Debating etiquette, part 2:  Diversionary tactics

The story thus far …

Debating etiquette serves two purposes: it minimizes unnecessary offence and it improves the quality of a debate. Skilled debaters can tackle complex and emotionally-loaded issues constructively, and make incremental progress toward Truth.

In our last installment, we looked at assertions. There can be no debate without them. If you want to improve your debating skills, begin here:  be precise in wording your assertions and reduce them to their essence before setting out to defend them.

On the other hand, a series of assertions and counter-assertions is not sufficient in itself to constitute a debate.

Today we will explore a negative theme, as we turn our attention to diversionary tactics. If your goal is to win the debate, diversionary tactics are your friend. But if your goal is to discover truth — I hope this is your goal! — diversionary tactics are an obstruction to be avoided.


For the purposes of formal debate, logicians have identified dozens of logical fallacies. (I know, it’s an oxymoron. Fallacies are illogical, not logical. Nobody ever said logicians were … well … logical.)

A logical fallacy will sidetrack your argument. It’s like taking the wrong turnoff from a highway:  when you reach your destination, you discover you aren’t where you intended to be. If your destination is Truth, logical fallacies are a shortcut to la-la land.

Believe it or not, some people will deliberately introduce logical fallacies to the argument. Their only goal is to win the debate, and they don’t care if Truth is sacrificed in the process.

(You thought human beings were inherently good and decent folk? I regret to inform you that you were dead wrong.)

Everyone has heard of some of the classic logical fallacies. These include:

Circulus in demonstrando (circular reasoning)
This occurs when someone uses the very thing they are trying to prove as part of their argument to prove the thing.

Cum hoc ergo propter hoc (mistaking correlation for causation)
This is the mistake of thinking that because two things occur together, one must be a cause of the other.

Non Sequitur
Reaching a conclusion which does not strictly follow from the premises.
If debaters use any of the above, they may be guilty of nothing more than sloppy thinking.

I want to turn our attention to something more sinister:  diversionary tactics. An unscrupulous debater will deliberately introduce these logical fallacies to deflect you into an eccentric orbit. Here are some examples:

The red herring (speculation on the origin of the phrase)
This is the very model of a diversionary tactic. It involves presenting relatively unimportant arguments which will capture your attention like, say, a streaker at a football match. You waste precious energy beating an irrelevant argument into the ground and feel good about yourself the whole while. (Man, I am destroying this guy’s position!) When you recover your senses you realize — too late! — that you haven’t addressed the core issue of the debate.

The straw man (etymology of the phrase)
This involves creating a caricature of an opposing argument, which is therefore easy to refute. The straw man tells us nothing about the merit of the debater’s actual position. Virtually any position can be made to look foolish by pushing it to a ludicrous extreme.

Argumentum ad misericordiam (appeal to pity)
Any argument designed to appeal to people’s emotions instead of their reason. However moving the debater’s rhetoric may be, his or her idea may still be unaffordable, impractical, unjust, or objectionable on some other legitimate grounds.
All of the above fallacies are regrettable, since they may deflect us from our goal. But there is one diversionary tactic I despise above all others:  the argumentum ad hominem. Such arguments are directed at the person (homin- means man) instead of the person’s opinions.

Ad hominem arguments are especially objectionable because they are demeaning and unnecessarily hurtful. In my opinion, debaters should unfailingly treat each other with respect.

Some people are downright nasty in the comments they post on blogs. I think it must be due to the anonymity of the experience. All of us need a certain amount of social pressure to keep the darker side of our natures in check. But we aren’t equally reliant on outside controls. Some people have an inner moral gyroscope that tends to keep them upright, while others are entirely dependent on external authorities to set appropriate boundaries.

Anonymity puts us to the test. If a person is kind and patient in person, but nasty when posting a comment on a blog, which kind of person is she? — the nasty kind. In the absence of social pressure, she reverts to her true nature.

If I am faced with an aggressive and condescending blogger, I will go through a series of steps with him (for simplicity’s sake, I’ll assume the blogger is male):

  1. I’ll try to improve his conduct by setting a good example for him. In my experience, this is surprisingly effective. When people are treated with respect, and presented with a reasonable argument, most of them will rise to meet you at your level.

  2. If that approach fails, I’ll point out the objectionable behaviour, using the most neutral language I can craft. That’s one of the reasons I am writing this series of posts on debating etiquette. It will enable me to sidestep the incipient personality conflict and refer the blogger to a neutral standard.

  3. If that fails … I still won’t sink to his level and respond in kind. Two better options remain open to me:

    (a) I can stop communicating with him. He may be keen on playing tug-of-war, but I don’t have to pick up my end of the rope. This option requires a lot of self-restraint:  I’ll be giving him the last word unless I take the extreme measure of blocking his access to my site.

    (b) I can take advantage of my superior intellect. (I must be smarter than this guy, since he can’t engage me in meaningful debate.) I can slice him and dice him with surgical precision, exacting my pound of flesh without spilling a drop of his blood. To paraphrase a close colleague of mine, The Referee, I don’t have to play the goon; I have talent.

Humour is a particularly effective weapon here. Your adversary is self-important and too earnest by half. Laugh at him and he will quit the field — he won’t be able to cope with it.

Here’s a wonderful example from Bystander, a British magistrate:

Bystander:
Jonathan Miller has followed up his earlier email thusly:-

Miller:
You know perfectly well that magistrates get jobs via party lists – so why dissemble?
What a poltroon you are! But jumped up, all the same. Your little web notice claiming to be engaged in the business of law is frankly pathetic. You are not a lawyer. You are a lackey.
Yours with customary disrespect,
Miller

Bystander:
I am becoming a little worried about Mr. Miller. I think that he might need some attention to his sense of proportion. Still, at least he didn’t call me a drink-sodden popinjay, although that might at least have been more accurate then the rest of what he says.

Commenter #1
I always viewed Miller as somewhat over rated. The only way he gains any real stature is by standing on the shoulders of his own self opinion.

Commenter #2
Wear this dickhead with pride, you’re no-one until you’ve got a single-issue lunatic on your back.
Miller stands one pound lighter, and — OK, maybe there’s a little blood on the floor. Commenter #2 stoops to gratuitous name-calling (“dickhead”). But Commenter #2 also illustrates a key point I’m trying to make:  he refuses to let Miller get under his skin. He laughs him off (this guy validates you, Bystander — wear him with pride).

This is the most effective way to deal with an aggressive and condescending blogger. If you lash out at him, he will just keep coming back for more. But if you laugh at him, he will quit the field.

Next up is my bound-to-be-controversial post on abortion. After that, I will proceed to “Debating etiquette, part 3:  arguments”.


If you’d like a fuller description of argumentum ad homimem and other logical fallacies, this site impresses me as a good place to start:  logical fallacies. I don’t entirely agree with the source’s philosophy, but that’s because we’re writing for different purposes. (He is writing with a view to formal, competitive debates.)

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Q
    May 27, 2005 @ 11:16:00

    P.S. Thanks, Journeywoman, for finding the Bystander site and calling my attention to his exchange with Miller.
    Q

    Reply

  2. Journeywoman
    May 27, 2005 @ 13:48:00

    You’re welcome!

    Reply

  3. snaars
    May 27, 2005 @ 16:59:00

    Good posts, q. I like where this is going.

    I plugged “logic fallacies” into a couple of search engines. (I am sure you’ve done the same.) There are lots of sites out there. Unfortunately, many of the them are pushing an agenda. Very few will offer a good taxonomy of fallacies and nothing else.

    Here are a couple of lists that I think are good:

    Nizkor
    Actually, this site is dedicated to refuting arguments that deny that the Holocaust took place, so, I suppose you could call that an agenda; I think it’s a good one.

    Another good list can be found at Wikipedia – The Free Encyclopedia.
    What a great site!

    Reply

  4. Jack's Shack
    May 29, 2005 @ 16:03:00

    Good post. I have to admit that at times I have used all of the tactics that you listed here.

    I agree that the anonymity of the net has in some ways contributed to a lowering of the bar. It is easier to make nasty comments when you cannot see someone.

    But I would submit that some of the nasty exchanges have taken place because of a misunderstanding. Specifically without facial expression or vocal intonation we have limited means of understanding the meaning behind the words.

    I could post something in jest and inadvertently offend someone who took it seriously or did not understand that sarcasm was not directed at them.

    It requires some thinking in the language we use to try and avoid these types of misunderstandings.

    Good post.

    Reply

  5. Q
    May 30, 2005 @ 09:14:00

    without facial expression or vocal intonation we have limited means of understanding the meaning behind the words.

    Jack, you make a really important point here. I have learned the hard way (i.e., by inadvertently offending people) that I have to be really careful how I express myself in writing — it’s too open to misinterpretation, for the very reasons you identify.

    To turn that idea around, we should be careful not to put the worst possible interpretation on someone else’s comments. In the example I gave, there’s no doubt Miller intended his remarks as a personal insult. But, in general, it’s risky to judge someone’s motives. They may be guilty of nothing more than sloppy communication, so it would be a mistake to come back with all guns a-blazin’.

    Thanks for the insight.
    Q

    Reply

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