Wednesday, April 02, 2008

How to Argue Like a Right-Winger

As a student of rhetoric, I like to read a lot of blogs where people of opposing political philosophies crash together. Very few things make me happier than a huge thread on, say, Pharyngula where one of the usual cre(a)ti(o)nist trolls shows up, ditto the anti-vaccinationists or HIV-AIDS denialists at denialism blog, the usual gang of Deepak Chopra fans, woo-believers, and miscellaneous freaks and flakes who show up at Respectful Insolence. You see about the same things when the Ron Paul brigades were descending en masse onto David Neiwert's Orcinus, and see it there still in the form of anti-immigration types, the usual neo-Nazi nutcases (sorry, David, I'm still chuckling over "fat, ethnically Israeli forehead"), and assorted other off-their-meds hangers-on. The trolls spew things out, and people respond, and the trolls counter-spew, and people respond to those, and you get these marvellous multithreaded arguments happening. It's extremely useful to watch these arguments, because you can see the same tactics coming up over and over again.

So, that said, allow me to present a few of the rhetorical tactics you're likely to see in these sorts of arguments. Watch for them. (You could even make a Bingo card, if you felt so inclined.)

  1. Moving the Goalposts.

    What Is It?   In this tactic, the person using it demands a "burden of proof" (so to speak) progressively farther beyond the original scope of the argument. For example, the RW will say, "You haven't demonstrated X, show me some proof of X," and when people provide that, they say, "But that didn't actually prove anything. Now you need to demonstrate Y," and so on, until people either stop responding or the discussion gets bogged down in tiny irrelevant minutiae.

    Where Do People Use It?    You see this one all the time, especially when talking about "controversial" areas of science. It's commonly found in discussions about evolution. People are going along having a lovely conversation about the vagaries by which living things change over time (because no individual is identical to their parents), e.g. evolution, and some creationist troll pops up and starts demanding that people on the thread account for the origins of life itself (abiogenesis). Pretty soon everyone on the thread is talking about abiogenesis and the various hypotheses surrounding that.

    What Does It Do?    It's basically a technique for muddying the rhetorical waters and derailing comment threads away from the original point of discussion.

    How to Combat It    Use the "I see what you did there" method -- mention that the RW poster is moving the goalposts (for the benefit of the other commenters and readers if nothing else), then stay on topic. If the RW in question is using the tactic to avoid answering an uncomfortable question or addressing a point, repeat the item the RW is avoiding. Above all, encourage other commenters to stay on topic.


  2. The Gish Gallop.

    What Is It?   This tactic, named after notorious professional creationist debater Duane Gish, is also known as the "fling shit at the wall and see what sticks" technique. People using it spew out as many premises in their argument as they can, combining fact, lies, bullshit, and opinion in a non-stop avalanche. A really good example of this tactic is here, where you see a right-winger construct a strawman (we'll get to that) composed of no fewer than six beliefs and then refer to it as one belief.

    Where Do People Use It?    This one occurs most frequently in evolution/creationism debates, but it does occasionally come up in political debates. Denialists of all stripes also seem to be fond of using it.

    What Does It Do?    Essentially, it's a form of "tinfoiling the radar," making it impossible for your opponent to refute your argument because it takes ten times as long to unpack and refute (every single point) than it does to argue in the first place. It's also a great favourite of RW debaters in public fora, because it allows the RW in question to dazzle the audience with bullshit.

    How to Combat It    This is one where you can't really combat it effectively once the RW doing it has the bit between their teeth and has started to run away with the discourse. You can really only combat a Gish Gallop effectively by forcing the RW to stop after each point and refuting the points one at a time. Countering it in a written medium is a little easier, because you can pick apart each claim, but be prepared to write things like the judge's commentary here.


  3. The Strawman

    What Is It?    The essence of this tactic is to set up a caricature of your opponent (most amenable to demolishing by your preferred line of argumentation, of course), then proceed to knock it down. You can see an excellent discussion of this tactic (carried on at book length in the Left Behind series!) at Slacktivist's post "The Imaginary Liberal." Jonah Goldberg's exercise in historical revisionism Liberal Fascism is essentially one long exercise in building strawmen.

    Where Do People Use It?    Everywhere. This one is so ubiquitous, it turns up in discussions of politics, feminism, denialism, crankery, science, economics and everywhere the reality-based mindset conflicts with right-wing ideology.

    What Does It Do?    It gives the RW arguer an "easy score" (against a completely imaginary opponent). It also forces the RW's opponents to have to deny the specific accusations against them.

    How to Combat It    Point out that the RW is using the tactic, for the benefit of the other commenters and the readers. Reframe the argument using positive terms, if possible.


  4. Changing the Subject

    What Is It?    This is probably the most transparent rhetorical trick in the RW arsenal. Basically, when confronted with an argument they don't like, they proceed to talk about something else. More sophisticated RW arguers will make sure that the attempted subject-change is related (but tangential) to the subject. Really clever RW arguers will attempt to cement the relationship between the original subject and the subject of the derailment by drawing an equivalence (usually false) between the two things. (In feminist circles, this argumentation tactic is generally referred to as the "But What About The Menz" gambit.) An example of an arguer using this tactic would be that any time a feminist blog attempts to discuss female genital mutilation, anti-feminist trolls invariably descend and try to change the subject to talking about male circumcision, and almost always attempt to draw a direct equivalence between the two.

    Where Do People Use It?   Everywhere. Changing the subject is often the first tactic RW arguers use.

    What Does It Do?   It essentially derails the discussion, luring commenters into talking about a subject controlled by the RW, and not the original arguer or other commenters.

    How to Combat It    Don't give the subject-changer the control. Stay on topic. Point out the attempt to derail the discussion by changing the subject for the benefit of other commenters and readers.


  5. Conflation

    What Is It?    This tactic is used to generate a long-lasting pollution of terms by confusing two dissimilar things. An example of conflation would be the Bush Administration's relentless linking of Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein in speeches leading up to the invasion of Iraq and afterward. You can see a similar thing happening in John McCain's recent speeches, where he's (deliberately or not) confusing Sunni Iraq and Shia Iran. The tactic works similarly to the sleeper effect, in that over time, the two items can become indistinct in people's minds (similar to how, in the sleeper effect, a viewer's skepticism of a biased source may disappear over time in relation to how persuasive the message is).

    Where Do People Use It?    Conflation occurs when there are two demonised elements in the discussion, so it happens a lot in political discussions (Iraq/Al Qaeda, Iraq/Iran) and anti-vaccination denialism (where the element shifts between "mercury" in vaccines -- until it's pointed out that there isn't really any mercury left in vaccines -- to the more general "toxins"). Oftentimes, both of the demonised elements are treated as equivalent, if not identical.

    What Does It Do?    Conflation is designed to muddy the waters in an argument, to pollute the semantic environment. It's also designed to degrade the meaning of certain terms into meaninglessness, thereby decreasing their rebuttal value. RW arguers often use conflation in conjunction with Moving the Goalposts, for extra rhetorical effect, in essence creating a mass of shifting argumentative objectives overlaid with a layer of ill-defined terms. If the terms of the argument are unclear, the argument is nearly impossible to refute.

    How to Combat It    Point out that the two elements are not, in fact, the same, for the benefit of the other commenters and the readers. Define the terms. Ask the RW arguer to define their terms. Do not allow the RW to set any of the terms of the argument (that is, don't buy into any of their frames).


  6. Projection

    What Is It?    This is another classic of RW argumentation -- basically, accuse your opponent of everything you're doing. As mentioned above, the book Liberal Fascism is also a classic example of projection, as David Neiwert has demonstrated in his series "If conservatives really, really hate being called fascists..." (See the sidebar for links to parts 1-6.)

    Where Do People Use It?    Arguers who are projecting usually use it in ad hominem attacks, or to attempt to cement a conflation. You're pretty much going to see RW arguers using psychological projection in every area of dispute.

    What Does It Do?    It does three things. First of all, it muddies the waters in the argument, by attempting to force the RW's opponents to answer the allegations. Secondly, it turns control of the argument over to the RW. Thirdly, it can be used in conjunction with a number of other rhetorical techniques (such as the Strawman, Changing the Subject, or Conflation) to make them more potent.

    How to Combat It    Point out that the arguer is projecting. Provide evidence that the arguer is projecting, then, where applicable, move back to the original topic. Refusing to allow a projection to become a derailment is particularly important in certain fora, and not so much in others. (In a comment thread, it's important. When dissecting articles by RW arguers that use the tactic, discussing the projection is the topic.) Above all, don't give the RW arguer control over the debate.


There are several others I could have gone into here, but these seem to be the most universal and widely-used. The object to using these tactics is, of course, to prevent people from having productive discussions of topics of their own choosing; it is vitally important to the RW arguer to have control over even fora they don't own, and can be seen as central to the overarching RW rhetorical mission to dominate the discourse to the exclusion of all other viewpoints. (As Jello Biafra says, "You can have right wing or extreme right wing.")

A Short Note On Purpose: The object of this essay is to teach liberals and people in the "reality-based community" how to win arguments. The object is not to persuade the opponent; I'm pretty much convinced that in most cases, that's impossible anyway. The point is to make sure you can answer and deflect the arguments when they appear in various media, whether online, on television, or in print, and rebut them effectively. The RW's opponent, in this case, is not practicing the art of suasion towards the RW, but rather pointing out to the other participants in the discussion why the RW is making a bad/fallacious/untrue argument, and how.

Update: Hello readers from TPM Cafe! If you liked this essay, please bookmark it and come back later, because there will be a Part II. In Part II, I'll be talking about the Ad Hominem logical fallacy, quote-mining, and other hits from the same album. --?!

Update Two: My buddy Spocko reminded me of a post he did quite a while ago called "How to Talk to Wingnuts," which contains many of the same points as in this first pass by the topic, although from a slightly different frame of reference. So, credit where credit is due, as I'm sure I read the post originally. By the way, if you're not reading Spocko, what the hell are you waiting for?

8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most excellent post: it should be printed and handed out to voters everywhere, but especially anyone who has to argue in public

11:20 PM  
Anonymous Hoosier X said...

I've always wanted to write an academic looking guide to logical fallacies, and then have all the examples come from genuine conservative interchanges.

For example:
False Dichotomy - When you suggest that the War on Iraq has been a badly handled mistake that was unnecessary from the beginning, a winger will say "Oh, so we're supposed to not do anything and let the Islamofascists take over? You liberals won't be happy until we are all living under Sha'ria law!"

See, the only two choices are doing something retarded and not doing anything. The average normal rational person can think of dozens of alternatives. The average conservative can only see two.

It would be kind of time-consuming (not to mention depressing) to start going through all the nonsense conservatives have written, so I never put it together.

But this is good too!

2:27 PM  
Blogger Interrobang said...

Funny, I was going to do "False Dichotomy" in the next installment, which I've pretty much figured out I have to write, despite the first one getting out-of-control long and giving me hives to boot.

1:02 AM  
Blogger Dan Gambiera said...

Just a note...

You actually use one of the right wingers' cherished techniques in this post. People Like Us are "people". Those Sorts We Disagree With are "trolls".

Yeah, I'm a left winger myself. That doesn't mean I can't recognize the enemy's tactics when an ally uses them. And you're better than that.

1:10 AM  
Blogger Interrobang said...

Um, no, I'm actually talking about trolls. Some of them are even paid shills for various organisations, like the Republican Party or Generation Rescue. Trolls are defined as people who come onto a forum on the internet and post deliberately inflammatory material specifically for the purpose of shutting down the debate.

I'm not talking about the average person who simply disagrees, although given how assortative the blogosphere is, there are generally fairly few of them. (Have you notice how few of the high-profile conservative blogs actually allow comments, and of the ones who do, how many require registration and will ban users for the slightest disagreement or infraction? Free Republic seems to be a big offender in that latter category.)

I'm also not going to call a deliberately disruptive influence on an otherwise interesting discussion anything other than a "troll," sorry. For what it's worth, one of my favourite commenters on The Panda's Thumb is a self-identified conservative Republican. On the other hand, he sticks to the facts about the subject(s) at hand, and doesn't simply post the same creationist spew that everyone's already heard a gross of dozens of times already. The former is "being people like us." The latter, which is what I've been describing in these essays, is trolling, no ifs ands or buts about it.

10:50 PM  
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3:06 AM  
Anonymous Music for Cats said...

Hey Hoosier X--
Actually, there is an excellent academic study of RW argumentation. Allow me to recommend Albert O. Hirschman's The Rhetoric of Reaction. It's old -- I read it in the 90s, and it was a bit dated then -- but some points about rhetoric are timeless.

6:51 AM  
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