“YES / NO / OKAY, BUT”
Three Ways to Respond
THE FIRST THREE CHAPTERS of this book discuss the “they say” stage of writing, in which you devote your attention to the views of some other person or group. In this chapter we move to the “I say” stage, in which you offer your own argument as a response to what “they” have said.
Moving to the “I say” stage can be daunting in academia, where it often may seem that you need to be an expert in a field to have an argument at all. Many students have told us that they have trouble entering some of the high-powered conversations that take place in college or graduate school because they do not know enough about the topic at hand or because, they say, they simply are not “smart enough.” Yet often these same students, when given a chance to study in depth the contribution that some scholar has made in a given field, will turn around and say things like “I can see where she is coming from, how she makes her case by building on what other scholars have said. Perhaps had I studied the situation longer I could have come up with a similar argument.” What these students come to realize is that good arguments are based not on knowledge that only a special class of experts has access to, but on everyday habits of mind that can be isolated, identified, and used by almost anyone. Though there’s certainly no substitute for expertise and for knowing as much as possible about one’s topic, the arguments that finally win the day are built, as the title of this chapter suggests, on some very basic rhetorical patterns that most of us use on a daily basis.
There are a great many ways to respond to others’ ideas, but this chapter concentrates on the three most common and recognizable ways: agreeing, disagreeing, or some combination of both. Although each way of responding is open to endless variation, we focus on these three because readers come to any text needing to learn fairly quickly where the writer stands, and they do this by placing the writer on a mental map consisting of a few familiar options: the writer agrees with those he or she is responding to, disagrees with them, or presents some combination of both agreeing and disagreeing.
When writers take too long to declare their position relative to views they’ve summarized or quoted, readers get frustrated, wondering, “Is this guy agreeing or disagreeing? Is he for what this other person has said, against it, or what?” For this reason, this chapter’s advice applies to reading as well as to writing. Especially with difficult texts, you need not only to find the position the writer is responding to—the “they say”—but also to determine whether the writer is agreeing with it, challenging it, or some mixture of the two.
ONLY THREE WAYS TO RESPOND?
Perhaps you’ll worry that fitting your own response into one of these three categories will force you to oversimplify your argument or lessen its complexity, subtlety, or originality. This is certainly a serious concern for academics who are rightly skeptical of writing that is simplistic and reductive. We would argue, however, that the more complex and subtle your argument is, and the more it departs from the conventional ways people think, the more your readers will need to be able to place it on their mental map in order to process the complex details you present. That is, the complexity, subtlety, and originality of your response are more likely to stand out and be noticed if readers have a baseline sense of where you stand relative to any ideas you’ve cited. As you move through this chapter, we hope you’ll agree that the forms of agreeing, disagreeing, and both agreeing and disagreeing that we discuss, far from being simplistic or one-dimensional, are able to accommodate a high degree of creative, complex thought.
It is always a good tactic to begin your response not by launching directly into a mass of details but by stating clearly whether you agree,disagree, or both, using a direct, no-nonsense formula such as: “I agree,” “I disagree,” or “I am of two minds. I agree that __________, but I cannot agree that __________.” Once you have offered one of these straightforward statements (or one of the many variations discussed below), readers will have a strong grasp of your position and then be able to appreciate the complications you go on to offer as your response unfolds.
Still, you may object that these three basic ways of responding don’t cover all the options—that they ignore interpretive or analytical responses, for example. In other words, you might think that when you interpret a literary work you don’t necessarily agree or disagree with anything but simply explain the work’s meaning, style, or structure. Many essays about literature and the arts, it might be said, take this form—they interpret a work’s meaning, thus rendering matters of agreeing or disagreeing irrelevant.
We would argue, however, that the most interesting interpretations in fact tend to be those that agree, disagree, or both—that instead of being offered solo, the best interpretations take strong stands relative to other interpretations. In fact, there would be no reason to offer an interpretation of a work of literature or art unless you were responding to the interpretations or possible interpretations of others. Even when you point out features or qualities of an artistic work that others have not noticed, you are implicitly disagreeing with what those interpreters have said by pointing out that they missed or overlooked something that, in your view, is important. In any effective interpretation, then, you need not only to state what you yourself take the work of art to mean but to do so relative to the interpretations of other readers—be they professional scholars, teachers, classmates, or even hypothetical readers (as in, “Although some readers might think that this poem is about __________, it is in fact about __________”).
DISAGREE—AND EXPLAIN WHY
Disagreeing may seem like one of the simpler moves a writer can make, and it is often the first thing people associate with critical thinking. Disagreeing can also be the easiest way to generate an essay: find something you can disagree with in what has been said or might be said about your topic, summarize it, and argue with it. But disagreement in fact poses hidden challenges. You need to do more than simply assert that you disagree with a particular view; you also have to offer persuasive reasons why you disagree. After all, disagreeing means more than adding “not” to what someone else has said, more than just saying, “Although they say women’s rights are improving, I say women’s rights are not improving.” Such a response merely contradicts the view it responds to and fails to add anything interesting or new. To turn it into an argument, you need to give reasons to support what you say: because another’s argument fails to take relevant factors into account; because it is based on faulty or incomplete evidence; because it rests on questionable assumptions; or because it uses flawed logic, is contradictory, or overlooks what you take to be the real issue. To move the conversation forward (and, indeed, to justify your very act of writing), you need to demonstrate that you have something to contribute.
You can even disagree by making what we call the “duh” move, in which you disagree not with the position itself but with the assumption that it is a new or stunning revelation. Here is an example of such a move, used to open an essay on the state of American schools.
According to a recent report by some researchers at Stanford University, high school students with college aspirations “often lack crucial information on applying to college and on succeeding academically once they get there.”
Well, duh. . . . It shouldn’t take a Stanford research team to tell us that when it comes to “succeeding academically,” many students don’t have a clue.
GERALD GRAFF, “Trickle-Down Obfuscation”
Like all of the other moves discussed in this book, the “duh” move can be tailored to meet the needs of almost any writing situation. If you find the expression “duh” too brash to use with your intended audience, you can always dispense with the term itself and write something like “It is true that __________; but we already knew that.”
TEMPLATES FOR DISAGREEING, WITH REASONS
X is mistaken because she overlooks recent fossil discoveries in the South. X’s claim that __________ rests upon the questionable assumption that
I disagree with X’s view that __________ because, as recent research has shown, __________.
X contradicts herself/can’t have it both ways. On the one hand, she argues __________. On the other hand, she also says __________.
By focusing on __________, X overlooks the deeper problem of __________.
You can also disagree by making what we call the “twist it” move, in which you agree with the evidence that someone else has presented but show through a twist of logic that this evidence actually supports your own, contrary position. For example:
X argues for stricter gun control legislation, saying that the crime rate is on the rise and that we need to restrict the circulation of guns. I agree that the crime rate is on the rise, but that’s precisely why I oppose stricter gun control legislation. We need to own guns to protect ourselves against criminals.
In this example of the “twist it” move, the writer agrees with X’s claim that the crime rate is on the rise but then argues that this increasing crime rate is in fact a valid reason for opposing gun control legislation.
At times you might be reluctant to express disagreement, for any number of reasons—not wanting to be unpleasant, to hurt someone’s feelings, or to make yourself vulnerable to being disagreed with in return. One of these reasons may in fact explain why the conference speaker we described at the start of Chapter 1 avoided mentioning the disagreement he had with other scholars until he was provoked to do so in the discussion that followed his talk.
As much as we understand such fears of conflict and have experienced them ourselves, we nevertheless believe it is better to state our disagreements in frank yet considerate ways than to deny them. After all, suppressing disagreements doesn’t make them go away; it only pushes them underground, where they can fester in private unchecked. Nevertheless, disagreements do not need to take the form of personal put-downs. Furthermore, there is usually no reason to take issue with every aspect of someone else’s views. You can single out for criticism only those aspects of what someone else has said that are troubling, and then agree with the rest—although such an approach, as we will see later in this chapter, leads to the somewhat more complicated terrain of both agreeing and disagreeing at the same time.
AGREE—BUT WITH A DIFFERENCE
Like disagreeing, agreeing is less simple than it may appear. Just as you need to avoid simply contradicting views you disagree with, you also need to do more than simply echo views you agree with. Even as you’re agreeing, it’s important to bring something new and fresh to the table, adding something that makes you a valuable participant in the conversation.
There are many moves that enable you to contribute something of your own to a conversation even as you agree with what someone else has said. You may point out some unnoticed evidence or line of reasoning that supports X’s claims that X herself hadn’t mentioned. You may cite some corroborating personal experience, or a situation not mentioned by X that her views help readers understand. If X’s views are particularly challenging or esoteric, what you bring to the table could be an accessible translation—an explanation for readers not already in the know. In other words, your text can usefully contribute to the conversation simply by pointing out unnoticed implications or explaining something that needs to be better understood.
Whatever mode of agreement you choose, the important thing is to open up some difference or contrast between your position and the one you’re agreeing with rather than simply parroting what it says.
TEMPLATES FOR AGREEING
I agree that diversity in the student body is educationally valuable because my
experience at Central University confirms it.
X is surely right about __________ because, as she may not be aware, recent studies have shown that __________.
X’s theory of __________ is extremely useful because it sheds light on the difficult problem of __________.
Those unfamiliar with this school of thought may be interested to know that it basically boils down to __________.
Some writers avoid the practice of agreeing almost as much as others avoid disagreeing. In a culture like America’s that prizes originality, independence, and competitive individualism, writers sometimes don’t like to admit that anyone else has made the same point, seemingly beating them to the punch. In our view, however, as long as you can support a view taken by someone else without merely restating what he or she has said, there is no reason to worry about being “unoriginal.” Indeed, there is good reason to rejoice when you agree with others since those others can lend credibility to your argument. While you don’t want to present yourself as a mere copycat of someone else’s views, you also need to avoid sounding like a lone voice in the wilderness.
But do be aware that whenever you agree with one person’s view, you are likely disagreeing with someone else’s. It is hard to align yourself with one position without at least implicitly positioning yourself against others. The psychologist Carol Gilligan does just that in an essay in which she agrees with scientists who argue that the human brain is “hard-wired” for cooperation, but in so doing aligns herself against anyone who believes that the brain is wired for selfishness and competition.
These findings join a growing convergence of evidence across the human sciences leading to a revolutionary shift in consciousness. . . . If cooperation, typically associated with altruism and self-sacrifice, sets off the same signals of delight as pleasures commonly associated with hedonism and self-indulgence; if the opposition between selfish and selfless, self vs. relationship biologically makes no sense, then a new paradigm is necessary to reframe the very terms of the conversation.
CAROL GILLIGAN, “Sisterhood Is Pleasurable: A Quiet Revolution in Psychology”
In agreeing with some scientists that “the opposition between selfish and selfless . . . makes no sense,” Gilligan implicitly disagrees with anyone who thinks the opposition does make sense. Basically, what Gilligan says could be boiled down to a template.
I agree that __________, a point that needs emphasizing since so many people still believe __________.
If group X is right that __________, as I think they are, then we need to reassess the popular assumption that __________.
What such templates allow you to do, then, is to agree with one view while challenging another—a move that leads into the domain of agreeing and disagreeing simultaneously.
AGREE AND DISAGREE SIMULTANEOUSLY
This last option is often our favorite way of responding. One thing we particularly like about agreeing and disagreeing simultaneously is that it helps us get beyond the kind of “is too” / “is not” exchanges that often characterize the disputes of young children and the more polarized shouting matches of talk radio and TV.
Sanford J. Ungar makes precisely this move in his essay “The New Liberal Arts” when, in critiquing seven common “misperceptions” of liberal arts education, he concedes that several contain a grain of truth. For example, after summarizing “Misperception No. 2,” that “college graduates are finding it harder to get good jobs with liberal-arts degrees,” that few employers want to hire those with an “irrelevant major like philosophy or French,” Ungar writes: “Yes, recent graduates have had difficulty in the job market. . . .” But then, after making this concession, Ungar insists that this difficulty affects graduates in all fields, not just those from the liberal arts. In this way, we think, Ungar paradoxically strengthens his case. By admitting that the opposing argument has a point, Ungar bolsters his credibility, presenting himself as a writer willing to acknowledge facts as they present themselves rather than one determined only to cheerlead for his own side.
TEMPLATES FOR AGREEING AND DISAGREEING SIMULTANEOUSLY
“Yes and no.” “Yes, but . . .” “Although I agree up to a point, I still insist . . .”
These are just some of the ways you can make your argument complicated and nuanced while maintaining a clear, reader-friendly framework. The parallel structure—“yes and no”; “on the one hand I agree, on the other I disagree”—enables readers to place your argument on that map of positions we spoke of earlier in this chapter while still keeping your argument sufficiently complex.
Charles Murray’s essay “Are Too Many People Going to College?” contains a good example of the “yes and no” move when, at the outset of his essay, Murray responds to what he sees as the prevailing wisdom about the liberal arts and college:
We should not restrict the availability of a liberal education to a rarefied intellectual elite. More people should be going to college, not fewer.
Yes and no. More people should be getting the basics of a liberal education. But for most students, the places to provide those basics are elementary and middle school.
CHARLES MURRAY, “Are Too Many People Going to College?”
In other words, Murray is saying yes to more liberal arts, but not to more college.
Another aspect we like about this “yes and no,” “agree and disagree” option is that it can be tipped subtly toward agreement or disagreement, depending on where you lay your stress. If you want to stress the disagreement end of the spectrum, you would use a template like the one below.
Although I agree with X up to a point, I cannot accept his overriding assumption that religion is no longer a major force today.
Conversely, if you want to stress your agreement more than your disagreement, you would use a template like this one.
Although I disagree with much that X says, I fully endorse his final conclusion that __________.
The first template above might be called a “yes, but . . .” move, the second a
“no, but . . .” move. Other versions include the following.
Though I concede that __________, I still insist that __________.
X is right that __________, but she seems on more dubious ground when she
claims that __________.
While X is probably wrong when she claims that __________, she is right that __________.
Whereas X provides ample evidence that __________, Y and Z’s research on __________ and __________ convinces me that __________ instead.
Another classic way to agree and disagree at the same time is to make what we call an “I’m of two minds” or a “mixed feelings” move.
I’m of two minds about X’s claim that __________. On the one hand, I agree that __________. On the other hand, I’m not sure if __________.
My feelings on the issue are mixed. I do support X’s position that __________, but I find Y’s argument about __________ and Z’s research on __________ to be equally persuasive.
This move can be especially useful if you are responding to new or particularly challenging work and are as yet unsure where you stand. It also lends itself well to the kind of speculative investigation in which you weigh a position’s pros and cons rather than come out decisively either for or against. But again, as we suggest earlier, whether you are agreeing, disagreeing, or both agreeing and disagreeing, you need to be as clear as possible, and making a frank statement that you are ambivalent is one way to be clear.
IS BEING UNDECIDED OKAY?
Nevertheless, writers often have as many concerns about expressing ambivalence as they do about expressing disagreement or agreement. Some worry that by expressing ambivalence they will come across as evasive, wishy-washy, or unsure of themselves. Others worry that their ambivalence will end up confusing readers who require decisive, clear-cut conclusions.
The truth is that in some cases these worries are legitimate. At times ambivalence can frustrate readers, leaving them with the feeling that you failed in your obligation to offer the guidance they expect from writers. At other times, however, acknowledging that a clear-cut resolution of an issue is impossible can demonstrate your sophistication as a writer. In an academic culture that values complex thought, forthrightly declaring that you have mixed feelings can be impressive, especially after having ruled out the one-dimensional positions on your issue taken by others in the conversation. Ultimately, then, how ambivalent you end up being comes down to a judgment call based on different readers’ responses to your drafts, on your knowledge of your audience, and on the challenges of your particular argument and situation.
They Say, Chapter 4 outlines three ways to respond to others. They also provide you with with templates for practicing each of these strategies.
1. Identify which of the three methods you like best and then explain why. Other questions to answer as you do so: which method is most suited to your own writing style? Which do you think could most comfortably adapt as a new technique? Which do you think would work best in developing an argument you wish to make? and Why?