Online debaters are eagle-eyed spotters of such phenomena as straw man arguments, the middle ground fallacy and appeals to anecdote or authority. If you are not already familiar with the term, you may like to add the ‘motte-and-bailey’ dishonest debating tactic to your arsenal. This term, explained here in an excellent post by US blogger Scott Alexander, derives from the layout of a Medieval castle:
[T]here would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along.
So the motte-and-bailey doctrine is when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you claim you were just making an obvious, uncontroversial statement, so you are clearly right and they are silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.
Soctt Alexander offers many good examples of the phenomenon, and a recent statement from the EDL provides a useful reminder of the prevalence of the tactic in counterjihadist (and even some secularist) discourse. Certain groups and individuals employ rhetoric which demonises all Muslims, admit under scrutiny they only meant ‘some’ Muslims – and then revert to type when you have stopped paying attention. The EDL was definitely relaxing in the bailey when it broadcast this New Year’s Day tweet about a demonstration in Luton:
wishing you all a happy New Year from all of us stay safe tonight and avoid travelling or eating in muslim owned businesses
see you all in 2015 No Surrender to Islam
On this occasion Islamophobia Watch’s response seems reasonable enough:
So the EDL ushers in the new year with a call for a boycott of Muslim-owned taxi companies and Muslim-owned restaurants.
Yes, that’s the same EDL whose mission statement declares that the organisation was formed to oppose “the shocking actions of a small group of Muslim extremists”, announces that their aim is to resist the “religiously-inspired intolerance and barbarity that are thriving amongst certain sections of the Muslim population” (emphasis added), and piously warns against making “the unjust assumption that all Muslims are complicit in or somehow responsible for these crimes”
Returning to Soctt Alexander – at the end of his post he introduces the mirror image of the motte-and-bailey – the ‘weak man argument’.
Weak-manning is a lot like straw-manning, except that instead of debating a fake, implausibly stupid opponent, you’re debating a real, unrepresentatively stupid opponent. For example, “Religious people say that you should kill all gays. But this is evil. Therefore, religion is wrong and barbaric. Therefore we should all be atheists.” There are certainly religious people who think that you should kill all gays, but they’re a small fraction of all religious people and probably not the ones an unbiased observer would hold up as the best that religion has to offer.
I spotted a variant on this dishonest technique in the discussion under Lucy Lips’ latest post on Yusuf Chambers and iERA. A commenter made this pathetic plea:
Now can the persecution of iERA & muslims stop?
This was an attempt to distort a specific criticism of iERA into an indiscriminate attack on all Muslims, to cast liberal secularists as bigots, just as the EDL (sometimes) fails to distinguish between the widely divergent understandings of Islam to be found amongst British Muslims.