Using Argumentative Strategies



“Fake news” is a phrase you’ve encountered way more than you would have liked since the 2016 U.S. presidential election. While this phrase has gained more and more momentum and traction, it holds different purposes and meanings in different contexts. Across all these different rhetorical situations, though, we can agree that the popularization of the phrase speaks to an increased skepticism toward the bodies of knowledge that surround us.

Such distrust points to the oversimplified dichotomy of fact vs. opinion. The gray area between fact and opinion is much broader than we like to believe, and often we present deeply entrenched opinions as if they were facts. (Whether or not it is intentional, this phenomenon has serious consequences.) As Michael Kinsley points out in his 1995 essay, American individualist ideology dictates that citizens be “omni-opinionated” – at the expense of having many poorly informed opinions. It is crucial, Kinsley says that we take two steps to confront the “intellectual free lunch”:

  1. Develop increased humility about what we can and do know to be true; and
  2. Increase the intensity and frequency of our critical interrogation of truth (or what seems to be true).

Because, yes, there is a lot of fake news out there. And there’s a lot of real news that certain people insist is fake. How do we mobilize skepticism to produce a more ethical world rather than letting it undermine the pursuit of truth?

To a nonconfrontational person, argument is a dirty word. It surfaces connotations of raised voices, slammed doors, and dominance; it arouses feelings of anxiety and frustration.

But argument is not inherently bad. In fact, as a number of great thinkers have described, conflict is necessary for growth, progress, and community cohesion. Through disagreement, we challenge our common sense assumptions and seek compromise. The negative connotations surrounding ‘argument’ actually point to a failure in the way that we argue.

Check out this video on empathy. It provides useful insight into the listening, thinking, and discussion required for productive arguments.

Video: The Importance of Empathy byLifehacker


Now, spend a few minutes reflecting on the last time you had an argument with a loved one. What was it about? What was it really about? What made it difficult? What made it easy?

Often, arguments hinge on the relationship between the arguers. Whether written or verbal, an argument will rely on the specific language, approach, and evidence that each party deems valid. For that reason, the most important element of the rhetorical situation is the audience. Making an honest, impactful, and reasonable connection with that audience is the first step to arguing better.

Unlike the argument with your loved one, it is likely that your essay will establish a brand-new relationship with your reader, one which is untouched by your personal history, unspoken bonds, or other assumptions about your intent. This clean slate is a double-edged sword: although you’ll have a fresh start, you must more deliberately anticipate and navigate your assumptions about the audience. What can you assume your reader already knows and believes? What kind of ideas will they be most swayed by? What life experiences have they had that inform their worldview?


Black and white photo of two men talking on a busy city street.
Image 4.6 (Credit: “Conversation” by Jim Pennucci from licensed under CC BY 2.0)


This section will focus on how the answers to these questions can be harnessed for productive, civil, and effective arguing. Although a descriptive personal narrative and a textual analysis require attention to your subject, occasion, audience, and purpose, an argumentative essay is the most sensitive to the rhetorical situation of the genres covered in this book. As you complete this unit, remember that you are practicing the skills necessary to navigate a variety of rhetorical situations: thinking about effective arguments will help you think about other kinds of effective communication.


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UNM Core Writing OER Collection Copyright © 2023 by University of New Mexico is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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