Argument Clinic: Dirty Deeds



Sometimes, you encounter an annoying person who is not arguing honestly with you; someone who just wants to show you how clever or tenacious they are.

Is this the right room for an argument

Actually, they are tedious, not clever, but your problem then becomes a matter of explaining that to them.

What we have here is a meta-strategic problem, so we generally should turn to (and quote from) Sun Tzu, who had something simple-sounding and obscure to say about every strategic situation:

There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare. – Sun Tzu

You should interpret that to mean, “that annoying person on the internet is going to remain annoying. Realize that they will be so, and realize that engaging in endless warfare with them will not defeat them, or the internet.”  Therefore, the best thing to do is to quickly defeat them and move on. Defeating an enemy, in this case, means removing their ability to annoy you. All paths to that involve controlling their ability to get to you.

He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious. – Sun Tzu

This is another way of saying “pick and choose your ground.” If you are playing into your opponents’ strengths, you must be as strong as Godzilla and as immovable as a mountain. If your opponent is playing into your strengths, you can deliver crushing victory even if you are minimally competent. The good strategist will assess whether or not their opponent is one that can be handled, before taking the time to gird one’s loins for battle. Sometimes it is best to stay on the couch.

In terms of internet warfare this means (unfortunately) making a realistic assessment as to whether or not your opponent will leave things on the internet. Or, are they the kind of person who may show up on your doorstep, or engage in a years-long stalking campaign? It’s hard to know whether that’s the kind of person you are dealing with, of course, until after it’s too late. But, you must give it some thought, because you have two main lines of strategy: 1) make them go away gently  2) slam the door on their toe

Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win – Sun Tzu

The only difference between making them go away quietly and slamming the door on their toe is that they will be much more motivated to knock the door open again if their toe is in it. If they are vengeful or obsessive, they are more likely to obsess over the toe. If you’re confident that you can take them, always, then go slam away. This is what Sun Tzu means about “win first, then go to war” – you must decide on your victory conditions, and know a clear path to them, then you can invite your foe to battle. Another way of putting this is: play with a rigged deck. Or a coin with heads on both sides. Or be the asian in a land-war in Asia.

Once you have defined your path to victory and are certain you can walk it, then you can start by irritating the living shit out of your opponent: tell them what you consider “winning” to be. This frames the battlefield for you and not only gives you a head-start toward victory, it may give your enemy a precursor of what is to come: you’ve just told them “I am going to kick your ass and then moonwalk out of here.”  To do this, you must be confident that you have adequately rigged the deck. Otherwise, you have just made your own defeat much more horrible and humiliating.

The expert in battle seeks his victory from strategic advantage – Sun Tzu

Define your victory as an engagement on a battlefield where you know you can win. See what I mean? Sun Tzu, himself, is telling you that if you’re fast and your opponent is slow, you want to fight them in a duel of speed. If your opponent is fast, then make them tire themselves out. The only thing you need to fear is if your opponent has snookered you and they are actually, swift, strong, and smart and were just acting the fool to lure you in to crush you. If that happens, you get crushed.

Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug. Sun Tzu would say that you need different strategies in either of those situations.

Now, to internet duelling: the most important thing you can do is choose your ground. If you’re unwilling to trade in abuse, a moderated forum where someone who gets abusive, gets banned, is a good place to be. The best – the very best – is a forum in which you control the vertical and the horizontal. For example, a strategy of “get the last word in” is not going to work very well if you’re going against the owner of a blog: they can just delete your comments or even edit them, and you can’t do anything about it.

Against the self-important, attack their self-importance. – Me

There are several strategies I encounter fairly frequently on the internet, and they are variations of the same thing. Sometimes they are variously called “sea lioning” but I don’t particularly like the label.

Collectively, these strategies involve:

  • Veneration of The Last Word (persistence)
  • Veneration of Maturity (tone trolling)
  • Accusing the opponent of intellectual dishonesty (fallacy ‘splaining)
  • Accusing the opponent of ad hominem (fallacy ‘splaining)
  • Trying to make the opponent lose their temper (tone trolling)
  • Diversion from topic (red herringing)
  • Diversion via labelling (red herringing) – i.e.: calling someone a “liberal” and turning the discussion into a referendum on a strawman of liberalism

Those are some rough labels, but you’ll notice that they all involve a lot of words that are intended to be variously diversions, attacks against the opponent’s honesty, and trying to be the last person standing on the field because everyone else has gouged their eyes out from boredom.

The worst part about an opponent who has mastered those tactics is that they’re baseline tactics available with a central nervous system: you don’t have to be particularly smart, or educated, or erudite, to bludgeon away with comment after comment after comment. If you’ve noticed – those are internet debating tactics that are popular with science-deniers, alt-woo woos, religious fundamentalists, and authoritarians. After all, if you’re an authoritarian follower, you likely can’t put together a sophisticated argument, because your superior hasn’t given it to you to regurgitate.

How to handle it? As Sun Tzu says: attack their strategy. First off, you must control the vertical and the horizontal or they will be able to endlessly divert the discussion to their safety-zone. Then, patiently point out a couple times, aiming directly into their strategy:

Sealion: “I would like to have a civil conversation about your statement.”
Me: “I never promised you civility. And since you’ve come onto my blog, my rules apply.” [stderr]
Sealion: “Would you mind showing me evidence of any negative thing any sea lion has ever done to you?”
Me: “I never offered evidence. Perhaps my disliking of sealions is on purely aesthetic grounds.”

None of this matters. Why? Because I’m going to let that go on for a while then post a comment that reads something like:

Me: “I’ve decided to delete all your thoughtful comments because I think they’re a waste of my time. So, g’day.”

One time on the Frontier Designs Elite Dangerous forum, a fellow started the opening moves of a sealion-style maneuver against me. I checked quickly: do I control the vertical and the horizontal? Yes: as the owner of the thread I can delete comments, and I can edit my original posting or delete it entirely if I want to. So I engaged for a while. The sealion responded with – I kid you not – a couple comments totalling several thousand words of text. Unopposed, the sealion began making incorrect inferences and began labelling people on the thread. [Elsewhere in Argument Clinic we discuss Labelling: stderr]  A simple destroying parry [Argument Clinic: Destroying Parry: stderr] served only to incite dozens of follow-up comments, going on for pages. So I posted back a comment:

Me: “This seems very important to you. But it seems like a minor disagreement about terminology.”
Sealion: “Terminology is important!! (2 pages of gleefully hammering home points already aired)”
Me:  “Well, since this is my thread and I think you’re boring, I’m going to delete all your comments.”

Boom.

Of course, I blocked them, too, which triggered them doing a posting about what a horrible human being I was, which then got them banned from the site for attacking another member.

As you know, here at Argument Clinic, we’re big fans of going “meta” so that’s always an option. You can try to slice directly into their arguments by categorizing them, as I did above, and attempting to preempt them individually. That’s an option if you’re a very patient person who has a lot of free time and good carpal tunnels. Preemptively categorizing your opponents’ prospective lines of attack is a form of well-poisoning attack and I generally consider them weak since an opponent with moderate situational awareness will step around your labels. At the point when you are up against that kind of opponent, you need to acknowledge that they are basically “Black Knighting” you – which is to say: the Black Knight never admits defeat and tries to win by attrition.

President Trump excels (because he is stupid and it’s his only option) at the black knight’s tactics: simply keep at it and keep at it until eventually your opponent realizes that they are in an endless loop with a complete jackass.

You must realize that many sealions’ strategy is to be the last person left holding the field. That’s all they have, really, so they’re prepared to be patient and infinitely tenacious. That’s why you must make sure you control the vertical and the horizontal before you engage with them.

 

 

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This post is dedicated to Becky’s friend Bill K, who will probably never read it.

“Frontier Designs Elite Dangerous forum” – specifically: a straightforward whine in response to a comment I made about gender representation in games, “oh, you social justice warriors are taking the fun out of everything…”  Oh, really? Yawn.

Comments

  1. says

    For example, a strategy of “get the last word in” is not going to work very well if you’re going against the owner of a blog: they can just delete your comments or even edit them, and you can’t do anything about it.

    It’s amazing, really, the sheer amount of people who don’t get this very simple point. I’ve had people show up, who I have warned repeatedly, and they just carry on until I take that ability away from them. Unbelievably annoying.

  2. says

    Caine@#1:
    I’ve had people show up, who I have warned repeatedly, and they just carry on until I take that ability away from them.

    … and then the muted howls of “freeze peach” from some other corner of the internet.

    You pray Voltaire’s prayer too much. So do I, for that matter. But in my case, the lord has ignored my prayers – it’s almost as if it’s random or something.

  3. says

    Marcus:

    it’s almost as if it’s random or something.

    I get the sense it’s a bit more pernicious than that. Of course, we’re surrounded by a tide of idiots these days. I just posted a couple of vids of democrat speakers at the LA Pride Resist March, and the fuckin’ comments, oh. Idiots, on repeat.

  4. polishsalami says

    If a blogger deletes or edits blog comments, or deletes entire posts, isn’t that an admission of defeat?

  5. says

    polishsalami:

    If a blogger deletes or edits blog comments, or deletes entire posts, isn’t that an admission of defeat?

    How? You can only argue something so many fucking times; you can only warn so many times; you can only take the same old shit on repeat so many times.

  6. Siobhan says

    @polishsalami

    There are many reasons to do that, though. I don’t let hate speech through my blag, no matter how well reasoned, because that’s a condition of participating in my space.

  7. Siobhan says

    (Though it’s worth noting hate speech typically employs the tactical manipulation Marcus discusses in his Argument Clinic. Gish gallops are about scoring points, not being correct.)

  8. says

    polishsalami@#4:
    If a blogger deletes or edits blog comments, or deletes entire posts, isn’t that an admission of defeat?

    No, it’s a demonstration of power. Demonstrating power is never an admission of defeat.

    Edit: Sorry, I had to give the 2017 reply, because it’s 2017.

  9. says

    Shiv@#7:
    Gish gallops are about scoring points, not being correct.

    That reminds me, we need an Argument Clinic about Gish Gallops.
    I’m not sure what’s the best strategy to deal with those, really, other than to control the vertical and horizontal, or to have the moderator on your side so they can keep saying “Mr Trump please stay on topic.”

  10. Reginald Selkirk says

    Siobhan #7: Gish gallops are about scoring points, not being correct.

    Gish gallops are made with the assumption that every unchallenged statement earns points, and every successfully challenged statement is forgotten. My usual strategy is to pick a few easily refutable statements, and refute them. Meanwhile, I drive home the point that every false statement earns negative points, and the person delivering the false statements is is therefore undercutting his claim to be a reliable source. I.e. even the points I didn’t find time to take on should not be trusted, because the source is not trustworthy.

  11. invivoMark says

    Marcus@9:
    That reminds me, we need an Argument Clinic about Gish Gallops.
    I’m not sure what’s the best strategy to deal with those

    As a former member of a high school debate team: talk real fast.*

    * Not actually recommended outside of high school debate teams. There are better strategies.

  12. says

    To invivoMark

    As a former member of a high school debate team: talk real fast.*
    * Not actually recommended outside of high school debate teams. There are better strategies.

    Yeah, I also developed a habit of talking rather fast while participating in university debate tournaments. But I find this a bad strategy even for competitive debate tournaments. Unlike in real life, in tournaments I expect adjudicators to be experienced debaters and thus able to better evaluate arguments. But when people start talking really fast, it becomes harder to understand and follow their arguments, and even experienced adjudicators have their limits. I have witnessed countless debates where the fastest talking person managed to make their speech hard to understand and thus lost the debate. Also, whenever I am the adjudicator, I make the final decision about who won based on my notes. If somebody’s talking speed vastly exceeds my ability to make a note about every point they mentioned, that is bad news for them. It’s a better strategy to talk in a reasonable speed, choose your words wisely and refute every arguments as effectively as possible, with as few sentences as possible.

    (I was debating in British Parliamentary debate format in various debate tournaments all held in European Union. If you used a different format somewhere else, it might have been different for you.)

  13. sillybill says

    That’s great if you own the blog. But what if you’re just another commenter?
    I also must admit a little confusion about ‘controlling the vertical and horizontal’, how would that concept be generalized in a non internet argument way?
    Interesting post, I’ll go back and look at the other argument clinic articles.

  14. says

    My strategy is simply not to get involved in such discussions at all. If I do, I will 1) waste my time; 2) get irritated. Neither is desirable. Of course there are people who participate in such discussions for a living (for example, those who argue against Christian apologists), and then all that’s left is to brace yourself and hope that you won’t run out of patience.

    That reminds me, we need an Argument Clinic about Gish Gallops.
    I’m not sure what’s the best strategy to deal with those, really, other than to control the vertical and horizontal, or to have the moderator on your side so they can keep saying “Mr Trump please stay on topic.”

    There are various ways. Which one to choose depends on who are your listeners.

    1. Simply ignore all the silly claims, don’t refute them. Instead talk about the important points. This is what I always do when participating in British Parliamentary style university debate tournaments. Limited amount of time means that I simply cannot tackle all the nonsense anyway. Besides, debate rules for adjudicating demand that adjudicators must ignore such nonsense too. They can count an argument only if it is both 1) reasonable, factually true, 2) well explained. Gish Gallop has neither, so an experienced adjudicator will simply dismiss it. This tactic also works during real life debates where you have well educated audience capable of understanding that some claims are simply bullshit. Just start your speech with some witty words about how your opponent just made lots of silly claims, state that these claims are too dumb to bother refuting them, and then move on with your speech and talk about the important points.

    2. Tackle all of these claims and actually refute every one of them. Yes, it’s tedious, it’s boring, but if your listeners are dumb enough to take such claims seriously and believe the nonsense, then somebody has to refute it all…

    3. You may get lucky and find some underlying faulty premise, which is common in all the separate faulty arguments, which ties them together. This way, by destroying one faulty premise, you simultaneously refute multiple arguments. It’s great when this can be done, but don’t count on always being lucky. Alternatively, all the faulty claims may have something in common, something you can exploit to tie them together.
    For example, let’s consider these claims: 1) how comes there are still monkeys; 2) human eye is too complex, it couldn’t have evolved; 3) fossils were created during Noah’s flood. Instead of refuting each claim separately, you can just explain what we know about evolution, thus refuting all these claims simultaneously. Unfortunately, a smart galloper will add to the list: 4) I heard God’s voice speaking with me; 5) God saved my mother during a car accident and that was a miracle; 6) universe couldn’t appear out of nothing, 7) science does not know everything; you cannot know that there is no God. If that happens, you are back to options one or two.

    Incidentally, an especially nasty tactic is to intermix some filler junk claims together with valid arguments. Then you have to be attentive enough to discern, which claims are obviously junk, and which ones are worth refuting. In essence you have to predict, what the adjudicators/audience will think about each claim and which ones they are likely to consider as valid.

    What I said so far applies when you have a debate format, where each side is given a limited amount of time to make their speech and there can be no interruptions during the speeches. You have to sit still and wait until your opponent is done with the junk.

    With other debate formats things get a lot more interesting. During a conversation you just don’t allow your opponent to create a pile of junk. You attack the moment they are finished with the first claim/argument. In debate formats, which include a moderator, this person can also do the job of forcing the galloper to slow down.

    If it’s a conversation in online comments, I would either 1) quit the discussion; 2) make a comment where I just drop a pile of links to other sites with relevant refutations. Nowadays online you can find refutations for any arguments, which saves a lot of time typing. I know both tactics are lazy and won’t convince anybody, but let’s be realistic – the discussion wouldn’t go anywhere regardless of how I respond, so I might as well not waste my time.

  15. John Morales says

    Ieva Skrebele:

    My strategy is simply not to get involved in such discussions at all. If I do, I will 1) waste my time; 2) get irritated. Neither is desirable.

    Each to their own, I suppose.

    Me, I like to have fun.

    There are various ways [to deal with Gish Gallops]. Which one to choose depends on who are your listeners.

    Or, as Marcus noted, “As you know, here at Argument Clinic, we’re big fans of going “meta” so that’s always an option. You can try to slice directly into their arguments by categorizing them, as I did above, and attempting to preempt them individually.

    In this case, one could respond by noting that a Gish Gallop has been employed.

    There are multiple ways one could proceed from that, such as noting that if all the claims are true then only one is necessary so that the others are otiose.

    (Arguing is fun!)

  16. sillybill says

    @Ieva Skrebele,
    Thanks, great suggestions.
    I’ve wondered what kind of rhetorical lasso you’d need to rope a Gish gallop.

    PS. Since Sun Tzu was cited, who’s translation do folks prefer? I’ve carried a tiny Shambala version in my backpack for 12 years now. I’ve seen dozens of versions.

  17. says

    sillybill@#16:
    Since Sun Tzu was cited, who’s translation do folks prefer?

    I prefer the Roger Ames version, with the new pieces of the text that were discovered in 1973. It’s a lovely edition and it has some thoughtful commentary as well as the original texts and a bunch of history about the book.
    [amazon]

  18. says

    Dirty deeds indeed. The enemy is a collection of uses of instinct and we are past the point where the sides in this cultural conflict started creating insults. Exhausting other people socially is a common tactic and I see in the way people get harassed. In our corner of the internet it was people asking for harassment policies at conventions, asking that rape be taken seriously as a general topic, and often just basic social respect as a group.

    It’s not just getting the last word, which is rational since we tend to remember the beginnings and endings of events more strongly. It’s volume of text, specificity of language, severity of language, intensity of language, willingness to connect accusations to connections that can be investigated and more.

    Tone trolling is one example (and I see trolling as a felt state because trolls often divide into people who intentionally and unintentionally trigger a conflict). That is an accusation of doing it the wrong way. It feels wrong somehow, or bad somehow. The problem is that many kinds of basic human behavior feel bad as a general characteristic. Criticism for example. In a social conflict where there are people literally trying to increase the social acceptance of rape one will expect to be seeing some severe language about how one talks about rape in public (and more positive examples of working with bigots, I’m biased because I’m a better shamer than an enticer, but I am trying to practice where useful and appropriate). Multiply that by other people dealing with other categories of active or passive bigot. I’d like to think that is a pretty objective description of a world that deals with bigotry.
    I’ve discovered that you can be a really effective shamer in this social conflict when you are white and male and raised in an aggressive culture. It’s not straightforward and there are many ways of doing it wrong. Above all you have to make damn sure that it’s useful and that they feel good about what you might do. Acting like a homophobe might be secretly gay for example. That propagates the feeling of homosexuality as a contagion. You are mirroring what gay people have experienced and are literally preserving that social tool in our culture. We have advantages when it comes to attempts to control tone. The culture and use of language is programmed into us. Don’t be ignorant and impulsive about it.

    The ad hominem one tends to amuse me because of all the ways of pointing out that you can be insulting and presenting relevant information, argument or other substantive content. I think that’s Tourette’s Syndrome relevant (social insult processes) but I’m going to try to be careful about how casual I am with that here. General language as much as I can. It’s irrational defensive use of socially respected ideas. In my experience pointing to the insult is rare and explaining how it undermines the content rarer still.

    Labeling and insulting characterization application are synonyms to me in many parts of this conflict.

    I’m unsure about Intellectual dishonesty. What is an example of that here?

    Diversion is a basic feature when it comes to the effects on perception and attention in many specific examples of how the language has been playing out.

    @sillybill
    There are places where one can find advantages in any social conflict, but knowledge, resources and background are things I want to respect. I’m going to mention some things that work for me, but knowing little of your background it’s difficult to be more specific about the social conflicts you experience so I apologize if this is not so useful. It’s possible I may be more useful with more information though. One problem is too often people in general have to get used to acting aggressively and being rational, getting a night’s sleep before responding to things, having people look at things you are thinking of saying, and other things. It does privilege me in strange ways to have has to spend my life dealing with what gets called a neurodevelppmental disorder or “condition” that resulted in willpower with respect to social aggression and I try to respect that.

    I find that the basic fact that someone else is socially communicating before you to be very useful because when someone acts in a fashion perceived to be aggressive or attacking in overt public social communication. Demand they justify that shit, especially if you are part of the more dominant culture. If they are criticizing in a public forum are you are part of that forum and you get to be concerned about reciprocity at large and what’s going around coming around.

    An insulting characterization is still an insult. You do not treat those parts the same. An accusation of racism can be articulated as can someone feeling merely insulted by being called a racist. The characterization matters in a social justice context and the insult is statistically unavoidable. White people need to be supportive of a general social ability to make an accusation of racism, and there are many similar places to support a general ability to point out bigotry. (As a bonus it improves how you feel about the world and boosts your accuracy and efficiency in many places to root out stuff. I like to tell some bigots that based on how they interact in language they are statistically certain to be an asshole.) Misogyny alone and individual encounters is a trivial assumption in feeling insulting at some point so I like to keep on asking questions that get more and more into what is motivating them.

    There is a place where the presentation of reality can be flipped into what is really going on. What we think of as intensity and tone is part of that. The place where irritation becomes anger that can become rage (and other ranges for fear, disgust and surprise related things). When done right it does not matter if they get the last word. The audience has gotten the message that you want.

    Sometimes you can make it so that answering makes them look bad. If someone responds “why should I care about what you are saying?” in a pure show of defiance you can respond with “it’s not about should with you, you respond therefore you care”.

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