Tortoise Tuesday: Ms. Magenta-Vest and How to Make a Good Argument in a Pinch
It takes a certain amount of panache to walk up to an airline counter and request a ticket for a flight departing in less than twenty minutes; probably more than most of us possess. The girl I saw make such a request had panache to spare, supplemented in no small part by a magnificently fluffy magenta vest and a silver and red pom-pom hat that would have made an alpaca jealous. It didn’t hurt that she used her full business voice and seemed to know exactly what she wanted. In fact, though judging by her clothes and the stickers on her roller-bag, Ms. Magenta-Vest was probably no more than nineteen, she accomplished her considerable feat by affecting the composure and unflinching politeness of a much older woman. She made her request clearly and using few words; while she was extremely specific about which flight she wanted and what she was going to do with her bags, she seemed deliberately vague about other things, for instance where she wanted to sit on the plane.
I don’t think the man behind the counter really intended to give Ms. Magenta-Vest the ticket at first, no matter how much she was willing to pay for it. But she kept asking for nearly three minutes, rephrasing her request first one way, then another, varying its words without changing its sentiment or her clear, polite tone. I can’t imagine it must have been easy for her to remain so calm even as she watched the minutes tick by before her flight took off. Indeed, as soon as she had her ticket in hand and had seen her roller-bag safely tagged and sent away, she turned tail and ran headlong down the concourse towards the TSA checkpoint, her quilted paisley handbag bouncing along at her side. And yet, so long as she was engaged in her game of bargaining, she retained her air of unflappable calm.
There is perhaps a lesson to be taken from how Ms. Magenta-Vest argued her case, one which can be applied to arguments of any kind, on paper as much as in person. First, remember who you are talking to and what tone will best convince them of your point. If Ms. Magenta-Vest had spoken like an average nineteen year-old, whether blustering at the airline agent or acting as anxious as she quite possibly was, the agent would probably have denied her request without a second thought. It was by assuming an air of respectability and composure that she brought the agent to her side from the very first. Likewise, when we write, we frame our argument in terms that other scholars are familiar with in order to signal to them that we are capable of engaging with them on their own terms. We thus earn their respect before we even properly begin our argument. We use the language of scholarship to buy credibility that we might never have if we wrote as informally as we speak.
It is equally important to take care in defining the scope of one’s argument. If Ms. Magenta-Vest had been as specific about where she wanted to sit as she was about where she was about the flight she wanted, it is likely that the agent would have denied her request altogether, arguing (probably quite rightly) that what she was asking was impossible. But by choosing her battles with care, and being very clear from the first about what she was not asking for, she headed off most of the agent’s objections before they arose. Similarly, if we try to argue everything at once in an essay, we are sure to fail, and our argument will invariably be dismissed without further thought. But if we are willing to argue only a well-delineated point, one within the scope of our own capabilities, we are far more likely to succeed. This is not to say we cannot make piercing insights in our writing, occasionally asking the audience to accept the nearly impossible as possible, just as Ms. Magenta-Vest did to such great effect. Only, such requests had best be occasional, ideally a single part in a well-worked-out argument, introduced with suitable formality, or else it is likely they will fail to achieve the desired effect.
And of course, it helps to have a certain amount of panache. I don’t know if Ms. Magenta-Vest made her flight, but I suspect she did. If she could talk her way to a ticket with less than half an hour to spare, I have full confidence that, with her neon-and-paisley ensemble to buoy her confidence, she could talk her way to the front of a TSA line in no time. While in any argument it’s important to know who you’re talking to and know your scope, it never hurts to pack a little something extra, preferably in bright colors, just to seal the deal.
–Isabella Khan ’21