A
Polemic
is an argumentat
ive text or speech that takes a position contrary to the mainstream, or to another
specific argument. Your assignment is to take a newspaper editorial or an excerpt from a longer editorial,
approximately 400
700 words, and critique its arguments point b
y point. The polemic should use 1
inch
margins, 12 point Times font, be double spaced, and be approximately 1 ½ to 2 pages. There are 2 polemics
due by the end of the quarter as part of 5 short essays; this comes out to 1 essay every two weeks.
You must
disagree with (not personally disagree; that’s your business) with the editorial that you have chosen.
It is helpful to pretend that you are writing to someone who
disagrees
with
you
and who
agrees
with the article
you have chosen to critique. You are e
xplaining why the article fails to prove its case. Your own experience
and opinions only become relevant in refuting one of the article’s points. Thus the assignment is somewhat akin
to cross
examination in a debate.
Although I want you to address
every
part of the editorial,
you do not have to disagree with every assertion the
author makes
. It can be quite helpful to break down paragraphs into standard form arguments, but one of the
easiest ways to do poorly on the polemic assignment is to give an almo
st mathematical anaylses of each each
premise and conclusion, yet somehow miss what the editorial is essentially about. You are simply taking an
opposing view to his/her overall argument, and your critique may conclude that a majority of their factual
ass
ertions are correct, but that these facts do not fully support the conclusion that they have drawn.
Common sources for written assignments:
The New York Times
,
Newsweek
,
U.S. News and World Report
,
CNN.com, local newspapers (the
Mercury,
the
SF Chronicle,
etc.; online versions of most of these are
available). More openly partisan sources such as
Mother Jones, The National Review,
or websites of socialist or
libertarian organizations.
Whenever possible, attack the author’s use of evidence rather than th
e validity of evidence; unless you have
competing facts available, you probably cannot successfully prove that their facts are wrong. Whenever
possible, identify weaknesses in their argument that
anyone,
whatever position they had on the issue, would
have
to admit are, in fact, logical problems. Always avoid anecdotal evidence; personal stories that illustrate
your position but have no bearing on the case at hand.
An example; let’s say you were critiquing an editorial from the
Vegetarian Times
that opens
with the following
claim: “A recent study simply compared randomly selected vegetarians and non
vegetarians, and showed that
vegetarians live an average of 7 years longer than non
vegetarians. Therefore it is clear that not eating meat
helps you live lon
ger.
Weak Counter
Argument:
“My whole family is not vegetarian, and people eat meat all over the world. Our
bodies are made to process meat. So I don’t see how not eating meat could be healthier, or else most people
would do it.”
Better, but risky:
“The
article doesn’t say who did the study. It may be poorly done, may not mean anything.”
Problem: In the context of a debate, this could backfire; what if the debaters on the other side found, perhaps
on the magazine’s website, a link to the original study
, and it was done by a very reputable institution. Now you
have nothing, and your counter
argument tacitly implies that, if true, the claim is irrefutable.
Best:
The author cited a study presents a false dilemma, implying that “vegetarian” and “non
vegeta
rian” are
meaningful choices. This could be a case of correlation, and not connection. Vegetarians, by definition, have
made a conscious, disciplined choice about their health, and, as the article states elsewhere, they tend to
exercise more and smoke le
ss than the general population. Therefore it might be these other factors
health
conscious lifestyle choices
that cause them to live longer, and not their diet. A meaningful study would
compare health
conscious carnivores to vegetarians, not vegetarians
to the general population.
This is one example of the #1 rule in arguing: when your opposition presents evidence in their favor, you should
engage in the following three step process:
Option 1 (best): Accept their evidence as possibly true (“let’s say for
the sake of argument that that’s true. Even
if it is…), and then show how their conclusion could still be false even if their evidence is true (see above
vegetarian example).
Option 2: Refute their evidence with your own. This takes a lot more work,
and in the context of a
conversation, might not be possible.
Option 3 (worst, and extremely common in first polemics in this class): Simply dismiss their evidence because
they didn’t fully cite their source, or because it is theoretically possible that it
might not be true.
Especially with evidence regarding complex political issues (ie, Obamacare) or social issues (ie, racism),
studies that are offered as evidence are almost never slam dunks, are almost never 100% PROOF of anything
the way that 2 + 2 = 4
. Also, in the context of a 700 to 1000 word editorial, you are not expected to fully
explain the study you are citing, so pointing out that they didn’t cite their sources thoroughly adds nothing to the
conversation. MOST first polemics that I receive in
this class consist of listing off the arguments contained in
the chosen editorial, and then saying that each argument is based on evidence poorly cited and that might not
even be true. Put yourself in the context of the person who disagrees with you, who
agrees with the editorialist.
Have you challenged them? If a vegetarian believes that vegetarians live 10 years longer, and you don’t, do you
add anything to the debate by saying, “The study only looked at a sample set that was in the
thousands…theref
ore, all it’s conclusions might be false about the whole population.” Try to avoid this. Try