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Generalizing from the Headlines

posted: 10.3.14 by Donna Winchell

The headlines about Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and the accompanying video of him knocking his then-fiancée unconscious in an Atlantic City hotel elevator sparked national debate about domestic violence.  Rice is awaiting appeal of his indefinite suspension by the NFL. He has already been judged in the court of public opinion. Widely publicized events like this one, however, provide compelling examples that can be used in teaching argumentation. One of the most valuable lessons our students can learn is how to generalize from such situations in a useful way instead of getting into heated discussions of individual cases.

Rice’s arbitrator and any lawyers involved in future cases growing out of the incident may have to be able to support whether Rice was justified or not in what he did, whether his wife was right or wrong in defending him, and what his punishment should have been. In some classes, the discussion of these questions could go on endlessly. They can also go on uselessly. The value in relating argumentation to today’s headlines is to use the headlines to teach, not to take sides in a specific case.

Aristotle recognized three types of rhetoric, designed for three types of occasions:

  • Epideictic rhetoric is rhetoric of praise or blame, but present-oriented—the rhetoric of ceremonies such as weddings and funerals. It will be appropriate at some point in the future in evaluating the totality of Rice’s career and his life. His wife claims even now that he is a good husband and father.
  • Judicial or forensic rhetoric is the rhetoric of the law court, and past-oriented. This is the language that Rice will use in arbitration and a lawyer would use in court to defend what he did. The past will certainly affect his future in football, but the focus will be on what he did one night in March.
  • Deliberative or legislative rhetoric addresses what should be done in the future, or what should be done in situations of a certain type. That is where a specific case in the headlines can be useful in class discussion. Even more useful is a series of related examples such as the ones we have seen in the NFL recently. Our students in argumentation classes do not need to learn how to write about what happened in the past except as it provides support for what we propose for the future.

We teach our students that a single example is seldom enough but can be combined with others to lead to a generalization. Anything less is a hasty generalization or a stereotype. There is little point in arguing what should have been done except as it shapes what is done in the future. These recent episodes will most likely make the NFL rethink its policies about what constitutes appropriate punishment for personal conduct violations, and that is a suitable subject for argumentation.  So is what should be done about school violence. So is whether or not children should be taught how to use firearms. So are subjects such as what can be done to protect unsuspecting customers from predators who use Craigslist to lure them to an isolated location or who lure a realtor to an empty house by pretending to be a potential buyer or who convince a child to stab another child by means of a fake online persona. All of these questions have arisen from cases in the headlines recently.  We can use such cases and others to teach argumentation, but our role as teachers is not to encourage our students to serve as judge and jury.

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