An Introduction to RebuttalsOnce a person has decided to argue one side of an issue and produce a full-length paper supporting the position, she or he will need to consider how to introduce the topic and the position being argued, how to make arguments in favor of the position being supported, how to disarm the opponents' arguments and how to bring the argument to a close. These are the typical rhetorical task that need to be addressed in a successful argumentative paper.
This discussion is of "rebuttals," the part of a paper that attempts to disarm the opponents' arguments. Sometimes, the rebuttal section should come before the arguments supporting your position and sometimes after: that is a decision to make after you have written the various sections of the paper. For now, concentrate on writing a rebuttal.
Rebuttals, by definition, simply try to diminish the power of the opponent. Normally, people consider a rebuttal that relies on reason (logos) to be more ethical than one that relies on emotion (pathos) or on personal attack (ethos). But, some of the ancient rhetoricians seemed to think it was okay to use all of these strategies.
Arguments Based on Logos (Reason)
When you try to refute the reasoning of someone, you try to show one of the following:
- The position is self-contradictory. (It says one thing one place and affirms a contradiction some place else.)
- The position equivocates. (The writer or speaker changes the meaning of words, so that something seems to be slipped by the audience who had consented to one meaning and is therefore roped into consenting to another meaning without catching the shift.)
- The position contains non sequitors. (It suggests that a conclusion can be drawn from a premise, but the premise really doesn't lead naturally to that conclusion.)
- The position contains errors in reasoning about cause and effect. (The most common is the post hoc fallacy, in which two coincidental happenings are linked in a cause and effect relationship. Another variation is to claim that a supposed cause produced an effect, when really it only contributed to the effect.)
- The opponent attributes authority to someone who doesn't have it.
- The opponent cites unconvincing examples, perhaps because they don't fit the situation or perhaps because they are insufficient in number.
- The position is built on faulty assumptions. (Sometimes the reasoning is internally consistent, but the taken-for-granted assumptions of the argument are not true.)
- The opponent uses questionable arguments. (Perhaps he or she claims that circumstances will eventuate without proof; or that someone is not to be believed because he belongs to a certain group.)
Arguments Based on Pathos
Although rebutting someone using emotions is sometimes considered unethical, the use of pathos is not inherently wrong. Suppose that your opponents' policies will result in the suffering of others. Simply pointing out the possibility of suffering is not as effective as actually saying something like, "Let's consider the case of Janice if these policies are put into effect." Then you would go on to tell a story about Janice in some detail. The emotional tone of the story may be a more effective rebuttal of the opponent than several arguments based on logos.
Arguments Based on Ethos
Rebuttals based on ethos are the most likely to be unethical. Such an argument attacks the character of the opponent directly without dealing with her position's logic. This argument is sometimes call the ad hominem argument, meaning "against the man." Normally, it is listed as a fallacy, and students are encouraged to point out that their opponents are employing a fallacy. It is the use of such arguments that cause politicians to cry out that "negative political ads are destroying the political process."
Certainly, one should avoid attacking someone else's character if at all possible, but there may be some occasions in which discussion of your opponent's character is appropriate. It's almost impossible to give rules of thumb about when it is permissible and when it isn't. There is much debate among ethicists about this very issue. Does someone's personal life have anything to do with whether or not people should support his or her positions? Why or why not? I'll leave that up to you to decide.
2 Sample Refutation Paragraphs
(Each these samples have 2-paragraph refutation; some essays may only have a 1 paragraph refutation while other essays, like research papers, may require a much longer refutation)
Charter Schools Vs. Public Schools (School Choice)
By Mark Liles
Thesis: School choice turns out to not only be a bad idea; it’s also a violation of our constitution.
Refutation: ...[Introduce Opposing Arguments] Considering the many challenges facing public schools, it’s understandable that many people would be eager to pursue new options. Supporters of school choice point out that under the current public school system, parents with economic means already exercise school choice by moving from areas with failing or dangerous schools to neighborhoods with better, safer schools. Their argument is that school choice would allow all parents the freedom, regardless of income level, to select the school that provides the best education (Chub and Moe). Schools would then have to compete for students by offering higher academic results and greater safety. Schools unable to measure up to the standards of successful schools would fail and possibly close. [Acknowledge Valid Parts] Activists within the school choice movement can be applauded for seeking to improve public education, but the changes they propose would in fact seriously damage public education as a whole.
[Counter Arguments] One of the biggest dangers of school choice is the power behind large corporations specializing in opening and operating charter schools. Two notable companies are Green Dot, which is the leading public school operator in Los Angeles (Green Dot), and KIPP, which operates 65 schools in 19 different states [KIPP]. These companies represent a growing trend of privatization of public schools by large corporations. It is feared that these corporations could grow to a point that public control of education would be lost. Education policy would be left in the hands of entrepreneurial think tanks, corporate boards of directors, and lobbyists who are more interested in profit than educating students [Miller and Gerson]. [Begin Concluding] Education should be left in the hands of professional educators and not business people with MBAs. To do otherwise is not only dangerous, it defies common sense.
What I liked about this refutation: The writer calmly and clearly outlines the true concerns and reasons why people oppose the opinion. He makes sure the reader knows that he is outlining opposing viewpoints because he gives hints like "Supporters of school choice point out that..." or "Their argument is that...". This is a nice way for readers to be aware of what others think.
Also, towards the end of the first paragraph, and throughout the second paragraph, the writer spends time clearly attacking these opposing views. He helps the reader feel like the opposing views might SEEM good on the surface, but they are indeed not good enough. He helps the reader see this with hints like "One of the biggest dangers of school choice is..." or "It is feared that...". This paragraph particularly draws in any hostile readers; the writer cunningly draws them in by complimenting their views when he says "Activists within the school choice movement can be applauded for seeking to improve public education," but he immediately points out the flaws, saying that " the changes they propose would in fact seriously damage public education as a whole." Complimenting the opposing argument really invites all your hesitant readers; they’re not threatened, and they’re now more willing to listen to the arguments.
Finally, at the end of the refutation, there is a clear conclusion.
Safe Traveler Cards
Taken from College Writers pg. 733-734
........[Introduce Opposing Arguments] As attractive as Safe Traveler Cards or national ID cards are, they are not without drawbacks. For one thing, as Easterbrook notes, these cards would expedite security procedures only for travelers who do not mind volunteering such information to obtain a card. Moreover they would not prevent passengers with "clean" backgrounds from bringing weapons or explosives on board, as was the case in the September 11 attacks. Perhaps the biggest drawback is that some people believe that these cards would deprive people of their privacy and that for this reason, their disadvantages outweigh their advantages (168).
........However, there are many who disagree with these contentions. [Acknowledge Valid Parts] While national ID cards could lessen a person's anonymity and privacy, [Counter Argument] this is a small loss that would be offset by a great increase in personal security. To Dershowitz--a self proclaimed civil libertarian--this tradeoff would be well worth it. According to Dershowitz, the national ID card would be only a little more intrusive than a photo ID card or social security card. Best of all, it would reduce or eliminate the need for racial profiling: "Anyone who had the [national ID] card could be allowed to pass through airports or building security more expeditiously, and anyone who opted out could be examined much more closely" (590). Such cards would enable airport security officials to do instant background checks on everyone. [Begin Concluding] The personal information in the system would stay in the system and never be made public. The only information on the card would be a person's "name, address, photo, and [finger]print" (Dershowitz 591).