Steven D. Krause
Besides my own experiences as a student many years ago in courses similar to the ones you and your classmates are in now, I think the most important influence on how I have approached research and argumentative writing came from academic debate. Debate taught me at least two ways to approach an argument that were not part of my formal schooling. First, academic policy debate1 taught me that argumentation is a contest—a sport, not at all different from tennis or basketball or figure skating or gymnastics, an activity where you have to work with a team, you have to practice, and the goal is to “win.” And winning in academic debate happens: while it is a sport that is judged, it is an activity, like gymnastics or figure skating, where the rules for judging are surprisingly well codified. I will admit that seeing a debate or argument as something “to be won” has not always served me well in life, for there are any number of situations in which the framework for an argument is perhaps better perceived as an opportunity to listen and to compromise than to score points.
Second, because of the way that academic debate is structured, I learned quickly the importance of being able to perceive and argue multiple and opposing views on the same issue. Not unlike other sports where players play both offense and defense—baseball and basketball immediately come to mind—debaters have to argue both for and against the year’s resolution, which was the broad proposition that framed all of the particular cases debate teams put forward for the entire season. In fact, it was not at all uncommon for a team to strenuously advocate for a controversial position one round—“the U.S. should engage in one-on-one talks with North Korea”—only to strenuously argue the opposite position—“the U.S. should not engage in one-on-one talks with North Korea”—the very next round. Seeing “multiple positions” was not simply a good idea; it was one of the rules of the game.
I’ve brought these past experiences into my current teaching in a number of ways, including one of the exercises I am discussing here, what my students and I call antithesis writing. These exercises will help you gain a better understanding of how to shape an argument, how to more fully explore a topic, and how to think more carefully about your different audiences.
In this essay, I borrow heavily from my own online textbook, The Process of Research Writing, which is available for free at http://stevendkrause.com/tprw. You might want to visit that site for additional information about this exercise and other exercises I’ve put together for teaching the research writing process.
Thesis Doesn’t Have to Be a Bad Thing (Or Why Write Antithesis Essays in the First Place)
Somewhere along the way, “thesis” became a dirty word in a lot of writing courses, inherently bound up and attached to all that is wrong with what composition historians and the writing scholars call the “Current-Traditional” paradigm of writing instruction. Essentially, this approach emphasizes the product and forms of writing (in most nineteenth-century American rhetoric textbooks, these forms were Exposition, Description, Narration, and Argument), issues of syntax and grammar, correctness, and so forth. It didn’t matter so much what position a writer took; what mattered most was that the writer got the form correct.
“Thesis” is often caught in/lumped into this current-traditional paradigm, I think mainly because of the rigid role and placement of a thesis in the classic form of the five-paragraph essay. Most of you and your classmates already know about this: in the five-paragraph formula, the thesis is the last sentence of the introduction, is divided into three parts, and it rigidly controls the structure of the following four paragraphs. Certainly this overly prescriptive and narrow definition of thesis is not useful. Jasper Neel describes this sort of formula in his book Plato, Derrida, and Writing as “anti-writing,” and I think that Sharon Crowley is correct in arguing that the kind of teaching exemplified by the five-paragraph essay is more akin to filling out a form than it is to actual “writing.”
But when I discuss “thesis” here, I mean something much more broad and organic. I mean an initial direction that every research writing project must take. A thesis advocates a specific and debatable position, is not a statement of fact nor a summary of events, and it answers the questions “what’s your point?” and “why should I care?” You should begin with a working thesis that attempts to answer these questions simply as a way of getting your research process started. True, these initial working theses are usually broad and unwieldy, but the emphasis here is on working, because as you research and think more carefully, you will inevitably change your thesis. And this is good— change is the by-product of learning, and seeing a working thesis differently is both the purpose and the opportunity of the antithesis exercise.
So, I think the first and probably most important reason to consider antithesis writing is to test and strengthen the validity of the working thesis. After all, there isn’t much “debatable” about a working thesis like “crime is bad” or “cleaning up the environment is good,” which suggests that there probably isn’t a viable answer to the questions “what’s your point?” and “why should I care?” Considering opposing and differing views can help you find the path to make a vague generalization like “crime is bad” into a more pointed, researchable, and interesting observation.
The second general value for antithesis exercises is to raise more awareness of your audience—the potential readers who would disagree with your working thesis, along with readers who are more favorable to your point. Sometimes, readers won’t be convinced no matter what evidence or logic a writer presents; but it seems to me that writers have an obligation to at least try.
Generating Antithetical Points in Five Easy Steps
I’ve already discussed this step in some detail:
Step 1: Have a Working Thesis and Make Sure You Have Begun the Research Process.
Developing a good antithetical argument is not something you can do as a “first step” in the research process. Generally, you need to have already developed a basic point and need some evidence and research to develop that point. In other words, the process of developing an antithetical position has to come after you develop an initial position in the first place.
Step 2: Consider the Direct Opposite of Your Working Thesis. This is an especially easy step if your working thesis is about a controversial topic:
To prevent violence on campus, students, staff, and faculty should not be allowed to carry concealed weapons.
To prevent violence on campus, students, staff, and faculty should be allowed to carry concealed weapons.
Drug companies should be allowed to advertise prescription drugs on television.
Drug companies should not be allowed to advertise prescription drugs on television.
This sort of simple change of qualifiers also exposes weak theses, because, generally speaking, the opposite position of a proposition that everyone accepts as true is one that everyone easily accepts as false. For example, if you begin with a working thesis like “Drunk driving is bad” or “Teen violence is bad” to their logical opposites, you end up with an opposite that is ridiculous—“Drunk driving is good” or “Teen violence is good.” What that signals is that it is probably time to revisit your original working thesis.
Usually though, considering the opposite of a working thesis is a little more complicated. For example:
Many computer hackers commit serious crimes and represent a major expense for internet-based businesses.
Computer hackers do not commit serious crimes. Computer hacking is not a major expense for internet-based businesses.
Both of the antithetical examples are the opposite of the original working theses, but each focuses on different aspects of the working thesis.
Step 3: Ask “Why” about Possible Antithetical Arguments.
Creating antitheses by simply changing the working thesis to its opposite typically demands more explanation. The best place to develop more details with your antithesis is to ask “why.” For example:
Why should drug companies not be allowed to advertise prescription drugs? Because . . .
- The high cost of television advertising needlessly drives up the costs of prescriptions.
- Advertisements too often confuse patients and offer advice that contradicts the advice of doctors.
Why are the crimes committed by computer hackers not serious? Because . . .
- They are usually pranks or acts of mischief.
- Computer hackers often expose problems for Internet businesses before serious crimes result.
The point here is to dig a little further into your antithetical argument.
Asking “why” is a good place to begin that process.
Step 4: Examine Alternatives to Your Working Thesis.
Often, the best antithetical arguments aren’t about “the opposite” so much as they are about alternatives. For example, the working thesis “To prevent violence on campus, students, staff, and faculty should not be allowed to carry concealed weapons” presumes that a serious potential cause for violence on campuses is the presence of guns. However, someone could logically argue that the more important cause of violence on college campuses is alcohol and drug abuse. Certainly the number of incidents involving underage drinking and substance abuse outnumber those involving firearms on college campuses, and it is also probably true that many incidents of violence on college campuses involve drinking or drugs.
Now, unlike the direct opposite of your working thesis, the alternatives do not necessarily negate your working thesis. There is no reason why a reader couldn’t believe that both concealed weapons and alcohol and substance abuse contribute to violence on campuses. But in considering alternatives to your working thesis, the goal is to “weigh” the positions against each other. I’ll return to this matter of “weighing your position” later.
Step 5: Imagine Hostile Audiences.
Whenever you are trying to develop a clearer understanding of the antithesis of your working thesis, you need to think about the kinds of audiences who would disagree with you. By thinking about the opposites and alternatives to your working thesis, you are already starting to do this because the opposites and the alternatives are what a hostile audience might think.
Sometimes, potential readers are hostile to a particular working thesis because of ideals, values, or affiliations they hold that are at odds with the point being advocated by the working thesis. For example, people who identify themselves as being “pro-choice” on the issue of abortion would certainly be hostile to an argument for laws that restrict access to abortion; people who identify themselves as being “prolife” on the issue of abortion would certainly be hostile to an argument for laws that provide access to abortion.
At other times, audiences are hostile to the arguments of a working thesis because of more crass and transparent reasons. For example, the pharmaceutical industry disagrees with the premise of the working thesis “Drug companies should not be allowed to advertise prescription drugs on TV” because they stand to lose billions of dollars in lost sales. Advertising companies and television broadcasters would also be against this working thesis because they too would lose money. You can probably easily imagine some potential hostile audience members who have similarly selfish reasons to oppose your point of view.
Of course, some audiences will oppose your working thesis based on a different interpretation of the evidence and research. This sort of difference of opinion is probably most common with research projects that are focused on more abstract and less definitive subjects. But there are also different opinions about evidence for topics that you might think would have potentially more concrete “right” and “wrong” interpretations. Different researchers and scholars can look at the same evidence about a subject like gun control and arrive at very different conclusions.
Regardless of the reasons why your audience might be hostile to the argument you are making with your working thesis, it is helpful to try to imagine your audience as clearly as you can. What sort of people are they? What other interests or biases might they have? Are there other political or social factors that you think are influencing their point of view? If you want to persuade at least some members of this hostile audience that your point of view and your interpretation of the research is correct, you need to know as much about your hostile audience as you possibly can.
Strategies for Answering Antithetical Arguments
It might not seem logical, but directly acknowledging and addressing positions that are different from the one you are holding in your research can actually make your position stronger. When you take on the antithesis in your research project, it shows you have thought carefully about the issue at hand and you acknowledge that there is no clear and easy “right” answer. There are many different ways you might incorporate the antithesis into your research to make your own thesis stronger and to address the concerns of those readers who might oppose your point of view. For now, focus on three basic strategies: directly refuting your opposition, weighing your position against the opposition, and making concessions.
Directly Refuting Your Opposition
Perhaps the most obvious approach, one way to address those potential readers who might raise objections to your arguments, is to simply refute their objections with better evidence and reasoning. Of course, this is an example of yet another reason why it is so important to have good research that supports your position: when the body of evidence and research is on your side, it is usually a lot easier to make a strong point.
Answering antithetical arguments with research that supports your point of view is also an example of where you as a researcher might need to provide a more detailed evaluation of your evidence. The sort of questions you should answer about your own research—who wrote it, where was it published, when was it published, etc.—are important to raise in countering antithetical arguments that you think come from suspicious sources.
Weighing Your Position Against the Opposition
Readers who oppose the argument you are trying to support with your research might do so because they value or “weigh” the implications of your working thesis differently than you do. For example, those opposed to a working thesis like “Drug companies should not be allowed to advertise prescription drugs on TV” might think this because they think the advantages of advertising drugs on television—increased sales for pharmaceutical companies, revenue for advertising agencies and television stations, and so forth—are more significant than the disadvantages of advertising drugs on television.
Besides recognizing and acknowledging the different ways of comparing the advantages and disadvantages suggested by your working thesis, the best way of answering these antithetical arguments in your own writing is to clearly explain how you weigh and compare the evidence. This can be a challenging writing experience because it requires a subtle hand and a broad understanding of multiple sides of your topic. But if in acknowledging to your readers that you have carefully considered the reasons against your working thesis and you can demonstrate your position to be more persuasive, then this process of weighing positions can be very effective.
In the course of researching and thinking about the antithesis to your working thesis and its potentially hostile audiences, it may become clear to you that these opposing views have a point. When this is the case, you may want to consider revising your working thesis or your approach to your research to make some concessions to these antithetical arguments.
Sometimes, my students working on this exercise “make concessions” to the point of changing sides on their working thesis—that is, in the process of researching, writing, and thinking about their topic, a researcher moves from arguing for their working thesis to arguing for their antithesis. This might seem surprising, but it makes perfect sense when you remember the purpose of research in the first place. When we study the evidence on a particular issue, we often realize that our initial and uninformed impression or feelings on an issue were simply wrong. That’s why we research: we put more trust in opinions based on research than in things based on gut instinct or feelings.
But usually, most concessions to antithetical perspectives are less dramatic and can be accomplished in a variety of ways. You might want to employ some qualifying terms to hedge a bit. For example, the working thesis “Drug companies should not be allowed to advertise prescription drugs on TV” might be qualified to “Drug companies should be closely regulated about what they are allowed to advertise on TV.” I think this is still a strong working thesis, but the revised working thesis acknowledges the objections some might have to the original working thesis.
Of course, you should use these sorts of concessions carefully. An over-qualified working thesis can be just as bad as a working thesis about something that everyone accepts as true: it can become so watered-down as to not have any real significance anymore. A working thesis like “Drug company television advertising is sometimes bad and sometimes good for patients” is over-qualified to the point of taking no real position at all.
But You Still Can’t Convince Everyone . . .
I’d like to close by turning away a bit from where I started this essay, the influence of competitive debate on my early education about argument. In debate, an argument is part of the game, the catalyst for the beginning of a competition. The same is often true within college classrooms. Academic arguments are defined in terms of their hypothetical nature; they aren’t actually real but rather merely an intellectual exercise.
But people in the real world do hold more than hypothetical positions, and you can’t always convince everyone that you’re right, no matter what evidence or logic you might have on your side. You probably already know this. We have all been in conversations with friends or family members where, as certain as we were that we were right about something and as hard as we tried to prove we were right, our friends or family were simply unwilling to budge from their positions. When we find ourselves in these sorts of deadlocks, we often try to smooth over the dispute with phrases like “You’re entitled to your opinion” or “We will have to agree to disagree,” and then we change the subject. In polite conversation, this is a good strategy to avoid a fight. But in academic contexts, these deadlocks can be frustrating and difficult to negotiate.
A couple of thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher and rhetorician Aristotle said that all of us respond to arguments based on three basic characteristics or appeals: logos or logic, pathos or emotional character, and ethos, the writer’s or speaker’s perceived character. Academic writing tends to rely most heavily on logos and ethos because academics tend to highly value arguments based on logical research and arguments that come from writers with strong character-building qualifications—things like education, experience, previous publications, and the like. But it’s important to remember that pathos is always there, and particularly strong emotions or feelings on a subject can obscure the best research.
Most academic readers have respect for writers when they successfully argue for positions that they might not necessarily agree with. Along these lines, most college writing instructors can certainly respect and give a positive evaluation to a piece of writing they don’t completely agree with as long as it uses sound logic and evidence to support its points. However, all readers—students, instructors, and everyone else—come to your research project with various preconceptions about the point you are trying to make. Some of them will already agree with you and won’t need much convincing. Some of them will never completely agree with you, but will be open to your argument to a point. And some of your readers, because of the nature of the point you are trying to make and their own feelings and thoughts on the matter, will never agree with you, no matter what research evidence you present or what arguments you make. So, while you need to consider the antithetical arguments to your thesis in your research project to convince as many members of your audience as possible that the point you are trying to make is correct, you should remember that you will likely not convince all of your readers all of the time.
- When was the last time you had to argue for a specific position on an issue? What was the issue? Were you alone or did you have friends to back you up? How did you find evidence to support your position? Did you “win” the argument by getting your way or by convincing the opponents of you were right? Why did you win or not win?
- What are some issues have you recently talked about in courses (other than writing)? What were some theses offered by students in those classes (or by the professor)? Pick one or two of the theses you found most intriguing (or that elicited the most conversation) and see if you can write the antithesis. Is this impossible without doing some research? Why or why not? What would you do next, if you needed to follow up on this thinking exercise as a writing project?
- Because of research on a particular issue, have you ever changed your mind about what you believed was right? What was the issue? Why did you change your mind? Or why not?
- When you’ve been in classes and not agreed with other students or the professor, did you offer your differing opinion? Was that based on research or your gut instinct or your own experience? What was the most effective process you’ve used for participating in debate in classes? Or has this been something you’re unwilling to be involved in? Why has that been the case?
- Explaining “academic policy debate” is not my goal in this essay. But I will say that academic debate bears almost no resemblance to “debates” between political candidates or to the stereotypical way debate tends to be depicted on television shows or in movies. Certainly debate involves a certain intellectual prowess; but I think it’s fair to say that debate is a lot closer to a competitive sport than a classroom exercise. Two excellent introductions to the world of academic debate are the Wikipedia entry for “Policy Debate” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Policy_debate) and the 2007 documentary movie Resolved.
Crowley, Sharon. The Methodical Memory: Invention in Current-Traditional Rhetoric. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1990. Print.
Neel, Jasper. Plato, Derrida, and Writing. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1988. Print.
About the Author
Steven D. Krause is a professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at Eastern Michigan University. His research and teaching explore the connections between writing and technology.