A Vanishing Difference

I was talking about authenticity* with a friend after church last week, and she advanced the premise that careful, deliberate writing showed a writer’s minimal courtesy to her or his reader. Since I have a reputation to uphold, I suggested that it’s more complicated than that — but I sympathized with her concern that too few writers attend to readers’ uptake.

This shows up in student papers when writers back up their claims with an aggregation of assertions, rather than a productively structured argument. I understand why the distinction might not appear obvious; relatively little public debate observes the difference between assertion and argument (indeed, a great deal of political discourse seems to rest not simply on naked assertion, but on bellicose assertions without even a tenuous basis in common knowledge). Discursive conflict gravitates quickly and fatally to “she said, he said” or “well, that’s my perspective, you have yours,” without acknowledging the possibility that he and she, you and I might have a way of reaching for conclusions to which we both can assent.

Deliberative argument doesn’t guarantee that possibility, nor does it provide some ideal, neutral path toward truth. Still, it’s different from mere assertion — and if we fail to respect that difference, we’re poorer both in intellectual responsibility and in the wiser, more generously consensual relationships that the practice of argument can foster.

To oversimplify: If you want to elicit agreement with your thesis, you should not simply assert claims you suppose to be true (perhaps even self-evidently so), but present your reader with reasons to think that your claims are true, and that they add up to the thesis you propose. Some of your reasons may indeed strike some of your readers as self-evident, but if everything you think were equally self-evident to your reader, you wouldn’t need to persuade her of anything. If your reader disagrees with you about something, we have grounds for suspecting that she doubts a reason that you regard as sound, or that she doesn’t follow a chain of implications that you take as granted. Further, the more a writer takes for granted, the more likely he has overlooked (or deliberately elided) a fallacious inference in his own reasoning. The more carefully you write out your argument, the better you protect yourself from your own fallibility.

I worked through this with a student once, who experienced this as the revelation of a great secret. Once my student caught the idea that one could distinguish “assertion” from “argument” and that one could actually craft a paper toward the goal of persuading a reader to accept a thesis for explicit, sound reasons, my student couldn’t believe that the world had withheld this knowledge thus far. Why hadn’t anyone explained this to her? How could any grown-up get along without this knowledge?

Most people don’t find the distinction as surprising as that. Still, few cultivate the countercultural practice of differentiating assertion from argument. Preserving that distinction won’t resolve all the world’s problems — but it might make a useful step toward ameliorating a few, here and there. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

3 thoughts on “A Vanishing Difference

  1. How it’s possible for anyone to reach the stages of higher education without having this explained to them is baffling.

    Someone ~ many someones ~ has either failed signally or utterly abdicated responsibility somewhere along the way.

  2. My grading of first-year masters’ students is based in large measure upon their use of evidence and how they construct a line of argument therefrom. So, a big part of my syllabus revision has that goal in mind: it seems to take too long for me to “get across” to the students what I’m talking about with this requirement. Seminarians especially take time to realize that other, elsewhere-rewarded achievements (theological orthodoxy, autobiography, or um, authenticity [smile]) don’t substitute for clearly delineated evidence and arguments; that even an incorrect conclusion well-arrived-at will charm me more than a correct answer chosen by preference. I like, and want to give more organized thought to, your attention to the competing, culturally-reinforced modes of discourse (declaration of assertions and resignation to I-feel-this/I-feel-otherwise).

  3. It’s important to avoid taking a judgmental stand about this, of course. U.S. culture generally does not encourage or support deliberative writing; I’m not at all sure on what basis one might expect a sample of people to make a distinction that so few authority figures (in media, politics, or the church) pay any noticeable attention to.

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