Anatomy of an Op Ed

dukeellington-anatomyI authored an opinion piece in support of Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court that was published in the June 28, 2009 edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  You can read the piece here (and you can read a “dueling” piece authored by Rick Esenberg here).

 What follows is a deconstruction of my own op ed piece.  The final product as it appeared in the newspaper has its origins in the fundamentals of logic and rhetoric.  Law students, in particular, may be interested in the way in which I employ several classic techniques of persuasive writing in order to make my case.     

 Believe in Your Argument: It is not necessary to have an angel for a client, but it helps.  The most accomplished persuasive writing techniques will not hide the fact that your argument is a stinker.  My task is to persuade the reader that my belief – that Judge Sotomayor is a moderate jurist who should be confirmed to the Supreme Court-is one that they should adopt as well.  If I do not believe my own argument, I will not succeed in convincing the reader.  

 Know Your Audience:  My language is directed towards the non-specialist, so I consciously avoided legal technicalities.  Also, I assume that the average newspaper reader will be skimming the text rather than fully engaged in my arguments.  Therefore, I utilize simple and direct sentences as opposed to rhetorical questions or complex syllogisms that require greater concentration to follow.

 I also presume that a large segment of the public is already persuaded to either support or oppose the Sotomayor nomination.  This segment of the public is not likely to be swayed by my arguments.  Therefore, the tone and the specific arguments that I adopt are specifically designed to appeal to persuadable Republicans and/or wavering Democrats.  This leads to a focus on mainstream issues such as crime and away from “hot button” issues such as Affirmative Action.

 Establish Connection Between Reader and Subject Matter: Hispanics can be perceived as the “other” in our society, which immediately renders Hispanics as objects of suspicion or distrust in the media.  By opening with a Spanish phrase, I attempt to confront this perception by bringing it to the foreground.  However, I reveal that the Spanish phrase I invoke actually reflects a shared, non-threatening value (people should treat each other with common decency).  This invites the reader to focus on the commonalities between Hispanics and non-Hispanics, rather than on the differences.

 Maximize the Gender Gap:  Among my target audience, women are more likely to be open to persuasion given Judge Sotomayor’s position as the third woman nominated to the Supreme Court.  In my conversations with women about the nomination, I have noticed that the first subject that comes up is invariably the excellent qualifications of Judge Sotomayor.  Many women in the workplace feel that male co-workers ignore or minimize their qualifications, focusing on their gender rather than their talent.  These women will respond to arguments that Judge Sotomayor is being treated the same way.

 On the other hand, the “empathy” argument invoked against Judge Sotomayor plays on gender stereotypes.  Women are often portrayed in the media as nurturing and caring, and therefore not strong enough to protect society from threats such as violent crime.  At the same time, a fear of violent crime is often used as a rhetorical device to prevent wavering women voters from abandoning a political party’s preferred candidate (i.e., the Willie Horton example).

 By focusing on Judge Sotomayor’s “tough-on-crime” reputation, I anticipate and counter both the negative aspect of the “empathy” charge as well as a particular wedge issue of concern to many women.

 Appeal to the Reader’s Emotion: The piece makes a very clear and specific appeal to the emotions of the reader.  The words “shame” or shameless” are employed three times-twice in the opening paragraphs and again in the final paragraph.  The reader is asked to conclude that Judge Sotomayor is being subjected to unfair criticism, and to feel sympathy towards her.  

 Appeal to Authority: I do not expect the reader to believe my arguments based solely upon my own authority.  Therefore, I appeal to other sources of authority in order to support the point that Judge Sotomayor is a moderate judge.  I refer to objective reviewers of her record, and in fact there are many such objective reviews available on the internet (on SCOTUS Blog or from the Congressional Research Service).  I also consciously include a sentence that summarizes the results of a review of 100 opinions in which Judge Sotomayor participated involving race-based claims.  Used judiciously, numbers and statistics can impart an aura of objectivity to a piece of persuasive writing.  I also appeal to endorsements of Judge Sotomayor by national law enforcement organizations and by other appellate judges.        

 Do Not Dodge Your Opponent’s Best Argument: I do not find the “wise Latina” debate to be particularly interesting or significant.  However, given that those opposed to Judge Sotomayor’s nomination have made this the centerpiece of their campaign, it is necessary to raise and respond to this argument.  The most effective way to do this is to simply place her words back into the context from which they were severed.   I also try to turn the “empathy” criticism into a positive by invoking Judge Sotomayor’s empathy towards the victims of crime.  This signals to the reader that a judge’s empathy can benefit groups that are not defined along racial or gender lines, and that empathy can be a desirable attribute in a judge.

 Turn Your Opponents Rhetoric on Its Head:  The task of Judge Sotomayor’s opponents is to argue that she is an extremist and that the evidence supports this characterization of her record.  I argue that by opposing a true moderate, it is her opponents who are extreme.  I invite the reader to question the very ideological framework that conservative critics are using when they evaluate Judge Sotomayor.  If she is not acceptable to them, who is?

 Persuasive writing is a skill that is learned, and not a talent that comes naturally.  Go back and re-read the piece in light of this deconstruction.  By revealing the anatomy beneath my opinion piece, I hope that our students will understand why this is a skill worth developing.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. J. Gordon Hylton

    This is an extremely interesting post and one that students will find quite instructive.

    I feel compelled, however, to point out that the author uses the term “deconstruction” incorrectly. To deconstruct is not to analyze the structure of a text but rather to illustrate that the argument presented in the text ultimately collapses under the weight of its own contradictions.

    As a literary term “deconstruction” was coined by the great French philosopher Jacques Derrida. According to my dictionary,,”deconstruction” means a philosophical theory of criticism (usually of literature or film) that seeks to expose deep-seated contradictions in a work by delving below its surface meaning).

    As my countryman J. Hillis Miller once put it, “Deconstruction is not a dismantling of the structure of a text, but a demonstration that it has already dismantled itself. Its apparently-solid ground is no rock, but thin air.”

    Unless Professor Fallone’s point is that his op-ed piece makes no sense at all — and the text itself clearly contradicts such a reading — he has misused the term “deconstruction.”

  2. Thomas Foley

    With respect, according to Merriam-Webster, deconstruction is simply “the analysis of something (as language or literature) by the separation and individual examination of its basic elements.”

    To construct, of course, means to assemble from individual components. And in the building trades, deconstruction is distinct from demolition, in that the deconstructed elements are preserved intact for reassembly or for a different assembly elsewhere.

    Furthermore Oxford tells us that the prefix de- is added to verbs to merely imply removal, but says nothing about the quality or logical integrity of the concepts removed.

    Perhaps further clarification is in order from Prof. O’Meara, who, to my knowledge, is the only legal academic to have applied Derridean methodology to the circumstances surrounding Jeffrey Dahmer.

  3. J. Gordon Hylton

    Well, I stand corrected and my apologies to Professor Fallone. I should have known not to rely upon a Princeton University dictionary. I also probably spent too much time in the 1980’s studying literary theory.

  4. Thomas Foley

    Nevertheless, an intriguing rhetorical tack. I’ve filed it away and plan on deploying it at the appropriate opportunity (and possibly even an inappropriate one).

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