Rhetoric: How We Examine Writing in the World
by Jim Beatty
In public, argumentative writing situations, it is important to display an awareness of the fact that there is more than one legitimate way to approach serious social issues. Writers do this by employing “counterargument,” sometimes referred to as “anticipating objections.” This allows writers to acknowledge the complexity of their topic while still maintaining a strong perspective of their own. This strengthens readers’ sense of the writer’s ethos (credibility/reliability) and provides key support for the writer’s thesis.
Counterargument should occur early in a paper. In shorter college essays, it should ideally come in the first or second body paragraph. Doing its job of “anticipating objections,” a counterargument that occurs right after the thesis statement addresses common objections to the writer’s perspective before they are fully formed in the reader’s mind. For topics that need more explanation and context than others, counterargument can be effective placed after that background information. If counterargument occurs late in the paper—especially in the last paragraph or two, it has the effect of saying, “I just made all these great points, but I could be wrong.” Never end an argument with the notion that it might not be valid.
There are three main strategies for addressing counterargument:
Acknowledgement: This acknowledges the importance of a particular alternative perspective but argues that it is irrelevant to the writer’s thesis/topic. When using this strategy, the writer agrees that the alternative perspective is important, but shows how it is outside of their focus.
Accommodation: This acknowledges the validity of a potential objection to the writer’s thesis and how on the surface the objection and and thesis might seem contradictory. When using this strategy, the writer goes on to argue that, however, the ideal expressed in the objection is actually consistent with the writer’s own goals if one digs deeper into the issue.
Refutation: This acknowledges that a contrary perspective is reasonable and understandable. It does not attack differing points of view. When using this strategy, the writer responds with strong, research-based evidence showing how that other perspective is incorrect or unfounded.
Note that all three methods involve acknowledging the existence and reasonableness of contrary perspectives on the writer’s topics.
Let’s see how these three strategies could work in practice by considering the thesis statement “Utah public schools need to invest more money in arts education.”
Acknowledgement: One possible objection to the thesis could be: “Athletics are also an important part of students’ educational experience.” The writer could acknowledge that athletics are indeed important, but no more important than the arts. A responsible school budget should be able to include both.
Accommodation: Another possible objection to this thesis could be: “Students need a strong foundation in STEM subjects in order to get into college and get a good career.” The writer could acknowledge that STEM education is indeed crucial to students’ education. They could go on to argue, however, that arts education helps students be stronger in STEM classes through teaching creative problem solving. So, if someone values STEM education, they need to value the arts as well.
Refutation: The most common objection to education budget proposals is that there is simply not enough money. Given limited resources, schools have to prioritize where money is spent. To argue against this, the writer will have to do some research. Direct refutation must be backed up with verifiable facts. In terms of research required, refutation takes the most work of these three methods. To argue that schools do have enough resources to support arts education, the writer would need to look at current budget allocations. They could Google “Salt Lake City school district budget” to find a current budget report. In this report, they would find that the total budget for administrative roles in the 2014–15 school year totaled $10,443,596 (Roberts and Kearsley). Then they could argue that through administrative reforms, a small portion of this money could be freed up to make a big difference in funding arts education.
Too often, writers employ counterargument in a way that makes them sound contradictory or unsure of themselves. Employing one of these three strategies to address possible objections, however, makes counterargument serve as powerful evidence that helps prove the thesis statement. When used correctly, counterargument strengthens both the writer’s logos (logic) as well as ethos (credibility/reliability). Effective use of counterargument leaves readers with the impression that the writer is a fair-minded, thoughtful participant in public, argumentative writing—one who readers are likely to trust.
Roberts, Janet M. and Alan T. Kearsley. “Annaul Budget Ficasl Year 2014-2015.” Salt Lake City School District. http://www.slcschools.org/departments/budgeting/documents/1415-Budget.pdf. Accessed 3 December 2017.