The argumentative forms of rebuttal are based upon what is said, that is to say upon a critical examination of the content of the rejected speech, of its relevance to the current issue, or upon considerations related to the person who holds it. Good or bad, the refutations are explicitly argued.
Argumentative discourse, as any discourse, can be put under attack, either by such an argued refutative discourse or through more radical, linguistic or non-linguistic coups. Speech destruction tries to impair, cancel, exclude, the targeted speech; to make nonsense of what it says, leaving it devoid of substance and import; to make it unbearable, untenable, repulsive — and, first of all, to make it innocuous, to ensure that it will have no practical impact upon the group.
1. Discourse destruction and freedom of expression
In view of their material exclusion from the public sphere, argued beliefs and proposals can be neutralized by the legal prohibition of their expression, and the imprisonment of the opponents. This can be seen as attacks on freedom of expression; nonetheless, many democratic countries agree to prohibit by law hate speech as an incitement to crime.
Free expression can also be hindered by popular demonstrations, thus making public expression inaudible, by means of shouting, blowing horns, etc.
2. Destruction through interactional behavior
In ordinary face-to-face situations, discourse can be destroyed by non-verbal interactional maneuvers, the most radical being the refusal to listen, and let the others listen, the discourse of the other. Agreement is manifested by various phenomena of ratification, and, conversely, a simple lack of ratification, the inertia of the partner, may induce the speaker to withdraw the speech, S. Disagreement.
The following interaction takes place in a high school physics lab. The lesson is on the notion of force, and exploits a small device, a stone suspended from a gallows. The two male students F and G are working in pair. The question asked by the teacher is:
What are the objects that act on the stone?
Puzzled, the two students look at the teacher. Then, still addressing the class, she adds:
Well, I took an object in the most general sense that is to say, all that can act on the stone er: visibly or invisibly if— well\
Then, student F immediately answers the teacher’s question, addressing his partner:
Well the air/ the air/ … the air it acts the air when you do that the air\
After an interruption, F resumes his argumentation, waving vigorously his arm up – down – up, intensely addressing his partner (simplified transcription):
When you do that there will be air afterwards since y’know when you make a fast movement like that\ it is the same there is the air\ I’m sure\ but here for now we do not answer that yet but/
Then student G, playing with the stone, says:
There is the attraction\
F‘s argument is perfectly in line with Toulmin’s model of argument. The claim is “the air [acts upon the stone]”. It is supported by an appeal to analogy, “it’s the same”, referring to an arguing ad hoc gestures, mimicking and emphasizing some self-evident fact. The conclusion is duly emphatically modalized, “I’m sure” — and immediately withdrawn: “but for now we do not answer that yet”. In view of this strongly asserted argument, this withdrawal is quite unexpected. It is understandable only in view of the interactional behavior of the conversation partner G, who stares at the stone and gives no sign of ratification throughout, not even signaling that he is listening to F‘s argument (with whom he gets on very well, as shown by their following fully collaborative exchanges).
3. Rejecting the expression
An embarrassing discourse can be destroyed through a criticism focusing upon the style and expression of the opponent without taking into consideration the argument itself. The reply “I don’t agree” actually demonstrates a high level of cooperation.
Ancient rhetoric enumerates a trio of major linguistic qualities of discourse, quality of language, clarity and vivacity of expression (respectively latinitas, perspicuitas and ornatus). Destruction strategies can develop out of any of these points.
3.1 Quality of the language
“You are hardly understandable, you don’t even know the language you pretend to speak, you use dialect expressions you should try to speak classical Syldavian”. In a polemical situation, the opponent can reject a priori a discourse arguing from its grammatical defects. It would be wrong to think that these strategies are marginal or ineffective:
In an uncertain spelling, Mrs. X challenges the evaluation of her language skills by the jury of the competition.
Mrs. X failed her exam about her language skills. Now, she disputes the jury’s decision, and the jury answers mentioning the “uncertain spelling” of her complaint letter. Stricto sensu, these misspellings do not prove that her exam paper was also misspelled, but can certainly be used as a suggestion to that effect. In any case it justifies a charge for neglect, showing a disregard for the jury, which is enough to devaluate the significance of her complaint.
3.2 Clarity and vivacity of the expression
Similar devastating strategies appeal to the lack of clarity of expression: “the presentation was unclear and confusing”, or vivacity “so boring!”.
It is of course better for an argumentative speech to be grammatically correct, clear and interesting. On the other hand, it is human nature to consider correct, clear, and interesting the speeches with which one agrees. This is not just a psychological or bad faith issue; it has a cognitive relevance. The discourse with which one agrees is better known; its deep principles being well accepted, it is easier to recover the ellipsed contents and the missing links; its variations are better tolerated; it is better memorized, etc. When it comes to an opponent’s discourse, it is relatively natural to translate as speech defects the corresponding difficulties, and to conclude by denying that the minimum conditions of mutual comprehension are satisfied.
4. Leaving aside the argumentative details
A class of refutative maneuvers refers to the opponent’s discourse without considering its argumentative details, for example:
5. Disqualifying the arguer
Personal attacks against the speaker set aside the argument and try to disqualify the arguer.
For other forms on the verge of destruction and propositional refutation, S. Refutation