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- Practical Argumentation - 3/43 -

may be of value to him outside the class room, select a popular topic rather than one that has been worn out or that is comparatively unknown. He should, moreover, choose an interesting topic, for then his work will be more agreeable and consequently of a higher order. Of this general idea he must decide upon some specific phase which readily lends itself to discussion. Then he has to express this specific idea in the form of a proposition. As it is not always an easy matter to state a proposition with precision and fairness, he must take this last step very cautiously. One must always exercise great care in choosing words that denote the exact meaning he wishes to convey. Many writers and speakers have found themselves in false positions just because, upon examination, it was found that their subjects did not express the precise meaning that was intended.

Moreover, in phrasing the proposition, the debater should so state the subject that the affirmative side, the side that opens the discussion, is the one to advocate a change in existing conditions or belief. This method obviously corresponds to the way in which business is conducted in practical affairs. No one has reason to defend an established condition until it is first attacked. The law presumes a man to be innocent until he is proved guilty, and therefore it is the prosecution, the side to affirm guilt, that opens the case. The question about government ownership of railroads should be so worded that the affirmative side will advocate the new system, and the negative will uphold the old. It should be stated thus: "_Resolved_, That all railroads in the United States should be owned and operated by the Federal government." This obligation of adducing evidence and reasoning to support one side of a proposition before an answer from the other side can be demanded, is called _burden of proof_. The "burden" always rests upon the side that advocates a change, and the proposition should be so worded that the affirmative will have to undertake this duty.

One more principle must be observed: nothing in the wording of the subject should give one side any advantage over the other. Argument can exist only when reasonable men have a difference of opinion. If the wording of the proposition removes this difference, no discussion can ensue. For instance, the word "undesirable," if allowed to stand in the following proposition, precludes any debate: "_Resolved,_ That all colleges should abolish the undesirable game of football."

From the preceding suggestions it is seen that the subject of an argument is a definite, restricted thought derived from some general idea. Whether expressed or not, the subject must be a proposition, not a term. In debate the proposition is usually framed in the form of a resolution. This resolution must always be so worded that the burden of proof will rest upon the affirmative side. Nothing in the wording of the proposition should give either side any advantage over the other. These principles have to do with the manner of expression; subjects will next be considered with respect to the ideas they contain.

A common and convenient method of classification divides propositions into two groups: propositions of policy, and propositions of fact. The first class consists of those propositions that aim to prove the truth of a theory, that indicate a preference for a certain policy, for a certain method of action. The second class comprises those propositions that affirm or deny the occurrence of an event, or the existence of a fact. Propositions of policy usually, though not always, contain the word _should_ or _ought_; propositions of fact usually contain some form of the word _to be_. The following illustrations will make the distinction plainer:--


The United States should adopt a system of bounties and subsidies for the protection of the American merchant marine.

State laws prohibiting secular employment on Sunday should be repealed.

A city furnishes a more desirable location for a college than the country.

The aggressions of England in Africa are justifiable.


Homer wrote the Iliad.

Nero was guilty of burning Rome.

Mary, Queen of Scots, murdered her husband.

The most convenient method of studying propositions to see what subjects are desirable for student debates is to consider first those propositions that should be avoided.

1. PROPOSITIONS WITH ONLY ONE SIDE. As argumentation presupposes a difference of opinion about a certain subject, evidently it is impossible to argue upon a subject on which all are agreed. Sometimes such propositions as, "_Resolved_, That Napoleon was a great soldier," and "_Resolved_, That railroads should take every precaution to protect the lives of their passengers," are found on the programs of literary societies and debating clubs. In such cases mere comment, not debate, can follow. Only subjects on which reasonable men actually disagree are suitable for argument.

2. AMBIGUOUS PROPOSITIONS. If a proposition is capable of several interpretations, those who choose it as a subject for an argument are liable not to agree on what it means, and one side will debate in accordance with one interpretation, and the other side in accordance with a totally different interpretation. Thus the opponents will never meet in conflict except when they explain their subject. For example, in a certain debate on the question, "_Resolved_, That colleges should abolish all athletic sports," the affirmative held that only interclass and intercollegiate games were involved; while the negative maintained that the term "athletic sports" included all forms of athletic games participated in by college men. Manifestly the debate hinged largely on the definition of this term; but as there was no authority to settle just what was meant, the debate was a failure. It is usually desirable, and frequently necessary, to explain what the subject means, for unless it has some meaning which both sides are bound to accept, the argument becomes a mere controversy over the definition of words. Another ambiguous proposition would be, "Republican government in the United States is preferable to any other." The word "republican" is open to two legitimate definitions, and since the context does not explain which meaning is intended, a debater is at liberty to accept either definition that he wishes. A few alterations easily turn this proposition into a debatable subject, "Government by the Republican party in the United States is preferable to any other."

3. TOO GENERAL PROPOSITIONS. It is never wise for a writer or a speaker to choose a subject which is so general or so abstract that he cannot handle it with some degree of completeness and facility. Not only will such work be difficult and distasteful to him, but it will be equally distasteful and uninteresting to his audience. No student can write good themes on such subjects as, "War," "The Power of the Press," "Race Prejudice"; nor can he argue well on propositions like, "_Resolved_, That wars are justifiable"; "_Resolved_, That the pen is mightier than the sword"; or "_Resolved_, That race prejudice is justifiable." These are entirely beyond his scope. But he can handle restricted propositions that have to do with one phase of some concrete, tangible event or idea. "_Resolved_, That Japan was justified in waging war against Russia"; "_Resolved_, That Bacon wrote the plays commonly attributed to Shakespeare"; "_Resolved_, That the segregation of Japanese school children in San Francisco is for the best interests of all concerned," are subjects that can be argued with success.

4. COMBINED PROPOSITIONS. It sometimes happens that several heterogeneous ideas, each of which by itself would form an excellent subject for argument, are embodied in a single proposition. The difficulty of arguing on this kind of subject is apparent. It is none too easy to establish one idea satisfactorily; but when several ideas must be upheld and defended, the work is enormous and sometimes open to the charge of inconsistency. Moreover, the principle of Unity demands that a composition be about a single topic. The proposition, "_Resolved_, That Aaron Burr was guilty of murder and should have been put to death," involves two debatable subjects, each of which is of sufficient importance to stand in a proposition by itself: "Was Burr guilty of murder?" and "Should a murderer be punished by death?" The error of combining in a compound sentence several distinct subjects for debate is generally detected with ease; but when the error of combination exists in a simple sentence, it is not always so obvious. In the case of the subject, "_Resolved_, That foreign immigrants have been unjustly treated by the United States," there are, as the same privileges have not been granted all immigrants, several debatable questions. One who attempts to argue on this subject must take into consideration the treatment that has been accorded the Chinese, the English, the Germans, the Italians, the paupers, the well-to-do, and others. In one case the laws may be palpably unfair, and in another case, all that can be desired.

When two ideas, however, are very closely related and are dependent upon each other for interpretation and support, they may and sometimes should be combined in the same proposition. For example, "Education should be compulsory to the age of sixteen," involves two main issues: "Education should be compulsory," and "The age of sixteen is the proper limit." But in this case the one who advocates compulsory education is under obligation to explain some definite system, and this explanation must include the establishing of some limit. To name this limit in the proposition renders the argument clearer to an audience and fairer to an opponent. For similar reasons, the proposition, "The Federal government should own and operate the railroads in the United States," cannot be condemned on the ground that it is a proposition with more than one main issue.

Propositions, then, adapted to class room argument, are those which give rise to a conflict of opinion; which contain a definite and unmistakable thought; which are specific and sufficiently restricted to admit of thorough treatment; and which contain a single idea.

Furthermore, the student will do well to select subjects that are as nearly as possible like the problems which statesmen, educators, professional and business men meet in practical life. He should try to remove his argument as far as he can from the realm of pure academic exercise, and endeavor to gain some insight into the issues that are now confronting the makers of modern civilization. The student who takes this work seriously is sure to gain information, form opinions, and acquire habits of thought that will be of great practical value to him when he takes his place as a man among men.


A. Narrow each of the following terms into good, debatable

Practical Argumentation - 3/43

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