Argument Clinic: Labelling


Is this the right room for an argument?

Is this the right room for an argument?

Labelling is a rather strange tactic in argument; it’s popular but weak and mostly a poor tactic because of the ease with which it can be dragged into verbal nihilism.

Labelling is used in two ways: demonization and well-poisoning. Those techniques are closely related but are different enough that we will treat them separately. In argument clinic, labelling is when one of the players attempts to subtly re-frame the opponents’ view by (usually) dishonestly categorizing it. It’s not quite a “straw man” technique* because, while straw-manning is dishonest, labelling may be a result of genuine ignorance or lack of subtlety in the opponent’s appreciation of an argument.

You say that like it's a bad thing

You say that like it’s a bad thing

An example of one of the most popular forms of labelling in use today is calling someone’s argument “socialist” or “Alinskyite” – which is a demonizing label. “Demonizing” is an attempt to portray something as threatening, immoral, or wrong without actually having to come to grips with the argument itself. Suppose someone were to call this series of postings “Socialist hogwash”: we can tell that’s a demonizing label because it doesn’t actually add any knowledge – what is socialist about this series? In that example,  “hogwash” does more work than “socialist” unless your audience is full of people who have been propagandized into accepting that “socialism is bad” and who are probably ignorant of what socialism actually is. Someone who actually knows anything about socialism would be puzzled by the apparent misuse of the label.

In practice the way labelling works most effectively is with a propagandized audience, who are predisposed to also accept any terms that are thrown at a target. “Socialist hogwash” translates into “bad badness” for a small subset of the population; if they are the target audience then labelling is a worthwhile tactic.

Well-poisoning labelling is a rhetorical tactic that relies on labelling the opposition’s views as bad, hoping to subtly (or not so subtly!) influence the audience by seeding that idea in their minds. It’s a form of propaganda technique, in fact. Abused, it can boomerang badly, by making the abuser’s argument sound pointlessly aggressive or arrogant. Since it depends on making unsupported assertions, it serves to simultaneously erode one’s own credibility while obscuring their actual argument. I had a philosophy professor in college who abused this technique, by formulating many statements such as, “clearly, anyone who has thought about the problem will realize that…” poisoning the well by implying that anyone who disagrees with him has clearly not thought about the problem.**

Here at argument clinic, we don’t recommend use of labelling because you’re seldom likely to be talking to an audience that has been pre-propagandized for you. If you were, you wouldn’t be arguing, you’d be “cheerleading” or, perhaps “preaching to the choir.” If you’re tempted to well-poison with labels, try putting some punch behind your characterization of your opponent, e.g: instead of “tedious” perhaps, “in over 20 pages of explanation, so-and-so repeates their position in three different formulations; perhaps they found the concept so difficult to grasp they assumed you would, too.” As one script-writer once said, “avoid adjectives; show them the scene and let them pick their own.” And for goodness sake don’t attempt to well-poison someone’s arguments as “unclear” using fragmented sentences and nested parentheticals.

The main reason to avoid labelling is because it’s very easy for your opponent to counter-attack back into your label by simultaneously reinforcing their point, while drawing you away from yours. “My opponent has called this series ‘Socialistic’ and thereby demonstrates they know nothing about socialism and less than nothing about this series. In this series we are…” It’s a weak attack that leaves you wide open for a parry and riposte aimed right at a place where you’ve just shown you’re ignorant. One possible effective way to use labels is to take them “meta” e.g.: “I am tempted to call my opponent’s series ‘socialistic’ because blah blah blah … but it’s not that good.” That sets the label on the target while simultaneously preparing it so you can jettison it at any time by appearing to clarify while further harping on your opponent’s failings.

If someone labels you, simply drag them down into verbal nihilism, “what do you mean by that?” and force them to fight trench warfare explaining how the label applies – at which point you can sandbag their entire argument by saying, “No, that’s not what ‘socialism’ is, it’s… (your own definition)” and burn the time they spent trying to make the label hang, while implying they don’t know what they are talking about.

Use labels wisely, they can come back at you

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(* Recall, a “straw man” argument is when you describe your opponent’s view as being something it isn’t, then attack the result. Usually the described argument is weaker than the opponent’s original argument.)

(** If you want to see well-poisoning labels well-worn in internet postings, you can find them a’plenty in Sam Harris or Richard Carriers’ many writings – particularly if they are responding to someone who has disagreed with them about something.)

Comments

  1. Siobhan says

    (** If you want to see well-poisoning labels well-worn in internet postings, you can find them a’plenty in Sam Harris or Richard Carriers’ many writings – particularly if they are responding to someone who has disagreed with them about something.)

    Will you be the next rant of Carrier’s choice in which he precisely demonstrates the effect you’ve predicted??

    /genius

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    … you can find them a’plenty in Sam Harris or Richard Carriers’ many writings …

    This illustrates another argument tactic, often known as the sideswipe. In this case, it depends on the audience having both familiarity with and dislike of both referents’ writings – a gambit which partially fails in my case since I find deep differences in SH’s and RC’s attack styles.

    Though on reflection I doubt you intended this post as a whack at those two from the get-go, having made me wonder about that somewhat distracts from the otherwise consistent thrust of your nominal point…

  3. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#2:
    Though on reflection I doubt you intended this post as a whack at those two from the get-go, having made me wonder about that somewhat distracts from the otherwise consistent thrust of your nominal point…

    I almost didn’t include it at all, but I did because that really is something I’ve noticed in postings by both of those characters. Their style of argumentation is very different, but the well-poisoning technique is pretty obvious once you start looking for it.

    A “side swipe” is a good way to describe it, I suppose. There isn’t a “target” of this piece, so throwing a gratuitous punch in their direction was distracting. It was fun, though, since I’ve noticed that they seem to like to employ that sort of technique I’m sure they’re just amused when they’re the target.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    Marcus Ranum @ # 3; … I’m sure they’re just amused when they’re the target.

    Tell the judge that when responding to your summons to testify in court!

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