43 Powerful Examples

Emotional language can certainly affect readers, but even the most fervent appeals to values and sympathies may feel too abstract without examples. To feel connected to an argument, readers need to be able to imagine what it means in some particular case. Writers can bring an example to life by describing a scene, developing a character, or building suspense and ending with a dramatic resolution.

One book, Solito/Solita: Crossing Borders with Youth Refugees from Central America, edited by Steven Mayers and Jonathan Freedman, dedicates itself to first-person stories of asylum seekers. One of these is “Rosa, a Salvadoran mother fighting to save her life as well as her daughter’s after death squads threatened her family. Together they trekked through the jungles on the border between Guatemala and Mexico, where masked men assaulted them.” Another is “Adrian, from Guatemala City, whose mother was shot to death before his eyes. He refused to join a gang, rode across Mexico atop cargo trains, crossed the US border as a minor, and was handcuffed and thrown into ICE detention on his eighteenth birthday.” The publisher, Voice of Witness, sees powerful individual stories as its best tool to affect social change. Its mission statement declares, “Voice of Witness (VOW) advances human rights by amplifying the voices of people impacted by injustice…Our work is driven by the transformative power of the story, and by a strong belief that an understanding of crucial issues is incomplete without deep listening and learning from people who have experienced injustice firsthand.”

Of course, an argument calling for more controls on immigration would choose a wholly different kind of story. The following excerpt from President Trump’s speech accepting the nomination for the presidency in 2016 focuses on a young woman killed by an immigrant: “They are being released by the tens of thousands into our communities with no regard for the impact on public safety or resources. One such border-crosser was released and made his way to Nebraska. There, he ended the life of an innocent young girl named Sarah Root. She was 21 years old, and was killed the day after graduating from college with a 4.0 Grade Point Average. Her killer was then released a second time, and he is now a fugitive from the law. I’ve met Sarah’s beautiful family. But to [the Obama] Administration, their amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting. One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders.”

Obviously, there are as many stories to choose from as there are immigrants. If a story serves as an illustration of a general point, we have to ask how representative it is. Is it presented as typical? If so, is there evidence to show its typicality? Arguments can complement specific examples with statistics to show typicality.

Even if an example represents a common experience, we need to look carefully at how it is used. Does the story promote harmful stereotypes while neglecting accounts that are just as common or more common and that contradict those stereotypes?


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