Definition of Polemic

Polemic is a strong verbal or written attack on someone or something, it also means war. Etymologically, the word polemic can be traced back to its Grecian origin from the word polemos that means war. Later, it was linked to a French term, polemique, which means controversial remarks or disputes during an argument. Although in literary devices, it is simply an argument, and it is part of rhetoric in which a polemic is a contentious remark that could raise the temperature of the debate. A participant in the debate or conversation can make such unwarranted or unverified remarks about the other party or participant to cause pandemonium. Such a remark, or argument, or part of an argument is called polemic.

A person speaking in such a way and arguing his case without evidential remarks is a polemicist, and he/she often speaks polemically. It is practiced in speaking and also in writing and reading. In writing, it is highly critical as well as hypercritical of the aspect on which the polemic starts.

Common Examples of Polemic

  1. A death penalty is a barbaric act.
  2. Every person has the right to the freedom of expression, including disparaging other’s points of view or sensitivities in the name of this value.
  3. Socialism is anathema to mankind.
  4. Democracy is the best form of government man has ever invented.
  5. Human rights must be protected at all costs.

Polemic or No Polemic?

From Polemic: Critical or Uncritical by Jane Gallop

Anderson and Spivak concur with Foucault in their dislike of polemic, their sense that polemic distorts argument warps the critical. Crewe, on the other hand, champions polemic, defending it against Foucault’s condemnation. Crewe cites polemic’s crucial place in the history of criticism: “without feminist, queer, or postcolonial polemics, some of it ad hominem, there would be no academic fields corresponding to those designations.

These arguments about polemic occur in Polemic: Critical or Uncritical, edited by Jane Gallop. Jane Gallop points out that scholars like Anderson and Spivak conclude that as Foucault dislikes polemic, they, too, think on the same line. However, Crewe criticizes Foucault for his dislike-ness for this and starts another polemic to disparage his arguments against it.

Examples in Literature

Example #1

Animal Farm by George Orwell                                                      

“Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plow, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself. Our labor tills the soil, our dung fertilizes it, and yet there is not one of us that owns more than his bare skin. You cows that I see before me, how many thousands of gallons of milk have you given during this last year? And what has happened to that milk that should have been breeding up sturdy calves? Every drop of it has gone down the throats of our enemies. And you hens, how many eggs have you laid in this last year, and how many of those eggs ever hatched into chickens?”

This extract taken from Animal Farm by George Orwell is a beautiful example of polemic. Old Major is contending that man is the source of all evil despite having not raised any debate among the animals about this issue. Although this is a one-sided polemic, yet his diatribe makes it a perfect example of a polemic written in fiction.

Example #2

I Have a Dream by Martin Luther King

“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

This example from the popular speech of Martin Luther King shows the use of polemic in a positive way. This does not name or term the opposite party in the debate, though, it clearly shows that that the Negros are to work against their tormentors who have continued keeping them under subjugation, torturing them in case they ask for freedom. Despite using heavily metaphorical language, the polemic has a positive clarity.

Example #3

The Introduction to Common Sense by Thomas Paine

“As a long and violent abuse of power is generally the means of calling the right of it in question (and in matters too which might never have been thought of, had not the sufferers been aggravated into the inquiry), and as the King of England hath undertaken in his own right to support the Parliament in which he calls theirs, and as the good people of this country are grievously oppressed by the combination, they have an undoubted privilege to inquire into the pretensions of both, and equally to reject the usurpation of either.”

This passage occurs in Common Sense, written by Thomas Paine. He has beautifully explained his polemic about power, its abuse, and how the double-edged sword of the king is wielding this power. Using metaphorical language, Thomas Paine has beautifully raised the points to make his polemic a success.

Functions of Polemic

Polemic has both positive as well as negative points. In a negative sense, it intends to obstruct the success of a debate toward a solution, while in a positive sense, it raises questions about the validity of the premises of the arguments. Thus, in literature, a polemical point is mostly used in a positive sense except in hostile discourse.