Rhetorical Analysis of “The Superstition of Equality” (and summary of chapter 5)

Chapter 5 of Everything’s An Argument opens with an anecdote of an ineffective Victoria’s Secret commercial starring Bob Dylan. The op-ed The Superstition of Equality, by Jennifer Roback Morse, shares just one thing in common with this commercial: its failure to persuade.

Just as Chapter 5 suggests, this analysis will itself become an argument with a purpose of showing that The Superstition of Equality failed to achieve its purpose. Namely: To persuade her audience that there does exist a difference in men and women’s math and science abilities, and we must respect this difference in academia. Dr. Morse puts this as “The Myth of course, is that men and women have identical aptitudes for math and science, and the gender disparities in these fields reflect discrimination.” This is typical of this op-ed, describing the ‘gender disparities’ as a myth. Her purpose was likely to establish in her audience’s mind that myth was the only appropriate term to use here, and the lack of evidence for this ‘myth’ is a well-established fact. The problem is that this does not appear to be well established, and makes Dr. Morse appear condescending of her opposition, turning away the very people she is trying to persuade.

After identifying the purpose, chapter 5 suggests identifying the author and intended audience. In the op-ed, the audience was meant to be the voting public. Note that this is not everyone who votes, but only those who vote in every election (presidential or not), and are likely to be politically active (such as those likely to write their congressperson). This audience can be assumed to be well-educated (either by universities or themselves), have strong opinions, and tends to behave as groups instead of individuals. As such, this op-ed was written using strong emotional language (such as ‘myth’, or the phrase “…political hack declares an Equality Jihad…”), with some, but not much, factual grounds to back her argument. The problem with this approach is that while it may persuade some of her audience who already agree with her to take action and write their congressperson, it will also cause those who disagree with her to be offended and may inspire them to write their congressperson on behalf of extending this gender equality movement.

Associated with the idea of identifying the author, chapter 5 also asks whether the author comes across as trustworthy and worth listening to in the article. In this op-ed, Dr. Morse identifies herself as having received a doctorate in Economics, “hardly a hard science, but the hardest of the social sciences.” As such, she establishes that she can personally relate to this supposed ‘gender gap’, and uses a personal example of how she was “attracted to the humanistic [rather] than the statistical side of [economics].” This is then used as an example of how women tend to be better and happier outside of the harder sciences and math. No one can deny that her personal experience went this way, and this does establish Dr. Morse as having personal experience with this ‘gender gap’, but it hardly provides conclusive evidence for or against the innate disparity between the number of men and women in these disciplines. Furthermore, Dr. Morse uses a personal example of her nephew’s superior spatial ability (relative to her) as a humorous anecdote to connect with the average American. This ploy is another example of using one example and overgeneralizing it to the whole of humanity.

Chapter 5 also suggests examining the emotions and logical reasons used to write rhetoric. In this case Dr. Morse tries to use emotional appeals behind words to suggest that the other side is ridiculous. Unfortunately for Dr. Morse, this comes off as smug and elite to those on the other side of the argument. Furthermore, her logical reasons consisted of two case examples, a reference to the work of one psychologist, and an un-cited claim that “boys tend to perform better than girls at a test called the Mental Rotation Test.” Personal examples are inconclusive, in that their reproducibility is non-existent, or at least is not shown to exist. The un-cited ‘fact’ seems like a piece of ‘common knowledge’ which is easy to make up from mistaken cultural perceptions without realizing that you’re doing it. And the last factual reason, the work of just one psychologist, seems to be questionable. Most scientific fields, especially those such as psychology which do not come with rigorous theoretical proofs, can be used to support many, often contrary, positions. This is not to say the cited work was not true, but it would have been much more convincing to cite multiple psychologists from across the field who would testify to the same thing.

The last thing that chapter 5 covers, before going into an example then a section on how to write a rhetorical analysis, is that one must pay attention to the style of the work. As has been previously commented upon, this op-ed is rather condescending toward the opposition, and therefore fails to win any converts.

Thus, while this op-ed may have inspired some of Dr. Morse’s comrades to take up arms in this battle, the backlash would have made this work ineffective in the goal of persuading the voting public to change their, or their congressperson’s, mind.


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