In the “Responding to Others” section of this website, we identified six typical responses writers make to the others’ arguments and analyses: summary, positively value, add to, add to with a twist, call an aspect into question, or counter (refute) the whole of another’s argument (by substantively disagreeing with its conclusions, point of view, or reasoning). Both calling an aspect of another’s argument into question and refuting its principle conclusions take place fairly regularly in academic and intellectual work, but it’s important to think about them as “friendly” gestures rather than warrior-like assaults.
In the political and public sphere these days, what we often witness when a writer or speaker disagrees with someone’s argument is a combative and sometimes abusive response. This has become normalized in such venues as the floor of the U.S. Senate or when a politician or other public figure has taken the “hot seat” on a television news program, and faces down her opponents. A spectacle of insult or toxic discourse in likely to result these days, argument masquerading as a show of brute force, neither a real dialogue nor a conversation. In the so-called candidate debates we now regularly broadcast, we see political opponents attempting to vanquish others’ positions so that a victor may be declared.
It is no surprise, then, that students are confused when they are expected to take issue with another writer’s findings, or when they are urged to call a scholar’s work into question or to refute its claim. Earlier, we spoke of “friendly” disagreement; that stance may seem oxymoronic to some, but it is true that it’s best to think of one’s questioning of another’s conclusions, evidence, or reasoning as both strong and fair, incisive but generous, charitable and thoughtful, clear and civil. The term that perhaps best embraces these dispositions is deliberative.