Quality as Argument

Back when I was at the University of Southern California and learning how to teach composition and rhetoric, I learned about the Toulmin method of reasoning. It’s a system of claims, grounds, and warrants that, in the context of an essay, require an author to make a claim and then explain the grounds that warrant that claim. It was basically the foundation upon which the rubric by which we graded papers was based, because when you break it down, that’s what a thesis is. It’s an argument.

Not an argument in the internet sense of the word. Not an argument wherein you have two people who dislike each other vociferously talking across each other.

No, in this context, an argument is a position. A claim. When I was teaching my students how to craft an essay well, how to draft and refine a thesis, I always told them that a thesis is a statement with which any reasonable person can disagree.

That’s the nature of it. It has to be bold enough that it could be wrong. It can’t be fact; that would be boring. It used to be that would be easily disproven, but nowadays in an era of “fake news” and “alternative facts” as apparent misnomers we apply to any data with which we disagree, that’s less the case.

But I think that’s what makes quality and art interesting. They’re claims.

I’ve seen a lot of people claim that both are subjective. They’re opinions. Chalk them up to taste.

I propose that they’re more than that. When someone says that Casablanca is a great movie, it’s less an opinion than it is a claim.

If it’s a claim, that necessarily requires the grounds that warrant such a claim.

There are myriad.

If I were making the claim that Casablanca is a great movie, I’d point to a few easy wins. Bogart’s performance is, as his performances always were, pitch perfect. The dialogue is smart, witty, and to this day utterly quotable. Ingrid Bergman’s performance is wonderful in that it’s torn between her love of Bogey and her loyalty to Lazlo.

There’s a reason it’s in my top three favorite movies of all time. That’s subjective, for sure.

But that it is among the greatest movies of all time isn’t. That’s a claim, with the grounds that warrant it. Not only did I just build a compelling case for it in a paragraph, but over the years so too have myriad movie fans.


We Need to Talk More About Quality

Over the past few years, I’ve seen lots of discussions about how to best promote a book and gain the most Twitter followers and build your platform and who’s shooting up the rankings, but when it comes to books — and unfortunately, particularly indie titles — I’ve seen far fewer discussions about quality except in the sense that it’s totally subjective and something to chalk up to taste and personal preferences. What seems to matter in those discussions is sales and rankings. Everyone wants to append “Bestselling Author” to their name, so they categorize their books into some obscure niche or other and BOOM! Bestsellerdom.

I think we need to have a broader discussion, because it’s not just about books, and it’s definitely not just about the indie world.

It’s about reading, too. Especially reading digitally.

This past week, I read on CNN a story about a site that was requiring readers to answer a short quiz before they could comment. I was reminded of another article I’d seen, over at the Washington Post, that six of ten people share stories without first reading them in full.

2016 Election & Twitter Eggs

I have to be completely honest here that something in me felt like it broke when I saw the US election coverage. It wasn’t just the result; it was everything that came associated with it, from both sides — so much hand-wringing about what “the Left” and Hillary had done wrong from venues like NPR and the New York Times and so much gloating and admonition to “get over it” from venues like Fox News and who knows how many eggs on Twitter.

Politics aside I want to get at that idea; somehow, our brave new digital world has created a context wherein legitimate journalistic outfits counter every credentialed, curated, vetted, edited story with an acknowledgement that a Twitter egg disagrees.

I saw a lot of discussion about “echo chambers” and how we create them; I’ll be honest that reading that amounted to blaming Facebook algorithms and being selective about friends and sharing on users, which I think is bullshit. It reminds me of a segment on some news program I saw that discussed coverage of climate change — that the media wanted to remain “fair and balanced” and so would present a counterpoint to every argument it presented, but wouldn’t go the representative step farther to feature 99 environmental scientists who had extensively studied climate change next to the single non-scientist who wanted to argue with them that “Hey it’s June and cold outside so how is global warming a thing?”

Up above I just mentioned “legitimate journalistic outfits” and “credentialed, curated, vetted, edited” [stories], and I think a further problem is that even the media right now sometimes portrays those qualities as overly intellectual or, worse, “elitist.” A lot of people would say “Well what makes them curated? Who made them ‘legitimate’?”

Talking at NPR

During my commute into my day job, my wife and I are more likely to be tuned to our local NPR station than the local rock station’s morning show, and recently we’ve each been known to yell at our car speakers when Steve Inskeep or Josh whoever or Tabitha whatever isn’t taking to task an interviewee to our satisfaction.

I don’t know if this speaks to political biases, but I’ll note that what strikes me is that the outlets typically referred to as “liberal” or “elitist” (like NPR or the New York Times) seem to me to be the ones to go further out of their ways to include opposing viewpoints, give them a forum, and acknowledge them as legitimate.

I’ve watched Fox News. I’ve watched more of Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly than I’ve really thought was necessary, but I haven’t on that network, or others of a conservative bent (e.g., Breitbart) noticed a similar inclination. I’ve heard Steve Inskeep be deferential to people whose opinions have been opposite his; I’ve seen Bill O’Reilly call them “pinheads.”

Do we need to?

Do we need to offer opposing viewpoints their own forums, when they can create their own? If we want to have a group of people who might discuss the science of climate change and potential ameliorations, do we need to reserve one seat for that one person to say “Ehhh, I’m not sure global warming is that big of a deal”?

I don’t think we do. And I think that getting beyond that begins with focusing on quality. Of thought, of ideas. Of reporting, and of content.

We need to talk more about quality. About great prose. About great structure.

About great stories well told.