|Persuasion and Argument
Students usually study persuasion and argument toward the end of a rhetorically based composition course because good persuasive writing requires an author to combine a number of writing strategies in one essay. Most of the essays in this section combine two or more of the forms featured in the previous sections, and students should be able to analyze them more effectively because they will already be familiar with these forms. They should be able to see how the authors marshal those strategies to advance their arguments. In turn, when students begin to compose their own arguments, they should be able to combine into one process the skills they have been learning all semester. When they are able to make such choices, they will be moving toward becoming practicing writers who know what they want to do and who have a systematic method for
In teaching your students to read and write persuasion and argument, you will need to keep reminding them of one key point: an opinion is not an argument unless it can be supported with evidence. Anyone can say “I think this” or “I believe that,” but in order to persuade an audience, a writer must explain why he or she thinks or believes something. Students might be asked to examine Nicholas Lemann’s example paragraph and to list the examples he uses to show how the view of racism as a Southern problem changed after 1950.
The essays in this section are paired so that students can assess the effectiveness of two arguments on a controversial issue. Although these essays generally mix emotional (persuasive) and logical (rational) appeals, the first four might be classified as personal opinion essays. That is, they make emotional appeals based on personal evidence to persuade their readers to support a cause. The second four are primarily features stories. That is, they make logical appeals based on extensive research to support their claims.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” relies on powerful metaphors to make an emotional appeal on behalf of black Americans. By contrast, Eric Liu’s essay is less emotional and less ceremonial than King’s, but he uses his own experience to support his argument that racial factions in the United States must perceive themselves as integral parts of the country at large.
Barbara Kingsolver argues that the popular definition of “family” in our culture does not correspond with the real composition of most American families. She also asserts that so-called “nontraditional” families are in many instances enviably strong units. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead claims that there is an American fatherhood crisis traceable to the dissolution of the traditional nuclear family. She argues that good fathering is impossible for men who live outside of their children’s homes.
Paul Rogat Loeb urges his readers to take action about social issues that concern them. He argues that citizens should not feel overwhelmed by the huge scope of problems because every little contribution is significant and will eventually result in meaningful change. Sven Birkerts defends his position as a thinker, reader, and writer, rather than a “doer” in the social arena. He
claims that it is psychically impossible for one to stand back and assess social problems and also to take action on such matters.
The last pair of essays presents a sophisticated debate on the relationship between language and prejudice. Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech urges her listeners to curb the perpetuation of language barriers in culture that wound or exclude members of minority groups from acceptance or full participation in democratic society. She says that language used to oppress certain classes is violence. Taking issue with that stand, Jonathan Rauch maintains that words are not violent weapons. He says that true free speech includes racist epithets and prejudiced opinions, arguing that society can best confront prejudice if it is not suppressed by multiculturalism or political correctness.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s story “Harrison Bergeron” offers a darkly humorous argument against conformist movements in society. He paints a ridiculous picture of a society in which everyone is forced to simulate disabilities in order to make all people equal. Nothing gets accomplished because there is no competition, and everyone’s ability is reduced to the status quo.
The assignments at the end of this section provide a range of purposes, audiences, and strategies for composing arguments. The first assignment asks students to analyze their responses to one or two of the most effective essays in the section. The second and third assignments suggest specific purposes and audiences for essays—presenting a development program for underprepared college students (King, Liu) and assessing the merits of learning to navigate the Internet.
Assignment 4 asks students to respond to the essays on privatization and public assistance by proposing that a local company support a civic project. The fifth assignment suggests that students compare the diverse argumentative strategies employed in Morrison’s and Rauch’s essays. The final assignment invites students to present and defend a core of basic educational requirements leading to a college degree.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. “I Have a Dream”
This famous speech, written by America’s foremost civil rights leader, is unrivaled in recent American history as an example of eloquent ceremonial discourse. The context for this speech was the commemoration of the one-hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, but King devotes only his first three sentences to actions of “Five score years ago”; the promise of a joyous future, made attainable by Lincoln’s signature on the proclamation, is the subject of King’s discourse.
King’s purposes are to urge his followers to continue their actions and not allow the nation to return to “business as usual”; to promote changes that will eventually abolish segregation, discrimination, and prejudice across the country, especially in the South; and to convince his followers that their actions must be immediate and nonviolent. King cautions that, although blacks are continually confronted with injustices, including economic disparity and police brutality, they must continue to meet “physical force with soul force.” His injunctions against violence warn against indulgence in “physical violence” and “bitterness and hatred.”
The equality he envisions cannot be achieved through angry or “wrongful deeds,” but King’s nonviolent “creative protest” is not meek or tentative. In his speech, he criticizes the government’s inadequate administration of democracy and confronts the South with its archaic prejudices, citing the governor of Alabama’s obstruction of true justice and directing vitriolic criticism at Mississippi, where blacks were not allowed to vote. King’s primary purpose, however, is to inspire his audience, a goal he admirably achieves in his “I have a dream” and “let freedom ring” sequences, which conclude the discourse.
King delivered this speech before a huge, live, predominantly black audience who had come to Washington, D.C., on a march for freedom and civil rights, but he knew, too, that the eyes of the country were on that gathering, and the words he wrote are intended for the nation at large. The marchers who gathered in Washington, and civil rights activists everywhere, expected to hear their beliefs stated vigorously and with conviction. King’s speech inspired people in Washington and elsewhere because he wrote with his audience, as well as his cause, clearly in mind. Early in the speech, he addresses his black followers, saying, “There is something I must say to my people,” but in the same paragraph, he welcomes “our white brothers” who have, “by their presence here today,” acknowledged the single destiny that people of all races share.
Urging his followers to keep working, to “never be satisfied” as long as blacks are denied the full measure of equality, he recognizes that “great trials and tribulations” have tested some of his audience members, and he lauds, as “victims of creative suffering,” those who are “fresh from narrow jail cells” or who are “battered . . . persecut[ed] . . . and staggered” by “police brutality.” He unites his audience around this core of martyrs, promising that he and his followers will work, pray, and struggle together, “go to jail together . . . stand up for freedom together,” and “be free one day.”
King addresses the nation in this speech by naming states and regions from which marchers have come and by creating images of freedom ringing from the “hilltops of New Hampshire” to the “curvaceous peaks of California” and various points, North and South, in between. King’s concluding vision unites disparate groups around the country as he puts the words of an “old Negro spiritual” into the mouths of “black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics.” His audience is everyone who thinks, feels, or believes in God or the government of this country.
King’s speech employs predominantly emotional strategies. His first words echo the Gettysburg Address in tribute to the “great American” whose “momentous decree” the marchers have come to celebrate, and these words set the tone, as well as readers’ expectations, for what is to come. Like Lincoln’s famous speech, King’s is crafted from connotative words and phrases, such as “slaves,” “brotherhood,” “sacred,” “exalted,” “bright day,” and “warm threshold.” His style borrows heavily from the great persuasive traditions of political “stump” speeches and religious sermons; his “campaign promises” are described as his “dream,” and it is King the Baptist minister who exhorts his followers to “continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.”
Repetition of key words and phrases is characteristic of oral style, and King uses it extensively, repeating “one hundred years later,” “now,” “go back,” “I have a dream,” “let freedom ring,” and “free at last.” The most prevalent emotional strategy in the speech is King’s use of figurative language. Rich with metaphor, some passages of this speech (such as the second paragraph’s description of contemporary black status) employ metaphors in nearly every sentence. Evocative examples include “beacon light of hope,” “flames of withering injustice,” “manacles of segregation,” “chains of discrimination,” “palace of justice,” and “valley of despair.” King’s analogy comparing the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence to a “bad check” establishes America’s guilt in withholding “the riches of freedom” and automatically aligns the civil rights movement with the lofty ideal of “justice.”
King’s tone, however, avoids creating enemies or establishing dichotomies. He unites the nation in the pursuit of freedom, using the pronoun “we” and phrases such as “this is our hope . . . our freedom.” King’s speech is best remembered (and therefore probably most effective) for its “I have a dream” paragraphs (10–18). These psalmlike passages, whose repetitions and refrain of “I have a dream today,” incited his audience to act in 1963, and continue to inspire readers today.
ERIC LIU “A Chinaman’s Chance: Reflections on the American Dream”
Liu argues in this essay that young people are losing sight of the American Dream because they have forgotten what it means to be Americans. We are becoming, Liu fears, a “culture of entitlement” because we have reduced the American Dream to “some guarantee of affluence, a birthright of wealth.” Liu concedes to readers in their “twenties and early thirties” that “job opportunities are scarce” and that the “threat” of “a lower standard of living than [their] parents” achieved is “real.” Although the economy is discouraging and our government is entangled in its own financial problems, Liu asks whether the “failure of the nation thus far to fulfill its stated ideals” should “incapacitate its young people, or motivate [them].”
A second-generation Chinese-American, Liu is especially critical of America’s “near-pathological race consciousness.” He takes issue with young minority people’s strong racial identities, which seem to take precedence over their national pride. Liu asks his audience, “How have we allowed our thinking about race to become so twisted?” He explains that he is proud to be descended from Chinese ancestors, but that his cultural pride “does not cross into prejudice against others.” We must, he argues, achieve a national image that “represents the kind of color-blind equality of opportunity” that the American Dream truly represents. Our country, he cautions, “was never designed to be a mere collection of subcultures.”
Liu celebrates his own Chinese-American heritage, which incorporated Chinese school and an Ivy League education. His own experience of playing “Thomas Jefferson in the bicentennial school play one week and the next week [playing] poet Li Bai at the Chinese school festival” demonstrates the sort of balance he wants Americans and America to achieve. All young citizens, he argues, should view themselves primarily as Americans ready to contribute their talents and labors to their country because “so long as there are young Americans who do not take what they have—or what they can do—for granted, progress is always possible.”
Anyone who believes he or she has a stake in America’s future might want to second or refute Liu’s arguments in this essay, although he appears to write primarily for young minority Americans whose attitudes and behaviors he seeks to change. He speaks to those who seem to see “retreat to one’s own kind . . . more and more . . . as an advance.” Throughout the essay, Liu appeals directly to “people of [his] generation, “second-generation American[s],” and “peers” who are “coming of age just as the American Dream is showing its age.” He alludes to contemporary bands, “Arrested Development” and “Chubb Rock,” assuming that readers are at least familiar with “rap and hip-hop music.” He empathizes with his audience’s desires to “draw strength from [their] communities,” but argues that we must not focus on our “diverse heritages” at the cost of forgetting our commonalities. In keeping with his thesis that Americans must think and act together, he addresses all fellow citizens, stressing that “principles like freedom and opportunity” are “necessary” and “vital,” “and not just to the children of immigrants.” Liu’s essay reaches out to “homeboys and house painters and bike messengers and investment bankers,” to everyone who wants to restore faith in the American Dream.
Liu translates the Chinese-American derogatory label “banana,” which refers to persons who are “yellow on the outside, but white on the inside.” He is sensitive to criticism that he “speak[s] too much from [his] own experience,” that “not everyone can relate to the second-generation American Story,” but he argues that we should not be “paralyzed” by our differences. Liu says that “respect for” divergent “experiences” should not “obviate the possibility of shared aspirations.” Echoing John F. Kennedy’s famous advice to “ask not what your country can do for
you . . . ,” Liu entreats all Americans to ask not only “What do we ‘get’ for being American?” but “What do we owe?”
Liu employs a straightforward deductive strategy for conveying his thesis in this argument.
He begins with the assertion that the “American Dream is” not “dead,” and that those who think so are “dead wrong.” This is essentially a generative technique because the rest of the essay,
then, must back up these strong words. Liu defines “American Dream” at the outset of his argument, as “a sense of opportunity that binds generations together in commitment, so that the young inherit . . . perseverance, . . . and a mission to make good on the strivings of their parents and grandparents.” He theorizes that “every generation will reach for success, and often miss the mark,” and demonstrates the truth of that through examples. His own parents “were able to build a comfortable life and provide” their son with a quality education and “a breadth of” experiences. The parents of Chinese-American author Fae Myenne Ng represent the other half of Liu’s equation; they “suffered ‘a bitter no-luck life’ in America.” Liu also holds up the example of the Marine Corps as “a cross section of America,” or what he believes America could be: a society that celebrates diversity but strives to reach common goals.
Throughout the essay, Liu draws upon his own experiences “as the son of immigrants,” a volunteer for “Marine Corps Officer Candidates’ School,” a graduate of an “Ivy League” college, a speech writer for President Bill Clinton “on Capitol Hill.” These lead him to “believe that America is exceptional” and that it is the duty of his generation to “revive” the “spirit” of the American Dream. He anticipates the arguments of readers who will dismiss his optimism as naive, and ends with a classic speech-writing trope: turning a phrase against itself. Liu’s final declaration that “a Chinaman’s chance is as good as anyone else’s” concedes that the “deck” is “stacked” for everyone. That’s why we must all come together to achieve a fair chance at “prosperity and the pursuit of . . . happiness.”
BARBARA KINGSOLVER “Stone Soup”
Reclaiming the title of “family” for those whose domestic lives don’t mimic the popular concept of nuclear family is the purpose of Barbara Kingsolver’s essay. She denounces the still widely held definition of “family” as exemplified by her childhood paper “Family of Dolls” (“Dad, Mom, Sis, and Junior”) as a “narrow view” that is “pickled and absurd.” The truth about families is that the “typical” nuclear family isn’t typical at all. Her examination of family structures throughout recent history (paragraphs 19 through 23) demonstrates that only recently has the “traditional” nuclear family existed as a model for domestic arrangements. Kingsolver points out that “divorce, remarriage, single parenthood, gay parents, and blended families simply are. They’re facts of our time.” She argues that those who cling to the notion of perfect families contrived to fit stylized notions have failed to notice the constitution and success of half of the families around. The Family of Dolls is incomplete because even nuclear families usually depend on extended family members to complete their unit. Kingsolver wants her readers to “let go of the fairy tale of families functioning perfectly in isolation.”
Kingsolver also wants to destigmatize divorce. She argues that the term “irreconcilable differences” is misleading because it masks the serious grounds upon which most responsible adults seek divorces. Recounting her own experiences, she advises that friends should respond to the newly divorced as they would to a widow. She even suggests, tongue in cheek, that “casseroles would help.” After her own divorce, Kingsolver recorded some of the ways in which people responded wrongly toward her. For example, asking, “Did you want the divorce?” strikes her as a particularly stupid question, but it is a better response than that of those friends who simply disappeared when her marriage ended. She notes that her daughter only feels uncomfortable about her parents’ divorce “when her friends say they feel sorry for her.” Contrary to popular belief, Kingsolver thinks divorce can be good for children. The experiences of her own daughter and of the young soccer player described in the essay’s opening paragraph bear this theory out. Children of divorce can be the beneficiaries of a “family fortune”: a larger-than-customary complement of homes, caring parents and grandparents, and siblings.
If Kingsolver’s assertions in this essay are true, at least half of her readers have good cause to share her indignation at society’s stubborn refusal to grant full family status to the kinds of real families that populate the United States today. She addresses her readers directly, saying, “We aren’t the Family of Dolls. Maybe you’re not, either.” She empathizes with readers from nontraditional family structures, sharing their shame of being judged as “failures” whose “children are at risk, and [whose] whole arrangement is [seen as being] messy and embarrassing.” If half of her readers are part of a nuclear family, this essay addresses them, too; Kingsolver says, “Most of us are up to our ears in the noisy business of trying to support and love a thing called family.” Basically, since everyone is affected in some way by the social construct of families, this essay addresses a broad audience. If any readers are likely to tune this essay out completely, they are probably members of the “religious right,” which Kingsolver deals with sharply for its much-publicized concept of “family values.”
Kingsolver’s essay seems to be directed primarily at female readers. She appeals mostly to women when she argues that partners in a marriage have the right to “self-respect and independence” as well as “happiness and safety from abuse.” Single parenthood and teenage motherhood, which primarily affect women in this country, are explored in this essay, as is the author’s own situation. Kingsolver considers the extended families to which her grandmother and others of her generation belonged, and she reveals that “in many cases they spent virtually every waking hour working in the company of other women.” She judges that “a companionable scenario.” This essay celebrates the many social advances for women that have resulted from the modern forms families now take. Women presently are “more likely to divorce” and “plan and space [their] children” yet are “less likely to suffer abuse without recourse, or to stare at [their] lives through a glaze of prescription tranquilizers.” Given all that, she says, “Hip-hip-hooray for ‘broken’ [homes].”
An extensive argument, this essay draws upon rational, ethical, and emotional appeals to persuade its audience that changes in family demographics are not necessarily bad for society. Kingsolver says that nontraditional families are “statistically no oddity.” She reports that “in Colonial days the average couple lived to be married less than twelve years.” In present-day America, the “rate at which teenage girls [have] babies” is half what it was in 1957. Since 1979, government support of single parents has steadily declined. Kingsolver draws upon her own experience as a divorced parent and as a close family friend in other nontraditional households to proclaim the children in some nontraditional families “lucky.” She appeals to the emotions of her readers as she describes the agony of the “two terrifying options” available to women considering divorce.
Perhaps only a novelist would put such credence in the words of a fictional character as does Kingsolver when she quotes Reynolds Price’s character Kate Vaiden’s advice to the beleaguered: “meet what they send you and keep your hair combed.” Kingsolver also evinces a creative writer’s gift for inventing metaphors and conceits. Comparing herself to a widow following her own divorce, she complains that “people are acting like I had a fit and broke up the family china.” (Consider the pun in that statement since dividing the china with her ex-husband would have broken up the set.) She describes “a nonfunctioning marriage” as “slow asphyxiation” and says that “disassembling a marriage . . . is as much fun as amputating your own gangrenous leg.” Midway through the essay, Kingsolver chastises those who criticize divorcées and other members of nontraditional living arrangements, saying they “should stop throwing stones.” Her final tale, about the making of stone soup, suggests what the targets of such stones might do with them to reverse their fortunes.
BARBARA DAFOE WHITEHEAD “Women and the Future of Fatherhood”
The success of the fatherhood movement is dependent upon the restoration of the nuclear family, according to Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. She argues that, in order for men to be good fathers, they must be supported by the structure of traditional marriage. Therefore, she calls upon women to wait for marriage before having children and to work to preserve the union so that their children will have resident fathers. Women need to see motherhood as a role that is best carried out within a traditional marriage because, whether they know it or not, “marriage and motherhood are coming apart.” Whitehead says that “the traditional bargain between men and women has broken down,” and both parties need to negotiate their changing roles as members of a couple. Women, for instance, will need to recognize that men are “less than fully committed to (their own) sexual fidelity” than women and that men cannot fulfill the role of husband and best friend simultaneously. Men, on the other hand, cannot be expected to “develop the qualities needed to meet the new cultural ideal of the involved and ‘nurturing’ father without the help of a spouse.” Whitehead insists that “men need marriage in order to be good fathers.”
Because “the fatherhood problem will not be solved by men alone,” Whitehead argues that men will have to make some compromises, too. Men must recognize the “changed social and economic status of women” by contributing more of the unpaid labor to the maintenance of the household. However, Whitehead is quick to point out that “this does not necessarily mean a 50/50 split of the household chores.” She suggests instead that men should “do more than one-third of household chores,” and that couples define their own terms for “equitable distribution of tasks.” Men need to recognize that contemporary women have “more exacting emotional standards for husbands” and that women “seek intimacy and affection through talking and emotional disclosure”—not through the “physical disrobing” that men prefer.
Because “women have dominated . . . the debate about marriage and parenthood . . . for at least 30 years,” Whitehead primarily addresses them in this essay. She appeals to women to help solve the fatherhood crisis in America, arguing that “men can’t be fathers unless the mothers of their children allow it.” Quoting poet and polemicist Katha Pollit, Whitehead panders to her female audience with the pronouncement that “children are a joy. Many men are not.” Although her arguments urge women to preserve traditional marriage and family ties, the author does admit in the conclusion of this essay that “women can be good mothers without being married.” However, the overwhelming point of her essay is to convince women that “the best mothers cannot be good fathers.”
Many of Whitehead’s younger readers will have grown up in single-parent homes, and a substantial number will have been affected by the current perception of absentee fathers as “deadbeat dad[s].” They are a skeptical audience who will find the proofs they require for persuasion missing from this essay. Although Whitehead argues that men cannot be good fathers outside of marriage, she doesn’t offer any concrete evidence that resident fathers are necessary to the development of their children. The specific benefits Whitehead promises are for resident fathers, not for children: they will be spoken of more highly, and they will learn from their more sensitive spouses how to be good parents. Whitehead reveals that a 1994 national survey showed that half of the women questioned believed that “one parent can bring up a child as well as two parents together” and that two-thirds of men disagreed with that response. Nowhere in this essay does Whitehead demonstrate that resident fatherhood is better for wives or children; she simply takes it for granted that resident fathers are best.
The language in this essay is strong. Whitehead frequently makes pronouncements such as “Marriage and motherhood are coming apart” and “Men have no positive identity as fathers outside marriage.” She wins acceptance for her point of view by presenting it as incontrovertible fact. Subtly, through telling women that they hold the reproductive and nurturing power in our society, she makes them responsible for the parenting opportunities and abilities of men. She argues that “the success of any effort to renew fatherhood as a social fact and a cultural norm . . . hinges on the attitudes and behavior of women.” Thus, she appeals to her primary audience of mothers to bear much of the burden of social change.
Whitehead’s analysis of the current situation attempts to placate her female readers. She acknowledges that the changing face of the family is paralleled by the changes in women’s role in society. As wage earners, women are no longer solely dependent upon their husbands for survival. In a divorce, women generally “enjoy certain advantages” in that they often get custody of the couple’s offspring and “do not need marriage to maintain a close bond to their children.” Contemporary women also have “more exacting emotional standards for husbands.” Whitehead must cautiously exhort women to compromise these privileges and values because she realizes that “many women see single motherhood as a choice and a right be exercised if a suitable husband does not come along in time.” In this delicate situation women have the emotional and reproductive advantage.
PAUL ROGAT LOEB “Soul of a Citizen”
Starting with the question “How can we renew the public participation that’s the very soul of democratic citizenship?” Paul Rogat Loeb examines the reasons why people are reluctant to speak up and work for social change. Loeb maintains that many people are discouraged because “the issues we face are complex.” We don’t believe we can alter “the extinction of species, depletion of the ozone layer, destruction of the rainforests, and desperate urban poverty.” This lack of faith causes “learned helplessness, a systematic way of ignoring the ills we see and leaving them for others to handle.” The thesis of Loeb’s essay is best summed up in this sentence: “We also need to believe that our individual involvement is worthwhile, that what we might do in the public sphere will not be in vain.”
Americans doubt their own efficacy because they don’t feel qualified to be heroes. Loeb counters this widespread perception with two specific examples, one obscure, the other well known. His friend, Pete Knutson tangled with aluminum companies and other large industrial interests in a political battle over the protection of salmon spawning grounds in Washington and Alaska and won. Knutson not only earned the right to continue the respectful fishing methods practiced by small family operations, but he also garnered the admiration of his twelve-year-old son in the process. Although Knutson’s efforts required a great investment of energy, they paid off. Similarly, Loeb reveals that well-known activist Rosa Parks, who is often portrayed as the agent in a spontaneous act of rebellion for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, was actually continuing a twelve-year-long career as an activist the day she held her ground on the bus. Loeb argues in this essay that participants in democracy aren’t heroes who happen to be in the right place at the right time but rather ordinary citizens with the conviction and selflessness to stand up for “enlightened self-interest and the interests of others simultaneously.”
Throughout the essay, Loeb uses the inclusive pronoun we because he knows that most of his readers care about people and the planet but “are dampened by a culture that demeans idealism, enshrines cynicism, and makes [them] feel naive” for wanting to promote social change. As he establishes in his opening words, “most Americans are thoughtful, caring, generous.” He adds that “most of us would like to see people treated more justly and the earth accorded the respect it deserves.” Loeb appeals to his audience to act on those ideals and to understand that the small steps they take toward improving the democracy will snowball into more involvement and grander outcomes. He urges his readers to overcome “our cultural diseases—callousness, shortsightedness, denial”—so that they can positively “affect the future [their] children and grandchildren will inherit.”
Loeb surmises that his audience members need encouragement to act upon their ideals. He explains that Rosa Parks’s historic protest was not a simple matter of being in the right place at the right time but rather that Parks had dedicated herself much earlier to the cause of civil rights for black Americans. Not the heroic character that history has made her out to be, Parks was an ordinary citizen with a vision for a better future, much as Loeb assumes his readers are. When he reveals that Parks had “become familiar with previous challenges to segregation,” his readers can imagine her forming the intention to protest segregation months before her historic bus ride. He says that “Parks didn’t make a spur-of-the-moment decision. She was part of a movement for change.” Her example shows readers that “humble, frustrating work” is the prerequisite for historically significant results. Instead of waiting for a golden opportunity to strike, Loeb wants his audience to work incrementally and diligently “to shape a better world.”
Loeb draws upon rational, ethical, and emotional appeals in his essay. He reports that “the 500 richest people on the planet now control more wealth than the poorest 3 billion, half the population.” Such figures explain the defeatist attitude of many would-be social reformers, but they also demonstrate the vital need for social change. In telling Rosa Parks’s story, Loeb explains that he “was interviewed on CNN along with Rosa Parks” for a Martin Luther King Day report. His personal meeting with the civil rights leader establishes his credibility in telling the real story behind her historic actions. Parks was well rewarded for her efforts by being lauded as the “mother of the civil rights movement,” but ordinary readers might be better persuaded to act on their convictions by reflecting on the reward Pete Knutson received: his twelve-year-old son “kept repeating, ‘I’m proud of you, Dad.’”
Knutson’s efforts to safeguard small family salmon-fishing operations for the future of his son’s generation paid off immediately and richly.
By writing in detail about two ordinary Americans who accomplished important social changes through their public participation, Loeb demonstrates that such results are possible. The stories of fisherman Pete Knutson and social activist Rosa Parks prove Loeb’s point and provide models for his readers to follow in realizing their own aspirations of effecting social change. Both examples also demonstrate the degree of hard work necessary to reach lofty goals. Loeb reports that “cooperation didn’t come easily” for Pete Knutson as he mobilized mistrustful fishermen, environmentalists, and Native American tribes and that Rosa Parks had invested twelve years in “helping to lead the local NAACP chapter [and] . . . had attended a 10-day [civil rights organizing] training” school, where she had met with older activists in preparation for her well-known act of civil disobedience. In both cases, the obscure and the famous, success came to Knutson and Parks because they took the first step: they believed they could make something happen.
SVEN BIRKERTS “Confessions of a Nonpolitical Man”
Justifying the position of thinkers and writers in society, Sven Birkerts laments the impossibility, as he sees it, of both acting politically on individual issues and thinking abstractly “to ensure the survival of spirit, free inquiry, [and] humanness in [the] world. . . .” Although he confesses the “awful admission” that he “will do nothing overt—nothing political—to further causes [he believes] in,” Birkerts covertly argues that writers, readers, and thinkers are as important to reform movements as are protesters and activists. He readily admits that “there is no dearth of causes, all asking for our most committed support,” and he argues that while he is “not apathetic,” he would not trade his contributions to social justice to “hasten to the march.” Birkerts’s reasoning is complicated and philosophical. He states that he does “not believe there is a division between the political sphere of life and the others.” Overt activism, he contends, is not a higher pursuit than contemplation of the issues that cause others to take to the streets.
Birkerts demonstrates that he is not against social action in any way. He even participates in it minimally by “sign[ing] an occasional petition” or sometimes “writ[ing] out a small check.” His arguments for the social significance of intellectual activities are not meant to detract from the importance of physical action in political matters. He professes to “admire those who feel the compulsion to act out their beliefs and find meaningful ways to do so” and disagrees with those who think social action is “useless” to “stay the course of the world or stop the powers that be from enacting their schemes.” Citing the protest and activism associated with the Vietnam War, civil rights movement, and environmental causes, he agrees that action is necessary and often successful. Still, Birkerts maintains that his intellectual contribution is part of the “larger . . . struggle” to maintain freedom in the world.
Although Birkerts’s arguments would prove useful to other thinkers and writers like himself who seek to justify the importance of their activities, this essay is directed primarily at those doers who would criticize the author for his apparent lack of social activism. He anticipates the arguments of those who believe he should act overtly on matters of conscience. He answers that he is not apathetic or defeated by the overwhelming prospect of effecting social change. The logic of doing one small thing that will contribute to a larger movement is “incontestable,” yet the author says he cannot afford the time or energy to commit himself totally to one cause. He answers accusations of laziness by countering that “when [he wills] something, [he] can be tirelessly active.” He concludes by wishing that his words would “exert some small influence on people who do act.” Thus, he hopes that he has contributed to their overt behaviors in his own way, from his desk.
The author uses an inductive strategy to arrange his argument: he saves his thesis for the conclusion of his essay. In the beginning, he ingratiates himself with his audience by taking their side against him. He asks, “What is wrong with me?” and suggests “that the blockage represents a failing.” He even admits that he “would like to . . . change [himself], to think [his] way through to an understanding of things out of which action would result naturally.” He wonders whether his inactivity is due to “laziness” or even “sloth” or “selfishness.” By examining his overt behavior from the point of view of his detractors, he answers their objections to his thesis before he presents it.
Birkerts’s regret that he cannot be both a man of action and a man of contemplation is sincere. He mocks his detractors when he counters that he is not “greedy of the time because [he wants] to work on [his] stamp collection.” Instead, he asserts that his pursuits, “the obscure labor of perceiving and processing the larger current shifts” are worthy of his readers’ respect. This very essay, then, is an artifact exhibited as proof of Birkerts’s social action.
TONI MORRISON “The Bird in Our Hand”
By situating her story in the vague place of “once upon a time,” Morrison is able to speak frankly about a controversial subject without directly offending her readers. Although she tells a story from the “lore of many cultures,” her underlying subject is the political abuse of language. Readers who believe that educated persons should speak “the Queen’s English” or that English should be the official language of the state might be put off by Morrison’s topic if she presented it in a confrontational manner. Speaking of language as if it were a bird in the hands of cunning children, she says that a dead language “is not only one no longer spoken or written, it is unyielding language content to admire its own paralysis.” Language that refuses to change or admit diversity “actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential.” Language used to oppress certain groups or classes of citizens “is violence; . . . it limits knowledge.” Eloquent, scholarly language intended to exclude the underprivileged “is languishing,” or may even be dead. On the other hand, Morrison says that living language, “unmolested language[,] surges toward knowledge, not its destruction.”
Morrison is particularly concerned about minority children in her own country who have been excluded from power because they lack the language necessary for full admittance to American society. The children in her mythical writer’s country “have bitten their tongues off and use bullets instead to iterate the void of speechlessness.” In the second telling of the tale, Morrison pointedly asks in the voice of the children, “Is the bird we hold living or dead?” Equating that bird with language changes their question to mean “Is the language of power open to change?” She pleads with the elders in society to listen respectfully to the diverse voices and dialects in their countries. The children in her story tell the old woman that she “can speak the language that tells [them] what only language can: how to see without pictures.” They say, “Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation.” The two tellings of the tale demonstrate that language can be used as a tool for either destruction or salvation.
As a Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Morrison’s text is bound to reach a large, international audience and to be reprinted and reread for a long time. A respected novelist and Nobel Laureate, Morrison is also an African-American, a member of a minority group that has often gone unheard in America. Many of its members have been discriminated against because their speech and writing habits do not conform to those of the educated white hegemony. She says that “especially now” in preparation for this speech and this occasion, she has been “thinking . . . about the work [she does] that brought [her] to this company”: her admirable use of language. She renounces the exclusionary uses of language around her, including “obscuring state language, . . . [the] faux language of mindless media, . . . [the] calcified language of the academy, . . . [the] commodity-driven language of science, . . . [the] malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities.” Because she has so often seen language used to take advantage of the disadvantaged or to further exclude the disenfranchised, she speaks out in this public forum against these insidious forms of racism and snobbery.
Although the Nobel Prize acceptance speech is delivered in Sweden before an International audience, Morrison is obviously speaking to her fellow countrymen and women. She speaks of American social problems when she says, “There is and will be rousing language to keep citizens armed and arming; slaughtered and slaughtering in the malls, courthouses, post offices, playgrounds, bedrooms and boulevards; stirring, memorializing language to mask the pity and waste of needless death.” She alludes to the Christian Bible when she argues that the Tower of Babel collapsed short of its goal of reaching heaven because the citizens there were not wise enough to respect and learn the plethora of languages in their midst, thereby creating a “Paradise” on Earth where everyone is heard and valued. She quotes from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address without identifying her source, knowing that American schoolchildren of all races have learned about it or memorized it. She speaks to a country split over bilingual education, arguing about the adoption of an official language, and on the cusp of the “Ebonics” debates.
Consider the cliché about “a bird in the hand.” Morrison’s imagery in this essay suggests that the children in her tale have an opportunity, if only they choose to let the bird live. Because the children in the story hold the bird, Morrison is arguing that the power of communication among races and classes is not just in the hands of the elite. The children have come to taunt the old seer, and she doesn’t disarm them of their power; instead, she tells them that the bird “is in your hands. It is in your hands.” If the younger generation chooses to let language live, it will admit diverse dialects and tongues into the halls of power.
Morrison is foremost a novelist, and she announces at the outset of her speech, “Narrative has never been merely entertainment for me.” She argues that “narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created.” Near the end of her talk, she tells another story, this one about a wagonload of slaves who expect “that the next stop would be their last.” Instead, they are cared for by a boy and a girl who emerge from an inn into the cold night to feed them warm cider and pieces of bread and meat. Most alarming is that the girl offers “a glance into the eyes of the one she serves.” That should be the function of language, to nurture and give hope, especially when it is least expected.
JONATHAN RAUCH “In Defense of Prejudice”
Because Jonathan Rauch disagrees with what is probably “the most uncontroversial social movement in America,” his arguments must be thorough and copious. Rauch argues against the regulation of free speech in America that goes by the name of “multiculturalism” or “political correctness.” He prefers to call it “purism” since he sees it as an attempt to police the thoughts of citizens and to legislate morality with a common code. He insists that “where there is genuine freedom of expression, there will be racist expression.” Therefore, he says, “the realistic question is how to make the best of prejudice, not how to eradicate it.” Eliminating prejudice is impossible because “stamping out prejudice really means forcing everyone to share the same prejudice, namely that of whoever is in authority.” Purism, then, is just exchanging a pluralistic form of prejudice for a totalitarian one.
Well-meaning Americans believe that the country should reach accord immediately about what constitutes hate speech, but Rauch counters that “there is no need to agree.” He argues that “we cannot know in advance or for sure which belief is prejudice and which is truth, but to advance knowledge we don’t need to know.” Contending that social values are self-regulating if left to flourish openly, he denounces attempts to regulate thought or language in universities, schools, government, and workplaces. He maintains that if we eliminate certain words from polite language, other words that are now innocuous will take their place. Rauch theorizes, “The vocabulary of hate is potentially as rich as your dictionary, and all you do by banning language used by cretins is to let them decide what the rest of us may say.” Banning prejudice is impossible; banning prejudiced speech mistakes a symptom for its cause.
Rauch’s arguments are particularly sticky among his American readers. On one hand, the American Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, but in recent years, the country has grown hypersensitive about epithets aimed at members of minority groups. He argues that our current sensibility diverges from our revered historical course. Many of his readers support the unofficial national ban on vocalized prejudice and have agreed wholeheartedly with the arguments of novelist Toni Morrison and the University of Michigan law professor quoted in this essay that epithets and insults are “verbal violence.” Rauch fears that “eventually, any criticism of any group will be [labeled as] ‘prejudice.’”
Noting that “gay people have improved their lot over [the past] twenty-five years simply by refusing to remain silent,” Rauch argues that open expression of prejudice causes the culture to deal with its underlying fears and assumptions while censorship leads to repression and covert discrimination.
Because his thesis seems antithetical to popular sentiment, Rauch finds it necessary to reassure his audience with the disclaimer that he is “not a racist, and . . . this is not an article favoring racism or any other particular prejudice.” He explains that “it is an article favoring intellectual pluralism.” He broadens his audience when he cautions, “No matter who you are, no matter what the color of your skin, no matter what your gender or sexual orientation, no matter what you believe, no matter how you behave, there is somebody out there who doesn’t like people of your kind.” He quotes Charles Lawrence, who wrote, “Racism is ubiquitous. We are all racists.” Assuming that his readers are tolerant people, he urges them to let “a million prejudices bloom, including many that you or I may regard as hateful or grotesque.” Practicing what he preaches, Rauch, himself a homosexual, agrees that those who so believe have the right to proclaim that “God hates homosexuals” or that homosexuality is a disease. Such assertions, he is confident, will bring about challenges that will help to bring the truth to light, as has been the case with those who deny the Holocaust, who are continually being proven wrong.
The main assertion in this essay is that “distinguishing prejudice reliably and nonpolitically from nonprejudice, or even defining it crisply, is quite hopeless.” That problem lies at the heart of enforcing hate-crime legislation or determining what is “politically correct” speech. Rauch offers several examples of the oxymoronic nature of offensive speech. For example, the statement “‘American criminals are disproportionately black’ is a statement of bias, not fact” to some, yet it is merely statistical reality to others. Likewise, some critics defend the use of the word “nigger” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because it accurately reflects the society it portrays; others fear that it condones racism. Rauch also points out that “in the popular view, science stands for reason against prejudice . . . ,” but he says that in reality, scientific inquiry is biased, often based upon stubbornness, and frequently motivated by ambition and revenge.
Rauch organizes this essay using a deductive strategy. Early in the essay, he plainly states his provocative thesis that “the very last thing society should do is seek to utterly eradicate racism and other forms of prejudice.” Readers whose initial reaction is that the author is dead wrong are slowly convinced of the validity of his position by his arguments and examples. Not until near the end of the essay does Rauch issue his ethical appeals: he is Jewish and homosexual and considers himself a dissident—all groups that have been the targets of prejudice in America. His final example is a personal one, “a little thing” that occurred on a Washington subway late one night. Some teenagers in the same car as the author began joking, using the word “faggot” in a verbal game. Rauch admits that he experienced “a moment of fear,” but ends the story by saying, “They didn’t notice me and there was no incident.” However, it was an incident—one worth recounting in this essay, although at the time Rauch felt that he could do nothing to stand up for himself. Like all of the oxymoronic examples in this essay, this one both proves and undermines its author’s thesis.
KURT VONNEGUT, JR. “Harrison Bergeron”
As is often the case with science fiction, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s story “Harrison Bergeron” is a comment on contemporary society, although it is set 140 years in the future from the time it was published. Vonnegut creates a scenario in which the constitutional dictum “All men are created equal” is carried to its extreme, and gifted or beautiful people are literally disabled by being forced to carry weighted bags to reduce their strength, wear grotesque masks to conceal their beauty, and suffer implants in their brains to disrupt their thinking. The leveling of society reduces its achievements to clumsy dancing, unintelligible television announcers, and inane conversations, such as that between George and Hazel Bergeron, whose dialogue makes up most of the story’s text. The Bergeron’s impassive witnessing of their son’s murder suggests that social interaction would be meaningless, were it not for the differences between human beings.
Harrison Bergeron, whose strength and attractiveness are said to rival those of “Thor, the god of thunder,” is imprisoned when the story begins, but he escapes and takes over the television station. He tears the 300 pounds of disabling implements from his seven-foot frame and challenges a ballerina to do the same and dance with him. When the couple is free of their fetters, they defy more than the equalizing law of the land; they defy gravity, leaping high enough to kiss the thirty foot ceiling in the television studio, and they manage to hang suspended in air through a prolonged kiss. Their superhuman agility and athleticism seems to signify their moral superiority; they alone are wise and brave enough to defy the inhuman proscriptions of their government. However, they are permanently brought down by shotgun blasts. Birdshot, like that which is hung about the necks of their physically able counterparts to slow them down, proves to be the death of the self-declared Emperor and Empress of the society.
As the comment in the textbook points out, this story was published after the repressive Stalinist regime that wiped out thousands of leaders and intellectuals in Russia. Similarly, the Nazis exterminated intellectuals and liberals in concentration camps during World War II, of which Vonnegut himself was a veteran. Vonnegut’s fictive attempts to warn the world of the destructive consequences of attempts to level society seem to have gone unheeded in the world. Since this story was published, the disastrous era of Mao’s Red Guards in China has passed, when hundreds of thousands of intellectuals and artists were killed or imprisoned in the name of equality.
The story has significance not only regarding wartime atrocities that annihilate targeted groups. It is also a comment on social conformity on a much more innocuous scale. Vonnegut’s story warns individual readers that their contribution to society is valuable. Nearly everyone in the story has differing talents and gifts that must be leveled by mechanical means, enforced by Dianna Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General. The enormous waste of such a ridiculous policy and the immeasurable loss to the society described in the story remind readers to make use of the skills and talents they have.
Dialogue, interrupted by frequent discordant blasts generated by the implant in George’s brain to scramble the thoughts of his superior intellect, comprises much of the story. Hazel’s “average” intelligence is easily assessed by her lack of empathy for George’s suffering with the implant, the simplicity of her thoughts, and the nonstandard dialect she uses. Neither of the Bergerons is able to keep a thought in mind long enough to react to it. Even the death of their son is quickly forgotten, and Hazel cannot explain the tears on her cheeks minutes after it has happened. By disrupting communication between people, the government has shut down their functioning. Fittingly, the story ends with Hazel repeating a phrase she has uttered often in the story, “I could tell that one was a doozy.”
Vonnegut’s singular, satiric style is well-known now, even more so than it was in 1961 when this story was first published. He is a master at social criticism conveyed through entertaining fiction, and this story is no exception to that. The specter of ballerinas performing while burdened by sashweights, birdshot, and cumbersome masks is hilarious to imagine. Only a government with too much power and a misguided sense of justice could command such a thing. The romantic imagery used to describe Harrison Bergeron’s gravity-defying dance with his ballerina Empress is exaggerated for humor, and as a contrast with the tragic deaths both suffer for their insubordination. With outlandish humor, Vonnegut conveys serious criticism about governmental policies and actions that seek to limit the aspirations and activities of intellectuals under their rule.
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