Apologists argue. By that I do not mean that they yell or gesticulate wildly or call people names. That is not arguing; that is harassment. Arguing, in its proper sense, is providing “a reason or set of reasons given with the aim of persuading others that an action or idea is right or wrong.” When they argue well, apologists can plant seeds that may change hearts and open minds. When apologists argue poorly, hearts are not changed but hardened, minds are not opened but closed.
An essential element of good argument is the rebuttal. I have always thought a successful rebuttal should not just state the rebutter’s opinion on the topic but should interact with the original piece in a way that demonstrates that the rebutter comprehends the points to which he or she is objecting. Successful rebuttals can lead to spirited discussion and further investigation of an issue. Failed rebuttals, on the other hand, lead to frustration and endless rounds of “That’s not what I said.”
I was excited to learn recently that someone had gone to the trouble of publishing a rebuttal to one of my Catholic Answers Blog posts. (It is a compliment to a writer when someone feels so strongly about something you have written that the person feels compelled to respond formally.) When the article came to my attention, I settled in to read, looking forward to considering what the author had to say about the opinion I had given. But my initial excitement faded quickly as I read and then compared what the author wrote to my original post. I finally had to conclude that this person had either skimmed my post or was more interested in publishing personal opinion on the same subject I wrote about than in responding to my post.
Let’s be clear: I do not object to anyone offering a contrary view on a subject I have written about, especially when the subject is not about Catholic apologetics, as this one was not. What disappointed me was to read a rebuttal—indeed to read a piece that was styled “a Catholic answer to Catholic Answers”—that did not interact with what I had actually written, only with what the author thought I had written.
Five Simple Steps
A careful, well-crafted rebuttal shows respect for the person who set forth the original argument. On a purely pragmatic level, it can also close the door on rejoinders because when you answer what the person actually said, that person must either concede the point or come up with a new argument. Either way, your rebuttal has succeeded.
How do you craft a good rebuttal? For the purpose of this post, I will limit myself to discussing written rebuttals.
Step One: Read the opinion piece. By reading I do not mean engaging in word recognition. You must make a serious effort at what language teachers call reading comprehension. It is a strange phenomenon of literate societies that as technical proficiency in word recognition rises, reading comprehension drops. But if you want to craft an effective written rebuttal to an opinion piece, you must make the effort to understand what the writer actually said. If you have trouble understanding the writer’s point, write it out yourself in your own words, taking the point of view of the person you want to rebut. You will know you have succeeded when you can make that person’s argument for him.
Step Two: Research the references. If the writer links to another article, read that article. This can be entertaining if you discover through such reading that it is possible to demonstrate that the writer has failed to accurately represent or understand his own sources. This happens more often than you might think because many writers can be quite sloppy in their research (another rant for another time).
Step Three: Write your rebuttal. Then compare it side-by-side to the original piece. Have you accurately represented the claims made in the original? Have you overstated your case (e.g., using absolutes where the author used qualifiers)? Have you addressed all of the points sufficiently? Keep in mind that you are looking to close loopholes in your argument because it is human nature to prefer defending oneself on a technicality to thanking someone for a public correction.
Step Four: Maintain charity. Read through your piece, paying careful attention to tone. Personal attacks and click bait should be considered beneath you. Personal attacks and why they should be avoided should be self-explanatory. Click bait is the practice of giving your piece an attention-grabbing title solely for the purpose of drawing in readers but without delivering on the title’s premise. In the rebuttal to my post, for example, Catholic Answers was named in the headline for the value of capturing the interest of readers familiar with Catholic Answers. But in the piece itself, the writer acknowledged that my post “was not addressing an apologetics issue and merely the author’s opinion.”
Step Five: Let it go. Once you have written your opinion piece, treat it as a finished product. If you continue to return to the subject to defend your position (and yourself), it makes your position (and you) look weak. I admit in my own case that I gave serious thought to more thoroughly dissecting that rebuttal of my blog post—in the name of demonstrating why that author had written a poor rebuttal, of course. To be honest, the first draft of this post did just that, and I was quite proud of my response. When I realized that taking apart that article was not necessary for the purpose of this post, I cut most of the “re-rebuttal” from the final draft. It is not easy to refrain from continuing to defend a position. We naturally desire for others to acknowledge that we are right. If it helps you to let go of an argument, remind yourself that he who always has the final word never has the pleasure of having the final thought.
Understand, Then Reply
Stephen R. Covey, the late educator and motivational guru who wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, once observed that “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” The same holds true in all other forms of human communication, including writing. Many people do not read an opinion piece with the intent to understand; they read it with the intent to reply. But you cannot effectively reply until you first understand.