The Opposite of a Black Sneaker

In Favor of Outrageous Thinking

The goal of all our arguments is not to join a black-or-white debate, but to create a color, or a set of fancy footwear, not the comfortable shoes that “go with everything,” but a pair of high-heeled neon ankle-killing athletic shoes everyone laughs at until the day she buys a pair. If you start with black, and I start with white, we tend to think we should meet somewhere in the middle, and the middle too often looks gray.


Gray satisfies no one. It can’t be what we wanted. Ending up with compromises no more compelling than our starting premises wastes our readers’ time (if we still have readers at the end). Instead we need to realize we’ve misinterpreted our starting points. We haven’t started with opposites. For one thing, we’re both talking about sneakers.

The opposite of a black sneaker

The opposite of a black sneaker isn’t a white sneaker; it’s broccoli, or impressionist art, or the atomic weight of laughter. We’re not obligated to compromise our positions to find something that contains components of both. We should instead be hoping that the tension between the two ends of the spectrum reveals something more interesting than either of the “sides.” First it reveals that we haven’t started on the two extremes. Then we discover there’s something beyond both our positions.


The worst mistake we can make—even worse than settling for gray—is to start with gray, which can only result in more gray.


Gray on Gray.
Also known as “How to Fail.”

The most common misconception with someone who is happy is we think that person has meaning in his life. A person who is happier may even have less meaning in her life than her less-happy counterparts. Happiness doesn’t define meaning; rather, it defines contentment. Having meaning in one’s life runs deeper than the mere sensation that happiness brings. Meaning is about contributing to the world, to something greater than oneself. Happiness is just satisfaction with one’s current standpoint on life, and one’s environment. The world defines happiness as something much greater than it actually is. Happiness is nothing more than the satisfaction of one’s current standpoint.

Color on Color.

Our goal is the colorful conclusion, achieved by beginning with bold and colorful premises, somewhere along a line of reasoning the ends of which are not in sight when we begin.


Color on Color: A Model

Our neighbor Frank seems happy, and would probably define himself as happy, but he’s not. He takes pride in his fine house, where he lives with his presentable family, and he has job security. Let’s call him content. Our neighbor Ernest rents a cramped apartment, lives alone, and scrapes by freelancing. Let’s call him happy. Ernest is tortured by an abiding outrage against injustice. He champions every cause that comes his way if it will better the world or ease the suffering of others. Often hungry himself, he will share his lunch with anyone. We might prefer to be Frank, but Ernest is more likely to be happy.

If you can prove that,
I’ll eat my shoe.

The result of our premises will not be as certain as when we try to start with supposed “opposite sides” of a known argument, but the pursuit of an outcome will be more entertaining, vivid, colorful, and compelling. Maybe even nutritious.


One Side Inevitably Loses any
Black-and-White Argument

EXAMPLE. Today we begin a debate on arming teachers in schools. If anti-gun advocates allow the argument to be phrased as black-and-white options, they inevitably lose. Most likely neither side will get exactly what it wants, but the pro-gun side will win. Why?

The “compromise” solution that will surely be the outcome—the grey in the middle between All Teachers Should Be Armed and No Teachers Should Be Armed—will be to arm “Some Teachers.”  Clear victory for the pro-gun side. Utter failure for the anti-gun side. The outcome lies in the how the question is phrased.

In-Class Exercise

Leave some smart commentary about this lecture as a Reply below. Address any topic I have raised. You might consider:

  • The trap of thinking there are “opposites” to every argument
  • The trap of thinking we know what those opposites are
  • A comparison of the Gray-on-Gray model and the Color-on-Color model
  • Another example of why finding a “compromise” solution always benefits one party to an argument and creates a big loser.

If you can’t comment without having some in-class discussion, then I’ll have figured out how to spark a discussion! That’s a win, but you’ll have to start the discussion with me, not the other way around.

Critical Reading

Donor Execution

Inmate Organ Harvest

Today, I’ll ask you to carefully examine a written argument for claims that can be disputed for accuracy, sufficiency, and relevance; for inferences that are unfair, unreasonable, illogical, or irrelevant; and for judgments that not well grounded, flimsily supported, or flat-out batshit weird.

I won’t ask you to do so without first doing so myself. I’ll do my best to critique the claims, inferences, and judgments of the GOOD video “Let’s Harvest the Organs of Death Row Inmates” in a way I hope will be instructive.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will first say I think the idea of letting condemned prisoners donate their organs is sublime. At the same time, capital punishment itself is an abomination on our supposed civilization. But if we can’t eliminate executions as I would wish, then executing convicts by removing their organs under anesthesia for the life-saving benefit of others is a perfect poem, simultaneously regrettable and dear.

The question is, since I admire the conclusions it draws, am I inclined to overvalue the video’s reasoning? As a human, of course I am. As a lecturer in argument, I’d like to think I can be objective. You be the judge.

Model of Critical Reading

Let’s Harvest the Organs of Death Row Inmates.
The title includes several claims.

  • Let’s. The word means “Let us,” or “Permit us,” or “What do you say we . . . ?” It indicates a proposal argument is being made. The author will recommend a course of action for a named benefit. Classic proposals contain the language should, or must, or ought to, or, in this case, let’s.
  • Harvest. The word itself is an analogy claim. It says that pulling living tissue from a human body is equivalent to plucking peppers from the pepper plant we planted and cultivated to produce peppers. As pure analogy it fails miserably of course; nobody planted this convict or nurtured it in hopes that it would bear fruitful kidneys and lungs. There are people who pluck the beneficial parts of organisms they find but haven’t grown, but they’re not farmers. They’re foragers, or scavengers. So maybe to be accurate the video should be titled “Let’s Scavenge the Organs of Death Row Inmates.”
  • Death Row Inmates. This narrows the proposal considerably. Harvesting organs is a good idea; now let’s narrow the recommendation from everyone who dies to the 47 convicts put to death in the United States last year. Focusing on this group is both useful and problematic for the writer. Many viewers may think death row inmates have relinquished any rights they had to bequeath or keep their organs; at the same time, how much trouble should we be going through to get fewer than 50 hearts a year? (Not to mention, how many of those hearts will be worth the trouble?)

An unfortunate side effect of hanging or poisoning the man is that his organs go sour before they can be transplanted.

  • How cleverly this bland statement shifts our attention from the death of the inmate (surely the most unfortunate side effect of all) to the unfortunate loss of his organs.
  • It also contains the strong but entirely unspoken claim that these organs would be used for transplants if only they had not be spoiled by the messy execution process. Were 100% of last year’s executed prisoners eager to be organ donors?
  • Probably legitimately, but very cavalierly, the writer claims the inmate is always male.

Death row inmates have repeatedly asked to donate their organs, but their requests are always denied.

  • This claim will be true if as few as two inmates have ever asked to donate their organs.
  • Perhaps, to make the claim more sufficient, one of those two has asked repeatedly.
  • A judge bangs down a gavel to indicate that a court has denied the donation request, but no claim to that effect is explicitly made. We are urged to blame judges for their shortsightedness, but given no evidence that we should.

A simple reason is that execution generally ruins organs before they can be harvested.

  • This sounds like a pure repetition of the first claim about organs made “sour,” but the accompanying graphic indicates electrocution, not hanging or poisoning, is ruining them.
  • If the ruined organs are the “simple reason” to deny transplants, how are judges to blame?
  • It would be pointless of them to permit a convict to donate useless organs.
  • What exactly did the convicts ask? How did they propose to donate organs that would be spoiled by their executions?

By the time you cut someone down from the gallows or pronounce the injection lethal, the heart and lungs will have thumped and puffed for the last time.

  • While this claim is technically true, it doesn’t convince me that it must be true.
  • Maybe we wait too long to cut someone down from the gallows.
  • Maybe the injection is lethal long before it ruins the heart and lungs.
  • Furthermore, the claim does not mention the other organs. Could the kidneys, eyes and livers of the executed be fruitfully harvested?

So far the organs of all criminals executed in the United States have stayed with their original owners.

  • This is pure rhetoric.
  • The fact it states is not the point at all.
  • The lovely “So far” is an appeal to change the way things are.
  • The equally lovely “their original owners” marginalizes the surgical and ethical aspects of donation and makes the transaction comfortably commercial, like buying a used car from “the original owner.”

Consider the loss. Someone died waiting for that killer’s heart.

  • This is clever but patently absurd.
  • Someone died waiting for a heart certainly. But nobody had a reason to expect this heart.
  • Why the writer chooses this moment to identify the would-be donor as a “killer” is unclear.
  • The claim would be more effective if he had said: “waiting for this willing donor’s heart.”

The inmate could have allowed a dozen people to live in exchange for a body he wouldn’t be around to enjoy anyway.

  • Oddly, “the inmate could have allowed” shifts the blame from the courts or the method of execution to the inmate, who here is portrayed as selfishly condemning twelve people to hang onto a body he can’t use.
  • It seems entirely unclear that everyone deprived of an organ necessarily dies.

The math says we should encourage death row organ donation.

  • “The math,” apparently, is “1 is less than 12.”
  • How that says we should encourage death row organ donation is beyond me.
  • And when did we shift to the need to “encourage” donation? Earlier we were told inmates were eager to donate.
  • So, if anything, we should be encouraging executioners to permit death row organ donation.

By using the Mayan protocol . . . removal of the organs would itself be the method of execution.

  • This bizarre claim seems to be an attempt to legitimize yanking the beating heart out of a living person by appealing to an ancient cultural tradition.
  • It succeeds if you think of the Mayans as reasonable and deeply respectful nurturers of human dignity.
  • It fails if you think of the Mayans as bloodthirsty practitioners of human sacrifice on helpless victims.

Removal of the heart, lungs, and kidneys—under anesthesia, of course—would kill every time without an instant of pain.

  • A major shift in the argument occurs here, without notice.
  • Removal would kill.
  • Donation has become the method of execution, replacing all others.
  • Now, we no longer require the inmate to “ask repeatedly” to donate his organs. That choice has been made.
  • In return, we offer the assurance that death will be painless, something we don’t promise with hanging or electrocution.
  • The author knows he’s bargaining here, with inmates, with viewers, but he doesn’t say so. The claim is entirely unspoken.

If this creeps you out, remember that the federal government and 38 states currently approve capital punishment.

    • This is the Modest Proposal claim: “I am not responsible for this horrible reality; I’m only trying to make the best of it.”
    • Jonathan Swift used it satirically when he proposed: “Orphans will always be with us, useless and a drain on public resources; perhaps we should eat them.”


  • What’s creepy is executing people, the author says; my part is the cool part.

Maybe we should consider turning “scheduled death” into renewed life.

  • Well, it would still be scheduled death, wouldn’t it?
  • I mean, that’s what makes it so efficient.
  • You can schedule it.
  • No, that’s not creepy.

The “Give Directly” Hypothesis

A man checks his phone to confirm that the charity GiveDirectly has transferred a cash grant to his account. (Nichole Sobecki for NPR)

In 2013 Daniel Handel, an economist with USAID—the U.S. government’s main agency for foreign assistance—had just moved to Rwanda when he heard about a charity that was testing a bold idea:

Instead of giving people in poor countries, say, livestock or job training to help improve their standard of living, why not just give them cash and let them decide how best to spend it?

Handel had been mulling this exact question. Aid programs were spending enormous sums per person to boost poor people’s income less than the cost of the program. At this rate, Handel thought, why not just hand over the money to people directly? This program called GiveDirectly was doing just that.

So Handel went to his bosses at USAID’s Rwanda office and proposed an experiment:

Take one of USAID’s typical programs and test it against cash aid. His initiative has since grown to encompass six experiments in four countries. He is currently overseeing these tests from a new position, senior adviser on aid effectiveness at a USAID research unit in Washington, D.C.

A pool of families from nearly 250 villages was selected based on typical criteria and randomly assigned to one of four groups.

  • Those in the first were the “control” and received no help.
  • Those in the second group were visited by the teams from the nutrition and hygiene program.
  • Families in the third group were given small cash grants by GiveDirectly equivalent to the per-person cost of the nutrition and hygiene program, which ultimately averaged out at $114.
  • In the final group, families got a much larger cash grant of around $500 – a figure chosen because this was the amount that GiveDirectly estimated was more likely to make an impact.

On Thursday, the government released the results of the first study in the series: An evaluation of a program to improve child and maternal health in Rwanda by teaching families about nutrition and hygiene.

The experiment found that the program met none of its main objectives. Teaching Rwandans about nutrition did not improve their nutrition or health. Neither did giving Rwandans the cash equivalent of the cost of the education program — about $114.

“Our hearts sank.”

The program’s focus on trying to change behaviors is one of the world’s major strategies for ending malnutrition. And, at least in this example, it had failed to achieve any of its primary goals.

A year on, the children who had been targeted by the nutrition and hygiene program were no more likely to eat a better or more diverse diet, and no less likely to be malnourished or anemic than children who had gotten no help at all. But providing a much larger cash grant of about $500 did make some difference.

Supporters of such “cash-benchmarking” exercises are heralding this particular one as a milestone. For years, anti-poverty advocates and researchers have complained that the U.S. government doesn’t do enough to make sure its aid programs actually work. “But when you talk about giving money to people straight up, with no conditions, people at USAID look at you kind of like you’re a crazy person. There’s ‘an inherent sense’ that they can’t be trusted to spend it wisely.” said Daniel Handel’s associate James Carbonell.

In this case, people who were given the cost-equivalent grants used much of the money to pay down their debts.

It remains unclear what, if any, material changes USAID is planning to its nutrition efforts based on the study’s findings.


  1. Did the authors of the study Fail?
  2. Would proving that cash-equivalent grants were as beneficial as the education program have qualified as Success?
  3. Or did the authors succeed by proving that simply handing recipients money without any stipulation was the wrong way to achieve a particular goal?
  4. Could the authors conclude that poor people really DON’T know “what to do with the money”?


Heavily edited from an original story by NPR.
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit

Link to the original:

This Rich World

We don’t own the world. At best, we’re tenants with rent to pay and a promise to not trash the place. Regrettably, if we screw things up, it won’t be we who pay. And somebody else will have to cover the security deposit.

It’s more than enough.

Sufficient to itself, of course, the world doesn’t need us. It evolved us, so we fill a niche, but without us that niche will fill as fast as a hole in the ozone. Oops. Bad example. We keep making that one bigger.


I suspect that within a few generations the earth will shrug us off like a bad virus and thrive once it’s rid of us.

Meanwhile . . .

While we’re here, the world—its systems in all their complexity, its people and cultures, its rich diversity—is more than enough to occupy our time, fruitfully, wastefully, however we wish to squander it.

My morning.

I’ve never taught in the Wilson building. It might as well be New Zealand. (Where is Old Zealand? I’ll have to look that up.*) I came back this morning to retrieve this item I had left behind in our classroom.


The other side says “HODGES,” as you might have guessed. I retrieved it this time, but if you ever see it in a place distant from me, please reunite us. It contains your photographs among other precious data.

A few feet from the entrance to Wilson Hall, I encountered this unprecedented item:


Intrigued and uncertain, I asked the first person I saw, “Is that a musical notation white board?” She wasn’t sure, and I thought, “How can you work in this building and not want to know?”

Want to know.

This may be the only advice I have for you that matters: Want to know.

The world is so rich in its complex diversity and wonder. It will exhaust you if you try to comprehend it. Or it will bore you if you think you know something.

You don’t. I don’t.

If you’re bored, you’re boring. Look around. The world is far more fascinating than you or me.

The Blues in F

Two doors down the hall from where I retrieved my thumb drive, I heard violin music, immediately followed by piano music. I knocked softly and repeatedly on the door and was ignored, so I opened the door and entered.

This is my second piece of advice: When you knock softly and are ignored, open the door and enter. Apologize if necessary, but enter.

Jacob was seated at the piano. Atop the piano, a violin. “Play that for me, please,” I asked him, if that’s a question. “Forty years ago I heard a classmate play a blues progression like that, and ever since I’ve regretted not learning how to do it.”

I love Jacob, now and forever, because he didn’t ask me why, or object, or hesitate. He just did this:

I don’t know why he did it for me, but I know he wouldn’t have if I hadn’t asked him.

This is my third piece of advice: Ask. People are amazing. They will astonish you. They WANT YOU TO ASK!

So now, forty years later, I know how to do that. I’ll need practice, but you can ask me at the end of the semester, and I’ll show you what I’ve learned. Because I haven’t stopped learning.

Perfect Pitch?

On my way out of the building, thumb drive in hand, the Blues in F in my head, I heard a piano being tuned, so I followed the sound through an open door because of Rule 2: Enter and apologize later if necessary.

The piano tuner couldn’t explain my peculiar ability to start singing the Counting Crows’ “Round Here” at precisely the right note without knowing the name of the note, but neither did he call the police on me, nor insult me, nor object to my question in any way, so the Rule abides: Enter, Ask, Engage, Want to Know.

People are flattered to be approached for their advice, wisdom, expertise. They may actually have something to share. If not: who cares? If so: you win.

The Music Student

Emboldened, I may have pushed my luck. I said, aloud, to a space that only two occupied, “Are you a music student?” and the music student replied, “Yes.”

I asked her about Perfect Pitch, and Relative Pitch. She didn’t help. So I asked her, “What song shares a melody with the Alphabet Song: ABCDEFG, HIJKLMNOP”? She didn’t know, so I hummed the tune to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” She got it. I felt as if I had taught her “The Blues in F.”

Random Vanity

Leaving school, I was following a car from the parking lot whose license plate was G30 JFK.


JFK puts a dagger through my heart, so I saw that first, but quickly recognized that G30 is the name of the Group of 30 nations that meet regularly to advise the world on monetary policy.

What did I do? I knocked (by flashing my lights) and entered (by exiting my car and approaching the driver’s window).

He got it. He knew how amazing his license plate is. And while he may have been a little bit freaked out that I flashed my headlights at him and took a photograph of his license plate, he didn’t call the police.

And that’s all that I ask of the world that has offered me so much entertainment. Don’t put me in jail. I’ll keep paying the rent and try not to screw things up.

[Comp II students, I will always “put myself out there for you” whether you encourage me or not, but engagement is essential. Positive or negative, I thrive on your Replies.]

*Home to the city of Copenhagen, Zealand is the most populous and one of the larger islands that make up Denmark. 

Purposeful Summary Lecture

Not Quote, Not Paraphrase

For a 3000-word paper with a healthy blend of original scholarship and relevant citation, you may:

  • consult 50 sources,
  • save links to just 30 of those,
  • actively pursue 25 of those,
  • produce annotated bibliographic entries for 20 of those,
  • and directly quote 7.

Too much quotation leaves little room for your own original language and discourages readers from considering your position. Too much quotation also subjects you to the not-always-persuasive rhetorical style of the original authors.

For the dozen or so sources you cite but don’t directly quote, the perfect blend of original material and your own good reasoning is the Purposeful Summary.

Good for What it Leaves Out

“Purposeful summary” reduces sources to their smallest useful content.

  • It eliminates most of the original language.
  • It can eliminate the author’s argument.
  • It can eliminate the author’s logic, rhetoric, ethical justifications, conclusions.
  • It can eliminate the oppositional stance or attitude of the original.
  • It can remove the material from its context.

Better for What it Adds

Removed from its context, the evidence in a source can be used to advance your own thesis. Your Purposeful Summary makes claims and draws reasonable conclusions based on the evidence from the material, whether or not those conclusions coincide with the original author’s argument.

Retaining Integrity

It does, however, keep faith with the original author. It may remove the material from its context, but it can’t misrepresent the author’s position. The author may have squandered or misinterpreted the evidence, which our new Summary remedies, but we either share a fair report of that failure, or we suppress the author’s point of view altogether.

A propaganda film might depict the mistreatment of animals in a factory henhouse, for example, and draw the conclusion that no one can humanely eat chickens. But a Purposeful Summary is not obligated to draw the same conclusion, and might instead take issue with the methodology of the film’s construction or the generalizations it draws from scant evidence, or it could cite the maltreatment to advocate for a more humane approach to farming. The only thing it cannot do is mislead readers about the original author’s position or intent.

1) Ethics of a Three-Parent Baby

It seems counterintuitive that human life, which everyone knows gets DNA from two parents when male sperm fertilizes a female egg, could ever require, or even make use of, the DNA of three parents. But that’s exactly what is happening.

The UK will soon allow in vitro fertilization of female eggs that include contributions from a second woman’s healthy egg to replace defective mitochondrial DNA in the first woman’s egg. While the amount of DNA is small, it nonetheless permanently alters the DNA of all female children born to the (well we can’t say couple any more!) three parents.

The contribution of healthy mitochondrial DNA to the fertilized egg will prevent birth defects that could result in seizures and decreased muscle formation in the absence of the healthy DNA. As usual, critics worry that this first tiny advance in promoting healthy babies will open the floodgates to every sort of god-playing, frankenstein-creating unscrupulous experimentation imaginable.

Others fret that only the rich will be able to afford healthy babies. In all likelihood, both these scenarios will play out just as they fear.

2) Africa Should Screen Americans for Measles

It seems counterintuitive but is possibly true that Africans have more to fear from American visitors than we have to fear from them. Nigerian writer and lawyer Elnathan John earned 35,000 retweets or favorites by tweeting that he was concerned for “measles-ravaged” America and hoped Africa was screening American visitors.

His comment was a sly rejoinder to the demand heard often in the media during the Ebola scare that all Africans should be screened for disease before visiting America. While Ebola is certainly scary, measles is nine times as contagious, and while it isn’t usually fatal, it killed 430 children a day in 2011 worldwide.

Also counterintuitive are the rules for immunizations in the United States. All US immigrants are required to prove they’ve received the full protocol of immunizations, including one for measles. But many American jurisdictions permit US citizens to opt out of vaccinations, including the measles vaccine, on religious or philosophical grounds.

When tens of thousands of Central American children crossed the US border from Mexico last year, they were all forcibly immunized against measles, even though their countries of origin have higher immunization rates than the US (El Salvador, 94 %; Guatemala, 93%; United States, 91%).

Nevertheless, we remain as a country more irrationally afraid of “disease-carrying” immigrants and visitors than we do of our own “anti-vaxxer” citizens who could be immunized if they chose to but choose not to.

[Bonus Source: Here’s how reports on the recent US measles outbreak, as part of a series of posts in which American events are described using the tropes and tone normally employed by the American media to describe events in other countries.]

3) Is this Photo Ethical?

It seems counterintuitive that we send photographers into scenes of grave danger on the basis of our need to see, to fully understand, the catastrophes of natural phenomena or disastrous human choices, but then accuse them of sensationalizing their subjects when they deliver precisely what we have asked them to produce.

When the sudden earthquake of January, 2010, killed 230,000 Haitians, nature was not the only killer. Concrete structures built according to lax building codes (or built without oversight of any kind, or after bribing code officials) contributed thousands of deaths when they crashed down on their inhabitants. And when lawlessness and looting followed the quake, flawed humans killed one another; property owners, thieves, and police all clashed until even more blood was spilled over what few valuables remained.

Photographers rushed to Haiti in droves to record the chaos and devastation, perhaps to raise awareness, certainly to assist in the fundraising efforts for disaster relief, perhaps to win themselves some photography or journalism awards.

The images of 15-year-old Fabienne Cherisma, shot by police while crossing a rooftop with an armload of stolen framed pictures, appear to have been taken by a lone photographer who happened on the scene and shot them with frank detachment. They are shocking but perhaps have value in engaging our passions and our compassion.

But the “other” photo, the side view that reveals seven photographers all crouching to capture virtually the same shot of the fallen Fabienne (one of which was named the best International News Image at the Swedish Picture of the Year Award) shocks everyone who sees it for an entirely different reason: it makes them look like vultures waiting to feed off her corpse.

Consider what we demand of the people we send to do this job. We insist they share us truthful images we can trust to tell the real story of human triumphs and tragedies. But we also want them to disappear, to not be part of the story, to keep their hands out of the situation so that we can believe it. And when they do what we ask, we condemn them for their inhumanity, for their very “professionalism” in the face of suffering.

Journalists Gather

Photographers gather around Fabienne