Posted: June 4th, 2021
“SKEPTICS MAY OBJECT”
Planting a Naysayer in Your Text
THE WRITER Jane Tompkins describes a pattern that repeats itself whenever she writes a book or an article. For the first couple of weeks when she sits down to write, things go relatively well. But then in the middle of the night, several weeks into the writing process, she’ll wake up in a cold sweat, suddenly realizing that she has overlooked some major criticism that readers will surely make against her ideas. Her first thought, invariably, is that she will have to give up on the project, or that she will have to throw out what she’s written thus far and start over. Then she realizes that “this moment of doubt and panic is where my text really begins.” She then revises what she’s written in a way that incorporates the criticisms she’s anticipated, and her text becomes stronger and more interesting as a result.
This little story contains an important lesson for all writers, experienced and inexperienced alike. It suggests that even though most of us are upset at the idea of someone criticizing our work, such criticisms can actually work to our advantage. Although it’s naturally tempting to ignore criticism of our ideas, doing so may in fact be a big mistake, since our writing improves when we not only listen to these objections but give them an explicit hearing in our writing. Indeed, no single device more quickly improves a piece of writing than planting a naysayer in the text—saying, for example, that “although some readers may object” to something in your argument, you “would reply that __________.”
But wait, you say. Isn’t the advice to incorporate critical views a recipe for destroying your credibility and undermining your argument? Here you are, trying to say something that will hold up, and we want you to tell readers all the negative things someone might say against you?
Exactly. We are urging you to tell readers what others might say against you, but our point is that doing so will actually enhance your credibility, not undermine it. As we argue throughout this book, writing well does not mean piling up uncontroversial truths in a vacuum; it means engaging others in a dialogue or debate—not only by opening your text with a summary of what others have said, as we suggest in Chapter 1, but also by imagining what others might say against your argument as it unfolds. Once you see writing as an act of entering a conversation, you should also see how opposing arguments can work for you rather than against you.
Paradoxically, the more you give voice to your critics’ objections, the more you tend to disarm those critics, especially if you go on to answer their objections in convincing ways. When you entertain a counterargument, you make a kind of preemptive strike, identifying problems with your argument before others can point them out for you. Furthermore, by entertaining counterarguments, you show respect for your readers, treating them not as gullible dupes who will believe anything you say but as independent, critical thinkers who are aware that your view is not the only one in town. In addition, by imagining what others might say against your claims, you come across as a generous, broad-minded person who is confident enough to open himself or herself to debate—like the writer in the figure on the following page.
Conversely, if you don’t entertain counterarguments, you may very likely come across as closed-minded, as if you think your beliefs are beyond dispute. You might also leave important questions hanging and concerns about your arguments unaddressed. Finally, if you fail to plant a naysayer in your text, you may find that you have very little to say. Our own students often say that entertaining counterarguments makes it easier to generate enough text to meet their assignment’s page-length requirements.
Planting a naysayer in your text is a relatively simple move, as you can see by looking at the following passage from a book by the writer Kim Chernin. Having spent some thirty pages complaining about the pressure on American women to be thin, Chernin inserts a whole chapter entitled “The Skeptic,” opening it as follows.
At this point I would like to raise certain objections that have been inspired by the skeptic in me. She feels that I have been ignoring some of the most common assumptions we all make about our bodies and these she wishes to see addressed. For example: “You know perfectly well,” she says to me, “that you feel better when you lose weight. You buy new clothes. You look at yourself more eagerly in the mirror. When someone invites you to a party you don’t stop and ask yourself whether you want to go. You feel sexier. Admit it. You like yourself better.”
KIM CHERNIN, The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness
The remainder of Chernin’s chapter consists of her answers to this inner skeptic. In the face of the skeptic’s challenge to her book’s central premise (that the pressure to diet seriously harms women’s lives), Chernin responds neither by repressing the skeptic’s critical voice nor by giving in to it and relinquishing her own position. Instead, she embraces that voice and writes it into her text. Note too that instead of dispatching this naysaying voice quickly, as many of us would be tempted to do, Chernin stays with it and devotes a full paragraph to it. By borrowing some of Chernin’s language, we can come up with templates for entertaining virtually any objection.
TEMPLATES FOR ENTERTAINING OBJECTIONS
* At this point I would like to raise some objections that have been inspired by the skeptic in me. She feels that I have been ignoring the complexities of the situation.
* Yet some readers may challenge my view by insisting that __________.
* Of course, many will probably disagree on the grounds that __________.
Note that the objections in the above templates are attributed not to any specific person or group, but to “skeptics,” “readers,” or “many.” This kind of nameless, faceless naysayer is perfectly appropriate in many cases. But the ideas that motivate arguments and objections often can—and, where possible, should—be ascribed to a specific ideology or school of thought (for example, liberals, Christian fundamentalists, neopragmatists) rather than to anonymous anybodies. In other words, naysayers can be labeled, and you can add precision and impact to your writing by identifying what those labels are.
TEMPLATES FOR NAMING YOUR NAYSAYERS
* Here many feminists would probably object that gender does influence language.
*But social Darwinists would certainly take issue with the argument that __________.
* Biologists, of course, may want to question whether __________. Nevertheless, both followers and critics of Malcolm X will probably suggest otherwise and argue that __________.
To be sure, some people dislike such labels and may even resent having labels applied to themselves. Some feel that labels put individuals in boxes, stereotyping them and glossing over what makes each of us unique. And it’s true that labels can be used inappropriately, in ways that ignore individuality and promote stereotypes. But since the life of ideas, including many of our most private thoughts, is conducted through groups and types rather than solitary individuals, intellectual exchange requires labels to give definition and serve as a convenient shorthand. If you categorically reject all labels, you give up an important resource and even mislead readers by presenting yourself and others as having no connection to anyone else. You also miss an opportunity to generalize the importance and relevance of your work to some larger conversation. When you attribute a position you are summarizing to liberalism, say, or historical materialism, your argument is no longer just about your own solitary views but about the intersection of broad ideas and habits of mind that many readers may already have a stake in.
The way to minimize the problem of stereotyping, then, is not to categorically reject labels but to refine and qualify their use, as the following templates demonstrate.
* Although not all Christians think alike, some of them will probably dispute my claim that __________.
* Non-native English speakers are so diverse in their views that it’s hard to generalize about them, but some are likely to object on the grounds that __________.
Another way to avoid needless stereotyping is to qualify labels carefully, substituting “pro bono lawyers” for “lawyers” in general, for example, or “quantitative sociologists” for all “social scientists,” and so on.
TEMPLATES FOR INTRODUCING OBJECTIONS INFORMALLY
Objections can also be introduced in more informal ways. For instance, you can frame objections in the form of questions.
*But is my proposal realistic? What are the chances of its actually being adopted?
* Yet is it necessarily true that __________? Is it always the case, as I have been suggesting, that __________?
*However, does the evidence I’ve cited prove conclusively that __________? You can also let your naysayer speak directly.
* “Impossible,” some will say. “You must be reading the research selectively.”
Moves like this allow you to cut directly to the skeptical voice itself, as the singer-songwriter Joe Jackson does in the following excerpt from a New York Times article complaining about the restrictions on public smoking in New York City bars and restaurants.
I like a couple of cigarettes or a cigar with a drink, and like many other people, I only smoke in bars or nightclubs. Now I can’t go to any of my old haunts. Bartenders who were friends have turned into cops, forcing me outside to shiver in the cold and curse under my breath. . . . It’s no fun. Smokers are being demonized and victimized all out of proportion.
“Get over it,” say the anti-smokers. “You’re the minority.” I thought a great city was a place where all kinds of minorities could thrive. . . . “Smoking kills,” they say. As an occasional smoker with otherwise healthy habits, I’ll take my chances. Health consciousness is important, but so are pleasure and freedom of choice.
JOE JACKSON, “Want to Smoke? Go to Hamburg”
Jackson could have begun his second paragraph, See Chapter 5 for more
in which he shifts from his own voice to that of
his imagined naysayer, more formally, as follows:
“Of course anti-smokers will object that since we smokers are in the minority, we should simply stop complaining and quietly make the sacrifices we are being called on to make for the larger social good.” Or “Anti-smokers might insist, however, that the smoking minority should submit to the nonsmoking majority.” We think, though, that Jackson gets the job done in a far more lively way with the more colloquial form he chooses. Borrowing a standard move of playwrights and novelists, Jackson cuts directly to the objectors’ view and then to his own retort, then back to the objectors’ view and then to his own retort again, thereby creating a kind of dialogue or miniature play within his own text. This move works well for Jackson, but only because he uses quotation marks and other voice markers to make clear at every point whose voice he is in.
REPRESENT OBJECTIONS FAIRLY
Once you’ve decided to introduce a differing or
opposing view into your writing, your work has
only just begun, since you still need to represent and explain that view with fairness and generosity. Although it is tempting to give opposing views short shrift, to hurry past them, or even to mock them, doing so is usually counterproductive. When writers make the best case they can for their critics (playing Peter Elbow’s “believing game”), they actually bolster their credibility with readers rather than undermine it. They make readers think, “This is a writer I can trust.”
We recommend, then, that whenever you entertain objections in your writing, you stay with them for several sentences or even paragraphs and take them as seriously as possible. We also recommend that you read your summary of opposing views with an outsider’s eye: put yourself in the shoes of someone who disagrees with you and ask if such a reader would recognize himself in your summary. Would that reader think you have taken his views seriously, as beliefs that reasonable people might hold? Or would he detect a mocking tone or an oversimplification of his views?
There will always be certain objections, to be sure, that you believe do not deserve to be represented, just as there will be objections that seem so unworthy of respect that they inspire ridicule. Remember, however, that if you do choose to mock a view that you oppose, you are likely to alienate those readers who don’t already agree with you—likely the very readers you want to reach. Also be aware that in mocking another’s view you may contribute to a hostile argument culture in which someone may ridicule you in return.
Do be aware that when you represent objections successfully, you still need to be able to answer those objections persuasively. After all, when you write objections into a text, you take the risk that readers will find those objections more convincing than the argument you yourself are advancing. In the editorial quoted above, for example, Joe Jackson takes the risk that readers will identify more with the anti-smoking view he summarizes than with the pro-smoking position he endorses.
This is precisely what Benjamin Franklin describes happening to himself in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1793), when he recalls being converted to Deism (a religion that exalts reason over spirituality) by reading anti-Deist books. When he encountered the views of Deists being negatively summarized by authors who opposed them, Franklin explains, he ended up finding the Deist position more persuasive. To avoid having this kind of unintentional reverse effect on readers, you need to do your best to make sure that any counterarguments you address are not more convincing than your own claims. It is good to address objections in your writing, but only if you are able to overcome them.
One surefire way to fail to overcome an objection is to dismiss it out of hand—saying, for example, “That’s just wrong.” The difference between such a response (which offers no supporting reasons whatsoever) and the types of nuanced responses we’re promoting in this book is the difference between bullying your readers and genuinely persuading them.
Often the best way to overcome an objection is
not to try to refute it completely but to agree with
part of it while challenging only the part you dispute. In other words, in answering counterarguments, it is often best to say “yes, but” or “yes and no,” treating the counterview as an opportunity to revise and refine your own position. Rather than build your argument into an impenetrable fortress, it is often best to make concessions while still standing your ground, as Kim Chernin does in the following response to the counterargument quoted above. While in the voice of the “skeptic,” Chernin writes: “Admit it. You like yourself better when you’ve lost weight.” In response, Chernin replies as follows.
Can I deny these things? No woman who has managed to lose weight would wish to argue with this. Most people feel better about themselves when they become slender. And yet, upon reflection, it seems to me that there is something precarious about this well-being. After all, 98 percent of people who lose weight gain it back. Indeed, 90 percent of those who have dieted “successfully” gain back more than they ever lost. Then, of course, we can no longer bear to look at ourselves in the mirror.
In this way, Chernin shows how you can use a counterview to improve and refine your overall argument by making a concession. Even as she concedes that losing weight feels good in the short run, she argues that in the long run the weight always returns, making the dieter far more miserable.
TEMPLATES FOR MAKING CONCESSIONS WHILE STILL STANDING YOUR GROUND
*Although I grant that the book is poorly organized, I still maintain that it raises an important issue.
* Proponents of X are right to argue that __________. But they exaggerate when they claim that __________.
*While it is true that __________, it does not necessarily follow that __________.
* On the one hand, I agree with X that __________. But on the other hand, I still insist that __________.
Templates like these show that answering naysayers’ objections does not have to be an all-or-nothing affair in which you either definitively refute your critics or they definitively refute you. Often the most productive engagements among differing views end with a combined vision that incorporates elements of each one.
But what if you’ve tried out all the possible answers you can think of to an objection you’ve anticipated and you still have a nagging feeling that the objection is more convincing than your argument itself? In that case, the best remedy is to go back and make some fundamental revisions to your argument, even reversing your position completely if need be. Although finding out late in the game that you aren’t fully convinced by your own argument can be painful, it can actually make your final text more intellectually honest, challenging, and serious. After all, the goal of writing is not to keep proving that whatever you initially said is right, but to stretch the limits of your thinking. So if planting a strong naysayer in your text forces you to change your mind, that’s not a bad thing. Some would argue that that is what the academic world is all about.
1. According to the authors, why is it important to plant a naysayer (incorporate a counterargument) in your own essay? You should provide at least two reasons, giving either direct quotes or paraphrased statement from the reading, and with specific page numbers.
2. Provide a brief summary of a naysayer perspective that you have discovered in your research and that you plan to incorporate into your research paper. Be sure to explain how and why this will be a counterargument.
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