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>
Never has the bar to entry been so low and the recognized benefits so high.
- Learning a new language has been shown to sharpen your cognitive abilities while helping stave off dementia as you age.
- A University of Chicago study found that businesspeople make better decisions when weighing problems in a non-native tongue.
- Juggling multiple languages lets bilingual speakers switch between tasks with less stress and more control than monolinguists.
Don't worry about grammar rules at first. They'll only trip you up.
- Learning a language can be a tricky process, but it's important to remember that it is a process.
- Having learned 20 languages so far, Canadian polyglot and LingQ founder Steve Kaufmann's advice is to not focus on the grammar. Constantly thinking about the rules while attempting to speak only makes it harder.
- Investing time (often several months) into listening, reading, and practicing words before trying to speak a language will help you feel more comfortable with it. You will make mistakes, but you will learn from them and people will be patient with you.
According to a man that knows more than 20 languages, the key is to start in the middle.
- Canadian polyglot Steve Kaufmann says there is indeed a fast track to learning a new language. It involves doubling down on your listening and reading.
- By taking the focus off grammar rules that are difficult to understand and even more difficult to remember, you can instead develop habits by greater exposure to the language. Kaufmann likens the learning process to a hockey stick.
- In the beginning you make major progress as you climb the steep hill of the hockey stick, whereas the long shaft of the stick is the difficult part. Because you're not seeing day-to-day changes, you might lose motivation. So, stay the course by consuming content that interests you.
There are ways to engage with someone with whom you don't agree.
- When you have pre-conceived ideas about a group whose views oppose your own, you risk closing the door to meaningful discourse before it begins.
- "When you demonize those who voted against you then there's no chance of a democratic debate," argues Yanis Varoufakis, former finance minister of Greece and founder of DiEM25. "You've lost it completely. Then you go into a state of civil war."
- Varoufakis says that there are two ways of approaching a difference of opinion: external and internal critiques. Focusing on internal critiques as the more fruitful method, Varoufakis explains how using logic to work through one's assumptions to see if they lead to the same conclusions can open up a pathway to conversation.