Rogerian Argument in the Letter from Birmingham Jail

Whenever someone seeks to develop a strong argument, the audience and the context matter significantly. The alienated audience is unlikely to accept emotional arguments, whereas calm reasoning might produce a desired effect. In this context, the technique known as Rogerian argument is the best rhetoric that can fruitfully appeal to the sense, rather than trying to convert the opponent to author’s beliefs. Traditionally, the Rogerian argument is based on the concept of finding common grounds to substantiate the discussion. From the outset of an argument, debater needs to demonstrate the understanding of the opponent’s views an logic, agreeing with the most firm positions. Then he would develop his point, referring to the previously established consensus. All arguments must be presented patiently and logically, offering the possibility for the opponent to benefit from adopting some of the author’s views.

The exemplary piece of a Rogerian argument was demonstrated by Martin Luther King Jr. in his “Letter from Birmingham jail”, published in 1963. Alternatively known as a “letter to the clergy”, it constitutes a response to Alabama clergymen who accused King of violence and law-breaking during the Birmingham campaign. In the best traditions of Rogerian style, King starts his letter with acknowledgement of clerics’ sincere intentions, praising them for being “men of genuine good will”. He appears to recognize the importance of his opponents’ concerns and elaborates profoundly on explaining his positions. Such an approach visibly creates some degree of understanding, disarming the antagonistic audience.

Further in the letter, King systematically and conversationally describes the circumstances in which Birmingham campaign has taken place, substantiating every notion with firm examples. He explains reasons behind his actions, positioning himself as a follower of New Testament’s characters in their pursuit for the justice. Highlighting Christian values in his intentions repeatedly, King limits his audience with the choice of possible reaction: the clergy could either accept his reasoning or appear to deny their Christian commitment. This choice, however, is artfully concealed in a course of King’s recounting of black people’s numerous misfortunes. The first stage of Rogerian argument goes on smoothly, pacifying the alienated audience with calm reasoning. The very author’s tone is that of a concerned partner, rather than irreconcilable adversary.

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Once the initial understanding is established, author argues his case further, letting in emotions in measured quantities. He regrets the biased attitude of news media that pictured Birmingham demonstrations as evil outbursts. In a neutral tone, he explains why elected Alabama authorities cannot be considered fully legitimate given the circumstances of those elections. Eventually, the narrative comes to the point of justifying the direct actions. King appears to be asking rhetorical questions from the clergy’s standpoint: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path”? It does not take much of an imagination to picture a cleric reading these questions and inwardly agreeing with them. To his astonishment, however, the letter eventually offers multiple reasons for the non-violent actions. The cleric’s attention was caught firmly by the letter’s preamble, and now he cannot help learning the entire scope of problems, brought by segregation. Of course, he can feel annoyed at the author, but admitting it would imply the denial of Christian values they both share.

Eventually, King brings the cleric into the black people’s world, enumerating the ways in which his, cleric’s “twenty million Negro brothers” were oppressed. It might even seem cruel to force the well-established and complacent clergy through such an emotional experience. After all, why should they know how it feels “to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children”? But King presses on remorselessly, capitalizing on the pick moments of the audience’s attention won by the Rogerian argument.

To this point, King has avoided confronting his opponents with open accusations. Now it is safe to do so without having his letter thrown away. And it is American society compared to Nazi’s Germany and communist regime on the issue of segregation. Not extremists, but millions of white moderate are the object of King’s pronounced disappointment. “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever” – this message sums up all previous reasoning. Obviously, such a statement would have caused nothing but anger and denial, should it appear anywhere earlier in the letter. In order to reinforce his point even further, King concludes the letter with yet another declaration of himself “as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother” to his audience.

Obviously, King could have chosen any other style of rhetoric in his attempts to break the wall of segregation. It appears, however, that none would have worked as good as Rogerian argument in this case. One might even argue that the letter was addressed to the clergymen only formally. Indeed, King might have put his message in such a form so it could affect the wider society. Whatever the reasons could be, the target was hit with extreme precision. No other form of argument could break the prejudice toward the black, permitting the addressee to concentrate on the text instead of the writer. There is a hard work behind the letter, and circumstances in which it was written were not particularly inspiring. The choice of the style, however, has determined the letter’s eventual success.

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