I. What is a Polemic?
A polemic is a strong attack or argument against something. Most of the time the topic is on a controversial subject; like important issues concerning civil or human rights, philosophy and ethics, politics, religion, and so on. For example, a person who is strongly opposed to the death penalty would perhaps deliver a polemic against it, asserting that the practice is wrong and identifying the reasons why.
The word polemic stems from the Greek term polemikos, which means “war.” This makes it easy to remember its current meaning and purpose—like the definition of the original term, a polemic is essentially a rhetorical war against an issue.
II. Example of a Polemic
Broccoli is a disgusting vegetable whose existence is the bane of all children’s lives. Those who believe it is a delicious and healthy food are wrong. It is a foul, appalling thing that should be banned from being sold or grown under any circumstances. Only when we rid the world of broccoli will we truly remove the threat of repulsive dinners.
This brief polemic clearly delivers a clear opinion about broccoli and attacks the idea that it is a likable food.
III. Importance of Polemics
Polemics are important because they advocate for a cause and express strong opinions clearly and without ambiguity. We need polemics for arguing against things we see as major problems and for trying to bring about changes in the things we believe in. Without them, important point of views would not be expressed with such strength and passion.
IV. Examples of Polemics in Literature
The Communist Manifesto is one of the most well-known political polemics in literature, and one you’ve surely heard of. It was written by 19th century philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who identified what they saw as the major problems of capitalism and the class struggles it caused. Here are a few of the attacks the laid on the system:
Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another.
Masses of laborers, crowded into the factory, are organized like soldiers…Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois State; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself.
Marx and Engels are against capitalist societies because they believe that such societies suppress individuals and make them slaves. They argue that political power, truly, is just the power of the rich over the poor. While the philosophers do support communism, The Communist Manifesto is a polemic because it is primarily an attack on capitalism, rather than a work justifying communism.
Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is a well-known example of a social polemic. It’s a satirical essay that was written as an attack against the treatment of the Irish by the British government in the 18th century, and a commentary on their poor solutions to serious societal problems. He makes ludicrous suggestions about how to deal with things like poverty, for example, that the poor should sell their children as food:
A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout…A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.
While it may seem like he is in support of treating the Irish poorly, it’s actually an argument against such treatment. Swift uses irony and well-designed rhetoric to make readers hate the speaker of the “proposal” and in turn become concerned for the Irish. The ridiculous things he suggests are reflective of the poor choices and care that the government gives to its citizens, and so by making a mockery of the system, he is attacking those who are in charge.
V. Examples of Polemics in Popular Culture
In The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1, Katniss Everdeen delivers a fierce polemic against the Capitol after she witnesses a tragedy where the victims were innocent citizens. As you will see, her message is loud and clear:
Here, she Katniss shows the nation of Panem that she is against the Capitol, and has joined the rebel movement. Her angry polemic tries to expose the ruling party as corrupt, brutal, and tyrannical. She attacks the Capitol publicly; urging people to see the truth and fight back against their oppressive leaders.
In this clip from Family Guy, Peter Griffin is being questioned by a lawyer that is evaluating whether or not Peter should be part of a jury:
When questioned about his prejudices, Peter answers the lawyer with a polemic against ants. He expresses his hate for the insects with a list of reasons why they’re so terrible, telling the lawyer that he there’s no way he will be fair if the trial involves ants.
In all, polemics are strong rhetorical devices that help make big statements. When it comes to controversial issues, polemics provide a powerful way of expressing opinions and arguing against issues that deserve attention.