Understanding Arguments: On Counterarguments, Concessions and Rebuttals
What makes for a strong argument? The SAT essay assignment—to explain how an author “builds an argument to persuade” his or her audience—asks you to locate and analyze the building blocks of an argumentative essay.
Just what makes an argument persuasive, though, can seem unclear, especially if students have a limited concept of what it means to make a “strong” argument, too often taken as a synonym for a merely assertive or loud argument.
As a case in point, consider one of the “strongest” rhetorical excerpts in U.S. history.
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” asked Frederick Douglass on July 5, 1852, less than nine years before the beginning of the American Civil War. “I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.” Douglass continues by calling Americans’ “shouts of liberty and equality” nothing more than “a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”
Douglass’s speech remains one of the most famous in U.S. history—and one of the most explosive.
Though many high school and college students know of this speech, they are often directed to only its most inflammatory passages, especially the paragraph beginning with Douglass’s famous rhetorical question.
But this paragraph takes up just 210 words in a speech that exceeds 10,000. One of the most important elements that gets lost in the fire of Douglass’s oft-quoted paragraph is the careful rhetorical maneuvering that precedes it.
“The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men,” Douglass declares early on in the speech. He continues:
They were great men too — great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. . . . They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.
The first third of Douglass’s speech is filled with lines praising the Founding Fathers of the U.S. for their bravery, sacrifice, and love of freedom. Such moments of praise might seem completely contradictory. In fact, if I were to excerpt only the first third of Douglass’s speech, you might think it was written by a flag-waving, Independence-Day loving, U.S. patriot.
So, does Douglass’s praise of the Founding Fathers undermine his claim that U.S. history consists of “gross injustice and cruelty”?
To the contrary, the power of Douglass’s impassioned criticism of the U.S. is almost completely lost without the first third of his speech. That first third is, I think, the most rhetorically essential part of the speech, even though it does not seem to directly feed into his central argument.
Counterarguments introduce other points of view. Concessions admit those perspectives have some merit. And rebuttals demonstrate how one’s argument holds up despite valid objections.
What does it do instead? It concedes, in nearly 3,000 words, that the people of the U.S. have good reason to take pride in their country, that the signers of the Declaration of Independence were “men of honesty,” “spirit,” and “rare virtue,” who set “a glorious example” for future generations.
What’s the point of this concession? Though Douglass’s concession is exceptional for its length and detail, it sheds insight on what concessions do in general.
Concessions establish common ground with skeptics and demonstrate that the speaker not only has imagined possible objections but has come to understand the reasoning behind those objections. Concessions establish their speakers as reasonable, thoughtful, and educated, as individuals invested in understanding multiple perspectives rather than narrowly arguing their own. To this end, they establish their authors’ credibility as truth-seekers.
Of course, Douglass doesn’t rest at the end of his long concession. He goes on to articulate an impassioned rebuttal. For Douglass, a former slave, the celebrations of U.S. liberty remain compromised by American slavery, an institution that consists of “the mournful wail of millions.”
On the way to arguing that “[t]he existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie,” Douglass employs a set of related rhetorical strategies.
First, he anticipates a counterargument—namely, that Douglass and his fellow abolitionists are too critical of their country:
But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say, it is just in this circumstance that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. Would you argue more, and denounce less, would you persuade more, and rebuke less, your cause would be much more likely to succeed.
Here, Douglass introduces a counterargument in order to anticipate possible objections to his speech (in this case, that abolitionists “fail to make a favorable impression” by being so harsh with their rhetoric). One of the great orators in U.S. history, Douglass knew that convincing skeptics meant taking on their objections rather than ignoring them.
Writers often introduce a counterargument before conceding that said argument has some validity. But not here. Douglass goes right from a counterargument to a rebuttal: “But, I submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued. What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue?” In other words, there is no point in arguing over the validity of slavery, an institution that cannot be reasonably defended.
One might assume that all this maneuvering between counterarguments, concessions, and rebuttals dilutes Douglass’s argument, but just the opposite is true. Douglass uses these strategies to sharpen his devastating criticism of the U.S. His use of counterarguments, concessions, and rebuttals not only presents him as reasonable and enlightened but also helps focus his most pointed and powerful criticisms.
Counterarguments introduce other points of view. Concessions admit those perspectives have some merit. And rebuttals demonstrate how one’s argument holds up despite valid objections. These are three rhetorical cornerstones you should be able to identify and analyze for the SAT essay.
They’re also key tools for those interested in sounding both reasonable and confident in their own ideas. If used expertly, they might just help you transform how we think about freedom or justice—or at least help you win an argument with your parents.
Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities and has taught writing and reading at Elite Prep Los Angeles since 2010.