There I was, reading an excellent analysis of the Afghanistan situation, and everything was going along swimmingly until all of a sudden out of nowhere the author wrote:
“They say they’re just decrying the way we left; but of course, this is the motte, not the bailey.”
And everything went blank for a moment with the little spinny-wheel going around in my brain while it was buffering, and when I came to, my only thought was: Well. That’s certainly putting the sparch before the batson, isn’t it?
I will admit I’m not a real educated person, herein defined as someone who has learned at least as much as I have, but retained it all. I’m not good at retention. This keeps me from being mired in guilt and regret, but it also means I’ve looked up “hegemony” so many times the internet just falls open to that page now.
But now I’m stranded in the middle of the article feeling stupid. It’s like that time when the guy on Jeopardy answered an obscure question with “Who is the Venerable Bede, Alex?” and I’m all Whut? and sure enough half my friends already knew about ol’ V.B. I figured motte-and-bailey would be the same sort of thing.
So it was with some relief that I discovered that the Motte And Bailey Doctrine was coined only about fifteen years ago. It describes certain kinds of argument that are currently in use, mainly by shitty people. It comes from the motte-and-bailey castle design from the 12th century, in which a bailey (a desirable piece of land) is defended by a stone tower on a motte (a raised earthen mound) and surrounded by a ditch or other impediment to attackers. When pressed, the people can leave the bailey and hole up in the tower on the motte and defend themselves, but nobody wants to live in the stinky old tower, and as soon as the enemy gives up they run back out to the bailey.
In the case of an argument, the bailey is the philosophical position that the arguer wants to promote, often something wacko or repugnant, and the motte is a more easily supported contention that might preoccupy the opponent and make her hem and haw while the arguer runs triumphantly back to the bailey of his original wacko position.
Let’s take an example from (I swear on my mother’s little box of ashes) an actual meme I recently ran across. Evidently the Hammer of God is coming down. The Lord will go to the covert deep places where the “deep state” hides, and they will be visited by thunder, by unending earthquakes, and roaring noises that instill dread and foreboding beyond measure. They will experience bizarre storms and tempests. Devouring fires will rise from nowhere and chase them out of their holes. No doubt about it, the Deep State is in massive trouble with the Lord and we will know it when He steps on Antarctica and gives it a 7.7 earthquake. And if you do not hear about it, it’s because the Deep State runs the earthquake reporting sites and does not want to draw attention to Antarctica.
In this case, the bailey is that the Deep State exists and is in hiding in Antarctica and you can’t believe anything the government says but the Lord’s justice will prevail.
But as soon as you raise that annoying skeptical liberal eyebrow, the arguer runs for the more defensible motte. “Historically, the promise of power has always attracted a share of people bent on corruption,” he says, and while you’re willing to concede that point, you flounder a little trying to figure out which to explain first: how government works, or what causes earthquakes, or who benefits from conspiracy theories about the Deep State. You’re basically baffled, and buffering, and meanwhile your enemy has reoccupied the bailey and planted the flag of triumph.
Don’t let it happen. Screw the seemingly reasonable bait argument. Storm the motte!
That’s my pleeg anyway, but you can follow your own furb.
I've learned something new. Of course, I won't retain it either….
I was still baffled when I looked it up, but now it's starting to sink in, and I'm going to see it everywhere in conservative talking points.
I'm going to need someone to lead me to this and point it out several times before I get it. I blame working. Ruins your brain.
An awful lot of things ruin your brain. I've done 'em all.
Gosh that was a tumble of words but so erudite. I love your blog you just punch at that old world with gleeful prods. Was going to say insanity but thought better of it.
We're never real far from insanity here.
Grok used to be a lesser demon, a plain warrior. Then again, many a true word hath been spoken in jest.
Motte and Bailey is a new term for me. Thank you. The concept sadly is not. It is described as wedge politics here and is all toooo familiar.
I'm trying to think whether wedge politics is the same. Now I smell something burning…
It doesn't have anything to do with Scott and Bailey, does it? Is there some genius screenwriter making a whole series based on this concept?
Just the RNC.
I think I just learned something new. Now I'm trying to figure out if this kind of tactic might have been around forever, known by a different name. It's like 'running interference' while debating, but not quite…..
I'll ask my youngest, who used to be on the debating team at Cal.
Let us know what you come up with!
He said: "I don't know there's an equivalent in formal debating because if you make specious or nonsensical arguments then you open yourself up to critiques on the grounds that you're harming the very institution of debate. But there is a technique called spreading that is simply making as many points and arguments as you can, knowing that it can take more time and effort to refute one than it does to make it. That's the closest thing I can think of that I'm familiar with, though it doesn't quite fit the bill.
There are probably many persuasive techniques they teach politicians for debating that would never fly in a college setting because the rules are different and the goals are different. Demagogues don't attract followers by sounding like debaters."
Was it something about mixing applesauce and Irish cream. Is it the main diet of the Deep State? I'm so confused.
I've read this twice and I am still confused, befuddled, not as smart as I thought I was.
I'm pretty sure it's good enough if you can just drop "Of course, that's the motte, not the bailey" in a conversation.
I DO love Bailey’s Irish Cream.
God, it's been years.
So, if someone opposed to Biden/liberals points out that “even CNN admits the withdrawal was botched,” that’s a motte-ly position designed to allow “conservatives” to romp righteously over every bloody square meter of the Baily/Afganistan, having wrested some small concession from the FACT of our FAILED OOCCUPATION which had been built on that massive WMD lie.
A bait and switch game, then. Is that right? If the withdrawal was ugly, we liberals own the whole 20 years? Cute trick.
I believe you've got it. Here's the article I read.
What did Sullivan mean by the "Blob"?
Also called 'gas lighting'. I can scarcely stand it lately. Do not tell anyone, but I took a day off work to stay home and process tomatoes. I just needed to be away from foolheaded people for a time.
Tomatoes can do that for a person.
I think more people should process tomatoes.
I have yet to learn how to can anything. I'm sure there will be several blog posts about it if ever I do.
PS Gaslighting, which it's taken me a while to understand, is a bit different. You gaslight someone when you tell them things that aren't true, that make them question their own reality and lose their moorings. The motte is a reasonable-sounding stance that most anyone can agree with, and while you're agreeing with that, more or less, the arguer claims the territory of the much screwier stance he wanted in the first place.
I can tomatoes all the time! I frequently have to rejigger my schedule in order to hold "an emergency canning session." This year we had a bumper crop early on, but they seem to be petering out early this year. No matter; we got plenty.
Murr, it's really easy if you have a pressure canner. Pressure cookers/canners now are MUCH safer and easier to use than the ones from decades ago that everyone is leery of.
I read your first line all wrong. I thought: she can tomatoes, but how do you tomatoes? I think I might not bother as long as canned tomatoes from the store are so cheap. But you never know.
We grow them, and generally get more than we can use fresh. Fortuitously, I came across an almost new pressure canner at a garage sale the very year we started growing them. It was easy to do, and since we don't have a large freezer, it's a space saver. Also, we get power outages around here when we have bad storms, and I don't need to also worry about whether I'll lose my stock of food. I have a running list of things to worry about, and really don't need to add another thing to it….
A new term for me also. But highly useful! Thanks for explaining, especially in a way that will help me remember, which is probably the most useful part. I'm always reading good stuff, but it leaks out of my mind within about a day, generally speaking.
I already don't remember what I wrote.
My computer just crashed.
Sorry! Unstorm the motte!
Just Wonderful. Thank you Murr, thank you all.
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