational, the occult, and the supernatural seems almost as persistent and pervasive today as it was in the Middle Ages.”—James Cornell, Psychology Today
- “American music may now be good enough to be judged by the highest standards, but the standards themselves, it can be argued, are still set in Europe.”—Christopher Lasch, Harper’s
- “Although the United States remains the largest single market for telecommunications equipment, with approximately $15 billion in sales last year, the non-U.S. market is now almost twice as large. Moreover, the non-U.S. market is growing more rapidly.”—Huey Lewis, The Real World War
- “Dreams are not to be likened to the unregulated sounds that rise from a musical instrument struck by the blow of some external force instead of by a player’s hand; they are not meaningless, they are not absurd; they do not imply that one portion of our store of ideas is asleep while another is beginning to wake. On the contrary, they are psychical phenomena of complete validity—fulfillments of wishes.”—Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams
- “Roger Sessions and Elliot Carter are composers of undoubted stature. Charles Ives is a most intriguing ‘original.’ Up to this point in its history, however, American music has been of an essentially provincial character. In support of this, let me point out that the great symphony of the ‘new world’ is by Dvorak.”—George Steiner, “The Archives of Eden,” Salamagundi (Dvorak was not an American; he was a great Czech composer whose New World Symphony was written while in America and in honor of America. Sessions, Carter, and Ives are prominent American composers.)
- “Those very scenes of stark sexual despair are the tip-off to what’s wrong with the movie. They are so strong that they deserve to be in a movie that is sincere, honest and true. But Blue Velvet surrounds them with a story that’s marred by sophomoric satire and cheap shots. The director is either denying the strength of his material or trying to defuse it by pretending that it’s all part of a campy in-joke.”—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
4.2.3 Eliminating Attitude Indicators, Report Indicators, and Inference Indicators
Another item to eliminate in the streamlining process is the , which indicates the arguer’s attitude of either belief or disbelief toward a statement. Philip Howard writes in Verbatim,
I believe that the criticism of the Oxford English Dictionary for neglecting spoken English is largely mistaken. It seems to me that a new word or new use is written down somewhere almost as soon as it is coined.
Without any paraphrasing, the conclusion of Howard’s argument would have to be expressed in this way:
I believe that the criticism of the Oxford English Dictionary for neglecting spoken English is largely mistaken.
But surely Howard’s argument is not about himself (which it would be if I were the subject of this conclusion); it is an argument about a certain criticism of the Oxford English Dictionary. The conclusion of the argument, then, should really be paraphrased thus:
The criticism of the Oxford English Dictionary for neglecting spoken English is largely mistaken.
I believe that merely expresses Howard’s attitude toward the conclusion—an attitude of belief. It seems to me that works exactly the same way with his premise. The clarified version runs as follows:
- A new word or new use is written down somewhere almost as soon as it is coined.
- ∴The criticism of the Oxford English Dictionary for neglecting spoken English is largely mistaken.
There are many other such attitude indicators, including the following:
I think that
Everybody knows that
It is clear that
The rule for paraphrasing these terms is simple: drop them in favor of simply stating what is believed, what is thought, what everybody (presumably) knows, or what is (presumably) clear.
Other terms express an attitude of disbelief. Famed biologist Ernst Mayr describes in Animal Species and Evolution how he lived with a tribe of Papuans in the mountains of New Guinea.
“These superb woodsmen had 136 names for the 137 species of birds I distinguished (confusing only two nondescript species of warblers). That Stone Age man recognizes the same entities of nature as Western university-trained scientists refutes rather decisively the claim that species are a product of the human imagination.”
Refutes rather decisively the claim that is the attitude indicator, indicating an attitude of disbelief. Others include:
I deny that
I doubt that
It is wrong to suppose that
Drop these terms in favor of the negation of the statement that is disbelieved, refuted, denied, doubted, or wrongly supposed—that is, in favor of the disbelieved statement with it is not the case that or it is false that in front of it. The statement that Ernst Mayr disbelieves—the one that he says is decisively refuted—is:
Species are a product of the human imagination.
The negation of this statement—and the conclusion of his argument—is:
It is not the case that species are a product of the human imagination.
You could have expressed the same thing more smoothly by the statement,
Species are not a product of the human imagination.
This sort of negation is usually acceptable in your paraphrase, so long as you do it with care. But there are traps to avoid. Suppose, for example, you want to write the negation of Every student will pass the course. Here you have to be wary. Not every student will pass the course is acceptable, but Every student will not pass the course can mean something altogether different—namely, that every student will fail. If you are in any doubt, it is always safe to mechanically write It is not the case that. . . .
Note that attitude indicators, whether they indicate belief or disbelief, can reflect varying degrees of confidence in one’s attitude. Some terms—call them hedges—suggest tentativeness on the arguer’s part; these include:
It seems that
I have my doubts whether
I suspect that
Other terms—call them assurances—suggest confidence on the arguer’s part; these include:
Everybody knows that
I categorically deny that
Phrases like I believe that can be either assurances or hedges, depending on whether we stress the I or the believe.
Often an argument is expressed as a report of someone else’s attitude, an attitude that the reporter may or may not agree with. In Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, for example, Martin Gardner writes:
In essence, Gall and his disciples argued that human personality consisted of a number of independent, inborn mental “faculties,” each of which was localized in a part of the brain. The larger the size of each region, the stronger the faculty. Consequently, an examination of skull bumps would reveal a person’s character.
There is an argument in this passage; but the writer is reporting it, not arguing it. The phrase Gall and his disciples argued that is the , the term that shows the argument is being reported by, but is not necessarily embraced by, the speaker or writer. It too should be eliminated from the clarification. Here is a brief clarification of the explicit portion of the argument:
- Human personality consists of a number of independent,
inborn mental “faculties,” each of which is localized in a
part of the brain.
- The larger the size of each region, the stronger the faculty.
- ∴An examination of skull bumps reveals a person’s character.
Finally, inference indicators should be eliminated from your final clarification. Terms such as because and thus are very useful in distinguishing between premises and conclusions, but they are no longer useful once the argument is in standard clarifying format. The format itself clearly indicates which statements are premises and which are conclusions.
Eliminate the attitude, report, and inference indicators from the passages below. If there is an argument, clarify it.
Sample exercise. Descartes argued that because God is not a deceiver, our clear and distinct perceptions of the world around us must be true.
- God is not a deceiver.
- ∴Our clear and distinct perceptions of the world around us must be true.
- “Is this evidence that the stress level in the ground in Southern California is building back to the point where there will be another great earthquake?” Lindh asked in an interview. “The answer is probably yes.”—Los Angeles Times (No argument to be clarified.)
- “Babies with a common and often devastating birth defect, spina bifida, are much less likely to be paralyzed if they are delivered by Caesarean, a study has found.”—New York Times (No argument to be clarified.)
- “Kuznetsov became a creationist because in his mind there was no other recourse after he lost his faith in evolution. . . . But, he said, he is not against teaching the theory of evolution ‘because it exists—but I don’t believe evolution exists.’”—Associated Press (There are two separate arguments—one in each sentence. There is also a discount to be eliminated.)
- “I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six. Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph.”—Shirley Temple (Though there is no inference indicator, there is an argument.)
4.2.4 Eliminating Repetition
Repeating part of an argument in the same or different words is often rhetorically effective. But it has no use in your clarification of the argument. When there is such repetition, pick the best alternative—or make one up—and say it once. Pick the alternative that is clearest, most loyal, and most charitable.
In The Natural History of Nonsense, for example, Bergen Evans writes,
The civilized man has a moral obligation to be skeptical, to demand the credentials of all statements that claim to be facts, for a refusal to come to an unjustified conclusion is an element in an honest man’s religion.
His argument can be simply clarified:
- A refusal to come to an unjustified conclusion is an element in an honest man’s religion.
- ∴The civilized man has a moral obligation to be skeptical.
This paraphrase eliminates from the conclusion the clause to demand the credentials of all statements that claim to be facts, since it seems to amount to another way of saying to be skeptical. The two clauses do not mean exactly the same thing, but nothing important seems to turn on the difference. You must rely on the context in deciding whether the statement or phrase is being repeated in different words for rhetorical effect or whether the arguer really has a different point to make. In most cases, it is easy to tell.
There is an exception to the eliminate repetition guideline. If an argument repeats—perhaps in disguised form—a premise as the conclusion, then you must repeat it in your clarification. As already mentioned in Chapter 1, these arguments usually commit the fallacy of begging the question.
Paraphrase to eliminate the repetition and, where there is an argument, clarify it.
Sample exercise. “With digital images there is no difference between an ‘original’ and a copy. Since ‘discrete states can be replicated precisely,’ a digital image that is ‘a thousand generations away from the original is indistinguishable in quality from any of its progenitors. A digital copy is not a debased descendent but is absolutely indistinguishable from the original.’”—Art in America
- Discrete states can be replicated precisely.
- ∴With digital images there is no difference between an “original” and a copy. (Note that the conclusion is stated in the passage in three different ways.)
- Salesman: There’s never been anything like this widget. It’s one of a kind. First thing of its kind on the planet. So you shouldn’t pass it up!
- They have the highest payroll and the best players. No doubt about it, the Yankees will win the pennant. They’ll take home all the marbles this year.
- “My teacher told me: ‘Always question authority,’” said Paul Grugin, 22, one of two dozen young people interviewed by the New York Times in Columbus, Ohio. “You can question authority,” he added, but in doing so, “you can burden authority.” So, he said, let the authorities make their decisions: “Let them authoritate.”—New York Times (There is also a discount.)
- “Proponents of molecular computers argue that it is possible to make one because biological systems perform those processes all the time. Proponents of artificial intelligence have argued for years that the existence of the brain is proof that it is possible to make a small machine that thinks like a brain. It is a powerful argument. Biological systems already exist that compute information in a better way than digital computers do.”—Los Angeles Times (There are also various indicators to be eliminated.)
- “Surely also there is something strange in representing the man of perfect blessedness as a solitary or a recluse. Nobody would deliberately choose to have all the good things in the world, if there was a condition that he was to have them all by himself. Man is a social animal, and the need for company is in his blood. Therefore the happy man must have company, for he has everything that is naturally good, and it will not be denied that it is better to associate with friends than with strangers, with men of virtue than with the ordinary run of persons. We conclude then that the happy man needs friends.”—Aristotle, Ethics
- “So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former, it is not, and the latter are no more.”—Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus”
- “Amidst all this bustle ’tis not reason, which carries the prize, but eloquence; and no man needs ever despair of gaining proselytes to the most extravagant hypothesis, who has art enough to represent it in any favourable colours. The victory is not gained by the men at arms, who manage the pike and the sword; but by the trumpeters, drummers, and musicians of the army.”—David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature (Not an argument, so no need to also clarify it. In your paraphrase of the passage, also eliminate the discount.)
4.2.5 Eliminating Wordiness
In the early 1800s a leading logic text sagely warned, “A very long discussion is one of the most effective veils of Fallacy; . . . a Fallacy which when stated barely . . . would not deceive a child, may deceive half the world if diluted in a quarto volume.”
This has been adapted to the realm of corporate annual reports to shareholders and dubbed the windbag postulate. “The chairman’s verbosity,” say the authors of an article in one business magazine, “increases in direct proportion to the severity of the company’s problems.”
Usually the diluting material should have never been there in the first place. When this is the case, says philosopher Max Black, “The abuse involved is a kind of converse of the emperor’s clothes—too many clothes and no emperor.” We can thank famed sociologist Thorstein Veblen for unintentionally providing this marvelous example in The Theory of the Leisure Class:
In an increasing proportion as time goes on, the anthropomorphic cult, with its code of devout observances, suffers a progressive disintegration through the stress of economic exigencies and the decay of the system of status. As this disintegration proceeds, there come to be associated and blended with the devout attitude certain other motives and impulses that are not always of an anthropomorphic origin, nor traceable to the habit of personal subservience. Not all of these subsidiary impulses that blend with the bait of devoutness in the later devotional life are altogether congruous with the devout attitude or with the anthropomorphic apprehension of sequence of phenomena. Their origin being not the same, their action upon the scheme of devout life is also not in the same direction. In many ways they traverse the underlying norm of subservience of vicarious life to which the code of devout observances and the ecclesiastical and sacerdotal institutions are to be traced as their substantial basis.
H.L. Mencken offers up a nifty paraphrase of this passage (probably sacrificing some loyalty for the sake of humor) remarking that Veblen’s real point is this:
Many people go to church not because they are afraid of the devil but because they enjoy the music and like to look at stained glass, the potted lilies, and the reverend pastor.
Mencken adds this, for good measure:
This highly profound and highly original observation might have been made on a postage stamp, thereby saving a good deal of wasted paper.
Eliminate wordiness, save a tree.
Extra words do not necessarily mean bad writing. Note this gem by Robert Herrick:
Come, let us go while we are in our prime,
And take the harmless folly of the time.
We shall grow old apace, and die
Before we know our liberty.
Our life is short, and our days run
As fast away as does the sun;
And as a vapor or a drop of rain
Once lost, can ne’er be found again;
So when or you or I are made
A fable, song, or fleeting shade,
All love, all liking, all delight
Lies drowned with us in endless night.
Then while time serves, and we are but decaying,
Come, my Corinna, come, let’s go a-Maying.
There is an argument of sorts in this verse, directed to Corinna. Herrick surely could have put it much more succinctly. Its most straightforward paraphrase is something like this:
- We have one short life, which is passing fast.
- ∴We should enjoy it now to the fullest.
Of course, Herrick’s goal is art. Ours is a certain sort of clarity—the sort that will better allow us to tell whether statements are true or false and whether they are logically connected to one another. The result is not always pretty.
4.3 Neutralizing Slanted Language
Statements convey information. Depending on the words chosen for the job, they can also influence the emotional reaction to that information. When Henry Louis Gates applied to Yale in 1969, he wrote, “My grandfather was colored, my father was Negro, and I am black.” Twenty-five years later, in the preface of his Colored People: A Memoir, he addresses his two daughters:
In your lifetimes, I suspect, you will go from being African Americans, to “people of color,” to being, once again, “colored people.” (The linguistic trend toward condensation is strong.) I don’t mind any of the names myself. But I have to confess that I like “colored” best, maybe because when I hear the word, I hear it in my mother’s voice and in the sepia tones of my childhood.
There is no substantial difference in the information that each of the terms communicates; the major difference is in the emotional reaction it is likely to arouse. A skillful writer or speaker chooses language with this in mind—dressing approved statements in positive language and disapproved statements in negative.
Influencing emotions is an important and legitimate use of language. But it can sometimes cause trouble in arguments by illegitimately the argument—that is, by unjustifiably aiming it toward the audience’s emotions rather than the audience’s reason.
Janet Novack, for example, argues in a Forbes article against including self-esteem studies as a part of the elementary school curriculum. She describes such studies as among the “new politically correct fads” that are pushing out more traditional subjects because of the need to satisfy “do-gooders who want their touchy-feely subject taught.”
This description certainly communicates information: liberals favor self-esteem studies (they are “politically correct”); there is much current interest in them (they’re “fads”); they are promoted by those with a concern for society (the “do-gooders”); and they emphasize relationships (they are “touchy-feely”). But this information by itself doesn’t seem to be enough to establish that self-esteem studies have no place in elementary schools.
Such a negative conclusion is nevertheless hard to resist, due to the negative emotions aroused by Novack’s choice of terms. Her terms suggest—though probably do not logically imply—the following about self-esteem studies: they are based on dogmatism (they are “politically correct”); they will not stand the test of time (they are “fads”); they are promoted by those who do not consider the broader consequences of their actions (the “do-gooders”); and they are mindless (they are “touchy-feely”).
Not only do these terms sway the emotions, but also no argument is given for the legitimacy of a negative emotional reaction, and success in winning us over to the conclusion depends, at least in part, on that reaction. Thus it counts as slanted language. Because such language can impede honest critical reflection about the information, it is best to eliminate it from your clarification of the argument.
It is often difficult and sometimes impossible to find a completely neutral way of communicating information. We saw, for example, that those with a concern for society is more neutral than do-gooders. And so it is, but the phrase those with a concern for society seems to have a slant to it—but now in the positive direction. In such cases, my best advice is to prefer the more neutral language even if it is not perfectly neutral.
Sometimes slanted language is blatant. An Associated Press item reports that, in a poll regarding the American presence in Lebanon,
A razor-thin 48%–47% plurality thought that “the Marines should be withdrawn.” But in the same poll, by a 55%–39% margin, they agreed with the contention that “after being occupied for a long time by Syria, Israel, and the PLO, Lebanon needs help from the U.S., including the presence of U.S. Marines to help Lebanon re-establish control of its own country.”
The two claims in quotation marks are substantially the same. But at least 7 percent of those polled had a different answer when the terse statement about withdrawal of troops was replaced by more sympathetic—and more slanted—words about Lebanon’s need for help.
But in other cases the slant can be remarkably subtle. Consider the following scenario described by Kevin McKean in Discover:
Threatened by a superior enemy force, the general faces a dilemma. His intelligence officers say his soldiers will be caught in an ambush in which 600 of them will die unless he leads them to safety by one of two available routes. If he takes the first route, 200 soldiers will be saved. If he takes the second, there is a one-third chance that 600 soldiers will be saved and a two-thirds chance that none will be saved. Which route should he take?
Researchers have found that most people favor the first route, reasoning that it’s better to save those lives that can be saved than to gamble when the odds favor even higher losses. But what about the following scenario?
The general again has to choose between two escape routes. But this time his aides tell him that if he takes the first, 400 soldiers will die. If he takes the second, there is a one-third chance that no soldiers will die, and a two-thirds chance that 600 soldiers will die. Which route should he take?
In this case, most people favor the second route. The first route involves the certain death of 400 men. At least with the second route there is a one-third chance that no one will be killed. And even if the general loses this gamble, his casualties will be only 50 percent higher.
As you may have noticed, these are not two different scenarios but two descriptions of the same scenario. Researchers find that even when people realize this, they often continue to recommend contradictory actions for the general. It just sounds smart to do something that will certainly save 200 men and stupid to do something that will certainly sacrifice 400—even if the two, in the end, amount to the same thing.
Clarify each argument, following all rules for paraphrasing. Focus on using emotionally neutral language.
Sample exercise. “Mr. Murdrick’s article is worthless to anyone who might want to know something about A Susan Sontag Reader. For it is a personal polemic of witless and barely intelligible sneers compiled by a self-serving oaf.”—letter to the editor, Harper’s
- Mr. Murdrick’s article is hard to understand and aims to serve only his own interests.
- ∴Mr. Murdrick’s article is not informative about A Susan Sontag Reader.
- The fat cat Republicans have one passion—to make their bank accounts bigger, no matter how much suffering it causes all of the decent folks of our society who through no fault of their own happen to be poor and underprivileged. So, whatever you do, don’t vote for those self-centered, callous parasites.
- Murdering unborn babies is no better than murdering born ones. So, don’t let the pro-choice people fool you—they’re really pro-murder.
- “Down in Austin, Tex., when some nutcake poisons to death a 500-year-old oak tree, he’s arrested. The news reports advise that for this tree-trashing the man could be sentenced to life in prison on this felony charge of criminal mischief because he had a previous conviction for burglary. Life imprisonment for tree-murder? Give us a break! Violent criminals all across this country commit far more serious ‘criminal mischief’ than offing an oak and they never spend one day in the slammer. This is moral insanity.”—John Lofton, Los Angeles Times
- “Hardly a master and miss in all the land but must be pulling and snivelling out French, and capering like a French goat. So go, goatish and apish as you are, and dangle at the heels of goats and apes!”—James Gilchrist, “Reason, the True Arbiter of Language,” arguing in the early 19th century that the British should resist the influence of the French language on English
- “There’s no future to nuclear energy because Three Mile Island taught everybody what some of us already knew: that nuclear power plants are time bombs ready to melt down. And even if nuclear power plants were safe, which they aren’t, there’s still the potentially more dangerous nuclear waste problem. But you don’t care about waste, Dan. You’re content to wallow in the short-term profits the corporate pigs reap for themselves. But unlike real pigs, the corporate animals haven’t learned that you don’t excrete where you eat, and that their radioactive excrement will be with us for 250,000 years. That’s one pile you just can’t flush down the toilet, Dan.”—Jane Curtin to Dan Ackroyd, on “Saturday Night Live’s” “Point-Counterpoint”
- “Undeniably, the wanton torment and destruction of animals, plants, bacteria, viruses, and plasmids is simply intolerable, whatever the excuse. I find it inconceivable that physicians pledged to the Sanctity of Life, my own parents included, could have brought themselves to consign untold millions of innocent bacteria to an excruciating death, having once witnessed their agonized contortions through a microscope. The lesson to us all: ban antibiotics.”—letter to the editor, Journal of the American Medical Association
- “Commenting on Donald Trump’s confirmed suggestion that he might consider building the world’s tallest skyscraper on the site of the famed Ambassador Hotel he acquired in 1990, Lotery says: ‘Wilshire is no place for such overwrought ego statements. A huge high-rise would overwhelm the humane scale of the boulevard, which we at UIG consider its prime urban virtue.’”—Los Angeles Times
- “Miss Manners is always so puzzled to hear well-meaning people rattling on about not wanting to inhibit the naturalness of their children. Why not, pray? Repressing the dear things, an activity of bygone days that was known as child-rearing, can only improve the state of the world.”—Judith Martin, Miss Manners’ Guide to Rearing Perfect Children
- Nonstatements (paraphrase as statements).
- Discounts and discount indicators.
- Attitude indicators.
- Report indicators.
- Inference indicators.
- Slanted language (neutralize it).
Paraphrase the arguments below by outlining them in standard clarifying format and following all of this chapter’s streamlining guidelines.
Sample exercise. What remained of the great library at Alexandria is believed to have dwindled slowly between 415 and 624. Many scholars and historians, including both Gibbon and Durant, doubt the claim that Muslims destroyed the library around 624, since by that time there was nothing left to destroy. Civilization thus entered a dark age of ignorance, disease, and superstition.—Ronald Mohar, Free Inquiry
- By 624 the library at Alexandria had dwindled away.
- ∴The Muslims did not destroy the library at Alexandria in 624. (Note the repetition of the premise in the passage; also note that the last sentence of the passage is not part of the argument.)
- “Robert Merton has shown that almost all major ideas arise more than once, independently and often virtually at the same time—and thus, that great scientists are embedded in their cultures, not divorced from them. Most great ideas are ‘in the air,’ and several scholars simultaneously wave their nets.”—Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda’s Thumb
- “‘Usually, when we try to solve a problem, we force our minds to follow a certain train of thought, but those preconceived notions are the ones that don’t lead to a solution to a problem that requires some creative approach,’ says Klinger. ‘In contrast, daydreams follow their own directions, often quite contrary to the expectations of our conscious logic, and this is probably what enables them to give birth to creative ideas.’ So the next time you catch yourself daydreaming, and you’re not driving in heavy traffic or operating a nuclear power plant, don’t stop yourself. Let your mind wander. You never know how much happier you’ll be until you daydream about it.”—Joseph Alper
- “Jeffrey Potter, a friend of Jackson Pollock, is claiming that Naifeh and Smith have, in their film on Pollock, infringed his copyright on his oral biography of Pollock, To a Violent Grave. Naifeh and Smith, who are both lawyers, say that Potter has no copyright interest because his book is formed entirely of quotations. ‘You have no copyright interest in what other people have said to you,’ Smith said.”—Los Angeles Times
- “Exposing psychic fraud is not, alas, a lucrative career. Steiner works as a CPA to support his hobby. ‘The people who claim to have the power are the ones who get the money,’ he says. ‘If I convince you that I am a psychic, you’ll pay me a lot of money to help you with your problems. But if I convince you that all that’s a fraud, you don’t need me.’”—Science
- “For over thirty years the West has been encouraged to accept the fiction that Philby alerted his fellow spies for ‘old boy’ or compassionate reasons. Yet informed people know that friendship and compassion are not included in the survival kits of intelligence professionals who are at mortal risk in the field. Such human reactions are excess baggage in the secret world. The obvious conclusion is that the KGB has successfully protected its most valuable agent. In all probability Big Mole is now a highly respected member of the foreign-policy establishment.”—letter to the editor, Harper’s
- “ ‘Dave Lowry could have escaped,’ the Lone Ranger said. ‘There were a number of times when he could have shot me from ambush. He didn’t do it, even though he knew that it would mean freedom. And there was a time when I was trapped by a landslide. Dave saved my life. He didn’t have to do that. He could have ridden off and left me there to die. But, instead, he saved my life, though he knew I would go on and capture him. Does that sound like the act of a hardened killer?’”—Fran Striker, The Lone Ranger on Powderhorn Trail
- “Finally, what of Tertullian who claimed that ‘the Son of God died’ was worthy of belief because ‘it was absurd’; that ‘He was buried and rose again’ was ‘certain because it was impossible’?”—Richard Swinburne, Faith and Reason
- “It is immediately obvious that not all necessary truths are known a priori; for there are necessary truths . . . that are not known at all, and a fortiori are not known a priori.”—Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity
4.4 Summary of Chapter Four
Streamlining is a very important part of the clarification process. Be sure to paraphrase as statements all nonstatements that function as part of the argument. These include imperatives when they serve as the conclusion to practical reasoning, rhetorical questions, and fragments. You should also strive to eliminate all unnecessary words. These include discounts, attitude indicators, report indicators, inference indicators, repetition, and any sort of nonessential wordiness. Finally, you should neutralize slanted language.
4.5 Guidelines for Chapter Four
- Include only statements in your clarification. If a premise or conclusion is expressed as a partial sentence or a nondeclarative sentence, paraphrase it as a statement.
- Exclude discounts from your clarification of the argument.
- Use discount indicator terms to identify discounts, making sure it is a discount rather than a negatively stated premise or conclusion.
- Eliminate attitude indicators, which are indicators of belief or of disbelief; insert a negation at the beginning of disbelieved statements. Also eliminate report indicators and inference indicators.
- Eliminate repetition of statements and phrases that do not add to the argument; use whatever expression best captures the arguer’s meaning.
- Eliminate wordiness that does not contribute to the argument’s clarity.
- When slanted language has not been argued for, and when there is more neutral wording available, eliminate slanted language in favor of more emotionally neutral language.
4.6 Glossary for Chapter Four
Attitude indicator—indicates the arguer’s attitude of either belief or disbelief toward a statement. I believe that and I deny that are examples.
Discount indicator—indicates a nonsupportive, or adversarial, relationship between statements rather than a supportive one. But and despite are examples. Sometimes also called adversative.
Discount—a statement the arguer offers as not undermining the conclusion. Discounts are typically neither premises nor conclusions and should usually not be included in your clarification.
Report indicator—shows that the argument is being reported by, but is not necessarily embraced by, the speaker or writer. So-and-so argues that is an example.
Slanting—unjustifiably pointing a premise or conclusion toward the emotions rather than the reason of the audience.
Streamlining—removal of nonessential features of the argument so they will not get in the way of the evaluation process. It is one important aspect of the paraphrasing procedure.
- But, in particular, is frequently used to introduce premises in mathematical arguments. ↵
- Stress on I usually indicates assurance while stress on believe usually indicates a hedge. In some contexts, however, stress on believe indicates assurance: “I refuse to give multiple choice tests, since I believe in essay exams.” ↵
Removal of nonessential features of the argument so they will not get in the way of the evaluation process. It is one important aspect of the paraphrasing procedure.
A statement the arguer offers as not undermining the conclusion. Discounts are typically neither premises nor conclusions and should usually not be included in your clarification.
Indicates a nonsupportive, or adversarial, relationship between statements rather than a supportive one. But and despite are examples. Sometimes also called adversative.
Indicates the arguer’s attitude of either belief or disbelief toward a statement. I believe that and I deny that are examples.
Shows that the argument is being reported by, but is not necessarily embraced by, the speaker or writer. So-and-so argues that is an example.
Unjustifiably pointing a premise or conclusion toward the emotions rather than the reason of the audience.