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?