The Devious Weasel’s Arsenal of Argumentation Tactics

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Quiet down you, I know that’s a raccoon. Anyways I felt inspired to make this general callout post after some recent arguments that got me thinking about how people argue. Specifically the tactics people use when they feel compelled to defend the indefensible.

That’s a tough spot to be in, because you can’t just defend it with argument as you would any idea which stands on its own merits. But for whatever reason you’re married to the idea. Because it’s part of your identity, it’s emotionally important to you or whatever else.

It’s much like being the mother of a boy accused of murder. No matter how much the evidence against him stacks up, you’ll defend him to the very last. “He would never do such a thing” you’d wail, “he’s a good boy. A gentle, sweet boy”.

Or like living in a podunk backwater town, but still defending it when people talk trash because it’s where you grew up. Same goes for defending a sports team you love even if they can’t seem to win a game for years on end.

In situations like that, when somebody is emotionally chained at the ankle to something they know they can’t defend in argument, that they make use of a predictable set of tactics designed to disrupt argument. To deflect, confuse, stifle and shut it down.

#1: “Stop bullying me”

Bullying has a very particular definition. Verbal bullying is putting someone down in order to get pleasure from making them upset. This is meaningfully different from when your intention is simply to change somebody’s mind about a topic they feel strongly about, and they become unavoidably upset. Likewise with the most common variant:

#2: “Stop trolling me”

Trolling is an attempt to get a rise out of someone for the enjoyment of watching their reaction. Neither trolling nor bullying is a fair description of an honest question or argument that concerns an inherently touchy topic.

From their “poor me” mindset, perhaps it really does look like you simply set out to be a jerk and upset them for your own sadistic enjoyment. But the fact of the matter is, often times you cannot disagree with people about certain topics without upsetting them, even though that wasn’t your intention.

You might say “But I didn’t use any bad words, nor did my statements include any personal attacks”. But from their perspective, if they feelattacked, then you attacked them, and that must have been what you set out to do. That brings me to number three:

#3: “Why are you attacking me?”

Again, all you have to do in order to “attack” somebody is dispute something they are sensitive about. As an example, a Redditor in a sub I frequent is struggling with a father who’s in an MLM (a legal pyramid scheme) and had a big blow up with him about it.

His father felt personally attacked when his son explained why he feels MLMs are inherently fraudulent and not the golden opportunity they present themselves as. There is no room here to disagree with his father without also unavoidably insulting him, because the implication will be that his father is a foolish person who fell for a scam.

Similarly, if somebody believes that souls exist, and that nobody truly dies but simply leaves their body behind, it may be how they have coped with the deaths of loved ones. There is no gentle, respectful way to dispute that belief because of what it implies about the cherished people they have lost.

Anything except total agreement with their unsupported beliefs will effectively be the same as telling them that their loved ones are lost forever and that they have lied to themselves in order to recover from that trauma. It simply can’t be done without seriously ruffling some feathers.

But they put you into that position by holding an unsupported belief that they require you to agree with. Is that fair? Is it fair to go through life with the expectation that everybody you meet affirm beliefs that are emotionally important to you, but empirically unsupportable? (See: Critical theory and gender). Is disagreement with such beliefs really the same as a deliberate attempt to offend? That brings me to number four:

#4: “You’re being very insulting”

Another variation on the theme, “insult” can mean anything. An actual insult is a personal attack simply meant to be hurtful. But people in a vulnerable position in an argument will often interpret calmly stated disagreement as an insult, because of the implication of saying they’re wrong: That they are stupid, that they are gullible, etc.

But is it reasonable to prohibit people from disputing certain types of claim when they sincerely think it’s false, just because it will unavoidably hurt the feelings of people who dearly wish for those claims to be true? Is it reasonable to interpret simple disagreement, in polite language, as a personal attack? That brings me to number five:

#5: “You’re a bigot!”

This one applies only if you’re judging a group of people because of inborn qualities they are powerless to change, such as race or sexuality. But if you’re judging people for choices they have made, such as belonging to a particular religion or joining an MLM, that’s entirely valid.

If we cannot judge people for their choices, then there is no room in the world for judgement at all. Some certainly try to live that way, but it breaks down when one considers how harmful certain kinds of choices can be for humanity.

#6: “You’re prejudiced!”

This, too, gets a lot of play. Because people who identify with a religion or MLM see how effective accusations of racism are at shutting people up, and want some of that power for themselves. It’s the primary weapon of social justice for example and shows no sign of losing power.

However, prejudice is “pre-judgement”. It’s forming an opinion about a group before you’ve really been exposed to it and come to understand it.

If you have ample exposure to that group (having grown up in a devoutly Protestant environment, attending a fundamentalist middle school and so forth) then it isn’t pre-judgement. It’s just plain judgement, which we must be free to do or we can make no statements at all about anything which include positive or negative evaluation.

#7: “That’s an ad hominem”

This is one of the fallacies that immediately comes to the mind of anybody who took an introductory debate or logic class in highschool and only remembered this one term from it. If you do lose your temper and become deliberately insulting, for shame.

But at the same time, ad hominem does not mean “whoever first insults loses the argument”. Ad hominem is when you substitute insults instead of argument. If you present a valid argument in an insulting way, it’s rude and will likely undermine your efforts to change minds, but it does not qualify as an ad hom.

#8: Exaggeration Strategy

If you want to turn people against somebody you are ideologically opposed to, either take a statement of theirs out of context or paraphrase it in a deliberately exaggerated manner calculated to cause outrage.

This also works with actions; you can take something they’ve done and distort/magnify it to make it more heinous, so long as there is at least some small shred of truth in the accusation. Then you tell as wide an audience as possible about (your version of) the statements or actions.

The people you deceive this way will only be motivated to participate in collective violence or harassment against the target if they are ideologically similar to you, otherwise the statement you chose won’t offend them. In this sense, the ones who react as you intend are self-selecting.

These people, upon discovering you deceived them into carrying out the group violence or harassment, would normally be angry with you. Except that their discovery of your deceit takes place in the context of an ideological conflict. They must choose either to side with you, or the enemy they were manipulated into attacking.

They will not side with the enemy, even though he/she has been victimized, because of tribalism. Depending on how entrenched and embittered they are, they will be intensely unreceptive to accepting that they were the ‘bad guy’ and that the member of the enemy ‘tribe’ was the victim. Every fiber of their being will resist that framing. They would rather forget it occurred than acknowledge any wrongdoing on their part, or even on yours. They may even devise some interpretation of events where their actions were justified in spite of the deceit.

The other factor is, when it comes down to it, people will reliably excuse and forgive wrongdoing of someone from their own tribe if the intention of it was to bring harm to someone from an ideologically opposed tribe. They will rationalize it as having been for a good cause, the same reasoning behind ‘lying for Jesus’.

This effectively constitutes a blank check to incite mob action against individuals from an enemy group based on a deliberate misrepresentation of their statements or actions, because usually by the time the people you’ve tricked discover it, the damage will already be done and none of them will feel any desire to punish you.

Closely related is the strategy where during a debate, the opponent wishes you to cross a line and say something indefensible but you won’t go to that extreme on your own. So they do it for you by paraphrasing something you said a moment earlier with subtle changes which put it over the line, hoping you won’t notice. If you don’t comment on it, they interpret that as your tacit endorsement of their misrepresentation of your position.

#9. Picking at nits

This is where they find a single incidental fault, for example a misattributed or paraphrased quote, a typo or something similar that your argument does not hinge upon. They will then use this as a pretext for dismissing your argument proper out of hand, on the grounds that it’s indication of poor research or dishonesty on your part. This is a strategy used by someone who feels unable to find fault with your actual position, and so must look for some way to automatically discount it based on a technicality.

There’s more (always) but these cover the basics, and mostly belong to a single family of tactics: Pearl clutching. “I’m offended, therefore you did something wrong”. But of course anybody can decide to be offended at any time for any reason. It does not guarantee any belief or organization immunity from critical evaluation.

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