There’s a particular kind of dirty rhetorical trick you’ve probably encountered called a Motte-and-Bailey fallacy or doctrine. In case you don’t want to read that whole other post (though it’s good!), here’s the gist: it’s when someone attaches an uncontroversial statement to a controversial argument and switches back and forth as if they were the same thing to pull the rug out from under you. Here’s a fake example to illustrate:

Sue: “All men should have to give half of their income to the Women’s Rights Group of America in order to rectify long-standing inequalities between men and women.”

Steve: “I don’t agree.”

Sue: “Oh, so you don’t think women are people?!”

Steve: “Whoa whoa! No, women are definitely people.”

Sue: “So you agree with me, great.”

Now, that’s an extreme and absurd example, obviously. But you see what Sue did? She made it seem like believing “women are people” and believing “all men should donate half their income to a specific women’s rights organization” were the same thing. The controversial argument is the ‘bailey,’ the place where you actually want to be. The uncontroversial argument is the ‘motte’ – that’s not where you want to end up, but it’s way easier to defend. When someone attacks (read: disagrees) with you, you retreat to the motte, which isn’t where you want to be long-term, but it’s way easier to defend.

Now, on an individual basis people do this all the time, and they often do it with a lot more subtlety and it works often. But that’s not the thought I want to put forth (for more thoughts on that, read that linked piece by Scott). The thought I want to put into words here is that a great deal of well-established institutions in our society have a built-in Motte-and-Bailey that they will often deploy to justify terrible behavior.

For instance, let’s look at higher education. When people defend or advocate for our current university system, they’ll make grand claims about the transformative power of a college education, the human capital improvements, the lifetime returns on earnings from the investment, and the civilizing and even enlightening nature that colleges and universities grant to society at large. That’s the bailey – the position they want to occupy. But like all baileys, it falls apart easily: there’s tremendous research out now that clearly shows that all of that is bunk. Colleges and universities don’t do any of that. (Rather than defend that position myself, check out the research on your own: read Cracks in the Ivory Tower and/or The Case Against Education, both excellent books).

But when you bring up those very real and substantially-supported arguments, those same people retreat to their motte: “So you don’t think education is important?! What, everyone should just stop learning?”

When you look at it like that, the ploy is obvious and you might think that no one would fall for it. But of course, nearly everyone does – because the vast audience for these kinds of public debates just latch onto the motte argument and repeat it: “So-and-so thinks we should just abandon all learning and no one should be educated!” And then you get attacked for that position, even though you don’t hold it, and the whole thing goes sideways.

Law Enforcement is another one. Advocates say that law enforcement is the essential glue of an orderly society. When someone suggests that there are critical, necessary systemic reforms that are needed, those advocates retreat to their motte: “So you just want lawless chaos in the streets, huh? I hope you never get robbed and have to call someone!”

All large institutions have good and bad things they do. Major corporations might provide really useful or essential goods and services to society, but pollute or exploit. Large charities might do real good in their area of influence, but also waste money or manipulate data. Political organizations might advocate for genuinely beneficial societal improvements but also damage the fabric of the political system in which they operate.

When talking about themselves, of course these institutions will always talk only about the good that they do. The bad stuff, even if they don’t want it, might be costly or inconvenient for them to fix. Even worse, they might not want to fix it, as institutions that grow larger over time tend to become corrupt and self-serving by their nature. That means when someone points out the bad stuff, they don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to fight out in the bailey, they want to retreat to the motte, and accuse detractors of wanting to dismantle the good things themselves.

I don’t have a solution; this is a pretty deep problem if I’m being honest. But a small step might be just shining a light on it. It’s good to be familiar with the tools of the scoundrel; maybe you won’t get hoodwinked yourself.

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