Monday, October 27, 2008

The Zombie Army Argument.

Could we talk about something else?

One of my jobs includes teaching a night course in writing, and we were workshopping a student's essay tonight that was a great example of what I like to call the "Zombie Army" argument. It's my way of describing the inevitable slippery slope fallacy that feels so satisfying to writers when they are first learning to make a great argument. They sniff out a logical trail, and they start upping the emotional ante until suddenly, they are describing a future, possible world that will inevitably emerge unless we change our terrible ways: There will be limited power, limited food, and limited access to these resources (obviously, they are controlled by The Man.) We'll all live in caves and fight with weapons fashioned from fence posts and scrap metal. We will need these weapons to protect ourselves from the zombie army, as all slippery slope arguments end up with a zombie army roaming the streets, spreading a rage virus or eating brains or whatever. It's a fun analogy, and it eventually works as a kind of shorthand. Instead of "the slippery slope" fallacy, we talk about the "Zombie Army" argument, and it helps my students to reign in their wild logic.

I started thinking, though, about why these kinds of arguments come up so frequently in my classes.

My job is to teach writing, but I've always had a secret goal that I've called teaching "Critical Thinking." I believe that critical thinking is vital to a writer's ability to express him or herself clearly, but rummaging through my character defects has made me look at my fixation with this idea differently. It's a little too important to me that my students question everything, and I make the point a little too well. By the time they turn in their final drafts of their first projects, I've transformed them into conspiracy theorists. I've got them doubting everything: Is there really even a war in Iraq right now? Did the Twin Towers actually collapse on September 11th? They're trying to convince us on the news that gas prices are fluctuating...I don't buy it!

I want so desperately to teach my students to question the status quo so that they won't get hoodwinked by The Man that I have them seeing the Man's hand pulling strings all over the place. Instead of teaching them to fight deliberate attempts by people in power to manipulate their understanding of reality, I teach them to doubt everything.

Figuring out what is real, I've recognized through my stepwork, is important to me. At a critical moment in my life, there really was a Man who was hurting me and encouraging me in my denial of that reality. I have lived in the shadow of that incident for years, unconsciously recreating it again and again with various other men who would help me relive the painful pattern of hurt and denial again and again.

It's interesting, watching places where my character defects (denial, anger at authority, catastrophic thinking) slide into my character strengths (critical thinking, creativity) in this way in my teaching practice. I am going to try to watch myself and see where I can soften my edges a bit to keep my students from having to muddle through the Zombie Army phase of their writing, much as I enjoy giggling with them as the fantasies unravel.