Argument Clinic: Just Joking


Saying something nasty and following it with “I’m just joking” is a form of verbal abuse that’s passive-aggressive. I.e: it’s semi-concealed aggression, intended to give the target pause as to whether or not they can successfully counter-attack.

Is this the right room for an argument?

Is this the right room for an argument?

It’s a technique that can be employed in a strategy of verbal abuse but succeeds if it’s fairly consistent, and only then against unsophisticated targets.

The problem with passive aggression is that it’s intended to masquerade conflict as something else: bad humor. So, one failure mode is that your opponent (and anyone listening in) are going to think you’re un-funny and a bit of a jerk. The other is that your target portrays you as a coward and there’s no counter-move to that play. Here’s why: by saying “I’m just joking” you’ve already partially refuted yourself and you’ve done it before your opponent even had to parry or launch a riposte. It’s not even a feint* it’s more like a head fake – your opponent doesn’t need to do anything to defeat your attack, but you’ve left yourself open for a riposte. In other words, it’s pretty much always a bad move.

There are always exceptions, of course. One possible use for passive/aggressive verbal abuse is if your target doesn’t appear to know how to respond to it, and lets it slide. Then you can do a sort of “death of a thousand cuts” by attacking over and over and fading back if it looks like they’re going to engage. In theory, you could make them look bad by flipping their shit** at you, but that has relatively small value. I’ll try to cover pyrric tactics like provoking the opponent into an outburst in future clinics. They’re weak moves and if you’re going to attack, why use a weak attack? You’re not playing pattycake, you’re out for blood!

You can see how weak passive/aggressive attacks are just by examining the counter-attacks they’re open to.

First, and foremost is the stop-thrust***: as soon as the attacker says “just kidding” you snap, “no, you’re not.” You have a tiny amount of time in which to assess whether their attack is something you can hang around their neck and beat them with, and if it’s not, you use a different response. If, however, they’ve said something you want them to own, come back with “no, you’re not…” and then you can follow it with a huge variety of ripostes such as “… and I think that’s a perfectly awful thing to say.” or “… and you’re lying again.” (if they are making an untrue invidious comparison) or you can go “all meta” on them with the wonderful, “… and I think you’re just saying that because you’re being a passive/aggressive coward. Look, if you want to verbally abuse me, just come out with it and let’s get started already! Or maybe you’ve actually got an argument you want to make, instead of lame self-deprecating ‘jokes’?”

If you don’t use a stop-thrust then it’s best to pick them apart slowly with meta-analysis. “Now, it seems like you’re being passive-aggressive. But don’t you realize that when you say ‘I’m just joking’ that you’re refuting your own words as fast as you utter them? It’s not funny, it’s dishonest and if there was a joke here, it’s on you.” Meta-analysis is great because it contains an implied put-down: look how much more intelligent and rational I am. Calm and analytical is the best tone, since the battle is probably not fully engaged yet. But it will be soon, because by doing a passive/aggressive attack your opponent has invited you to bring the battle to them, given you an opening, and given you your choice in line of attack.

They have thrown away the initiative and you can hammer on them like they’re a floorboard.


(* A feint is when you draw your opponent’s blade out of line by launching an aborted attack, then changing your timing and either driving the attack home – a remise – or starting a different attack.)

(** “Je m’emmerde!” – another old French fencing term)

(*** More fencing: a stop thrust is a short thrust into your attacker’s sword-wrist as they attack you. In most competitive fencing, it amounts to barely moving your hand, while dropping your point onto their wrist and watching them rip their arm to pieces against your entire body-mass behind your point. If you’re nice you’ll drop your arm as soon as you have the hit.)

Comments

  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … it’s best to pick them apart slowly with meta-analysis.

    Arguably, this whole post, possibly this entire series, boils down to these nine words.

    But that’s just me, going meta again…

  2. tbtabby says

    If you make an offensive remark to me and then say “Lighten up, it’s just a joke,” I’m going to hit you upside the head and say, “Lighten up, it’s just slapstick.”

  3. John Morales says

    Pierce:

    … it’s best to pick them apart slowly with meta-analysis.
    Arguably, this whole post, possibly this entire series, boils down to these nine words.
    But that’s just me, going meta again…

    Seeing as the series is an analysis of rhetorical techniques, that’s a trivial claim.

    But I think Marcus here means to express that in that particular circumstance, the retort itself should be the exposition of the meta-analysis, rather than being informed by it.

    A problem with this technique is that to employ it is to introduce a new argument which itself can be either disputed or meta-analysed.

  4. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#1:
    Arguably, this whole post, possibly this entire series, boils down to these nine words.

    Well, that is the idea. By the way, I think the strategy to use when someone accuses you of going meta- is to destroy both sides’ vocabulary with nihilism, which is pretty much a discussion-killer. (it worked for Plato’s Socrates)

  5. says

    John Morales@#3:
    I think Marcus here means to express that in that particular circumstance, the retort itself should be the exposition of the meta-analysis, rather than being informed by it

    You are correct. Sorry to all if I was not clear.

    A problem with this technique is that to employ it is to introduce a new argument which itself can be either disputed or meta-analysed.

    That’s true. I’m not sure where I’d go, in that case. If I were feeling dishonest I might accuse my opponent of trying to change the subject and make it about me (which would be accusing him of what I just did, which is a popular technique among politicians)

    It’s hard to get too deep into offensive rhetorical tricks without becoming a sophist.

  6. John Morales says

    Marcus,

    A problem with this technique is that to employ it is to introduce a new argument which itself can be either disputed or meta-analysed.
    That’s true. I’m not sure where I’d go, in that case.
    […]
    It’s hard to get too deep into offensive rhetorical tricks without becoming a sophist.

    It’s certainly a complication, but not necessarily an offensive rhetorical trick.

    That said, if it’s a digression from the actual argument, it’s easy enough to dismiss it as irrelevant.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    John Morales @ # 3: A problem with this technique is that to employ it is to introduce a new argument which itself can be either disputed or meta-analysed.

    In a structured debate, that can create a weakness.

    On the street/in the bar/etc, it causes confusion, which you can use to diffuse/defuse the issue or harass your opponent, depending on your meta-goal.

    Marcus Ranum @ # 4: … the strategy to use when someone accuses you of going meta-…

    Taking it another step meta is cheap, easy, and usually fun. Jumping back to some specific claim also usually leaves the other guy flat-footed. It all depends on the opening(s) available at that moment.

  8. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#8:
    I think I’ll cover linguistic nihilism next. It’s really meta and obscure and it puzzles the hell out of me, to be honest. I’m looking forward to seeing the commentariat’s take on the topic.

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