Counterargument and Refutation
In 1980, a bronze “Rocky” statue standing more than 12 feet tall was commissioned by Sylvester Stallone for use in Rocky III. During the film, this statue appears at the top of the museum steps when fictional character Rocky Balboa is honored with the city's dedication of the statue to him. When filming for Rocky III finished, Stallone gifted the statue to the City of Philadelphia, leaving it at the top of the steps to the Philadelphia Art Museum, where the scene in the movie was filmed. The Museum protested the statue's location--in particular, its prime visibility--debating its value as more "prop than art." The statue was moved from location to location afterward, and in 2006, the Philadelphia Art Commission approved a permanent location nearby for the bronze Rocky statue. (Read more on-line about this event at Pop History Dig: http://www.pophistorydig.com/?tag=rocky-statue-in-philadelphia.)
Is the bronze Rocky statue art? Or, is it a prop? What's the difference? What's "art"? What isn't art, and why? Should the Rocky statue have been left atop the steps to the Museum? Why, or why not?
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In persuasive-argumentative writing, used to show your readers that you are knowledgeable about a full range of positions other than your own.
As a rhetorical strategy, it demonstrates that you are interested in finding common ground and consensus with your opponents.
As a statement of your character, it shows that you are honest and forthcoming about other viewpoints that might jeopardize your position.
Three Stages of Counterargument
STAGE 1: ACKNOWLEDGMENT
a paraphrase, with useful examples, of an argument posed by your potential opponents
proof to your readers that you can, not only understand the complex ideas of your opponents, but digest them clearly for the edification of your readers.
remains neutral in tone
introduces the counter-argumentative process as if to say, “Let me see if I understand my opponent correctly: . . . .”
EXAMPLE OF ACKNOWLEDGMENT
Many advocates of extreme rendition charge that the word "torture" is a rhetorical usage, and that the methods employed to extract information from hostile agencies deserve an image makeover. Vice President Dick Cheney, for example, insisted in a 2009 interview with PBS that “we [the United States] don’t torture,” stating that the term “enhanced interrogation” was sanctioned by the Justice Department. Cheney added, “A great many Americans are alive today because we did all that.” Extreme rendition, it is argued, is ultimately an effective method of detainment and interrogation whose reputation is tarnished by the semantics of terms like "torture."
STAGE 2: ACCOMMODATION
a statement conceding to the merit of some part of the opposing argument--either in the argument, itself, or in the character and values of the arguer
establishes common ground.
shows you are representing the opposition as fairly as possible.
points out logic, values, interpretations, motivations that you respect in the opposing argument
shows you are capable of empathy and understanding.
is careful to agree ONLY IN PART with the opponent
proves you've chosen an opponent of equal or greater strength
EXAMPLE OF ACCOMMODATION
. . . One can find these argument persuasive in that the most controversial issues of our day hinge on semantics and torture is no different. Terms such as "pro-life" and "pro- choic" demonstrate how opposing groups using semantics for frame how the enemy is perceived, named, and identified. Words such as "torture" are clearly undercut with a prejudice formed by such history lessons as the Spanish Inquisition or the Killing Fields.
STAGE 3: REFUTATION
Argue against the opponent on the terms introduced by you in acknowledgment, OR
Subvert the choice of criteria used the opponent, by introduced what you believe to be a more valid set of criteria to discuss the argument.
remains even-tempered and uses a rational tone
responds by addressing those parts of the opposing argument with which you CANNOT agree: interpretations of the facts; inappropriate examples
subverts logic or questions the values in the opposing argument, in defense of your own position.
does not veer off topic: stays focused on the criteria introduced in acknowledgment
EXAMPLE OF REFUTATION
. . . However, the need to put "spin" on the reputation of "torture" is, itself, an indication that the word has power, not because it is in the common vocabulary of a nation, but rather because it conveys an underlying truth about the cruelty and inhumanity that the word "torture" connotes. Phrases such as "enhanced interrogation" are not merely euphemisms; they absolve us of the responsibility to qualify and rationalize the barbarous methods of interrogation used in favor of contemplating effective, business-style strategies in the extraction of sensitive information in the interest of national security. It dangerously portrays extreme rendition as matter-of-fact and "business as usual." It trivializes arguments about how much "enhanced interrogation" is enough. (How can performance be enhanced too much, after all?) In a very real way, such arguments about semantics work insidiously upon the character of a nation because they persuade the unwitting public to coat the issue of torture with a veneer of semantics. It hides, once again, behind the same "means justifies the ends" debate that keeps us distracted in the subtleties of torture when the obvious, general immorality of it goes unchallenged by us.
Avoid becoming shrill in your tone.
Address the issue at hand to avoid making ad hominem attacks or red herring arguments.
Be sure to do a full and thorough job of accommodation; do not, for example, write, “My opponent might make a good point, but . . .”
Don’t forget to include examples in every stage of the counterargument.
Be certain that your refutation doesn’t change the topic capriciously. If you do intentionally change the issue that was introduced in the Acknowledgment, make sure that you explain your rationale.
Identify the source of your opposing arguments as specifically as possible, and represent your opponent fairly and honestly.
Devote one portion of your essay to an anticipation of the opposing arguments.
Address three separate opposing points.
Dedicate a single paragraph to a single opposing argument.
Include all three stages--Acknowledgment, Accommodation, and Refutation--in a single paragraph. For example, do not group all three acknowledgments together. Do not start a new paragraph with accommodation or refutation (unless the refutation is exceptionally complex and much longer than the other components); each counterargument ordinarily is presented as a single paragraph:
Many advocates of extreme rendition charge that the word "torture" is a rhetorical usage, and that the methods employed to extract information from hostile agencies deserve an image makeover. Vice President Dick Cheney for example, insisted in a 2009 interview with PBS that “we [the United States] don’t torture,” stating that the term “enhanced interrogation” was sanctioned by the Justice Department. Cheney added, “A great many Americans are alive today because we did all that.” Extreme rendition, it is argued, is ultimately an effective method of detainment and interrogation whose reputation is tarnished by the semantics of terms like "torture." One can find these arguments persuasive in that any of the most controversial issues of our day hinge on the semantics of the debate; torture is no different. Terms such as "pro-life" and "pro-choice" aptly exemplify the matter. Similarly, words such as "torture" are clearly undercut with a prejudice formed by such history lessons as the Spanish Inquisition or the Killing Fields. However, the need to put "spin" on the reputation of "torture" is, itself, an indication that the word has power, not because it is in the common vocabulary of a nation, but rather because it conveys an underlying truth about the cruelty and inhumanity that the word "torture" connotes. Phrases such as "enhanced interrogation" are not merely euphemisms; they absolve us of the responsibility to justify the barbarous methods of interrogation used in favor of contemplating effective, business-style strategies in the extraction of sensitive information in the interest of national security. It dangerously portrays extreme rendition as matter-of-fact and "business as usual." It trivializes arguments about how much "enhanced interrogation" is enough. In a very real way, such arguments about semantics work insidiously upon the character of a nation because they persuade the unwitting public to coat the issue of torture with a veneer of semantics. It hides, once again, behind the same "means justifies the ends" debate that keeps us distracted in the subtleties of torture when the obvious, general immorality of it goes unchallenged by us.
Impress readers with your sophisticated and subtle reasoning, and use sources, not only for their information, but for the authority and expertise that they can loan you.
Refutation is not about logic only. Appeal to your readers’ emotional sensibilities and their values.
Make the process intellectually enjoyable to yourself, without creating the impression that you are sparring with adversaries.
Divide into groups no smaller than six and, using the assigned readings in the focus casebook ("Is There a Case For Torture?" starting on page 679) and the film Serenity, create two related counterarguments, one from the point of view of torture advocates and one from its critics. To help illustrate and support each stage of the counterargument process, use the following to raise issues and themes relevant to the debate over government-sanctioned torture:
examples, quotes, and information from the Casebook articles, and
the film Serenity and your discussion of it.
At the end of your discussion, prepare a scripted debate in which three of you will, one by one, systematically acknowledge, accommodate, and refute one argument, and the remaining three will do the same for its responsive counterargument. Be prepared to present these to the class--formally, clearly, and with proper references to the sources.
Note: If there are five or seven people in your group, you can still do what you need to accomplish this exercise, but try to amass groups of six.
Last Updated: 01/13/2016
A counter-argument is an argument opposed to your thesis, or part of your thesis. It expresses the view of a person who disagrees with your position.
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Why use counter-argument?
Why would you include a counter-argument in your essay? Doesnt that weaken your argument?
Actually, no. Done well, it makes the argument stronger. This is because it gives you the chance to respond to your readers objections before they have finished reading. It also shows that you are a reasonable person who has considered both sides of the debate. Both of these make an essay more persuasive.
How should a counter-argument be presented?
A counter-argument should be expressed thoroughly, fairly and objectively. Do not just write a quick sentence and then immediately rebut it. Give reasons why someone might actually hold that view. A few sentences or even a whole paragraph is not an unreasonable amount of space to give to the counter-argument. Again, the point is to show your reader that you have considered all sides of the question, and to make it easier to answer the counter-argument. Its easier to respond to a point you have already spelled outand its easier for your reader to follow you.
Make sure you express the counter-argument fairly and objectively. Ask yourself if the person who actually holds this position would accept your way of stating it. Put yourself in their shoes and give them the benefit of the doubt. Dont use biased language or stack the deck when presenting their position. Readers see through that sort of thing pretty quickly.
Obviously, if you really believe the position expressed in your thesis, you will not be able to be completely objective in how you express the counter-argumentbut you should try. One of the most common purposes of counter-argument is to address positions that many people hold but that you think are mistaken. Therefore you want to be respectful and give them the benefit of the doubt even if you think their views are incorrect. Theyll be much more likely to be persuaded then. (The other approach, to use sarcasm and satire to expose mistaken ideas, is very powerful, but should be used with care, especially before youve mastered the art of rhetoric.)
How can a counter-argument be rebutted?
One of the most effective ways to rebut a counter-argument is to show that it is based on faulty assumptions. Either the facts are wrong, the analysis is incorrect, or the values it is based on are not acceptable. Examples of each are given below. Furthermore, some counter-arguments are simply irrelevant, usually because they are actually responding to a different argument. And some counter-arguments actually make your argument stronger, once you analyze their logic.
All of these examples use a claim from James Loewens book, Lies My Teacher Told Me. In that book Loewen makes the claim that To function adequately in civic life students must learn what causes racism (143). The examples below are ideas that you might use as a counter-argument to this claim, in a paper agreeing with Loewen. Then you would rebut, or answer, the counter-argument as a way to strengthen your own position.
Faulty Factual Assumption
Racism is a thing of the past; therefore, students dont need to bother with it.
The factual assumption in this example is that racism is a thing of the past. One response would be to muster facts to show that racism continues to be a problem. (Theres a second assumption, which is that students dont need to bother with whats in the past. Another response would be to show that students must understand the past as well as the present to function adequately in civic life.)
Faulty Analytical Assumption
Learning about racism might make students more racist.
The analytical assumption is that learning about racism can make you racist. The response would be that understanding the causes of a problem is not the same as causing or creating the problem. (Another assumption in this argument is that its not good to make students racist. Loewens argument shares this assumption, so you wouldnt rebut it.)
Who cares if students are racist?
This counter-argument is based on an assumed value that your readers probably do not sharenamely, the idea that its ok for students to be racist. The response would be to point out this value, state why you dont share it and state why you dont think your readers do either. Of course, values are both deeply personal and extremely varied, so youre always going to have some readers who do not share yours. The key is to base your arguments on values that most readers are likely to share.
True but Irrelevant
Students are already familiar with racism; they dont need to study it in school.
Many students are, in fact, already familiar with racism. But Loewen is not saying they need to learn about racism, hes saying they need to learn what causes it. You might be very familiar with racism but still not know what causes it. This is a very common form of counter-argument, one that actually rebuts a different argument. (Note that here, too, theres a faulty assumption: being familiar with something is not the same as knowing what causes it.)
Makes the Argument Stronger
Previous generations didnt study the causes of racism, so why should we start now?
The response here would be to show that previous generations did not function adequately in civic life, because they had a lot of problems with racism (segregation and more hidden forms of discrimination). Therefore, the fact that they didnt learn about the causes of racism, together with this other information, actually supports the claim that students do need to learn what causes racism. (Here again theres a faulty assumption, implied but not stated: Previous generations supposedly did function adequately in civic life. The response shows that that assumption is incorrect.)
When should a counter-argument be conceded?
Sometimes you come up with a counter-argument that you think is true and that you think responds to your actual argument, not some other point. Then you are faced with a choice: Do you abandon your thesis and adopt the counter-argument as your position? Often it turns out you dont need to abandon your thesis, but you might need to modify or refine it.
Lets take a modified version of the second example given above (learning about racism might make students more racist). The new version might look like this:
Students get turned off by what they are forced to learn, especially when its about forcing them to be good. Then they turn against what theyve been taught and deliberately go in the other direction. So, studying racism might just make them want to be racist out of sheer contrariness. This might help explain the backlash against political correctness.
One way to respond to a counter-argument like this is to acknowledge that, if its done incorrectly, education about racism might just end up turning kids off and making them hostile. Then, you refine your original thesis to say something like this:
Students should learn what causes racism, but should not be constantly lectured that racism is bad. Instead, they should be taught the causes and history in a way that they find interesting and that lets them decide their own values.
By refining your thesis in this way you are able to retain your original point, while strengthening it by incorporating part of the oppositions views. This also takes away some of the reasons a reader might have to disagree with you.
What makes a good counter-argument?
Some counter-arguments are better than others. You want to use ones that are actually somewhat persuasive. Theres nothing to be gained by rebutting a counter-argument that nobody believes. Two things to look for are reasonableness and popularity.
If you yourself are somewhat unsure of the position youve chosen as your thesis, it will be easier for you to identify good counter-arguments. You already recognize that there are reasonable arguments on the other sidethats why youre a little unsure. Look for those arguments that make sense to you or that seem reasonable, even if you dont agree with them.
On the other hand, you may be quite sure of your position, which makes it harder to see other views as reasonable. They all look flawed to you because you can point out their errors and show why your view is better. In that case, look for ones that are popular, even if they are flawed. Remember, youre trying to persuade your readers to agree with you. So you want to speak their language. That means answering their objections even if you dont think the objections are reasonable.
If you look at the examples above, youll probably find some more convincing than others. Most people will probably not find the Who cares if students are racist argument very convincing. On the other hand, you might find the students already understand argument pretty persuasive.
Pick the arguments that you, or a lot of other people, feel are reasonable. The more you can answer those objections, the stronger youll make your case.
Where does the counter-argument go?
The short answer is a counter-argument can go anywhere except the conclusion. This is because there has to be a rebuttal paragraph after the counter-argument, so if the counter-argument is in the conclusion, something has been left out.
In practice (there are exceptions), the rebuttal is usually not the concluding paragraph, which means that generally the counter-argument is anywhere but the last two paragraphs.
Counter-arguments can be very effective in introductions, especially if you are arguing against a popularly held view. However, its also very common to place them after the presentation of the case for the thesis. In other words, they would go after all of the main points that support the thesis, but before the conclusionin the third-to-last paragraph, with the rebuttal in the second-to-last. This is probably the most common position.
Generally, unless there is some compelling reason specific to the particular argument being made, it does not make sense to put the counter-argument in the middle of the case for the thesis. In other words, you would not typically present two points in support of the thesis, then the counter-argument and rebuttal, and then more points in support of the thesis.
Here are two outlines showing the most common placement of the counter-argument. The first is probably the most common.
- Supporting point #1
- Supporting point #2
- Supporting point #3
- Supporting point #4 [there can be any number of supporting points]
- Counter-argument, which also serves as introduction
- Rebuttal, which would usually include the thesis statement
- Supporting point #1
- Supporting point #2
- Supporting point #3
- Supporting point #4 [there can be any number of supporting points]
How should the counter-argument be introduced?
Its important to use clear signals to alert the reader that the paper is about to express a view different from (typically, the opposite of) the thesis. Since the purpose of the whole paper, including the counter-argument, is to support the thesis, these signals are crucial. Without them the paper appears incoherent and contradictory.
Generally, the counter-argument will begin with a word, phrase or sentence to indicate that what follows is not the authors view. These can range from the very simplesometimes the single word But or However is sufficientto quite complex whole sentences:
In his majisterial work on representation in western literature, a foundational text in the discipline, Auerbach argues that the mixture of styles is an essential ingredient of all modern realism, a view that has found wide acceptance in the half-century since its publication.
Notice, however, that even this sentence is careful to attribute these views to other people, and to call them viewsin other words, to subtly hint that they are not facts or truths.
In general, the strategy is to make it clear quickly that this is someone else�s view. Typical introductory strategies include the following:
- Many people [believe/argue/feel/think/suppose/etc.] that [state the counter-argument here]
- It is often [thought/imagined/supposed/etc.] that [state the counter-argument here]
- [It would be easy to/One could easily] [think/believe/imagine/suppose/etc.] that [state the counter-argument here]
- It might [seem/appear/look/etc.] as if [state the counter-argument here]
Another common approach is to use a question:
- But isnt it true that [state the counter-argument here]?
- [Doesnt/Wouldnt/Isnt] [state the counter-argument here]?
You can also cite specific writers or thinkers who have expressed a view opposite to your own:
- On the other hand, Fund argues that...
- However, Ngugi has written, ...
- Dangarembga takes the position that...
How should the rebuttal be introduced?
If the counter-argument requires careful signaling, so does the rebuttal. The essay has just done a 180° turn away from its thesis, and now it is about to do another 180° turn to complete the circle. The reader needs warnings and guidance or they will fall off or get whiplashyoull lose them, in other words, because the essay will seem incoherent or contradictory.
The common strategies for introducing the rebuttal are the mirror image of those for introducing the counter-argument, and they all boil down to the same basic concept: Yes, but.... They can be as simple as that, or as complex as this example sentence:
While Auerbachs claim seems initially plausible, and is backed by the copious evidence provided by his astonishing erudition, it is marred by an inconsistency that derives from an unsupportable and ultimately incoherent definition.
In all cases, the job of this transitional language is to show the reader that the opposing view is now being answered. The essay has returned to arguing its own thesis, strengthened by having taken the opposition into account. Here are some typical strategies. These are generic examples; they work best when tailored to suit the specifics of the individual topic.
- What this argument [overlooks/fails to consider/does not take into account] is ...
- This view [seems/looks/sounds/etc.] [convincing/plausible/persuasive/etc.] at first, but ...
- While this position is popular, it is [not supported by the facts/not logical/impractical/etc.]
- Although the core of this claim is valid, it suffers from a flaw in its [reasoning/application/etc.]
For more on this topic, see the Counterargument section of the Argument web page at the University of North Carolina Writing Center.
Loewen, James. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: Touchstone, 1996.