Disguising extremism as common sense

Opinion by Claire Zabel
May 7, 2015, 8:05 p.m.

We have noticed at Stanford and beyond an increasing reliance on a number of argumentatively lazy tactics that we’ve discussed in previous articles. However, there’s one especially insidious phenomenon that is perhaps even more common, and more damaging, and it can be found in almost every social movement around.

But first, a little history. In some medieval castles, when enemies breached the first line of defense, the inhabitants would retreat from the outer courtyard (the “bailey”) to a tower on top of a mound (called the “motte”) where they could take refuge and shoot arrows at the enemy until the hostile forces gave up. After doing so, everyone would return to the more pleasant and productive bailey, secure in the knowledge that the motte would protect them if another attack were made. Mottes were safe but economically useless, and baileys were profitable but vulnerable. For best results, both were necessary.

That’s why philosopher Nicholas Shackel coined the term “motte-and-bailey” to describe the rhetorical strategy in which a debater retreats to an uncontroversial claim when challenged on a controversial one. The structure goes something like this: First, someone makes a controversial statement from what blogger Ash Navabi calls the “courtyard of ideas.” Then when that statement, the bailey, is attacked, the speaker retreats to the motte, the place of “strict terms and/or rigorous reasoning”—claiming that she was just making an obvious, uncontroversial point, one that could not possibly be challenged by any right-minded individual. Finally, when the argument has ended, she will go back to making those same controversial statements—the argumentative bailey, having successfully fended off all attackers. The point is to defend a controversial idea by systematically conflating it with a less easily-assailable one.

Psychiatrist and blogger Scott Alexander popularized the term, and noted its seeming ubiquity in public debates. Alexander uses as an example some feminists who “constantly argue about whether you can be a real feminist or not without believing in X, Y and Z and wanting to empower women in some very specific way, and who demand everybody support controversial policies like affirmative action, affirmative consent (bailey),” or in Stanford’s case, policies like mandatory expulsion for students found responsible for sexual assault. But then if one pushes back on the effectiveness of those controversial policies, suggesting that if feminism requires supporting those specific policies then perhaps he or she should not identify as a feminist, these feminists object: “But feminism is just the belief that women are people!” (motte), an uncontroversial claim, but one that doesn’t directly support the controversial proposals. Then once the person hastily retreats and promises he or she “definitely didn’t mean women aren’t people,” those feminists get back to the bailey, insisting that everyone support affirmative action and mandatory expulsion laws.

One could (and many do) just as easily use this argument to defend a plethora of political and social beliefs. For instance, one could make the claim that libertarianism is simply the notion that people should be entitled to as many freedoms and liberties as possible in order to justify drastically reducing environmental regulation. Or, to take a more concrete example, consider much of the rhetoric surrounding the wars in the Middle East. Often when vehement supporters of those wars are challenged by anti-war protestors or people who generally think America spends too much on defense, they respond with the same tired motte “but don’t you support our troops?” Certainly we would agree with this uncontroversial statement; we do support our troops. However, supporting troops obviously doesn’t necessitate supporting a particular war in a particular set of circumstances. This kind of rhetoric was used to justify unnecessary and expensive wars that are widely considered to be patent failures.

It is easy see how this tactic is applicable to nearly any argument one could make; the retreat to the motte at any sign of attack is a manipulative rhetorical trick to brand the opponent as unreasonable when in fact the opposition may not be unreasonable at all.

Of course, that’s not the end of the story. It’s easy to spot a motte-and-bailey when it’s pointed out, but much more difficult in the midst of a heated discussion. And, while one should be wary of the motte-and-bailey, other, less disingenuous tactics look somewhat similar. Not all mild beliefs secretly cover for more extreme ones. Additionally, uncontroversial examples can be used to expose principles that should apply in more controversial or unfamiliar situations. Animal rights, for instance, includes the uncontroversial idea that it’s wrong to allow animals to be tortured to death. The extension of that principle is that therefore you shouldn’t buy meat. However, if one tries to indoctrinate an extreme view as inseparable from a less extreme, commonly held view, when in fact those views have two distinct meanings and implications, then he may be guilty of this rhetorical trick.

When the motte and bailey tactic is most dangerous is when it stands in the way of legitimate, balanced deliberation and debate. An argument that relies on this rhetorical ploy–that gets to avoid defending its weakest points, and obscures differences and logical links between different beliefs–is exactly what we need to avoid. In order to formulate intelligent policy, we must seek to elevate reason over rhetoric–and always be wary of the motte and bailey.

Contact Claire Zabel at czabel ‘at’ stanford.edu and Joseph (Joey) Zabel at joezabel ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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