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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 are already familiar with these forms. They can see how the authors marshal those strategies to advance their arguments. In turn, when they begin to compose their own arguments, they can 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 have a systematic method for going about it.

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 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 list the evidence 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 six 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 last two are primarily researched writing. 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, less ceremonial, 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 “non traditional” families are enviably strong units in many instances. 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.

Joan Acocella makes a very scholarly and convincing argument that the Harry Potter series is based upon folk tale tradition an theory and that, besides standing up to serious literary criticism, it is good reading for children and adults. Harold Bloom deplores Pottermania. His curmudgeonly persona lambastes popular literature in general as he compares the “epiphenomenon” surrounding Harry Potter to the attention J. R. R. Tolkien received over his Middle Earth trilogy.

The last pair of essays presents a sophisticated debate about human nature—whether people are basically good or evil. Francine Prose writes about her childhood celebrations of Passover and her subsequent study of the book of Exodus. She discovers that since biblical times genocide has been practiced as “the killing of other people’s children.” Natalie Angier, writing just one week after the 9/11 disasters, argues that human beings are basically kind and altruistic. Citing evidence from the insect world through the heroic actions of firefighters, rescue workers, and airplane passengers on that fateful day in 2001, she finds much to admire about the human species.

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 that make all people equal. Nothing gets accomplished because there is no competition, and everyone’s ability is reduced to the status quo.


The Leo Burnett advertising company offers a visual pun about missing limbs in its ad for Physicians Against Land Mines (PALM). The girl portrayed in the ad lost her left leg while playing on the outskirts of Sarajevo. Ironically, the bare limb of a tree whose trunk is not pictured supports her; that limb is an inadequate replacement for her lost one. The text that fills the space where her leg would be forms a sort of ghost limb, outlining the shape of the amputated leg. It tells readers that millions of land mines are left behind in nearly 70 countries, and that a person is killed or maimed by accidentally detonating one every 22 minutes. The audience for the ad realizes that there are just words or eulogies left in the place of many of those victims.

The assignments at the end of this section provide a range of purposes, audiences, and strategies for composing arguments. Many of the assignments suggest topics to be posted on a class web site, where students’ arguments could potentially be tested against a very wide audience. The first essay asks students to consider their own outlook on the American Dream, following the tradition modeled by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Eric Liu. The second assignment invites Harry Potter fans to take issue with Harold Bloom. The third and fifth ask students to conduct a rhetorical analysis of specific essays in this section of the book.

Assignment 4 asks students to carefully consider service learning and construct an argument about whether work through one’s own church should count toward college credit. The final assignment encourages students to write a letter to the editor of the New York Times.



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 nor 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 psalm-like 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 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 which "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 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."


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