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.