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).