Rhetorical Surrender

Rhetorical Surrender

A common practice of developing writers is to open an essay with a Rhetorical Question, the purpose of which, supposedly, is to pique the reader’s interest and get her to start expressing an opinion on the author’s topic. To prime the pump, so to speak.

It’s a terrible strategy that gives all the power and momentum to the reader before the writer—that’s YOU—even gets started. For chess players, the equivalent would be choosing to play the black pieces, on the defense from the start.

You’re the author. The chessboard is yours. Play white. Start first. Let’s look at an example.


Rhetorical questions are a red flag that something is wrong with your argument, Username. But they are also white flags of surrender. Readers see them as an opportunity to make up their own minds. You want to make up their minds for them.

Let’s look at your whole paragraph:

Staying or keeping someone alive only to suffer seems rather counterintuitive. There’s a conflict when it comes to the elderly—whether they’re human relatives or animal companions—and that is at what point is life too burdensome to continue? At what point does caring and showing compassion towards a dying creature become counterintuitive and shift from care and compassion to selfishness and cruelty? When photographing elderly animals after caring for her own aging parents, photographer Isa Leshko acknowledges the importance of accepting that they are mortal. After making the conscious decision to not photograph her own aging and dying family, Leshko expresses and emphasizes the importance of remaining respectful to the memory of the elderly by displaying who they truly are as beings through pictures rather than ignoring their mortality, and it is clear that she regrets making her decision about her parents.

You start with a straightforward claim.

Staying or keeping someone alive only to suffer seems rather counterintuitive.

Then immediately lose control of your own argument.

There’s a conflict when it comes to the elderly—whether they’re human relatives or animal companions—and that is at what point is life too burdensome to continue?

Half of your readers will silently respond: Never. Now you’re playing defense.

At what point does caring and showing compassion towards a dying creature become counterintuitive and shift from care and compassion to selfishness and cruelty?

At which point that same half, perhaps joined by others, respond: How dare you!

If your Summary has a Purpose, be clear from the start what it is. Here you appear merely to want to inform readers of the conflict Isa Leshko experienced. That’s a pretty narrow purpose, and it’s hard to imagine the paper to which this paragraph would make a strong contribution.

Your opening claim is twofold where one fold would suffice. The “staying” alive part disappears immediately. You develop only the “keeping someone alive” part. Now imagine the thesis to which it would make the biggest contribution. Revise without rhetorical questions:

Keeping someone alive only for them to suffer is savagely counterintuitive. Human relatives—or our animal companions—deserve the right to decide when their lives have become too burdensome to continue. Beyond that point, our caring and compassion towards a dear dying creature, however well-intentioned, become selfishness and cruelty.

Same material, same claims, ambiguity removed. Your readers may still resist, but the pressure is on them to refute your clearly-stated position. You’re playing offense.

IN-CLASS NOTES

In the Reply field below, leave your impressions. Does the example demonstrate the weakness of Rhetorical Questions vs. the power of bold claims? Are you always tempted to use Rhetorical Questions to introduce your Big Premise? Do you see how they invite your readers to reject your ideas before you present them?

8 Responses to Rhetorical Surrender

  1. chickendinner says:

    Rhetorical questions invite people to reject the argument you’re trying to put forth, sabotaging your ability to attack what you perceive as faulty reasoning and making you instead go on the defensive.

    Like

  2. imaspookyghost says:

    The example clearly demonstrates why a rhetorical question can weaken your argument. I do like using rhetorical questions but they often aren’t about my thesis. I see how the reader can reject the idea prior to the presentation which is why rhetorical questions should be used elsewhere of the main idea or thesis.

    Like

  3. This example demonstrates the weakness of rhetorical questions vs. the power of bold claims. I do find myself being tempted to use rhetorical questions. But I now see how they are ineffective and it is more helpful to state your claim without asking a question.

    Like

  4. frogs02 says:

    This example does demonstrate the weakness of rhetorical questions vs the power of bold claims. I am always temped to use a rhetorical question to introduce the big premise. I totally understand how the invite the reader to reject the ideas before I present them because they already know what the rest of the paper is about, they will get bored and already know the answer to your question.

    Like

  5. sunshinegirl457 says:

    Yes, this example demonstrates how much stronger bold claims are than rhetorical questions. When writing, confidence is key to ensure your reader has the greatest chance of agreeing with your arguments. Always play offense when you can and do not sound wishy-washy.

    Like

  6. strawberryfields4 says:

    This example was very effective in demonstrating the weak nature of rhetorical questions. As you stated, asking a question before telling the reader what you want them to believe gives them the opportunity to get ahead of you. It gives them the ability to form an opinion that may contradict your own. This opinion will now be in their head as they read your entire argument.

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  7. RowanAnnouncer says:

    This discussion does indeed demonstrate the weakness of rhetorical questions vs. the power of bold claims. I am definitely tempted because of how simple it may be for an introduction to an essay. I now see how easy it is for the reader to get the upper hand and reject my ideas before I’ve even began to present my them.

    Like

  8. zeek says:

    I find my self asking a lot of retorucal questions in my writing but I don’t think I use them to full effect. And it makes sense to welcome rejection before you present your ideas because you have the ability to make the viewer think of it re think they’re views on the ideas you’re trying to portray.

    Like

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