Playing Devil’s Advocate: How to Strengthen an Argument

You know how to make an argument, right? You say some persuasive things, you make some good points, and the audience nods and puts a finger to their chin. Hmm, that’s interesting, they say. Good point, jolly good, they say. But making persuasive points out of your own argument, simply stating your OWN case, well, that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to argumentative practice. What if you could use the counterarguments to make your own stronger? What if you could both use and discount other thoughts within a discussion to make your own points seem more valid, more attractive? That’s precisely what you can (and should) do!

Now, I need to straighten something out first. This isn’t the sort of rabid attack-dog mentality that we see every time the polls open. You aren’t calling the opposition stupid, nor are you insulting their character personally. The point isn’t necessarily to make the opposition seem awful in order to mask your own claim. So what, then, is the point?

Well, the whole point of this argumentative technique is to play devil’s advocate. For the uninitiated, that means considering the alternatives to your own thoughts, even if you believe firmly in your own ideas. In doing this, you gain an adequate understanding of the argument as a whole.

See, an argument isn’t just your own thoughts floating in stasis; rather, it’s a group of things, a conglomerate of ideas that bounce off of each other but are nevertheless contained as a whole. Your argument about climate change or literary theory or what we should do with overflow prisoners isn’t composed just of your thoughts but all thoughts on that subject, and these thoughts create a global discussion, one that is an ever-changing sphere. This seems a little confusing—shouldn’t opposing discussions make my argument weaker? Really, referencing a different point of view will make your own points stronger, if you use this technique as a jumping-off point for argument. An argument isn’t just proving your own points, but proving WHY your points should be discussed with greater importance.

Through the use of alternative points (and sometimes opposing dialogue), your argument gains a lot of traction, and this is how: you begin by acknowledging in an opposing viewpoint, another facet of the discussion at large. Sometimes this is in question format; other times you can simply state it. So let’s say, for example, that I’m writing about vaccination, and I want to address the counterargument that vaccines are bad because some people say they cause diseases and conditions in patients. I’ve already given much of my own evidence, and now it’s time to make my argument more complex. So I write this:

But what about the evidence that vaccines cause autism, or many other diseases and conditions rumored to be the result of protective shots?

In doing this, I have now introduced a counter-issue in the discussion, another viewpoint that seeks to confound my own. The audience does a double-take; did he counter his own points? I did precisely that. However, you can’t introduce these ideas in a vacuum. Now that you’ve created a seed of dissent, you need to use your own evidence, your own data, to truncate that seed before it can grow into a fully-fledged counterargument. After writing the above statement in italics, we then write:

Given the evidence, however, we can confidently dismiss these claims, for they are based upon nothing but conjecture and rumors; in fact, Strickland says, in her authoritative article on vaccines and disease, that “not a single case wherein vaccines were said to cause autism was there evidence that this was true” (Strickland, 25).

You aren’t attacking the opposition, again. You aren’t calling them incompetent, or resorting to playground insults. You are merely dismissing their claims in light of new evidence.

One thing that’s important to realize is that you don’t need to completely dismiss an opposing thought. You merely need to use it and spin it to show that your own argument is more valid. The claims you use can be perfectly logical and sound, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use them inside your paper to fortify your argument. Students often seem afraid to even mention the opposing viewpoints, but I use them with pleasure, and you should too! It will make your arguments stronger and your professors more impressed.

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