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What’s Left Unsaid

posted: 3.29.13 by Donna Winchell

In revising Elements of Argument, I was looking at bumper stickers as a form of argument.  I ran across a lot of funny sayings, and a lot that were serious as well. It struck me that I could use some of them as a way to talk to students about context. If you don’t “get” the context of a bumper sticker, you don’t “get” the humor, or even the point. Consider these examples:

  • If the environment were a bank, we would have saved it.
  • Keep your theology off my biology!
  • Why don’t we put a teacher in every gun store?

These and others could lead to a lively discussion of the issues involved.

I started thinking that the bumper stickers could be used to teach the syllogism, or more accurately, the enthymeme. We use the term “enthymeme” today to refer to a syllogism in which one element is not explicitly stated. Aristotle used it instead to refer to the rhetorical syllogism, or the syllogism as it applied to human affairs rather than to the sciences, with their relative certainty.

I discovered right away that a bumper sticker doesn’t provide a nice, neat syllogism. Think about this bumper sticker: “Against abortion? Don’t have one.” It could be broken down in this way:

      Major premise: If you are against abortion, you shouldn’t have an abortion
      Minor premise: You are against abortion.
      Conclusion:  You shouldn’t have an abortion.

There’s still more to it, though, isn’t there? There is still something missing. The point is that you should not be telling other people whether they should be against abortion even if you would not choose abortion yourself. You shouldn’t be telling other women not to have abortions based on the fact that you are against them.

I think it would work much better if you asked students to consider what the warrant or underlying assumption is for each bumper sticker. They would most likely immediately be able to explain what is unspoken about the abortion issue. The same would be true, I would predict, with these:

  • Ignore your rights, and they’ll go away.
  • No new taxes—just make the wealthy pay theirs!
  • Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.
  • I hope laughter is the best medicine—it’s all I can afford.

I have also discovered a wealth of subjects worth talking about by using Google and Flickr to search protest signs. I found a pair that I will be using in my new edition. One is held by a young boy from Westboro Baptist Church, and it says, “”Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” The other is held by a young woman, and it says, “My husband died to protect your right to hold that sign.”

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