[[Disclaimer: When i say this is a “decent example,” i mean that i gave myself an hour to do this, just as you had today. Obviously, you should give yourself more time to produce your real first analysis paper. This is a decent example of an analysis produced in an hour.]]
Example Analysis of Wahls
On April 3, 2009, Iowa became one of the first states in the country to legalize same-sex marriage, overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, which had been ratified in 2005. On February 1, 2011, however, Iowa’s House of Representatives was poised to vote on House Joint Resolution 6, a proposal to overturn the 2009 decision, making it illegal once again for same-sex couples to marry in that state. The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony from constituents before the vote, and a nineteen year old engineering student at the University of Iowa named Zach Wahls argued against the proposed amendment, suggesting that it would “codify discrimination into our constitution.” The son of a lesbian couple, Wahls aimed to convince legislators to vote against the amendment by showing them that same-sex families are much the same as other Iowa families, that the children of gay couples are not harmed by their parents’ sexual orientation, and that what this amendment would do is tell his family and others like it that “[s]ome among you are second-class citizens who do not have the right to marry the person you love.” Though the House of Representatives, Zach’s target audience, voted 62-37 in favor of Joint Resolution 6 that day, the Senate declined to bring it up for a vote and Wahls’ testimony went viral on youtube, reaching and moving a much wider audience than he initially intended.
According to his own self-description, Wahls is a trained debater, and his testimony makes use of several rhetorical strategies. Though he is an unknown when he walks in the room, he establishes his credibility right away, dressing appropriately for the occasion (suit and tie), speaking eloquently and from the heart, and demonstrating that he understands not only the proposed amendment and what’s at stake in its passage, but also what the proposed amendment would do to the families of same-sex couples. His presentation is not hostile or overly passionate but calm, thoughtful, and reflective, which makes him seem fair-minded and trustworthy. He describes himself as an Eagle Scout and an engineering student who already owns and operates his own small business and scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT—all of which make him appear smart, dedicated, determined, and responsible, as one who values hard work and intellectual growth. In a particularly poignant moment that is also an emotional appeal that arouses a mix of admiration and pride in the audience, Wahls adds “If I was your son, Mr. Chairman, I believe I’d make you very proud.” He says he’s excited that he has a full-sibling sister, and he speaks lovingly of his two moms, demonstrating that he also greatly values family. He doesn’t whine about his situation but notes that he and his family are “Iowans” who work hard and solve their own problems. Indeed, he notes with pride that he’s a sixth generation Iowan, which indicates that he is not some city-slicker with metropolitan values but a proud native of Iowa with the same strong Midwestern values the legislators very likely share.
He appeals to his audience’s emotions mostly through his detailed narrative about his own family, which also involves an identification with the target audience, whose families also likely “go to church together,” “eat dinner,” and “go on vacations.” This target audience is also sure to have suffered through certain heart-wrenching fights and other “hard times” with their families. Perhaps they have not (yet) experienced a health crisis in their family, but they are able to imagine it and so are very likely to feel sympathy for this young man whose birth mom was diagnosed with MS, “a devastating disease that put her in a wheelchair.” In the second paragraph, he again arouses a sense of identification and compassion from his suggestion that a family becomes a family not by some legislative power but through “the commitment we make to each other to work through the hard times so we can enjoy the good ones. It comes from the love that binds us. That’s what makes a family.” Toward the end, having established a clear analogy (formal topic) between his family and the legislators’ families, and addressing the legislators in the second person (“you”), he says: “So will this vote affect my family? Would it affect yours?” By the time he makes this analogy toward the end of the testimony, he has established such a sense of identification between his family and their families that this reversal evokes sympathy, if not a sense of shame. Beyond these vivid images and descriptions, Wahl does not rely heavily on direct emotional appeals; most of his language is not emotionally charged, which might damage his ethos, and his descriptions of his family are mainly positive. The emotional appeals arouse a sense of identification and then sympathy for the plight of a fellow Iowan.
The ethical and emotional appeals in the opening paragraph of the testimony work together to indicate that his family, headed by two women, is very much like any loving and loyal Iowa family. The claim Wahls makes in this testimony is that his family, like any family, deserves protection and equal treatment under the law. There is an enthymeme at work in this claim:
- Major Premise (unstated): the constitution should treat all citizens equally under the law
- Minor Premise: this amendment does not treat everyone equally but legalizes discrimination
- Conclusion: This amendment is unconstitutional
In the second paragraph of the transcript, Wahls continues his appeal to the audience’s sense of reason through an extended example, a type of inductive reasoning that incorporates elements of personal narrative. One of the most compelling arguments supporting the amendment is that the children of gay parents suffer because of their parents’ sexual orientation. Former GOP Presidential candidate Rick Santorum, for example, argued right around this time that the child of a father who abandons his family and goes to prison is still a better parental figure than a gay father. Allowing gays to marry and raise children, he argued, amounts to “robbing children of something they need, they deserve, they have a right to.” So to the question “Can gays even raise kids?” Wahls responds with a clear and unhesitating “yes,” offering himself as a specific example that he hopes will prove the general rule. This college student who is also an Eagle Scout and a small business owner is clearly “doing pretty well,” so well that the Chairman would be proud to have him for a son. “I am not so different from any of your children,” he insists, and his “family isn’t really so different from yours.”
There are two supporting stases in this second paragraph. The first is definitional; he is defining what it means to be a family. Family, whether gay or straight, he insists, means making a “commitment. . .to each other to work through the hard times so we can enjoy the good ones.” Family is defined by “the love that binds us. That’s what makes a family.” And the second is quality: Yes, gays can and do raise kids—there is no need to address the question of conjecture. Gay families exist, and he has one. His point, rather, is that having loving, supportive gay parents is a good thing: it’s as honorable, just, enjoyable, and advantageous as having loving and supportive straight parents because “the sexual orientation of my parents has had zero impact on the content of my character.”
In the third paragraph, he addresses the impending vote directly, suggesting that it will not impact his family’s sense of itself or the love they have for each other but that it will change the way the law views and treats his family. Passing this amendment, he argues, will “codify discrimination” in the pages of Iowa’s constitution, instituting a two-tier citizenship that deems homosexual families second-class citizens. But, he continues, no one has ever “realized independently” that he is the child of a lesbian couple. Why? Again, because “the sexual orientation of my parents has had zero impact on the content of my character.” There is certainly a policy stasis here: whether or not voting for this amendment will be necessary or beneficial for the citizenry of Iowa. But he doesn’t address this stasis directly. Instead, he’s telling them that the amendment is fundamentally flawed and should be dismissed. So, the main stasis is objection. According to Wahls, this amendment should be dismissed, first because it is grounded in the false premise that gay parents cannot produce strong families and happy, successful kids. That’s not true, and “I’m proof of it,” he suggests. Second, it should be dismissed because the policy it will attempt to put into place will make things harder for these strong families; it will tell them they are second-class citizens. It won’t redefine who they are (they will still be families, they will still take care of each other), but it will make their lives harder because it will mean that the state, which should support families and family values, will not support them or even recognize them. The whole thing is unfair and unjust. It should be dismissed.
Though Iowa’s House of Representatives still voted overwhelmingly in favor of this amendment after Wahls’ testimony, it was clearly effective on a broader scale. The rhetorical strategies were successfully employed.
Wahls, Zach. “What Makes a Family.” Testimony before House Judiciary Committee. January 31, 2011. Accessed October, 3, 2012. Web. http://www.zachwahls.com.