Addressing Counterarguments: Examples from MLK

In the previous Tricks of the Trade article, we looked at a new technique: addressing counterarguments. A counterargument is a point of disagreement or doubt that a reader might raise while reading your writing—a moment where the reader says, about a point you are making, “But I disagree with your point here.” It’s your job as the writer to be aware of such counterarguments (at least, the most likely ones) and to address those counterarguments.

At this point, you might be thinking, “But how can I think of all possible counterarguments my readers might raise?” Well, the sad fact is, you can’t think of all possible counterarguments. However, by tackling the most probable counterarguments, your chances of winning over more readers will increase. And, even if you bring out counterarguments that a reader does not raise, your counterargument still helps to win the reader’s respect since (1) you come across as the kind of writer who cares about readers’ concerns and (2) you come across as the kind of writer who attempts to cover all bases in posing an argument. (By the way, did you notice that I used this short paragraph to address a counterargument that my reader might raise? Were you thinking to raise this counterargument just as I mentioned it here?)

If you read the previous Tricks of the Trade article, then you should be clear on what a counterargument is and how it is essentially posed. (And if you didn’t read that article yet, I suggest that you click here to read it before continuing to read this article.) However, the previous article did not share real examples of counterarguments at work within their larger context.

With that point in mind, I have written this article to provide examples of counterarguments drawn from a real essay. When considering the counterargument and how it works, there’s no better place to look than the writing of Martin Luther King, Jr.—particularly his classic essay, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

As the title implies, MLK penned this letter (now anthologized as an essay) from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, where he and other civil rights protestors were being held simply for making their voices heard in thMLK Image for W Toolboxe segregationist Jim Crow south of 1963. While imprisoned, MLK read a newspaper article written by eight clergymen, all of them arguing that MLK and the other nonviolent protestors were “extremists” and that the protestors should simply wait for what (the clergymen thought) would be inevitable change. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was MLK’s response to these eight clergymen. MLK argues in his letter that civil rights equality would not simply happen with time and that change happens only because people take a stand for equality and strive to make it a reality.

I should note, before sharing these excerpts, that MLK was already aware of many of these counterarguments because these arguments had already been raised against the actions of MLK and other nonviolent civil rights protestors. He had the advantage of already being aware of the opposition’s core arguments, and he harnessed that advantage to full effect.

As you read the passages below, notice how MLK does not merely bring up counterarguments as side-notes or “by the way” points. He actually uses the counterarguments to drive this essay, going from addressing one counterargument to addressing the next one.

Counterargument Excerpts: “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

The counterarguments below, drawn from MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” are color coded so that each counterargument (marked in red) stands out from MLK’s response(s) to each counterargument (marked in green).

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored.

King immediately moves to another counterargument—one that would be raised in response to the way he addressed the first counterargument (immediately above):

My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

Leaving no possible counterargument unaddressed, King moves on one paragraph later to address the next logical counterargument: the argument that, even if it is right to create nonviolent, productive tension, the timing is not right for that tension:

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.

Another counterargument that King confronts is the accusation that the nonviolent resisters were breaking laws and that this point invalidated their cause. Let’s look at how King discusses and dismantles this new counterargument:

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

King goes on for several paragraphs to present even more responses to this counterargument. But perhaps none of these responses resonates as powerfully as this passage, where King draws upon what was (and still is) an all-too-familiar example of racial prejudice when carried out to its worst extreme:

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.

The passage above is especially fitting for King’s audience, since he is responding to Jewish as well as Christian clergy. Consider the other Judeo-Christian references King makes in this essay and how those references are especially effective, considering that he is writing for clergy. As discussed in the first Tricks of the Trade technique, King is aware of his audience and he writes accordingly.

The final counterargument I will cite (but certainly not the last one in King’s essay) is one of the central accusations brought against King and the other nonviolent protesters in Birmingham: the accusation that the protestors were extremists. King addresses this particular counterargument with two (very different) arguments: (1) the point that the truly dangerous “extremists” in the civil rights movement are those who advocate violence and (2) the point that the term extremist is not bad in and of itself, but depends upon what one chooses to be an extremist for. King puts the counterargument to rest—twice over:

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. [. . .] The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best-known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.” [. . .] So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist.

Here is King’s second response to the accusation of extremism:

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? [. . .] Perhaps the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

Do you feel the power of King’s response? Effective writing—it doesn’t get any better than this.

Next Up: Parallel Sentence Structure

One reason for the effectiveness of King’s response (just above) is that it employs yet another technique I want to discuss in Tricks of the Trade: parallel sentence structure. Notice how King’s sentences often repeat the same syntax and word patterns, creating a rhythm from sentence to sentence, holding the reader’s attention but at the same time reinforcing the point that the concepts the sentences convey also share parallels. (Similarities in language reflect similarities in ideas.)

Look again at the passage—this time formatted with parallel structures underlined:

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? [. . .] Perhaps the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

In addition to the underlined portions sharing word and phrase patterns, notice as well the larger repeated structure, where King gives the name of the historical figure, followed by a colon and then a quotation. This too is a parallel sentence structure. (One delightful aspect of King’s writing is his ability to embed parallel structures within parallel structures.)

Want to learn more about using parallel sentence structures to make your writing more moving and effective? (Of course you do!) To learn more, click the link below:

Works Cited

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ed. Clayborne Carson. New York: Warner Books, 1998. 188-204. Print.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to Christopher Altmanwriting this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Tricks of the Trade: Addressing Counterarguments

In the first Tricks of the Trade article, “Technique Number One: Imagine and Project a Reader,” we discussed how all good writing begins with writing for an actual reader.

Here is one important point about that reader: sometimes, your reader will come across some point you have made and think, “Wait—I disagree with this point!” If the reader is left to his own devices, his own counterarguments will convince him that your arguments do not work. When this happens, the writing—which should convince the reader of your view—only serves to further entrench the reader in his own view.

How can you prevent this from occurring? Simple: Take on those counterarguments in your writing. Do not ignore them. Confront them. Tackle them. If you don’t, these counterarguments will destroy your desired effect: convincing the reader.

The difficult part is finding those counterarguments—and doing so before your reader does. Generating these hypothetical counterarguments requires a degree of imagination, and maybe a degree of research. It certainly requires a degree of empathy—and, harder yet, empathy for those who disagree with your position. Admittedly, this level of empathy can be a difficult quality to attain. Fortunately, though, there are some approaches to achieving this empathy in your writing so that you can address likely counterarguments.

One great way to come up with counterarguments is to find a friend who will disagree with your points. Show that friend your draft, or even your outline. If, for example, you are writing a paper that expresses a fiscally liberal worldview, find a friend who tends to hold conservative views. Say, “Hey, would you mind reading this, and telling me what you think about some of the arguments?” If you have access to a chat program—like AIM or Skype—you can even record the conversation and transcribe it into notes.

Also, reading responses to online blogs, articles, and similar postings is a great way to find everyday counterarguments. But be careful: the arguments people make are not always very strong, and you want to present counterarguments that are reasonable. For that reason, you may want to consider the articles of experts and professional writers as well. The last thing you want is to insult those readers who disagree with your position by implying, “Hey, I think you—and others who hold your view—would make a horrible argument like the one seen here, an argument that anyone can easily dismiss.”

To present a weak counterargument in this way and then to argue against it is called a Straw Man Argument. It is a type of fallacy—a weakness in the reasoning or logic of an argument. (Logically enough, the name of this particular fallacy is the “straw man fallacy.”) Think about the name: straw man argument. It is the rhetorical equivalent of someone building a man of straw and then defeating it in “combat.” I put “combat” in quotes, because fighting a straw man is not really combat at all, since the straw man does not fight back. To defeat a straw man is to accomplish very little. Likewise, to present a weak counterargument and then to dismiss it is to accomplish very little to win over your reader. Your quest as a writer is not to take convenient swings at straw men; your quest is to slay dragons.

Crafting and Responding to Counterarguments

To support a thesis, the writer must think about counterexamples and counterarguments that could be brought against her assertion. For example, imagine that a student is writing an essay against the discriminatory treatment of Muslims in post 9-11 America. Here are some counterarguments (left column) and the responses to those counterarguments (right column):

Counterarguments

My Responses to Counterarguments

This is what my opponent will say. . . .

And this is how I will respond to the counterargument. . . .

Some Muslims commit acts of terrorism against Christian populations—so why shouldn’t we discriminate against them for the purpose of protecting ourselves? Yes, but some Christians also commit acts of terrorism. Consider the bombings of abortion clinics; this is terrorism based upon a belief or conviction, just like the terrorism of militant Muslims. All terrorism is bad, regardless of who commits it.
We live in a country in which there are very few Muslims in comparison to Christians—why, then, is discrimination an issue with such a relatively small group? Don’t we practice this in elections, to some degree, when the majority wins the day? Discrimination against Muslims in America is an important problem to address, because America is based upon the belief in the religious rights of the individual. If only one person is a Muslim in America, then he should not be discriminated against; this is the freedom of religion that America stands for.

Do you see how this works? Think in terms of an opponent—one who is actively thinking about your assertions. Make up an opponent in your mind and have him criticize your argument. Think about the gaps and seeming contradictions in your argument and how you can account for them with logical responses. Ideally, your writing should be a combination of your own original arguments and your arguments that are in response to hypothetical opponents. Think in terms of these steps:

  1. Introduce and write your thesis: Make your assertion; express your position.
  2. Write out your arguments, and as you do so, think of the ways your hypothetical opponent could argue against your arguments. This step is not actually the first draft of your paper, but prewriting—brainstorming: gathering ammunition for your argument.
  3. Respond to the hypothetical responses. You may even want to write the counterarguments in full within your paper so you can respond to them. One great way to introduce your opponent’s responses is to say:  “At this point, someone might argue X.”

Here are two (of many) ways to pose a counterargument in your writing:

  • At this point, one might argue X; however, X is not the case because Y.

Example: At this point, some readers might argue that some Muslims commit acts of terrorism against Christian populations, and that because of these crimes, Americans have the right to discriminate against Muslims in certain cases; however, if we take this argument as being valid, we would also be permitted to discriminate against Christians for the terrorist attacks on abortion clinics by a few extreme fundamentalist Christians. When all is said and done, we should discriminate against neither Christian nor Muslim for the acts of a few extremists.

  • At this point, some might argue X, and they would be right if Y. However, Y is not the case here. So, X must be erroneous, at least in this case.

Example: At this point, some may be tempted to justify discrimination against Muslims, saying that we live in a country in which there are very few Muslims in comparison to Christians—and they would be right if America was not founded upon the principle that we should protect minorities and their beliefs from being marginalized by the majority. I, for one, am thankful that America is based upon the principle of equality, and that people here are free to be the individuals they want to be.

One Last Point: Writing = Conversation

Move away from the notion that writing is simply putting your ideas and assertions on paper. While it does include your ideas and assertions, writing is a quest to win your reader over to those ideas and assertions–and to do that, you must think of writing as a conversation with your reader. Always be aware that your readers are actively thinking about what you are saying and that they are responding to it in their minds as they read. Being aware of this dimension of writing—and responding to it—is the stuff of advanced writing. One essential step to attaining this reader-oriented view of writing is to think in terms of argument, counterargument, and response. Make your reader feel well served by acknowledging other viewpoints and counterarguments that may arise as you make your own argument. As you continue to hone this writing practice, your writing will take on an entirely new level of persuasion and impact.

What better time to start than now?

Next Up:

Counterarguments: Examples from MLK

For purposes of clarity, this article has isolated counterarguments as examples by pulling them from their original context. But now that you know what a counterargument is, the best way to see the full effect of the counterargument is to view it within the context of the larger argument. The next Tricks of the Trade article gives a bit more of that context by sharing counterarguments drawn from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” MLK’s letter, often anthologized as an essay, stands as a powerful example of how the counterargument can act not only as a positive rhetorical feature, but also as the driving force for movement and argumentation within the essay.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Christopher AltmanToolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).