The Importance of Addressing Opposing Views
When you consider and counteract opposing arguments, you strengthen your own argument.
Match an argument to a corresponding counterargument
- An argument is a written or spoken form of defense. An argument should take a stance about a particular point of view, thesis, or claim.
- Try to anticipate what objections your readers might have to your argument, and try to understand why they might object.
- An academic argument supports its claim with sound reasoning, research, and evidence such as facts, statistics, and quoted opinions from authorities on both sides of the argument.
- A skeptical reader has a doubtful, questioning attitude, and expects a thorough presentation of logical reasoning and evidence. This can be a helpful audience to keep in mind when writing your paper.
- In the research phase, gathering evidence against your argument will help you refute counterarguments in the writing stage.
- counterargument: An argument that is opposed to another argument.
- argument: An attempt to persuade someone of something, by giving reasons or evidence for accepting a particular conclusion.
- refute: To prove something (a statement, theory, claim, argument) or someone wrong.
An argument must, by definition, take a stance on an issue and provide evidence for a particular conclusion. However, writers may neglect the next step, which is just as important: discussing opposing viewpoints and providing counterarguments.
Sincere Exploration of Counterarguments
Just as a criminal trial is ostensibly about finding out the truth of what happened during the crime, consider that the aim of your paper is to get to the truth of the issue you’re addressing. There is far less satisfaction in making a convincing argument if objections are left unanswered and evidence is swept under the rug. You wouldn’t want your verdict to be overturned on appeal!
Research Both Sides
The best way to counteract an opposing viewpoint is to anticipate what an opponent might say. When researching the topic, then, don’t limit yourself to sympathetic sources; find sources that disagree with your argument. Take note of their rationale and use of evidence. That way, you will be familiar enough with these opposing viewpoints to argue against them. When you encounter dissenting opinions, try to figure out why smart and rational people would hold those positions. What evidence do they look at? How do they interpret that evidence? Why might they disagree with your point of view?
When we’re passionate about a topic, emotions can sometimes cloud our rationality. We tend to have disdain for opposing arguments and aren’t open to even hearing what those on the other side have to say. To move yourself out of this emotional realm and back into the realm of the well-reasoned argument, try taking a strategy from debate tournaments. Debaters prepare for tournaments by gathering information on both sides of a topic. They actually don’t know which side they’ll be arguing until the debate begins, and so they must be just as prepared to argue the side they don’t agree with as the one they believe in. As you’re researching, then, take the debater’s approach to gathering information so you’ll be very well-informed about the opposing views.
Understand the Other Point of View
When you encounter these dissenting opinions, get curious. Try to figure out why smart and rational people would hold those positions. What evidence do they look at? How do they interpret that evidence? What life experiences might lead them to disagree with your point of view?
For example, a person who has grown up hunting in a community that has never experienced gun violence might have a very different perspective on gun control than someone whose child was the victim of a shooting. During the research phase, you’ll want to have a respectful vision of both these people in your mind to build an argument that might help increase the understanding of where the other is coming from.
Then, when you begin structuring your argument, imagine how your skeptical reader might react to your thesis statement and each of your claims. Imagine that this reader is smart, informed, has thought carefully about the issue, and has reached a totally different conclusion. Try to persuade this reader; work hard to demonstrate why your position is more convincing than the alternatives.
For example, to begin discussing the legalization of physician aid-in-dying with an audience that may be initially averse to the idea, you might begin with something like this: “The impending death of a loved one, particularly a person who can no longer communicate for herself, can pose intense ethical and emotional questions for those designated to make medical decisions for the patient. Hastening death can seem antithetical to the goals of medicine, and the artificial extension of life through invasive and/or risky medical procedures often does not provide an easier alternative. So, how might one go about making such fundamental decisions?”
Prove Your Point
Introducing opposing viewpoints is necessary, but do not stop there. The burden of proof is on you, as the author of the argument. If you fail to neutralize a common objection, readers will have an excuse to reject your argument. Just as you built your own argument, to refute opposing views, you’ll need to include evidence from research studies, statistics, and quoted opinions from experts.
The strongest arguments are those which carefully consider all perspectives in an attempt to find the most reasonable view of the issue. Your readers will deeply appreciate your efforts because they show respect for both the seriousness of your mission and for the readers themselves. Enjoy the process!
Techniques for Acknowledging Opposing Views
You can boost your credibility by acknowledging specific sources who disagree with your position, then effectively refuting their arguments.
Modify language to be neutral in tone when presenting a counterargument
- If the opposing view that you are considering and counteracting comes from another author, be sure to introduce the author and the point of view in a neutral way.
- Neutral language is not emotionally charged, biased, or polemical. Use neutral language when you present opposing viewpoints.
- Examples of neutral words are “contends,” “argues,” “suggests,” “admits,” ” claims,” and “believes.”
- You can introduce counterarguments with direct quotations from an opposing expert by paraphrasing, by offering a rhetorical example, or by offering a conditional statement.
- Satire can be used in less formal essays to inject humor and relax the reader’s defenses.
- Using straw-man counterarguments and weakened oppositional statements, while somewhat tempting, will not serve to strengthen your own argument but will severely weaken it by causing the reader to lose respect for it.
- credibility: Reputation impacting one’s ability to be believed.
- neutral: Favoring neither the supporting nor the opposing viewpoint of a topic of debate; unbiased.
- opposition: An opposite or contrasting position.
- concession: A literary device in which one acknowledges the merits of an opposing argument.
- straw man: An insubstantial concept, idea, endeavor, or argument, particularly one deliberately set up to be weakly supported, so that it can be easily knocked down; especially to impugn the strength of any related thing or idea.
Making a strong argument includes answering any of the potential objections that may form in a reader’s mind. Your job during the research phase is to find counterarguments and material to refute them, and in the drafting phase to construct your argument in a way that incorporates these objections and counterarguments. We’ll examine both phases here.
Finding Credible Sources for Counterarguments
You can boost your credibility by acknowledging specific sources who disagree with your position. If you summarize opposing views without attaching them to actual writers, it may appear as though you haven’t done your research. However, if you cite counterarguments from experts in the field, and then work to refute those arguments effectively, you can lend authority to your own argument.
As you’re researching, spend some time putting in search terms as if you were arguing for the opposition. If you consistently come from your side of the issue, you may miss articles by some of the stronger opponents. For example, if you’re arguing for hate-crime legislation and your search terms use only language related to that, you may find counterarguments based on free speech, but you may exclude those that oppose legislation on religious grounds. Beginning your search can be as simple as putting the question into a search engine: “Why would anyone oppose hate-crime legislation?”
Of course, you don’t want to stop there. Just as with your own argument, you’ll want to find the best thinkers on the opposing side of the argument. Follow the path of each objection to discover its roots. Gather quotes summarizing their viewpoints and then go digging to find statistics and other research that both back and counter their claims.
If your mind is changed in the process, so be it! You can change your thesis and claims and argue for the other side of the issue. Either way, you’ll be gathering the best information from both sides of the argument to present to your audience.
Presenting Counterarguments in Your Paper
There are several ways to introduce to your reader the counterarguments you’ve uncovered: quoting a source for the counterargument, paraphrasing a source, or using your own words to offer a rhetorical example or conditional statement. Whichever way you choose to bring the counterargument into the discussion, however, you’ll want to use neutral language.
Using Neutral Language
Make it clear that you are presenting someone else’s viewpoint, but don’t use emotionally charged, biased, or polemical language to summarize it. Don’t dismiss your opposition from the outset with language like this: “John Smith naively argues…” Instead, you could say, “John Smith contends,” and then summarize John Smith’s view. You can go on to explain exactly why Smith’s opinion is naive—but make sure you give it a fair shot first. Here are some examples of neutral verbs you can use to introduce another author’s opposing view: “contends,” “argues,” “suggests,” “admits,” “claims,” “believes.”
There are many valid ways to introduce an opposing view, but do try to present it in a neutral manner before you shoot it down. The more your readers believe that you are being fair to your opponents, the more likely they are to be open to your refutation.
You can quote an expert in the field who has publicly objected to the your thesis. Or you can quote a politician or another public figure who has recently brought up the issue (keeping in mind that this latter option dates your paper), as long as you do it respectfully. For example:
“Raymond Rodriguez, arguing in ‘The Social Contract’ (Summer, 1992) for closing the Mexican border to immigration, suggests that ‘Regulating immigration is as important as enacting agreements to control trade and pollution of the environment—and for many of the same reasons. The violation of a nation’s territorial integrity, its safety and well-being, cannot be tolerated.’ Let’s look at each of these concerns in turn.”
You’ll notice first that the author has an Hispanic surname, which lends ethos to his perspective. You’ll also notice that the publication and date is included, so a reader can quickly and easily find the original source material. A reader might want to verify what you quote here and also see if you’ve manipulated the context in any way. (A reader might be wondering, “Did he really just compare immigrants to pollution?) You’ve presented his words respectfully, however, allowing them to speak for themselves. And the last sentence tells the reader you will deal with each of the concerns—violation of territorial integrity, safety, and well-being—in your refutation.
An advantage of using quotations is that you are allowing the opposition to speak for itself. Your reader can’t scoff that you’re offering an inaccurate summary of the argument, because you are using the opposing expert’s words.
Paraphrasing is a similar approach but allows you to contextualize the comment. You will want to resist the temptation to skew the comment’s meaning or to editorialize!
“Jones contends that Theseus serves as a counterpoint to Oberon and Titania, acting as a just and righteous monarch instead of falling sway to whims and personal desires.”
The author of this paper has already introduced the referenced expert and is here introducing a new portion of Jones’s counterargument. It’s presented reasonably and respectfully.
“Of course, there is a point to be made that nuclear energy creates less pollution than using coal or oil.”
This is called a concession. You are conceding that the opposing argument is not completely false. Of course, you will go on to explain why this counterargument is not conclusive, but as you introduce it, you show that you understand the logical and rational basis for the argument.
Using a Rhetorical Example or Conditional Statement
Another way to present a counterargument is to introduce it in your own words in the form of an example. In doing this, you’re acting as a proxy for your readers, voicing their potential objections, hopefully at just the moment those objections arise in their minds.
“All this talk about tolerance and the possibility of rehabilitation is nice in theory, but what if it was your own parent or child who was killed? Wouldn’t the meaning of a just society depend, then, on the court acting on your behalf?”
In this example, the writer is putting himself in his reader’s place, voicing one of the most common and understandable objections to his thesis. He has placed this objection just after his claim that all people should be given the opportunity for redemption, because he knows that that’s the claim that is most likely to ignite this counterargument in the reader’s mind. It’s a rhetorical example (someone killing a loved one) in the form of a series of questions.
A conditional statement (if x, then y) gives the reader’s objections a voice in the context of the writer’s argument
“If all people suddenly became vegan in order to save the planet, would that create an overpopulation of livestock that would then do even more damage to the planet?”
Here, the writer approaches concession by acknowledging that it makes sense to at least consider this counterargument. If this is true, then that may be true.
While all of the above examples use a serious and respectful tone to introduce counterarguments, there is another option that can be effective, depending on your audience and your intentions.
Using Satire as a Refutation Strategy
Satire is a humorous tone that can be deployed in summarizing a position in order to not only draw out its shortcomings, but also to correct or change the shortcomings of the position. It is less likely to be used in academic writing.
For example, in a popular (as opposed to academic or professional) essay advocating for strictly enforced leash laws in cities, you might write something like this:
“While it may seem like an act of pet-friendly beneficence and trust to allow your mutt to roam free in the streets, exercising his right to sniff and bite whomever he pleases, unrestrained animals in public places ultimately pose a potential threat to the safety of pedestrians.”
Well-done satire can make the reader smile, perhaps even if he or she is one of the pet-friendly owners referenced in the paragraph. It’s good for us to laugh at ourselves, and when we do so, we can relax our defenses and open up to the opposing argument.
The trick is to use this technique without alienating readers, and that is not an easy balance. If your reader feels mocked, you’ve lost him. And even if your reader agrees with your thesis, she may be turned off completely by the lack of respect for other readers.
You can poke fun and be respectful at the same time. You’ll just need to use this technique with caution and care.
The Temptation to Weaken the Opposing Argument
You may be tempted to weaken an objection to your argument by turning it into a straw man, or a flimsy version of the original point. A straw-man argument can make a point overly simplistic, describe an incomplete concept or take a point out of context. You may have heard talk-radio hosts and opinion columnists employ this strategy. This tactic, however, results in the unfair labeling of others’ arguments as uninformed, feeble, or otherwise unworthy of a considerate response. In truth, the straw man is a well-known tactic, and readers can detect it quite easily. If you shortchange the opposing viewpoint, your readers will suspect that you are trying to compensate for shortcomings in your own argument.
Your argument will be much stronger if you present opposing viewpoints in a sympathetic light. Compare the following examples:
“Students claim that they cheat on tests because they are too busy to study. In reality, students can find the time to study if they learn time-management skills.”
“Students face many time constraints: between work and family obligations, social responsibilities, sports, clubs, and the expectations of professors, who all think their class should be the top priority, students can have trouble finding time to study for all of their tests. Some students admit that they see cheating as the only way to reconcile their conflicting obligations. However, students can find the time to study if they work on their time-management skills.”
The second example presents the argument more sympathetically and realistically. It acknowledges that students may face legitimate difficulties as they try to find time to study for all of their classes. Clearly, in the second example, the writer has considered this issue from the students’ perspective, and has attempted to find a solution that takes their concerns into account.
You’ll want to present counterarguments to your thesis in ways that respect those who disagree. That includes researching to find the thought leaders on the opposing side of your topic, presenting their arguments in an honest light, and then moving into respectful refutation.
Refuting Your Opposition
After you present the likely objections to your argument, you can show your readers why they should be willing to take your side.
Outline the process for refuting an argument
- Consider and counter opposing viewpoints in order to strengthen your own argument.
- Counter these objections by showing your reader that your position is more reasonable than the opposing position.
- It is important to clearly, completely, and respectfully state the opposing view.
- There are various ways to refute counterarguments in your paper, and selecting one will depend on your topic, your audience, and space/time limitations.
- In each refutation paragraph, you’ll want to state your opponent’s argument, clearly state your objection to that argument, support your objection with evidence and supportive statements, and then conclude with a comparison of the ideas.
- During the revision process, you’ll need to look for redundancy of information in claim and refutation paragraphs and check the structure for flow.
- viewpoint: The position from which something is observed or considered; an angle, outlook, or point of view.
Now that you’ve built a strong foundation of credibility by presenting the likely objections and reasoned opposition to your argument (respectfully, of course!), you can show your readers the flaws in these counterarguments. Remember, skeptical readers need to be convinced that your position is more reasonable than their own, and so your refutation will need to be both accurate and thorough. In the process, you’ll win support from both sides of the argument for your reasonable approach.
Where to Address Counterarguments
Depending on your writing style and material, your argument could follow various structural formats:
- Present your own argument first, and then present and counteract the opposing viewpoints.
This structure has the advantage of putting your argument in people ‘s minds first, so it can be useful when you are space-limited or your audience is time-limited.
- Present the opposition’s views first, and then prove that your argument is more reasonable than the opposing views.
This strategy gets objections out in the open right away, which can be especially useful for radical or unexpected thesis statements. The approach here is, “I know what you’re thinking, but hang in there, and you’ll see where I’m coming from.”
- Alternate back and forth between your argument and opposing points.
Here, you acknowledge each objection as it’s likely to arise in the reader’s mind. You are anticipating what each claim might bring up for the reader and handling it immediately, so he or she has no opportunity to get hung up on the objection.
Structuring Your Refutation
There are four basic parts to a refutation of an opposing argument: you introduce the counterargument, state your objection to it, offer evidence to support your view, and draw a clear conclusion by comparing the viewpoints head to head.
“The opposition says …”
Present the view accurately and fairly, and possibly concede that there is reason or merit to this perspective. For example: “Opponents of the Animal Welfare Act claimed that the use of animal subjects in drug testing was absolutely necessary to save human lives.”
Here, you state your objection to the view—the reason the reader should not accept the opposition’s viewpoint. It may be in the form of a question or statement. For example: “Is it accurate, however, to say that intelligent people are not susceptible to brainwashing?” Notice the use of the word “accurate.” While the counterargument might make some rational sense, have research and experience validated the assumption? You could phrase it as a statement, as opposed to a question. How are they different? Would the statement be more direct?
Support for Objection
Support your objection with high-quality evidence, expert opinion, and solid reasoning: “The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that in 2005, punitive damages were awarded to only 5 percent of plaintiffs in civil trials.” Here, the writer uses both a widely respected source and statistics that refute the counterclaim. Colorful language, appeals to emotion, and rhetorical devices hold little weight against a clearly fleshed-out position supported by appropriate examples and solid evidence offered by reputable sources.
In this fourth step, the conflict must be resolved. You’ve introduced two valid viewpoints. Why is yours the stronger one? “While job creation programs may indeed increase the nation’s short-term financial burden, the strategy of putting people back to work has consistently been proven to create a stronger economic and social fabric in the long run.” Concluding statements are not simply restatements of the claim but actual comparisons of the two approaches with a conclusion as to why one argument is superior.
Revising Counterarguments and Refutations
In the revision stage, you’ll want to look at the balance of the paper. Rather than addressing every possible objection to your thesis, you may decide at this point to eliminate the lesser objections, so as not to overload the paper with counterarguments.
You’ll also need to look for redundancy. Make sure your claims and your refutations are not repetitive. If you have a refutation that simply repeats one of your claims, see if you can find a different way to refute the opposing argument. Your reader will lose interest the minute you get repetitive.
Finally, ensure that if your introduction and conclusion include counterargument scenarios (images, quotes, stories), they’re consistent with what you’ve found in the research.