This medieval-themed meme highlights a shady yet all too common rhetorical move people make in arguments.
- The "Motte and Bailey Doctrine" was developed by philosopher Nicholas Shackel.
- It describes a rhetorical move in which an arguer advances an indefensible opinion, but when challenged falls back upon a similar yet easier-to-defend opinion.
- Motte-and-baileys have become a weapon of choice in political and culture-war arguments.
Credit: MotteAndBaileyMemes<p>The "Motte and Bailey" meme is sort of confusing at first glance. But once understood, it provides a good way to visualize bad arguments by highlighting a shady rhetorical move that seems especially common in political discourse. </p><p>Here's an example in a hypothetical argument about homeopathic medicine:</p><p><strong>A: Homeopathic medicine can cure cancer.<br>B: There's no evidence showing homeopathy is effective.<br>A: Actually there are many ways for people to be healthy besides taking doctor-prescribed drugs.</strong></p><p><em></em>Spot it? Person A started with a bold and controversial opinion that's hard to defend (homeopathic medicine cures cancer). But when challenged, they retreated to an uncontroversial argument that's much easier to defend (prescription drugs aren't the only route to good health).</p><p>Person B would probably agree: Sure, there are many ways to be healthy besides drugs. But then, having deflected the first attack, Person A could go right back to arguing for homeopathic medicine as a cancer treatment.</p>
Credit: MotteAndBaileyMemes<p>In 2014, the psychiatrist Scott Alexander <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slate_Star_Codex" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">(not his real name)</a> helped popularize the motte-and-bailey doctrine after writing about it on his blog <a href="https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/11/03/all-in-all-another-brick-in-the-motte/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Slate Star Codex</a>, a popular rationalist hub. Alexander wrote:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"[The doctrine] draws its strength from people's usual failure to debate specific propositions rather than vague clouds of ideas. If I'm debating "does quackery cure cancer?", it might be easy to view that as a general case of the problem of "is quackery okay?" or "should quackery be illegal?", and from there it's easy to bring up the motte objection."</p><p>Overlapping with the Slate Star Codex community is a subreddit named after the doctrine called <a href="https://www.reddit.com/r/TheMotte/" target="_blank">r/TheMotte</a>, which describes itself as a place for people to "test their ideas in a court of people who don't all share the same biases." The subreddit calls on users to "always attempt to remain inside your defensible territory, even if you are not being pressed."<br></p><p>And then there are the memes. It's unclear who created the first one, or when, but since at least 2018 people have been posting motte-and-bailey memes to critique the often-shoddy ways in which people argue about issues ranging from immigration, to the problems of capitalism, to ideas about truth.</p>
Credit: MotteAndBaileyMemes<p>Motte-and-baileys aren't a new phenomenon. But it does seem like they're becoming a rhetorical weapon of choice in political and culture-war arguments.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I think [the motte-and-bailey doctrine] is a very useful concept to have in my arsenal of concepts to analyze what's going on," Kenny Easwaran, philosophy professor at Texas A&M University and co-editor of the Journal of Philosophical Logic, told <a href="https://www.realclearinvestigations.com/articles/2020/06/19/the_motte__bailey_political_joustings_deceptive_new_weapon_from_the_middle_ages_124084.html" target="_blank">Real Clear Investigations</a><em>. </em>"It's behavior we've seen, but we see so much more of it now."</p><p>It's hard to say why. You could blame the <a href="https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-08-13/nuance-memes-protests-ideas" target="_blank">fall of nuance</a>, <a href="https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/268982/impact-increased-political-polarization.aspx" target="_blank">increasing political polarization</a> and the <a href="https://www.valleycenter.com/articles/the-year-of-motte-bailey-arguments/" target="_blank">absence of a middle ground</a>, and the <a href="https://www.openpolitics.com/tag/social-media-incentives/" target="_blank">tendency of social media to incentivize tribalism</a>, to name a few. </p><p>It's also worth considering how motte-and-baileys change when they include moral claims. For example, it's one thing to pull a motte-and-bailey to advance an argument about, say, 18th-century economic theory. But hot-button issues change the game. Take debates <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/30/sports/track-gender-rules.html" target="_blank">about transgender and intersex athletes</a> as an example. </p><p>An argument might unfold like:</p><p><strong>A: Every transgender athlete should be able to compete in whichever gender category they identify with.<br>B: Wouldn't that give some athletes an unfair or even dangerous physical advantage?<br>A: Transgender people have been discriminated against for too long, it has to stop.</strong></p><p>Everyone agrees with the motte: transgender discrimination should stop. But notice how it becomes much easier to advance the bailey when the motte is a sensitive moral claim that's (rightfully) taboo to disagree with? </p><p>You might have good arguments against the bailey. But if it's tied to a sensitive motte, you might decide it's not even worth challenging. After all, it can be costly to your reputation to even look like you're challenging a sensitive motte, even if you're actually questioning the bailey in good faith.</p>
Credit: MotteAndBaileyMemes<p><br>You can see this play out in political arguments. For example, a Trump supporter might argue for unprecedentedly harsh immigration policies at the U.S./Mexico border. (That's the bailey). If someone challenges that position, the Trump supporter could shame them for being unpatriotic, considering immigration reform is part of the Make America Great Again platform, and who doesn't want to make America great (motte)?</p><p>Similarly, someone might question Black Lives Matter's goal of disrupting "the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement" (bailey). They might get a reply like: "What, are you trying to argue that Black lives don't matter (motte)?"</p>
Credit: MotteAndBaileyMemes<p>It might sound like motte-and-baileys are always easy to spot. But as Alexander wrote on <a href="https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/11/03/all-in-all-another-brick-in-the-motte/" target="_blank">Slate Star Codex</a>, "all fallacies sound that way when you're thinking about them."<br></p>
Scientists have proven that small talk with coworkers leads to stronger team cultures and better collaboration.
- A recent Rutgers study has found that although small talk in the office can be distracting, employees and employers alike gain far more from these seemingly trivial interactions than we lose.
- Non-work banter can lead to more cohesive culture and higher-quality output.
- To deliver output with a higher value, you need to view productivity through a different lens, one that has leeway for freeform discourse.
Not just trivial chat<p>Of course, every office is likely to have at least one or two curmudgeons who perceive all small talk as meaningless chit chat, and we're all better off letting these people do their thing unfettered. However, when taken across an entire workforce, the positive benefits for the organization start to stack up. </p><p><a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/reality-mining/200911/the-water-cooler-effect" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">One study by MIT</a> found that office small talk promoted cohesion among employees, even in regimented environments such as call centers. </p><p>There's even reason to believe that teams come up with the best ideas when they are shooting the breeze, as opposed to working on ideas. "We have this very rich vocabulary to describe moments of inspiration," noted "Where Good Ideas Come From" author Steven Johnson in <a href="https://www.ted.com/talks/steven_johnson_where_good_ideas_come_from" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">his 2010 TED Talk</a> of the same name.</p><p>"All of these concepts, as rhetorically florid as they are, share this basic assumption, which is that an idea is a single thing. It's something that happens often in a wonderful, illuminating moment. But, in fact, what I would argue and what you <em>really</em> need to begin with is this idea that an idea is a <em>network</em>."</p><p>Showing a slide of William Hogarth's 1755 painting "An Election Entertainment," Johnson noted that "This is the kind of chaotic environment where ideas were likely to come together, where people were likely to have new, interesting, unpredictable collisions, people from different backgrounds." Sounds like something hard to accomplish when we're relegated to individual bubbles. "So if we're trying to build organizations that are more innovative," Johnson concluded, "we have to build spaces that, strangely enough, look a bit more like this."</p>
"An Election Entertainment," William Hogarth
Wikimedia Commons<p>In 2017, IBM, one of the original pioneers of remote working, <a href="https://qz.com/924167/ibm-remote-work-pioneer-is-calling-thousands-of-employees-back-to-the-office/" target="_blank">recalled workers</a> to the office in a bid to promote better collaboration and improve organizational agility. Ryan Holmes, founder of the social media management tool Hootsuite would no doubt agree with the strategy. He <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/ryanholmes/2017/12/11/how-2000-random-coffees-changed-my-companys-culture/#5f3d226c4ffc" target="_blank">credits</a> a cross-departmental initiative matching employees for coffee dates with having transformed the culture of his company, creating a mindset of open conversation.</p> <p>All this underscores the role that seemingly trivial conversations can play in building a company culture based around trust and communication. This type of culture is the most <a href="https://www.greatplacetowork.com/images/media/2018_millennials_report_3.0.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">critical driver</a> for employee retention among the notoriously transient millennial generation. </p> <p>However, many of us are now working remotely for the foreseeable future, and there is a <a href="https://diginomica.com/traditional-office-dead-major-change-ahead-workplace" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">lot of talk</a> that the traditional office may be consigned to history. </p> <p>So what does this mean for small talk and even more importantly, overall employee wellbeing and productivity? </p>
A risky proposition<p>Pandemic-induced remote working practices mean that employees are working <a href="https://voxeu.org/article/covid-19-teleworking-and-productivity" target="_blank">longer hours</a> than ever before, promoting an "always-on" culture. Despite a significant increase in working time, around <a href="https://digital.com/coronavirus-employee-work-from-home-productivity/" target="_blank">30 percent of U.S. employees</a> report being less productive than they were before the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. Neither is this an American phenomenon – a <a href="https://voxeu.org/article/covid-19-teleworking-and-productivity" target="_blank">study from Japan</a> shows similar worrying trends.</p><p>Of course, there are confounding factors at play here. Many employees are caring for or homeschooling their children alongside their daily work. Some won't have an appropriate home office setup or decent connectivity. The overriding feelings of anxiety brought on by the pandemic and its far-reaching implications will also be affecting many people. </p><p>But the sudden change also means that many employees have seen a sudden drop in work-based interactions. The chances are that the majority of leaders are probably unaware of the productivity benefits of small talk, and even those that were aware may not have done much to address the issue. After all, the shift was sudden, and nobody knew how long it would last. </p><p>Either way, the loss of office social interactions represents a risk for companies. Employees may become disengaged, and productivity will drop even further. A company culture of trust and transparency can become that much more nebulous with distance. </p>
Redress the balance<p>Given it seems likely that remote working is here to stay, at least for now, then employers and employees can take some simple steps to help promote social interactions and engagement between remote workers. </p> <p>First of all, make sure that the channels of communication remain open, even if the <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/videoconferencing" target="_self">communication there is indeed inferior</a> to being in the same room. Most companies operate a chat-based communication system that supports audio calls, video or both – whether it be Slack, Skype, or MS Teams. Create a dedicated channel that's only used for social interactions, and start using it and encouraging others to do so.</p>
Keep talking small<p>The suddenness of the shift means that employers and employees alike are having to get used to the new normal very fast. But small gestures can go a long way towards achieving a sense of normalcy, even if employees are locked out of their everyday office environment. </p> <p>Even those who are considering a more permanent shift to working at home should be mindful that losing out on small talk and trivial interactions holds far more risks than benefits to net productivity.</p>
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