Polemic Assignment Selling Organs
NOTE: There will be a continually updated Discussion Forum on Polemics that, starting next week, will give editorials from that week that might work to fulfill this assignment.
A Polemic is an argumentative 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 700 – 1000 words, and critique its arguments point by point. The polemic should use 1-inch margins, 12 point Times font, be double spaced, and be approximately 1 ½ to 2 pages.
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 explaining 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 almost mathematical analyses 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 assertions 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’s Opinion section (CNN.com/opinion), 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 can also work.
There are many ways of structuring a counter argument, depending on how much you are disagreeing with. Overall, a successful polemic correctly identifies the primary argument at hand, and doesn’t get too bogged down in peripheral issues. I have seen many a debate get sidetracked or completely derailed because the debaters and the moderator (which is me, in our on-campus classes, so when this happens it is my fault) over a few common pitfalls. We’re going to name them; this is not simple technical stuff, but broad conceptual material, so I apologize if it doesn’t clear up the understandable question: what is the assignment.
Basically, you pick an editorial that you disagree with, and you disagree with it for a page and a half. I grade very generously, and comment very extensively, on the first polemic. If you get a bad grade on any of them, it is probably because you lost track of what the argument was actually about, or, most commonly, you got bogged down in trying to refute every bit of evidence given, without actually engaging in argument. We’re going to talking about the use of evidence throughout the course, but for now, in the context of a simple back-and-forth editorializing, this is my opening salvo:
(1) Whenever possible, attack the author’s use of evidence rather than the 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 longer.
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.” This is the fallacy of anectodal evidence, among others; people all over the world smoke cigarettes, too; it challenges nothing, although it would appeal to people who already agreed with you.
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-vegetarian” 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 less 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. The study you cited did not do this, and thus even if it is true, it doesn’t actually illustrate what you claim.
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 the evidence 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…therefore, all it’s conclusions might be false about the whole population.” Try to avoid this. Try question or dismiss their evidence only when absolutely necessary.