Constructing Arguments

Constructing an argument is an important skill. For any interpretation, accusation or conclusion to hold water it must make sense and be supported by evidence.

It’s not exactly a radical point of view, is it? However, a distressingly large amount of people completely misunderstand how this process works. They don’t understand what constitutes supporting evidence. They don’t understand the concept of a clear thesis driven by identifiable facts. They don’t understand the importance of being able to cite these facts from reliable sources.

The notion of how sources work, in fact, gets to the heart of it. A lot of people utterly fail to understand that you simply cannot believe everything you read. The Internet has exacerbated the issue. In these first years of my career as an educator, I have already shed my assumption that the following generations of our society would be savvier with technological methods of gaining information. “They’ve grown up with Google” I thought; surely this would mean that inquisitive minds would find answers all the easier and thus reach logically sound conclusions more directly.

Well, I’m afraid that hasn’t been the case. One should certainly be skeptical but at the same time, one absolutely should draw a reasonable interpretation from overwhelming evidence. Most importantly, there are basic rules to follow: do some research, construct a hypothesis, conduct more research to test the hypothesis. Done. It’s straightforward. I consistently tell my students that they must question everything they read, including books that I give them to read. Apply the process: read the book, construct a hypothesis, read more course materials and look over lecture notes, return to hypothesis. Talk with me to explore questions and issues with the text or the narrative being presented. Yet, just as consistently, I receive essays that repeat what is stated in the books, sometimes verbatim. Sometimes they exaggerate the inconsistencies of historical sources further.

Take Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China. This book, originally published in 1937, details the author’s significant period of time spent with the Chinese Communist Party’s guerrilla soldiers in 1936. It’s a fantastic source on the early years of Chinese communism, just after Mao Zedong elevated himself to unquestionable leadership of the Chinese communist movement. It gives us priceless information on significant milestones in Chinese communist ideology, particularly the Long march of 1935-1936, when the communists narrowly avoided complete obliteration at the hands of their enemies the Nationalists and successfully regrouped in advance of the successful communist revolution of 1949. It’s a great book. It’s a fascinating book. It’s a flawed book. Snow had fantastic access to Mao Zedong. Access so fantastic, in fact, that one could argue you’re getting Mao’s version of events more than you’re getting Snow’s. The book does not present a balanced view of the Chinese Communist Party.

That doesn’t lessen the book’s importance or its usefulness in a history class. Far from it; reading Red Star Over China encourages students to start asking questions. Why was Snow so enamoured with Chinese communism, as indeed millions of Chinese people would become? Why would Mao Zedong be so interested having a western correspondent travel with the Communist military? What are the issues with taking the book at face value and how should events that occur later in the twentieth century affect our interpretation of the book (or not)?

All great questions. Many students ask these questions or address them, at the very least in passing. The best students take them on directly. There are always students who fail to do this utterly however, students that write essays describing Mao Zedong as an unqualified genius and the savior of modern China. Now, I don’t have an issue with taking the view that Mao Zedong’s achievements must be recognized. You can’t just ignore the man’s many flaws however, just as you can’t decry him as a dictator who never accomplished anything. More pertinent to analyzing the book, you need to be critical of the author. Does what the author is telling us stack up in light of what we know about that period? I don’t need a specific answer from the student, but I need them to ask the question. I’m not complaining about my students here. I’m seeking to illustrate my concern that producing a high percentage of graduates with genuine ability to engage in critical thinking remains a significant challenge.

I bring all of this up because I am increasingly horrified by the popularity of the 9/11 Truth movement. Part of me feels rather strongly that I need to get past this, but I find it immensely troubling. These “truthers” actively ignore an overwhelming collection of supporting evidence for the cause of the attacks: an extremist terrorist group with a clearly stated aim of attacking the United States hijacked four passenger jets in an audacious and unprecedented attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In the weeks and months that followed, many questions were asked. Experts were called in, and conclusions were made. It’s clear. In fact, it should never have been doubt. It never has been in doubt for most people.

Yet, “truthers” ask, how can we know for sure? What about the fact that there is no clear evidence that a plane crashed into the Pentagon? What about the “dancing Israelis”? What about this one Dutch expert on controlled demolitions who gave an opinion based on viewing video footage and then “mysteriously” died in a car crash? What about the owner of the twin towers taking out an insurance policy on the buildings? What about…

I can’t go on. All of these questions have simple answers. Sometimes the simple answer really is the right one. “Truthers” decry people who believe the overwhelming evidence as sheep being led to the slaughter by… whom exactly? It’s not always clear. Some talk about the US government, some talk about an international government. My favourites are the ones who clearly imply that it was a plot to justify war in Afghanistan and Iraq but insist that they are not necessarily saying that it was a plot by the US government. Ah, trying to have it both ways. That old chestnut. In any case, they are in the right for asking questions. They are independent thinkers. They dare to be different.

Fine. Be different. However, you can’t ignore the evidence that is there. “Truthers” rely on misquotes, straw man arguments and fraudulent junk science such as the famous assertion that the twin towers could not have collapsed because the temperature did not reach the point where steel would melt. Steel doesn’t need to melt to collapse: it loses structural integrity at much lower temperatures than those required for it to melt. However, such conclusions are instantly dismissed as pro-government propaganda. Well, obviously. Forget the ethical issue here: that arguing for a government conspiracy rather willfully ignores the genuine tragedies experienced by thousands of families. Let’s look at arguments. Let’s look at what’s not mentioned in the “truther” argument.

The Middle East. As Phil Mole argues (very effectively I might add), there may well be a certain comfort in essentially pretending that the Middle East doesn’t exist. And, although there are many “truthers” outside the United States, there is something incredibly insular about this particular conspiracy theory. It maintains the United States’ position at the centre of the narrative. Asking questions is all well and good, but in this case the “truthers” are asking the wrong questions in the first place anyway. We know that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda sought to attack the United States. Looking back through history (and really, you don’t have to look back that far) one can see a pretty poor track record for western nations in the Middle East, particularly for the United States in the postwar period. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism as a unifying ideological dynamic has come in the wake of Arab nationalism, itself a product of numerous factors involving the detritus of the imperial mandates of the interwar period, the ham-fisted creation of the state of Israel and the already extant issue of the Zionist communities resident in the area preceding it, the frequently Machiavellian policies of both superpowers during the Cold War and the portrayal of American society as a bacchanalian den of sin among certain religious communities globally.

There are so many factors involved in the history of the Middle East that clearly support the conclusion that the events of 9/11 were the result of a terrorist attack that the only way one could argue against this would be to completely ignore the fact that the Middle East exists. There is a world out there, beyond the borders of this country. The failure of so many Americans to engage with that fact is something that must be addressed. It all comes back, finally, to this point of constructing an argument being an important skill. You simply cannot parrot back information that you read somewhere, once. You simply cannot ignore all the evidence that runs counter to your conclusion. You must acknowledge such evidence. I tell my students all the time: bringing up a credible counter-argument, even briefly, will often actually strengthen your own argument if you have constructed it well. “Truthers” will argue that the establishment has failed to do this in regard to their claims. That’s not true. Many of the conspiracy theories have either been debunked (controlled demolition) or clearly did not hold water in the first place (“dancing Israelis”). Arthur Conan Doyle famously wrote that when you “have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” The terrorist attacks on 11 September, 2001 were unfortunately all too possible. By all means, question why the attacks had to happen. Question American and European policy in the Middle East dating back to the Ottoman Empire. Question the validity of the case for war in Afghanistan or Iraq in the years following the attacks. Question the use of Ground Zero in political turf battles in New York and beyond. Question whatever you want. We live in a free society, a society that will only benefit from intelligent criticism of our history, our cultural values and our ideological beliefs. Constructing a flawed argument on selective evidence brings no value whatsoever.