Determining the Issue
In argumentative or persuasive writing, you need to find the issue, or
the point of disagreement. For instance, if I were trying to sell
someone a set of encyclopedias, I would need to try to figure out if
my potential customer is likely to resist my sales pitch because the
encyclopedias are not of good quality or because of their prices.
There may be other points of resistance as well, but figuring them out
is figuring out the issue.
Here are a couple other brief examples. Perhaps I have just read
an editorial in the newspaper supporting a certain local proposal. For
some reason, I find myself disagreeing and decide to write a letter
to the editor. To make my letter effective, I need to decide the issue:
that is, I need to figure out just what it is about the editorial I
disagree with. Or suppose someone is being tried for murder. The
prosecution and the defense will try to figure out what the issue is:
Did the accused kill the deceased? Was it murder or self-defense?
Was it justifiable homicide? The two sides will try to figure out how
they want to define the issue. Once they have done that, they can
build a case to support their side of the argument.
But just how do you decide what the issue is? There is an ancient
system, developed primarily by Roman rhetoricians, which is very
helpful for this purpose. It is called stasis or sometimes
status. It was used primarily in court cases like the murder
case I just mentioned, but it can be adapted to many different
situations. Here's how it works.
Stasis consists of four questions.
Stasis can be applied to all kinds of situations. Think about
watching the evening news or a news program like Dateline or Sixty
Minutes. Do you find yourself disagreeing sometimes? If so, you
might trying to figure out if it is with the facts they present,
the definitions they attribute, the moral judgments they imply, or
the inappropriateness of their being the ones to talk about it. Try
it with commercials--what do you disagree with? How would you
define the issue if you were to defend or accuse someone of shabby
- The question of fact: do we agree or disagree about the facts
of the case? Facts are true statements about what happened, about the
present state of things, or about the future. For instance, in a murder
case, the accused may admit that he or she killed the deceased. In
that case, both sides would agree about that fact: it is NOT the issue.
- The question of definition: do we agree about how to categorize
the thing we are talking about? In our murder case, perhaps the defense
is arguing that the killing was an accident and therefore not murder.
The prosecution may wish to make definition the issue, and so they
may argue that the killing was intentional and that the accused
had carefully planned the killing for some time. They would then
be trying to define the killing as murder in the first degree.
- The question of quality: do we agree about the moral value
of the thing being argued about? It is possible for people to agree
about the facts and definitions, and still disagree about the moral
values associated with the act. A recent example is the practice of
distributing condoms in high schools. People can agree about the facts
associated with the case and may even agree to call it a public health
initiative, but they may still disagree about the moral rectitude of
the policy. If that were so, the point at issue would be that of
quality, and a wise debater would focus on that issue. In our murder
case, perhaps a person planned to kill someone, but the deceased was
such a terrible person that the murder some how seems justifiable.
If this seems impossible, think about how you would rule today
on someone who planned to kill Hitler during the second World War.
- The question of policy: do we agree about who should be
arguing this case and that it should be argued in this forum? Sometimes
the point of the argument may be that this is not the time or place,
and these are not the people to be making the argument. In our murder
case, perhaps the killer was a someone on the staff of another country's
embassy, and that country argues that the case should not be heard
in our courts.
For more information about stasis, go to
a discussion of
stasis at Georgia Tech.
Dale Sullivan, WAC Program Director
Send comments to email@example.com
All contents copyright (C) 1997. All rights reserved.
Revised: April 7, 1997