Several writing classes I’ve taught required the students to compose an argument paper. I made them choose from a list of famous quotes and defend or deny one of them. I always introduced the project by lecturing on the difference between an assertion and an argument. Too many students don’t know which is which, and I suspect there is a general ignorance about them.
Most arguments we encounter are heated, sometimes loud, and angry expressions of differing opinions and beliefs. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines an argument also as “a statement given to explain a belief.” The key word being explain.
An assertion, on the other hand, thanks again to Webster, is “an idea or opinion that is put forth in a discussion.” Although the word assertion carries an overtone of aggressiveness, for my thought here, we will think of an assertion merely as a statement. It can be a statement of fact, belief, or opinion. An assertion is merely a statement without any attempt to demonstrate its veracity; no reasons are given to prove it.
To get to the heart of many communication problems, we must realize that a statement may or may not contribute to a speaker’s reason for the issue at hand. In order to flesh out our definition of argument, we turn also to the American Heritage Dictionary: “a fact or statement put forth as proof or evidence; a reason.” Assuming a speaker has offered evidence for her statement, we now come closer to the kind of argument I expected out of my students.
We have also come closer to understanding three of the things necessary for a speaker to persuade his audience: credibility of the speaker, an emotional appeal to the listeners, and logic or sound reasoning. Thank you Aristotle for giving us the three pillars of a good speech: ethos, pathos, and logos. A good argument should contain all of these, but at the least the credibility of the speaker and the logic of her reason are essential. Otherwise, all we have are assertions without backup.
At least three defects reflect an argument gone haywire. First, hogging the discussion and appealing merely to the prejudices and emotions of the audience. Some people are so assertive and talkative others have no opportunity to disagree. These are people who love to hear themselves talk and to express their opinions. Author Thomas Sowell criticized the talkativeness of many academics and politicians as “so-called ‘thinking people’ . . . whose verbal nimbleness can elude both evidence and logic.” 1
Second, a corollary of the first is to allow no dissenting voice. It can be as subtle as not listening and responding to others or as crass as silencing the opposition. We are all witnesses of people who’ve either been bullied off the stage or not given the right to express themselves on college campuses. No statements but those held sacred by the mob are allowed.
The third is degrading the opponent. One of my previous posts dealt with the problem of the ad-hominem attack, an attack on the person rather than the argument. By it, one humiliates his opponent by defamation of character and even slander. Name-calling is part and parcel of this. It pigeonholes the opposition with negative names that assume a prejudice and false motive. Nazi is one of the favorites.
There are perhaps other problems uncovered in arguments that don’t seek reasons for unsubstantiated assertions. Everyone has opinions; not everyone has good reason for holding them. If you haven’t run across the Four Deadly Questions, you might want to familiarize yourself with one of them: “How do you know that is true?” Without any attempt to provide a solid reason for a statement, you have discovered that you are dealing with unfounded assertions, not valid arguments.
1 Quoted by Marvin Olasky in World Magazine, January 21, 2017
© 2023 Robert T. Weber, Words Done Right LLC