If you’re wrong, does that mean I’m right?

While the Writing Center does so many things to help students become better writers, the main way we help students become better writers is showing them how to make strong theses. I cannot count the number of times that I have told a student that a thesis must be debatable, precise, and supportable.  While these are essential aspects to making a strong thesis, they certainly are not the only ways one creates a strong argument.

Recently, I had a student come into the Writing Center for a research paper on Huckleberry Finn. This student chose to write about homosexuality in Huck Finn, arguing that Huck and Jim do not have a homosexual relationship.  This is a perfectly acceptable argument– this topic is something that has been exhaustively debated (so one could assume there will be a lot of information from the text and secondary sources to support this thesis). While this argument does work, the student’s thesis statement did not.  Instead of focusing on textual examples to support Huck and Jim’s platonic friendship, the student was heavily relying on one critic’s analysis of the novel.  Further complicating matters, her only means of defending her argument were to attack the critic– not the critic’s argument.

I will admit, I have read some relatively outlandish critical analyses that have caused me to question the legitimacy of the author(s).  However, if I were to use one of those articles in a research paper, attacking the author would not help my thesis whatsoever.  When one poorly chooses to critique the critic and not the critic’s argument, they are not helping their own argument; this type of argument is considered an “Ad hominem” fallacy.  Using Huck Finn as an example, if I were to argue that Huck and Finn have a homoerotic relationship, I would not be helping my own argument if I attacked a critic who disagrees with me.  If I argue that Sawyer’s argument (imaginary person) is incorrect because Sawyer is a product of his ridiculous religious beliefs, I am doing absolutely nothing to help my own argument.  The only thing I am actually achieving is showing my audience that Sawyer’s background and personal life might be affecting his argument.  Let me reiterate this– Sawyer as a person (an imaginary person), has nothing to do with my argument about Huck and Jim’s relationship.  How is this helping my argument? Long story short, it’s not.  So to answer the question that started this all: If you’re wrong, does that mean I’m right?  No.  Just because you’re wrong, doesn’t automatically make me right.  That would be too easy.  If I can properly negate your argument using textual evidence and other critics theories that support my argument, then there’s a much better chance that I’m right… and who doesn’t love being right?

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