During this week’s podcast, I described how Toulmin diagrams can be used to map even the most complex arguments, including those that can be found in campaign materials, such as negative TV ads.
Before taking a look at how this can be done, I should mention that I actually like negative ads. Not that they don’t suffer from a number of shortcomings, critical-thinking wise. First, you’ve got the use of pathos-driven evocative imagery and music, designed to short circuit reason in favor of an emotional reaction. And the use of news headlines (to create a halo effect based on credible sources) is something we’ll be addressing shortly when we analyze the role of the media in political campaigns.
But negative ads (unlike positive ones which just paint warm and fuzzy images of the candidate, his family and accomplishments) at least present an argument. Yes, that argument might take some time to determine (and once determined, might be wrong). But if you can find it, you can analyze it using the critical thinking tools we have been studying.
For example, in this negative TV ad produced by the Obama campaign, Mitt Romney, who served as the CEO of the large private equity firm Bain Capital, is presented as being responsible for the closing of the century-old CST steel mill with the result of numerous lost jobs and ruined lives.
Others have discussed the effectiveness of the ad, and we could certainly analyze it in terms of its use of pathos to lead viewers towards a specific conclusion (specifically, the ads use of moving emotional testimony from people affected by the plant shut down and powerful images of a ruined landscape where a thriving enterprise once stood).
But this week we are concerned with argumentation, and if we can figure out what argument this negative ad is making (in this case, by using the Toulmin model), we can use that understanding to determine our next steps towards drawing our own informed conclusions.
To begin with, the Bain ad actually starts with a simple argument that can be presented in Toulin fashion as:
By breaking the argument into these linked components, it becomes easier to determine which elements can be supported or challenged. For example, the Grounds cannot be challenged on the basis of fact since Bain was indeed the owner of the firm during its slide towards bankruptcy.
On one level, Mitt Romney’s role in the firm (the Warrant) also looks like a statement of fact, but this is deceptive.
Like many complex real-world situations, not all truths resemble “All Cats are Animals” with regard to judging truth or falsehood. For example, one could look at the timing of decisions related to CST and map them to the timing of Governor Romney’s changing roles within the organization (which take into account his leaves of absence when running the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002 or running for the Presidency in 2008).
One could also challenge whether Romney’s role in a large organization such as Bain was directly responsible for the mill being shut down. In both cases, you would be challenging whether the Warrant is sufficient to support the Claim (that Romney is responsible for the shutdown of the mill) regardless of the accuracy of the Grounds.
It’s at this point that the Warrant ends up turning into a Claim to another argument which expands our Toulin diagram to look like this:
Again, one can challenge the Claim and/or Warrant of this new argument (digging further into the reasoning behind certain decisions, for example) or questioning the responsibility of the CEO for the consequences – expected or unexpected – of every decision. But putting aside details of how such challenges might be made, you can begin to see how mapping the logical argument hidden within the original seemingly emotion-driven negative ad gives us something substantial to discuss when either supporting or challenging its fundamental call to action.
And what is that call to action? Well if we expand our Toulin map to include the critical hidden argument that sits on top of the entire persuasive effort, it would look like this:
While it took a little work to tease out the argument underlying the Obama ad, now that we’ve done so we have a number of ways to explore or challenge the entire argument, with research from news sources like this one being useful to help us accept or reject certain Grounds, Claims and Warrants.
For those who feel negative ads to be unpleasant or manipulative, the effort needed to turn them into a coherent logical argument (leveraging tools like Toulmin) can help us do something the makers of such ads would prefer we don’t do: think for ourselves.