confidence: I think I'm on to something

(I'm posting this publicly because I'd like it to get passed around for corrections, both nitpicky (typos, thinkos) and important (glaring errors in logic). I need to whip up a better title for it, too. Corrections appreciated.)

Prior reading:

It bothers me when other people use a troll’s truism in a discussion. It probably bothers you, too. A person uses a troll’s truism when he claims something bold and, when his audience rejects his claim, reformulates his claim into something innocuous and asserts that the reformulation is a restatement of the initial, rejected assertion.

Now, when someone deploys troll’s truisms out of unthinking habit or tactical choice, this is referred to as motte-and-bailey doctrine. Someone adheres to motte-and-bailey doctrine when he regularly puts forward an expansive claim (the bailey), and, if the expansive claim isn’t accepted, retreats to a more defensible position (the motte).

At the end of the post, Alexander points out one of the problems inherent in debating a broad-ranging idea (in this case, feminism). Finally, he has a good suggestion to help avoid motte-and-bailey switches in the middle of a conversation:

So what is the real feminism we should be debating? Why would you even ask that question? What is this, some kind of dumb high school debate club? Who the heck thinks it would be a good idea to say “Here’s a vague poorly-defined concept that mind-kills everyone who touches it — quick, should you associate it with positive affect or negative affect?!”

Taboo your words, then replace the symbol with the substance. If you have an actual thing you’re trying to debate, then it should be obvious when somebody’s changing the topic. If working out who’s using motte-and-bailey (or weak man) is remotely difficult, it means your discussion went wrong several steps earlier and you probably have no idea what you’re even arguing about.

Unfortunately, this only works when there are a small number of people involved — no more than two or three. If the discussion is happening at your (anti)favorite social-networking site, you might have an argument structure like the following:

  • A, B, and C all believe and argue for bailey β
  • D, E, F, and G all believe and argue for motte µ
  • H, J, and K all believe and argue for bailey β′,
    which is close to, but not quite the same as, β
  • L and M both believe and argue for µ′,
    which is close to, but not quite the same as, µ

In a situation like this, you can’t press the caps-lock key and shout “STOP EQUIVOCATING BETWEEN β AND µ!” You’re dealing with a bunch of different people who’ve formed their own opinions at least somewhat independently of each other. You’re being motte-and-baileyed, but not necessarily because this is a deliberate strategy[1] being employed by A, B, C, H, J, or K.

If you’re anything like me, you’d like a solution to the problem of being subject to a distributed troll’s truism attack. Unfortunately, I don’t have one. One cannot make A, B, and C all agree with either D, E, F, and G. For that matter, you can’t make them agree with H, J, and K.


  1. Extra-credit assignment: Design a bailey/motte pair to advance your favorite cause. See to it that some people will believe the entire bailey, while others will find the mere motte most persuasive. Ensure that bailey-believers and motte-believers congregate in the same spaces. ↩︎

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The concept of a distributed troll attack helped me with my mental health first. This in turn improved the quality of my discussions. Here are some insights and abilities that helped me.

  1. Don’t assume that person A is using their motte argument to justify person B’s bailey. This is conspiracy theorizing, and a recipe for alienation and poor thinking. Don’t make others responsible for your own anxious thought patterns.

  2. Bailey arguments are sometimes actually used as poetic shorthands, not as practical beliefs. For example, I have a friend who claimed a while ago that stones are conscious. We had an argument, then dropped it. Later the same thing got brought up, and I realized that she really meant that it’s a helpful spiritual practice for her to occasionally pray or express gratitude to animals, plants, and the earth. So, motte and bailey or just concise poetic language? Well, my friend is a poet, so...

  3. Baileys are sometimes shibboleths, not conspiracies. They reveal your passion for the motte, and suggest that you’re also a subscriber to many other beliefs and cultural practices. Everybody picks up on the nuanced and sensible motte from shared cultural practice.

  4. If somebody’s been using a bailey in the context of social understanding, or as a shibboleth, then has an outsider take them literally, they may forget they don’t mean it literally. Sucking people into fighting a losing battle they didn’t choose isn’t victory, it’s manipulation.

  5. Some people really do literally subscribe to the bailey. They are often people who lack a certain level of social intelligence. They can be very smart in other ways.

Learning how to screen for 1-4 is an ongoing challenge for me. It helps me diagnose #5 when I see it, but I often get confused. This tends to lead to alienation and bickering. I don’t think it’s dark arty to use this awareness to throw out the correct shibboleths, to finally create space for the sensible discussion you actually want.

This is good cop / bad cop applied to argumentation.

There is another, quite common and devious, way to split Motte and Bailey. The Motte is the definition actually used operationally, while the Bailey is the cover story used when this is questioned.

Aristotle called this the fallacy of equivocation. If we remembered everything we already knew, we would be unstoppable as a civilization. Koestler pointed out (in Sleepwalkers) that in 1000 AD (now called CE) we knew less math than we knew 1200 years earlier.

Agreed; I made a similar point here.

I think the distributed troll attack concept has helped me with my mental health first. This in turn led to better discussions.

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