A counter-argument is an argument opposed to your thesis, or part of your thesis. It expresses the view of a person who disagrees with your position.
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Why use counter-argument?
Why would you include a counter-argument in your essay? Doesnt that weaken your argument?
Actually, no. Done well, it makes the argument stronger. This is because it gives you the chance to respond to your readers objections before they have finished reading. It also shows that you are a reasonable person who has considered both sides of the debate. Both of these make an essay more persuasive.
How should a counter-argument be presented?
A counter-argument should be expressed thoroughly, fairly and objectively. Do not just write a quick sentence and then immediately rebut it. Give reasons why someone might actually hold that view. A few sentences or even a whole paragraph is not an unreasonable amount of space to give to the counter-argument. Again, the point is to show your reader that you have considered all sides of the question, and to make it easier to answer the counter-argument. Its easier to respond to a point you have already spelled outand its easier for your reader to follow you.
Make sure you express the counter-argument fairly and objectively. Ask yourself if the person who actually holds this position would accept your way of stating it. Put yourself in their shoes and give them the benefit of the doubt. Dont use biased language or stack the deck when presenting their position. Readers see through that sort of thing pretty quickly.
Obviously, if you really believe the position expressed in your thesis, you will not be able to be completely objective in how you express the counter-argumentbut you should try. One of the most common purposes of counter-argument is to address positions that many people hold but that you think are mistaken. Therefore you want to be respectful and give them the benefit of the doubt even if you think their views are incorrect. Theyll be much more likely to be persuaded then. (The other approach, to use sarcasm and satire to expose mistaken ideas, is very powerful, but should be used with care, especially before youve mastered the art of rhetoric.)
How can a counter-argument be rebutted?
One of the most effective ways to rebut a counter-argument is to show that it is based on faulty assumptions. Either the facts are wrong, the analysis is incorrect, or the values it is based on are not acceptable. Examples of each are given below. Furthermore, some counter-arguments are simply irrelevant, usually because they are actually responding to a different argument. And some counter-arguments actually make your argument stronger, once you analyze their logic.
All of these examples use a claim from James Loewens book, Lies My Teacher Told Me. In that book Loewen makes the claim that To function adequately in civic life students must learn what causes racism (143). The examples below are ideas that you might use as a counter-argument to this claim, in a paper agreeing with Loewen. Then you would rebut, or answer, the counter-argument as a way to strengthen your own position.
Faulty Factual Assumption
Racism is a thing of the past; therefore, students dont need to bother with it.
The factual assumption in this example is that racism is a thing of the past. One response would be to muster facts to show that racism continues to be a problem. (Theres a second assumption, which is that students dont need to bother with whats in the past. Another response would be to show that students must understand the past as well as the present to function adequately in civic life.)
Faulty Analytical Assumption
Learning about racism might make students more racist.
The analytical assumption is that learning about racism can make you racist. The response would be that understanding the causes of a problem is not the same as causing or creating the problem. (Another assumption in this argument is that its not good to make students racist. Loewens argument shares this assumption, so you wouldnt rebut it.)
Who cares if students are racist?
This counter-argument is based on an assumed value that your readers probably do not sharenamely, the idea that its ok for students to be racist. The response would be to point out this value, state why you dont share it and state why you dont think your readers do either. Of course, values are both deeply personal and extremely varied, so youre always going to have some readers who do not share yours. The key is to base your arguments on values that most readers are likely to share.
True but Irrelevant
Students are already familiar with racism; they dont need to study it in school.
Many students are, in fact, already familiar with racism. But Loewen is not saying they need to learn about racism, hes saying they need to learn what causes it. You might be very familiar with racism but still not know what causes it. This is a very common form of counter-argument, one that actually rebuts a different argument. (Note that here, too, theres a faulty assumption: being familiar with something is not the same as knowing what causes it.)
Makes the Argument Stronger
Previous generations didnt study the causes of racism, so why should we start now?
The response here would be to show that previous generations did not function adequately in civic life, because they had a lot of problems with racism (segregation and more hidden forms of discrimination). Therefore, the fact that they didnt learn about the causes of racism, together with this other information, actually supports the claim that students do need to learn what causes racism. (Here again theres a faulty assumption, implied but not stated: Previous generations supposedly did function adequately in civic life. The response shows that that assumption is incorrect.)
When should a counter-argument be conceded?
Sometimes you come up with a counter-argument that you think is true and that you think responds to your actual argument, not some other point. Then you are faced with a choice: Do you abandon your thesis and adopt the counter-argument as your position? Often it turns out you dont need to abandon your thesis, but you might need to modify or refine it.
Lets take a modified version of the second example given above (learning about racism might make students more racist). The new version might look like this:
Students get turned off by what they are forced to learn, especially when its about forcing them to be good. Then they turn against what theyve been taught and deliberately go in the other direction. So, studying racism might just make them want to be racist out of sheer contrariness. This might help explain the backlash against political correctness.
One way to respond to a counter-argument like this is to acknowledge that, if its done incorrectly, education about racism might just end up turning kids off and making them hostile. Then, you refine your original thesis to say something like this:
Students should learn what causes racism, but should not be constantly lectured that racism is bad. Instead, they should be taught the causes and history in a way that they find interesting and that lets them decide their own values.
By refining your thesis in this way you are able to retain your original point, while strengthening it by incorporating part of the oppositions views. This also takes away some of the reasons a reader might have to disagree with you.
What makes a good counter-argument?
Some counter-arguments are better than others. You want to use ones that are actually somewhat persuasive. Theres nothing to be gained by rebutting a counter-argument that nobody believes. Two things to look for are reasonableness and popularity.
If you yourself are somewhat unsure of the position youve chosen as your thesis, it will be easier for you to identify good counter-arguments. You already recognize that there are reasonable arguments on the other sidethats why youre a little unsure. Look for those arguments that make sense to you or that seem reasonable, even if you dont agree with them.
On the other hand, you may be quite sure of your position, which makes it harder to see other views as reasonable. They all look flawed to you because you can point out their errors and show why your view is better. In that case, look for ones that are popular, even if they are flawed. Remember, youre trying to persuade your readers to agree with you. So you want to speak their language. That means answering their objections even if you dont think the objections are reasonable.
If you look at the examples above, youll probably find some more convincing than others. Most people will probably not find the Who cares if students are racist argument very convincing. On the other hand, you might find the students already understand argument pretty persuasive.
Pick the arguments that you, or a lot of other people, feel are reasonable. The more you can answer those objections, the stronger youll make your case.
Where does the counter-argument go?
The short answer is a counter-argument can go anywhere except the conclusion. This is because there has to be a rebuttal paragraph after the counter-argument, so if the counter-argument is in the conclusion, something has been left out.
In practice (there are exceptions), the rebuttal is usually not the concluding paragraph, which means that generally the counter-argument is anywhere but the last two paragraphs.
Counter-arguments can be very effective in introductions, especially if you are arguing against a popularly held view. However, its also very common to place them after the presentation of the case for the thesis. In other words, they would go after all of the main points that support the thesis, but before the conclusionin the third-to-last paragraph, with the rebuttal in the second-to-last. This is probably the most common position.
Generally, unless there is some compelling reason specific to the particular argument being made, it does not make sense to put the counter-argument in the middle of the case for the thesis. In other words, you would not typically present two points in support of the thesis, then the counter-argument and rebuttal, and then more points in support of the thesis.
Here are two outlines showing the most common placement of the counter-argument. The first is probably the most common.
- Supporting point #1
- Supporting point #2
- Supporting point #3
- Supporting point #4 [there can be any number of supporting points]
- Counter-argument, which also serves as introduction
- Rebuttal, which would usually include the thesis statement
- Supporting point #1
- Supporting point #2
- Supporting point #3
- Supporting point #4 [there can be any number of supporting points]
How should the counter-argument be introduced?
Its important to use clear signals to alert the reader that the paper is about to express a view different from (typically, the opposite of) the thesis. Since the purpose of the whole paper, including the counter-argument, is to support the thesis, these signals are crucial. Without them the paper appears incoherent and contradictory.
Generally, the counter-argument will begin with a word, phrase or sentence to indicate that what follows is not the authors view. These can range from the very simplesometimes the single word But or However is sufficientto quite complex whole sentences:
In his majisterial work on representation in western literature, a foundational text in the discipline, Auerbach argues that the mixture of styles is an essential ingredient of all modern realism, a view that has found wide acceptance in the half-century since its publication.
Notice, however, that even this sentence is careful to attribute these views to other people, and to call them viewsin other words, to subtly hint that they are not facts or truths.
In general, the strategy is to make it clear quickly that this is someone else�s view. Typical introductory strategies include the following:
- Many people [believe/argue/feel/think/suppose/etc.] that [state the counter-argument here]
- It is often [thought/imagined/supposed/etc.] that [state the counter-argument here]
- [It would be easy to/One could easily] [think/believe/imagine/suppose/etc.] that [state the counter-argument here]
- It might [seem/appear/look/etc.] as if [state the counter-argument here]
Another common approach is to use a question:
- But isnt it true that [state the counter-argument here]?
- [Doesnt/Wouldnt/Isnt] [state the counter-argument here]?
You can also cite specific writers or thinkers who have expressed a view opposite to your own:
- On the other hand, Fund argues that...
- However, Ngugi has written, ...
- Dangarembga takes the position that...
How should the rebuttal be introduced?
If the counter-argument requires careful signaling, so does the rebuttal. The essay has just done a 180° turn away from its thesis, and now it is about to do another 180° turn to complete the circle. The reader needs warnings and guidance or they will fall off or get whiplashyoull lose them, in other words, because the essay will seem incoherent or contradictory.
The common strategies for introducing the rebuttal are the mirror image of those for introducing the counter-argument, and they all boil down to the same basic concept: Yes, but.... They can be as simple as that, or as complex as this example sentence:
While Auerbachs claim seems initially plausible, and is backed by the copious evidence provided by his astonishing erudition, it is marred by an inconsistency that derives from an unsupportable and ultimately incoherent definition.
In all cases, the job of this transitional language is to show the reader that the opposing view is now being answered. The essay has returned to arguing its own thesis, strengthened by having taken the opposition into account. Here are some typical strategies. These are generic examples; they work best when tailored to suit the specifics of the individual topic.
- What this argument [overlooks/fails to consider/does not take into account] is ...
- This view [seems/looks/sounds/etc.] [convincing/plausible/persuasive/etc.] at first, but ...
- While this position is popular, it is [not supported by the facts/not logical/impractical/etc.]
- Although the core of this claim is valid, it suffers from a flaw in its [reasoning/application/etc.]
For more on this topic, see the Counterargument section of the Argument web page at the University of North Carolina Writing Center.
Loewen, James. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: Touchstone, 1996.
A rebuttal to Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes Vs. Women” Episode 1: Damsels in DistressMarch 10th, 2013 - File under Blog - 107 Comments;
During my unhappy year in Japan, a favorite method for passing the days was collecting CDs of Japanese clip-art. Like many foreigners, I had been overwhelmed by Japan’s dizzying array of holidays and festivals, and hoped studying clip-art could offer a crash course in their traditions and symbols. What more condensed summary of a holiday is there, after all, than the cartoons found on a hastily-made pool closure sign?
- Japanese “mother” clip-art
Browsing these cartoon archives, what immediately struck was the bizarrely retro depiction of women. If a CD contained a stock image of a “mother,” she was probably wearing a kitchen apron (a pink one) and holding a frying pan or a duster or some other tool of domestic life. Sometimes even at the park. There were no clip-art pictures of female executives, female athletes, female cops, female construction workers, or basically any female in a physically demanding or otherwise non-stereotypical job. Everyone had long hair. Everyone was in a dress. Coming from a culture where even the back of board game boxes are painstakingly crafted to create a perfectly politically-correct tableau of gender and multicultural empowerment, the contrast was striking.
I asked some of my female Japanese co-workers about it, and they seemed nonplussed. “That’s just how women are seen here,” they said. But then again, many of them were only working to kill time before marriage.
This is the sort of cultural context missing — in fact, aggressively not present — in Anita Sarkeesian’s recently-released and much-watched YouTube mini-documentary on video games “Damsels in Distress,” the first of what promises to be a long series of feminist critiques of depictions of women in gaming, or as she puts it, “Tropes Vs. Women.”
Sarkeesian spends 23 minutes criticizing the gross and cliched way females were depicted in video games during the 1980s and ’90s, which, as her thesis/title suggests, was primarily as passive victims captured by villains, and thus shiny objects to be collected by the game’s hero, rather than characters with any sort of agency of their own. It’s an accurate observation, but considering almost every game she cites in her catalog of “Damsels in Distress” are Japanese titles produced by Japanese developers for a primarily Japanese market, there’s an obvious cultural commonality here that goes inexcusably unexplored.
I’m no master of Japanese sociology, but it’s hardly an obscure fact that Japan has one of the worst track records of any major industrialized democracy when it comes to rates of female participation in the workforce, female political participation, female representation in corporate leadership, female university enrollment, and female income equality. Until very recently, the Japanese classified pages openly stated that women need not apply for certain jobs. A deliberate lack of childcare options ensures the working single mother is virtually non-existent.
The social limitations Japanese women face in daily life obviously manifest clearly in Japanese popular culture. I suppose until you’ve been there, it’s hard to fully appreciate just how entrenched and uncontroversial the image of the hysterical, weeping, fragile, dependent, know-nothing female remains. You see her constantly in soap operas, in anime, in music, in advertisements, even in politics. (I was once handed a flyer by a supporter of a woman who was running for mayor. The thing was entirely pink and offered little argument beyond “why not a woman?”)
Thanks to the perennial western fascination with Japan’s more depraved subcultures, most of us are also now well familiar with the grotesquely vicious and misogynist images that abound in the robust Japanese industry of highly-specialized cartoon fetish porn, and the soft-prostitution racket known as “maid cafes,” which feature women serving men cookies and drinks clad not only in skimpy outfits, but absurdly fawning and servile attitudes even a Hooter’s waitress would find demeaning.
In her 23 minutes, Sarkeesian says the word “Japanese” exactly once. Completely disinterested in the cultural roots of her subject matter, to her, “video games” are simply things that randomly emerged from some neutral ether, as opposed to a particular sort of corporation run by a particular sort of person living in a particular sort of country.
This is not an uncommon perspective for white progressive-types to take, of course, loath as they are to offer any critique that could possibly smack of bigotry or ethnocentrism. But the uncomfortable fact remains that feminism, of the sort we in the west are most familiar with, is simply not entrenched in Japan the way it is here. Any worthwhile critique of female video game depictions in the 1980s and 1990s would thus have to focus on the extent to which these images arrived in our households through a “perfect storm” of culturally regressive variables, in which the industrialized world’s most dominant creator of video game software was also the nation with some of the most unapologetically un-American views towards what is and isn’t a culturally permissible way to present women.
And for that matter, we should recall that these insensitive depictions didn’t go unnoticed in the States. Far from blindly embracing the oft-offensive female “Damsel in Distress” images Japan offered in their games, the degree to which American business aggressively sought to soften and tame the harsh sexist edges of Japanese video games after import is a fascinating story in its own right, and an absolutely critical component of any larger discussion of gaming from a western, feminist perspective.
At one point, Sarkeesian passively notes that the female “Damsel in Distress” in Double Dragon (a 1987 offering of Tokyo-based Technos Japan) has her panties involuntarily exposed in “several versions” of the game. She neglects to mention that those “several versions” were the Japanese ones — at the time, Nintendo of America had a stated policy banning images “which specifically denigrates members of either sex,” and so Double Dragon‘s damsel, like many other female video game characters of the time, was forced to cover up prior to the game’s U.S. release. Nintendo of America was actually quite the little moralizing busybody in those days, removing strippers, Playboy bunnies, scantily-clad fairies, and even bare-chested Greco-Roman sculptures from all manner of Japanese titles during the 1980s and ’90s, lest any impressionable young Americans be subjected to such crass depictions.
Sarkeesian similarly opts to ignore the heavy-handed American role model-ization of otherwise sexist and forgettable female video game stars that defined the era she purports to document.
She sneers derisively at the fact that Princess Toadstool only appeared as a playable character in Super Mario Bros. 2 “kinda accidentally” because the real Japanese version of SMB2 was considered too difficult for American audiences, necessitating some other game be released stateside. So Americans got a different game with a playable Princess, which was also the last time she appeared in a starring role. The exception that proves the rule, in other words.
And that’s true. No other Mario game was ever again explicitly designed for an American audience. I don’t think anyone who grew up with the American Super Mario Bros. 2 can forget how enormously popular playing as the Princess was — I have fond memories of my father dogmatically insisting there was no better character, thanks to her gimmicky long-jump power — and I think it’s fair to say her inclusion was actually something of a positive watershed moment in the way Americans perceived women in games. Not that a playable female character was anything particularly new for U.S. audiences, of course — America was also the country that created Ms. Pac-Man, lest we forget.
It’s also worth noting that while Princess Toadstool’s Japanese personality — the whiny, weepy, petticoat-wearing airhead depicted in the Mario games — is undeniably cringe-inducing, her American image was always significantly different thanks to a vast American-made canon of Mario Bros. comic strips, coloring books, choose-your-own-adventure novels, television shows, educational software, and even a feature film that collectively broadened her personality well beyond that of a one-dimensional prop. In American media, in fact, the Princess was basically a leading example of one of the great feminist media tropes of the 1990s, the cliched “Wise Woman,” who stands alone as an island of adult sanity amidst a supporting cast of bumbling, infantile men.
American Mario fans who read the Valiant comic book series or watched the Saturday morning cartoon met a Princess who was calm, collected, and sensible, a savvy political ruler of a vast kingdom (the Japanese games never take her role as “princess” this literally) and “definitely no old-fashioned damsel-in-distress,” in the words of the TV show’s writers’ bible. I recently re-watched an episode of The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 animated series I remember quite liking as a child — the plot featured a workaholic Princess taking a “much-needed vacation” in Hawaii while her kingdom fell into predictable chaos with dopey Mario and Luigi in charge.
- Princess Zelda as the Japanese knew her (above) versus how Americans did (below).
The same was true of the other damsel singled out by Sarkeesian for particular disdain, Princess Zelda of Legend of Zelda fame. Once again we see a pattern: a sexist and corny Japanese in-game depiction softened by aggressive American attempts to establish the Princess as a competent and self-possessed heroine via an extended universe of comics and cartoons.
Zelda’s American makeover was even more dramatic than Toadstool’s. While the Japanese games depicted Zelda as a stereotypical princess in a flowing pink gown who did little more than sit around waiting to be rescued (in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link she spends literally the entire game under a Sleeping Beauty-style curse), the American comic book and cartoon version of the character was an athletic, aggressive bow-and-arrow slinging warrior-princess with knee-high boots and an all-business attitude. She was, in fact, a vastly more likable personality than the stupid and surly Link, the franchise’s supposed hero, whose pointless California accent and annoying catchphrases grate to this day.
In the case of Sonic the Hedgehog, a series Sarkeesian mentions only briefly, Sega of America’s merchandising department was so desperate for Sonic to have a strong female counterpart they created out of whole cloth: Princess Sally Acorn. The cuddly pink Amy Rose Sarkeesian cites as Sonic’s sexist answer to Toadstool and Zelda, though popular in Japan, was largely unknown to American audiences until quite recently. As was the case with the Zelda and Mario series, American Sonic fans who consumed the larger folkloric canon surrounding their gaming hero were repeatedly reminded that their on-screen male protagonist owed a lot to his “better half.”
Sarkeesian ignores absolutely all this, and instead asks for a feminist evaluation of the cultural impact of ’90s-era video games in a bizarre, vacuumed-sealed context in which countries, culture, politics, economics, and history simply do not exist. Hers is a sophistic argument in which a thoroughly American critique is given to a foreign nation’s cultural products as a way to draw some larger point about female rights in her own country, while simultaneously ignoring the large role progressive-minded American corporations — sensitive to decades of activism from American feminists — played in seeking to curb the very elements of Japanese sexism she finds so problematic.
I understand Sarkeesian’s video series was controversial when first proposed, generating both exaggerated contempt from defensive males unwilling to have their playthings insulted and exaggerated support from righteous feminists convinced that any self-proclaimed feminist critique of anything is always an unquestionable good.
I personally don’t know if we need a feminist critique of Japanese video games released nearly 30 years ago. In her video, Sarkeesian certainly makes no effort to explain why I — or anyone else — should care, since her confused muddling of cultures, ignorance of context, and disinterest in impact results in a “critique” without a clear target or purpose.
Something is not always better than nothing.