An Inconvenient Truce


World War I Christmas Truce in a later illustration by Angus McBride
British and German soldiers hold a Christmas truce during the Great War, by Angus McBride (1969)

You already know this story.

On Christmas in 1914, English infantry entrenched on a field in Flanders witnessed the crowns of makeshift Christmas trees begin to peek above the earthworks across the no-man’s-land. Then, over the chilly air, they heard heard the Germans singing their most treasured contribution to the Christmas repertoire – Franz Gruber’s Stille Nacht.

The English, who remain to this day unnervingly and unswervingly committed to caroling culture, were not about to let the Germans win a caroling competition. And so it was that Silent Night rose up to meet Stille Nacht on Christmas Day some 107 years ago. This accidental antiphony led a small but growing number of soldiers to leave their trenches to exchange a day of good will with their enemies. In some cases, they shared more than a day. This is true. This really happened. The truce, the haircuts, the exchanging of gifts and tobacco, all of the things you’ve read about, watched and listened to on podcasts – they really happened.

OK, the fabled soccer game in No Man’s Land you have read about only probably happened, but it is too good of an image to discard for lack of hard evidence. That is true for the whole series of events, I suppose. All of it makes for an extraordinary, almost unbelievable image. It has stuck with us for a very long time now. It will be one of our stories for much longer.

Swords into Plowshares is a powerful meme.

Memes are the building blocks of narrative, and the Christmas Day Truce served several narratives at once. The truce represented our recognition of shared humanity, even in those against whom we were fighting. It represented the specific circumstances of the early months of the Great War, in which there was genuine confusion as to what interest individual soldiers and nations had in the conflict in the first place. And it represented a general perspective that wars served the interests of the great and powerful at the cost of the lives of the masses.

For each of those reasons, it should be easy to see why we so often tell the story of the Christmas Day Truce in 1914.

For the same reasons, it should be easy to see why we do not tell the story of Christmas Day Truces in 1915, 1916, 1917, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943 or 1944. It is not that informal truces did not take place at various places on fronts in each of those years. Such is the power of this meme that, even in the wake of years of increasingly violent and desperate warfare, those truces did still happen in some locations from time to time. On Christmas, it is very hard to see someone playing your favorite game and singing tunes you’ve loved since you were a child and not recognize their humanity. It is impossible not to wonder why only the day before you had both been intent on killing one another with terrifying new weapons.

We don’t talk about those other truces for two reasons: first, because countries and their leaders realized after 1914 that allowing such a powerful meme to humanize the enemy was counterproductive to their war aims. Government ministries cracked down heavily on the publication of reports of any subsequent truces, shifting their existence from public knowledge back to private knowledge. Second, we don’t talk about many later truces because military command among practically all of the belligerents made a special point from then on to schedule Christmas Eve raids or, at the very least, to engage in artillery bombardment or steady machine gun fire to prevent the rising of audible carols.

In short, the most powerful political missionaries and their media surrogates simply commanded that there would be no more Christmas Day Truce narratives. Perhaps this reminds you, as it did me, of what Erich Maria Remarque famously wrote through the words of his protagonist in All Quiet on the Western Front:


A word of command has made these silent figures our enemies; a word of command might transform them into our friends.

Paul Baeumer in All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque

The capacity to simply command the birth or death of a narrative is, of course, an extraordinary thing, a feature of wartime and the inherent nature of command within a military leadership hierarchy. Yet in every sort of stark political conflict that has devolved from a coordination game to a competition game, the leaders of each faction have the same obvious incentive to maintain our mutual rage. They have the same incentive to suppress our instinct to recognize the humanity in those who oppose us. Outside of tightly controlled social markets like, say, Communist China, however, they lack the ability to effectively command that this be the case.

In order to focus and maintain our rage, then, tribal missionaries must instead frame pivotal political issues as narratives which simultaneously reinforce in-group bias and out-group bias. In other words, a common feature of competition game politics is necessarily the transformation of every pivotal issue into one that frames the in-group as reasonable and unjustly attacked, and the out-group as insane and hypocritical.

Sound familiar?


Gent Gravensteen R01.jpg
Source: Gravensteen, by Mark Ryckaert

About an hour’s drive east of the no-man’s-land in Ploegsteert, where the most famous of the Christmas Day Truce events took place, there is a castle called Gravensteen.

Gravensteen, located in the Flemish city of Ghent and pictured above, is now reimagined as a gothic fairytale sort of place, but when it was built in the 11th century, it was a castle very much like many others in the region. Its design was intended both to project power and provide adequate protection for the local lord. It is called a motte-and-bailey castle.

The typical motte-and-bailey castle consists of two parts: the motte and the bailey. Complicated stuff, I know. The motte is a steep hill or raised earthworks upon which a small keep or fort is installed. The bailey is an area outside the motte, typically enclosed by a palisade wall, typically jutting to only one side of the motte, and sometimes further encircled by a ditch, moat or other natural fortification. That is where a small town of support buildings, manufactories, shops and residences would have been located. In the case of Gravensteen, the need for a moat was greatly reduced by the presence of the River Leie, and over the years the wooden construction of the keep and palisade alike gave way to stone fortifications.

The concepts behind a motte-and-bailey castle are simple. The high vantage point of the motte is useful for defense and early warning of threats. The dirt used to dig a ditch or moat can be used in turn to raise the motte. Multiple stages of retreat – from fields to bailey and bailey to motte – permit useful defensive military strategies to be employed.

So why are we talking about earthworks and castles in Flanders?

In 2005, Nicholas Shackel, now Professor of Philosophy at Cardiff University, published the wonderfully titled The Vacuity of Postmodernist Methodology. In the paper, Shackel first coins the term “Motte-and-Bailey Doctrine” as a means not of describing medieval defensive structures, but as a means of describing arguments which put forward an aggressive and perhaps controversial premise that the arguer finds attractive. This is the bailey. When that premise is challenged, that person puts forth a second, infinitely more sensible and defensible premise that is at least partially related to the first. This is the motte. They then intentionally conflate the sensible premise with the aggressive one.

The analogy of convenient retreat from an attractive position (the bailey) to a less attractive but more defensible position (the motte) while treating the two as one and the same is quite useful. Shackel was especially annoyed with the tendency of certain postmodern philosophers and theorists to put forth absurd claims, only to retreat to more popular and defensible ones that they treated as synonyms. It can be put to all sorts of other nefarious uses, too, however.

Let us say that you wished to make your opponent in an argument seem foolish and unreasonable. Well, then simply accuse them of doubting the popular and defensible premise whenever they attack the aggressive one. Or, let us say that you wished only for the argument to be over and won. Retreat to the motte and, once your opponent weakens his opposition to the more reasonable point, declare victory for your bailey premise! After all, it seems that he finally accepts what you were saying all along. If he protests, well, it seems like he just wants to argue with you. For shame.


In these illustrations and in Shackel’s original paper, the motte-and-bailey doctrine is an argumentation technique. More to the point, it is a fallacious argumentation technique that defeats any attempt to reach a logical outcome. And it does so in pure service of winning the argument. For that reason, the motte-and-bailey doctrine is also fabulously useful as a means of framing dialogue in a political competition game – and in more ways than even Shackel originally envisioned.

In polarized politics, framing issues using the motte-and-bailey doctrine still serves the original purpose of making extreme positions seem reasonable and attacks on those arguments seem unreasonable to the in-group. Yet the existence of mottes-and-baileys also permits each political pole to point exclusively to the baileys (the most aggressive premises) of the opposite side when it is useful to caricaturize their platform as extreme. Sometimes that caricature will not veer very far from reality. Sometimes they will be worlds apart. In all cases the caricature will represent an imperfect but politically useful abstraction.

Have you ever wondered how it is possible that we often manage to judge those aligned with us to be almost uniformly reasonable, sensible and sane? How the hypocrisy, extremeness and dishonesty of our opponents know no bounds? We know in our minds that, since demographics and geography are perhaps the two largest drivers of political alignment, that an argument in favor of such moral alignment with tribal membership would inherently imply that we believe moral behavior is unevenly distributed by demographic traits and geography. Absurd on its face. Yet time and time again, we suspend our disbelief.

Powerful narratives have a way of shutting down our brains, you see.

But that is the point.

Keeping us enraged is the point.

Forcing us to abstract our opponent into a caricature of dishonesty and bad faith is the point.

Ensuring we don’t have time to consider our opponent’s humanity is the point.

Learning how to spot the motte-and-bailey rage generation machines that surround us is the only way to weaken their hold on us.


The Mottes-and-Baileys of Critical Race Theory

Parent power is fighting back in the US as new group Fight ...
Source: Reuters, Evelyn Hockstein

If someone told us a year ago, with everything else going on in the world, that THE wedge issue in local elections in 2021 would be Critical Race Theory, I think it would have come as quite a surprise. But that is exactly what happened in many states across the country.

If you are blessedly unfamiliar, Critical Race Theory is, at least in an academic sense, the argument that preferences for Americans of European descent have been directly and indirectly embedded in the structure, laws, conventions, traditions and institutions with which all citizens are forced to interact since the country’s inception. Before you panic, this will NOT be a deep dive into the Reality World of CRT. If you are a masochist or have not been already subjected to attempts to auto-tune you to the ‘correct’ political position for your particular tribal affiliation, you can find dozens of those essays elsewhere. My aim is not to tell you that any of the perspectives you will read are wrong, but to highlight how – in Narrative World – they are being framed by each political pole to create a powerful wedge issue far more than they are being built to influence any outcome in Reality World.

The first motte-and-bailey belongs to the Blue Tribe.


There is absolutely strong missionary effort within the Blue Tribe to promote the premise that racism should be thought of not as the prejudicial actions of an individual but as the opposition to policies to dismantle our systemically biased institutions. For many, this is an earnest belief built on confidence in the ubiquitous and overwhelming presence of these underlying biases. For many others, it is a convenient and powerful political argument that allows any disagreement with an underlying policy platform (e.g. perhaps you think the premise that all institutions are systemically biased on a racial dimension is begging the question, or that defunding police is a bad solution to a real problem) to be framed as a racist act.

Americans of many stripes are queasy about redefining racist, the most memetically powerful label in American society, from ‘someone who acts with prejudice against a person because of their race‘ to ‘someone who doesn’t support the race policy aims of the Blue Tribe.’ The motte, on the other hand, is almost universally acceptable. Sure, there are probably (OK, definitely) some Americans that are truly opposed to learning more about the 1921 Tulsa Massacre or widespread 20th century lynchings, about telling the unvarnished truth about complicated men like Thomas Jefferson, or considering the long-term lingering economic effects of slavery, segregation and denial of basic civil rights. But by and large, these are considered entirely reasonable within nearly all American political circles.

All of which makes conflating the two in a motte-and-bailey argument even more powerful.

Yet the Blue Tribe motte-and-bailey is not only useful to the Blue Tribe. It is an incredible tool for the Red Tribe. Most members of the Blue Tribe believe in good faith, I think, that racism IS embedded in our society in many ways; however, I think that most probably would NOT sign on to the idea that you must want to dismantle capitalism or defund police or abolish prisons in order to not be a racist. Yet within the Red Tribe, it is a gift to be able to create a caricature of Blue Tribe members in which they do believe precisely those things.

The corresponding Red Tribe response to CRT has been a motte-and-bailey with an equally aggressive premise, largely built on the attractive ability to caricaturize the Blue Tribe as America-hating Marxists. The premise involves the now widespread belief among Red Tribe missionaries that the solution is state- and district-level laws banning certain curricula relating to CRT principles (or often basically anything that mentions race at all). In some cases, such as the order in Texas, the specific remedy was bizarrely prescriptive and proscriptive, for example, banning teaching that “slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States.”

Still, where resistance is met, the Red Tribe motte is perfectly sensible and equally powerful as a disarming strategy. All we are asking for is that our kids not to be shamed by their teachers for something they can’t control and that they had nothing to do with. All we want is to be able to wave our flag and love our country. Is that too much to ask? It is a conflation of the reasonability of the motte with the policy of the bailey that has made the bailey policies very successful in many states and municipalities.


Of course, as it did when the shoe was on the other foot, this becomes an In-Group consolidation tool for the Blue Tribe, too. The so-called believers in freedom in the Red Tribe want to ban books! The “no indoctrination” tribe wants to tell teachers what they can and can’t teach! Marxists? Seriously, because we want you to confront a little bit of how you might still be benefitting from advantages your ancestors memorialized into laws and conventions?

Is it any wonder that in the five or so years this topic has been in the public consciousness, half of America became “racists” and half of America became “America-hating Marxists?”

A psychology doctoral candidate at Wilfrid Laurier named Victoria Parker joined up with Laurier professor Anne Wilson, University of Toronto professor Matthew Feinberg and Alexa Tullett from the University of Alabama to explore exactly this issue this year. Earlier this week, Parker published a high-level summary in the Atlantic of certain findings from their September paper (still a preprint). Both are worth reading on their own, but in short, they reveal the extent to which the motte-and-bailey strategies have been successful in creating a narrative of polarization in one of the remaining areas where most Americans are still more or less on the same page in Reality World.

In Narrative World, 61% of Red Tribe members believe that Blue Tribe members want to abolish the ‘irreversibly broken and racist’ police. In Reality World, only 28% of self-described liberals even somewhat agreed with that statement.

In Narrative World, 57% of Blue Tribe members believe that Red Tribe members thought the police were almost always justified in cases where they shot black people. In Reality World, only 31% of self-described conservatives even somewhat agreed with the statement.

None of this should surprise us. Missionaries did not build these mottes-and-baileys to reflect the will of the American people. They didn’t even build them to advance a policy outcome.

They built them to make us want to fight.


The Mottes-and-Baileys of The 2020 Election and 1/6

Suspect in leading 1-6 riot has top-security clearance ...

Some of the mottes-and-baileys constructed by political missionaries over the past few years, however, are much further along in leveraging polarization in Narrative World to produce stable polarization in the Real World.

For example, even now, as we stumble over the threshold from 2021 into 2022, the narrative of The Steal is alive and well in America. That is especially true among the literal and figurative faithful, something we expressed dire concerns about in our Gnostic Nationalism podcast back in February. Sure, Lin Wood and General Flynn may be somewhat at odds these days (the former has now called the latter a worshipper of Satan, so I guess you could say things are getting pretty serious), and several of the chief missionaries may be down and out with, uh, anthrax, but the gospel of rampant electoral fraud is still being preached from secular and some religious pulpits by many others.

Unlike Critical Race Theory, it is hard to stay agnostic on the underlying reality of electoral fraud and the events of 1/6. I wish I had a sophisticated rhetorical device to explain why, but the simple truth is that it’s hard to stay agnostic because the narrative of The Steal is just really, really stupid. It is a delightfully silly fantasy that would be a lot funnier if it weren’t believed so earnestly by so many. And it is believed by many, with polled rates of my fellow conservatives ranging from mid-50s to low-60s believing that Donald Trump is the duly elected President, depending on the way the question was asked and by whom. Likewise, a comparable number Americans still believe that 1/6 was an Antifa false flag, maintain that it wasn’t really a riot – that sort of thing.

Oof.

And yet, 50-60% of the Red Tribe is not ALL. Even if you gain very little comfort from knowing that only half of half of America doesn’t believe that a successful coup has taken place at the ballot box, it is something. Because of that, and because The Steal is not deemed an acceptable point of view outside of Red Tribe, a motte remains politically useful for this narrative. In this case, the fallback option for claims of widespread fraud is the very sensible, “I just want safe and secure elections that foreign interference cannot change.”

It is in the conflation of these two premises that the Red Tribe has created perhaps its sharpest polarizing wedge. Framing the belief that <checks notes> a discredited attorney who claims that the Almighty has granted him the authority to punish business partners and the My Pillow guy together uncovered the Real Truth about widespread electoral fraud as being synonymous with wanting to make elections safe and secure from illicit and foreign influence is a perfect recipe for cultivating disdain between the Tribes.


Of course, even with such a sharp wedge already in place, the Blue Tribe missionaries couldn’t miss their opportunity to drive in a wedge of their own. Just as the narrative of The Steal is alive and well in America, so too is the narrative of Literally A Coup Attempt.

The premise of January 6th being Literally A Coup Attempt is intentionally aggressive, intentionally extreme, and among the best examples of an argument I know that almost nobody truly believes, and which almost everyone knows is meant to exaggerate, inflame and troll the Red Tribe. A group turned into a mob consisting of 95% standard issue rally followers with no idea what was going on and 5% Freedom LARPers with an Army surplus store fetish who somehow failed their task successfully does not Literally a Coup Attempt make. As baileys go, it is not quite as dumb as The Steal, but it is still very dumb.


Oof (again).

Now, there IS room for disagreement on how serious the riot was. I am on record saying I think it is a really big deal – this is the Capitol after all! There is also room for disagreement on how much the role of various politicians in fomenting the rally-turned-violent should be investigated. I happen to think the answer is “quite a lot” by actual criminal investigators and “basically not at all” by bloviating, grandstanding members of congress, at least until there’s an actual case for impeachment being made.

But those are questions for Reality World. In Narrative World, the opportunity to frame all of the Red Tribe as guilty of their own cardinal sins of anti-American behavior, sedition or even treason made this motte-and-bailey an almost equilibrial outcome in our present political competition game. In that kind of game, accusations of hypocrisy are almost unparalleled weapons. Coupled with an impregnable motte of don’t-you-believe-in-law-and-order to retreat to, the entire rhetorical edifice is designed not to “get to the bottom” of anything, but to ensure that a long-term meme of Red Tribe Treason is emblazoned in the national consciousness.


For the Red Tribe, of course, a bailey built of sudden concern on the part of the Blue Tribe for rioting after a year of indifference to private property destruction taking place at BLM-affiliated protests and, yes, riots, creates a perfect opportunity to accuse the Blue Tribe of hypocrisy as well. Furthermore, the histrionic nature of “Literally a Coup Attempt” makes it far more politically feasible for Red Tribe missionaries to stick with their own over-the-top premise with a straight face. We justify a lot in the name of Greater Truths.

In the end, while we call it politics, no one is trying to convince anyone of anything at this point. Missionaries are leveraging their motte-and-bailey doctrine to remind the in-group that it is being reasonable and sensible and that the out-group has become unhinged and hypocritical. Those who erect narrative structures to reinforce narratives of in-group sanity and out-group insanity do not build them to form a more perfect union.

They built them to make us want to fight.


The Mottes-and-Baileys of COVID-19

Source: AFP, via Getty Images; Saul Loeb

As a displaced Texan who now lives in Connecticut and has traveled back and forth a bit between the two over the last couple years, I have seen both of the ugly COVID-19 motte-and-bailey monstrosities up close.

I have witnessed the just-the-flu boomer rolling through a crowded HEB in The Woodlands during a local spike in cases, sneering at older folks in masks, all the while thinking of the best LIONS and SHEEP meme to post to spite his politically moderate nieces on Facebook.

I have been glared at and tut-tutted by the double-masked, unironic planter of “Person, Man, Woman Vote for Biden” political signs in Fairfield County, while walking my dog unmasked with two Moderna shots and a booster on board outdoors in an enormous nature preserve.

I am sure these folks were all just lovely people before all of this happened, but I’ll be damned if the last 18 months hasn’t made them the most insufferable, tribal identity-driven cartoons on the planet. I don’t blame them. I mean, I do blame them, because they’re both just dumb as rocks, but it remains true that the motte-and-bailey constructions of the politics of COVID-19 are perfectly and intentionally designed to transform ALL of us into professional signalers of tribal identity (yes, us too) more than they are to preserve public health OR freedom.

The Red Tribe COVID-19 motte-and-bailey, in particular, is a cleverly constructed bit of sophistry. It is so elegant, in fact, that it is actually difficult to collapse it into a single motte-and-bailey structure. Over time, each of the mottes-and-baileys have been moved again and again as too-aggressive baileys like “just the flu” or “yeah, but did they die with COVID or from COVID” were abandoned when Reality World made them untenable – even with a good motte to retreat to. Today, the Red Tribe has settled on a bailey that is explicitly anti-vaccine, anti-mask and anti-restrictions of any kind, full stop.

Again, that doesn’t mean that this is the “average” view of people in this group. In fact, I believe explicitly that it is not. It means that it is the narrative most aggressively promoted by that group’s missionaries, who understand that they have the ability to conflate their provocative trial balloon with a more tenable defensive position. The Red Tribe missionaries have perfected exactly that doctrine, routinely retreating to “I’m not anti-vaccine, I am anti-vaccine mandate,” out of one side of their mouths while they continue to question the efficacy of the demonstrably effective set of mRNA vaccines available from the other side.

This motte-and-bailey defensive tactic has made it far easier to produce opposition to otherwise sensible policies which are inherently pro-freedom (e.g. permitting private businesses to implement whatever mask or vax policies they deem prudent), all while maintaining the more socially acceptable illusion that the only thing being opposed is government overreach. In short, this motte-and-bailey is how you keep a straight face selling a state government ban on vaccine or mask mandates as a measure to prevent government overreach.

What’s more, as an added bonus to the narrative wedge power in our polarized political environment, the Red Tribe’s motte-and-bailey also permits its missionaries to issue all sorts of “my body, my choice” claims. They are obvious co-options of similar language used by the Blue Tribe about its women’s health policy preferences used to further centralize in-group perceptions of out-group hypocrisy. Same thing with the popular “Medical Apartheid” and “This is how the Nazis gained power – by creating two classes of people” histrionics. These memes are remarkably effective at reinforcing a narrative of out-group hypocrisy that permits the existence of two completely separate sets of facts and truths.

To be sure, the Blue Tribe gets a booster to its ability to reinforce in-group bias, too. They can point to the Red Tribe conspiracy theory-adjacent bailey as the consensus view of every member of the Red Tribe, too. That is no small part of the reason that barely concealed Schadenfreude at obituaries of notable conservatives or the outsized death rates in Red Tribe-voting regions of the country has become a regular pastime in some circles.


Meanwhile, the Blue Tribe missionaries, who seemed a bit more inclined toward actual policy outcomes for a brief period in 2020, have also veered sharply in the direction of a narrative structure created to reinforce tribal identity and separation.

More to the point, the Blue Tribe baileys of 2021 have focused on framing any opposition or concern about pandemic restrictions or policy responses, no matter how legitimate or well-founded, as being anti-science and a good way to kill children, teachers and grandma. It doesn’t matter if that’s true or not (sometimes it is and sometimes it is not), because the missionary statements made in support of this motte-and-bailey doctrine are not made to advocate support for any particular policy. They are made to reinforce the common knowledge within the Blue Tribe that Red Tribe members are both evil and stupid.

Wondering why infection-based immunity is not acknowledged as a partially valid source of immunity? Stupid.

Concerned that the shutdown of schools is an incredibly socially expensive way to protect populations with generally low-severity outcomes relative to other risks when there are vastly better solutions to the same problem? Evil.

Wondering when we’ll learn more about the science behind the recent reduction in recommended quarantine periods, considering that the apparent underlying logic (not to place undue harm on staffing in key sectors) is identical to the arguments put forth by the Red Tribe for reducing restrictions on businesses only a few months ago? Evil and stupid!

Now, in the same way that most Red Tribe members aren’t really anti-vaccine, anti-mask, and anti-everything, I feel confident most Blue Tribe members are not ‘in the bailey’ on this issue. The point isn’t where we are. The point is where tribal missionaries interested in consolidating their political power are trying to push us.

They are pushing us to want to fight.


And sometimes we should fight. After all, some things are worth fighting for. I am guessing there are things in each of the three areas above that you think are worth fighting over.

I do.

Yet it is harder than ever to know whether the battles we fight are our own or those someone else has selected for us. It is for me, anyway. I feel the pull of attractive memes at nearly all times. I get worked up by things that don’t matter. And try as I might – even leaving social media almost entirely – I feel as if it is getting worse, not better.

Fortunately, we don’t have to pretend that the world doesn’t have evil people or stupid people. It has plenty of both on offer. Some of them you can’t miss – I promise. But when the rhetoric we hear seems designed not to advance our principles, but to strengthen our convictions about our own goodness and sanity and the hypocrisy and insanity of our counterparts, at the very least, in our personal relationships, we can slow down. We can take a break. We can declare a truce. A time where we talk, listen and remember the basic shared humanity of our neighbor.

The truce doesn’t have to last forever. But there is no better way to learn how much of the fight is yours than to discover who finds it most inconvenient to see you at peace.


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Comments

  1. What I keep coming back to again and again - when did we reach the tipping point where “reality” was dramatized and fictionalized en masse? When did we get to the point where news and regular people’s lives became mere building blocks for narratives and entertainment on a scale large enough to cause social disunion based entirely on fictional constructs?

    If we look back at totalitarianism (everyone’s favorite, convenient villain - the Nazis), we see a significant amount of powerful, and average, citizens believing in a man’s delusion - but that was a single powerful narrative aided by many different circumstances and the centralization of mass communication. Now, it seems as if there is an almost emergent property of democratized mass communication, whereby the demand for fictions, for stories, is insatiable, and it’s so ubiquitous that it is hard to separate what’s real from what is dramatized.

    But besides the location and reasons for reaching this tipping point, how much is this even under the control of missionaries? How is it possible to account for the adaptability of the fictional constructs, with the audience and missionaries reacting to one another?

    And, since you’re focused on the particular motte-and-baileys and mechanisms used the last two years and mapping those arguments - are there any additional generalizations you can make about this system? Is it simply a feature of modern life now that fictional constructs will live constantly side-by-side with reality?

  2. Perhaps sometime around the year that (anti)social media (ie “Engagement by enragement”) got unleashed upon the world?

  3. I honestly think we started on this path quite some time ago and I think you can definitely start to see some cultural precursors in the late 90’s especially, with 24-hour news coverage and certain social phenomena (motiveless school shootings). But I don’t know. It kind of seems that this is all part of a massive social upheaval precipitated by technology, and an upheaval which we are not able to fully grasp because it directly undermines our understanding of the world by flooding us with too much information…but I don’t know, that’s the way it seems to me.

  4. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Yes, although that has always been true. Democratized mass communication, as you put it, simply permits it to happen faster and at a larger scale. I don’t think that there was a tipping point in how much we are affected by stories or even how much our society became about stories.

    When the story-making became a feature of emerging bifurcated tribal identity, the stories / fact-frames went from being an overlapping mess of beliefs to a distinct set of two realities. Instead of looking at someone who shared 60% of our narrative explanations for our world and could share what felt like a basic grasp on the same reality, that person might now share what, 10%? 15%?

    We aren’t more story-wired, and the world isn’t more story rich. We are more story-sundered.

    I think?

  5. I’ve mentioned a few times my ‘narcissism-at-scale’ explanation of the world and this sort of fits neatly into that theory. Everyone needs to either be the narrator OR they need someone else to narrate to them the story that they believe is true. Social media and blogging culture amplify that to 11. From that starting point it isn’t hard to see how we got here.

  6. What is so frustrating is the switch to the Motte, leaves people not knowing the proponent’s degree of belief in the Bailey, but suspecting they still hold that position - thus a complete breakdown of trust and an inability to continue the conversation, even when trying to come to an honest understanding of our differences.

  7. This article reminded me of the Evolution of Trust "game: that made the rounds several years ago. It begins and ends with the same Christmas truce illustration Rusty uses here and shows how trust evolves / devolves through repeated competitive and cooperative games. Well worth your time if you haven’t “played” it before.

    The Evolution of Trust (ncase.me)

  8. Avatar for elksta elksta says:

    I was today years old learning about franz gruber and his xmas song and the genius that is naming the bad guy in an xmas movie hans gruber. Great article.

  9. I just want to say thanks Rusty for a terrific article.

    Time and time again, reading ET forces me to think, to get out of a sort of “comfort zone”. And that’s a good thing, because I so easily seem to fall into the narrative traps.

    Even at my relatively advanced age, I think I’ve “grown” quite a bit since I subscribed
    Good stuff, please continue .
    Thanks

  10. Avatar for 010101 010101 says:

    One day a group of trained and resourced people will team up to concertedly breach
    the walls of an infamous motte and bailey. The story of what happened will spread far and wide, with villains and heroes included. This will change the strategic viability of this type of engagement. Akin to field artillery , to extend the metaphor.

    At some point we will have to deal with air superiority, if you expose any contentious beliefs in narrative controlled territory.

  11. Avatar for Tanya Tanya says:

    Thank you so much for this Rusty, well said.

  12. Avatar for mckett mckett says:

    Great piece Rusty. One of the first things I read here was one of Ben’s competition game notes, and then as now the stark reality of the situation is there is no easy way to put the toothpaste back in the tube; now the equilibrium is set it will take a miracle to break out of it

  13. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Thanks, Mike. Maybe not a miracle, but at least enough people willing to signal a willingness to lose and play a coordinated game again.

    Which would take a miracle. So perhaps you are right after all!

  14. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Thank you, Tanya! Always nice to hear from you!

  15. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Thank you, Peter, that’s kind of you to say. I’ve grown a lot from all of your thoughtful responses over the years, too.

  16. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    OK, I never thought about that connection before until you said it just now either. Pouring one out for Alan Rickman tonight.

  17. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Jared, I’ve not seen that before, although it is quite clever. Thank you for sharing. Coordination and competition under repeated gameplay are critical components of our theory about equilibrial political power formation.

  18. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Absolutely true, and so much of what makes it devilishly effective from a perspective of pure political power.

  19. Avatar for Pat_W Pat_W says:

    This is not the perfect thread in which to put this, but perhaps Rusty will move it to a better one. It is pertinent. The New Yorker has an article in the current issue called “The Big Business of Returning Trump to Power”. It profiles Dan Bongino. I leave this quote to intrigue you, because for me the term “narrative laundering “ is brilliant.

    “The process is a kind of “narrative laundering,” Jennifer Mercieca said. “You start with a story from a tainted source, like Alex Jones, and then you process it through something that is more trusted. People may not have trusted Alex Jones and his information in 2015, but, when they heard a Republican nominee or a President say it, then it sounded way more legit.” “

  20. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but yes, there has been a definite pattern of the legitimization of baileys that follows this pattern rather than explicitly conflating with the easier-to-digest mottes. I will have to read the New Yorker piece - thanks for bringing that up!

  21. There’s another interesting angle that your post reminded me of. I don’t have a good term for it, but here’s the basic layout: a story happens, the mainstream corporate press ignores it, a conservative or even mildly right-leaning outlet picks it up and investigates it, they report on it, and CNN et al continue to ignore it because it’s just a story from “right wing news”. Creating information silos and echo chambers are two important steps in ensuring that motte-and-bailey arguments continue to work. Without those keys steps you can never gin up enough outrage from your in-group, nor can you adequately paint your opponent as uncharitably as possible. Everything Rusty wrote is true. I’m interested in the design of the structure that made it all possible.

  22. From that site:
    Game theory has shown us the three things we need for the evolution of trust:
    1. REPEAT INTERACTIONS
    2. POSSIBLE WIN-WINS You must be playing a non-zero-sum game, a game where it’s at least possible that both players can be better off – a win-win.
    3. LOW MISCOMMUNICATION

    So without the possibility of win-win relationships, the other 2 factors are useless to rebuilding trust.

    Given that traditional economic / capitalistic incentives don’t exist, as evidenced by historic wealth inequality and zombie companies continuing on with no cost capital, is the Fed the true nexus for the lack of trust?

  23. Avatar for Zenzei Zenzei says:

    Its been happening since the dawn of communication. Narratives shape the bible. The oral tradition, early religious texts, stories told to explain away the day to day in a greater context.

  24. I will be a bit provocative, all in good fun: there seems to be another motte and bailey argument going on here lol! Eric @plagueofcustom posits something along the lines of “it’s different this time”, the bailey is “no…this is a story as old as time”, and the motte is “well scale and speed have changed but still, same old same old”. Again I am partly having fun with you all because I get and agree with the gists here.

    But personally my feeling is these scale/speed parameters have truly shifted us into a regime change or phase change, similar to the ET canon idea that zirp doesn’t do, any longer, what economists think it does. A simplification but I think just signal to noise ratio (SNR) is a fair mental model. As Rusty called it, democratized mass communication has increased scale and speed over time in a way that SNR has just collapsed through the floor. A SNR above the noise floor is a regime where things can make sense but below the noise floor it becomes a useless and counterproductive exercise to draw conclusions from data.

    This relates to another post I made recently about a community-level curated social feed. I think everyone here has come to understand the value and necessity of curating an individual level news feed, but we are still early from what I can tell in understanding the value of a reasonable way to accomplish this at a community level.

    Eric - leaning on one more ET canon idea, as I like to do, you mentioned the “tipping point” in the process but I think really it is one of the “slowly, slowly, all at once” things. Although the SNR analogy does provide a way to think about roughly where the regime change happens, it is also worth remembering that, like phase shifts, the parameters (e.g. temp) are changing smoothly and continuously yet at some point the medium changes suddenly and dramatically.

    Rusty - brilliant article I thought, thank you. Looks like a lot of people found the motte and bailey device compelling and I imagine the write up and device take pretty respectable places in the ET canon list.

  25. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Interesting question I think it’s both a vector for distrust and has a partial causal relationship with the defection actions by a political bloc that precipitate the transition from a coordination to competition game in the first place, but the defection action is still the thing worth focusing on.

    The thing that erodes trust is a game player signaling that they are untrustworthy and/or in it for themselves.

  26. Brilliant work Rusty

  27. Thank you for writing this, Rusty.

    But this isn’t new. Is it?

    My in-laws, both of whom lived in Germany in WWII, were orphaned during the war. They immigrated to the US at 15 and 16, under The Marshall Plan.

    Both were from separate parts of Germany - Dusseldorf and Hammelburg. (My FIL was impressed by my knowledge of Hammelburg and the German words I knew, which came 100% from Hogan’s Heros.) They never would have met in Deutschland. They came to America as teenagers with no money, no family, and without speaking a word of English. They met in English class in Wheaton IL.

    It was rough for them - for a long time.

    It took many years for them to discuss what it was like in Germany before and during WWII. They had to conform. They were just children. I am sure they didn’t understand. But they lost their parents. The pain was real.

    The imperative to conform to the narrative was inescapable.

    It wasn’t something that anyone ever really consciously decided. It was a matter of being surrounded by a community that had accepted the narrative. There was no option for decent or alternative views. It was easier just to fall in-line.

    It’s no different today. If you want to be part of your Tribe you must conform.

    BTW, my FIL was one of the most American and patriotic men that I have ever known. He was the epitome of what it means to be an American. I am honored to have known him.

    I dunno. I am not sure if this adds to the conversation. But I sure do appreciate this community and especially @rguinn writing this post.

    Respectfully,
    Eric

  28. This is genius. Thanks for sharing.

  29. If I understand this site @jaredkee linked, their conclusion gives the reason for increasing numbers of players currently choosing to signal that they are untrustworthy (or compete instead of coordinate):

    If there’s one big takeaway from all of game theory, it’s this:
    What the game is, defines what the players do.
    Our problem today isn’t just that people are losing trust, it’s that our environment acts against the evolution of trust.

    From this Cornell blog on the game:

    When the payoffs are unfair, like in a zero-sum game, then the Always Cheat strategy also prevails. Without a fair game, trust cannot be created.

    I don’t think this changes until policy no longer allows everything extracted to the 1% with zero-sum leftovers or worse for the 99% to fight over. As long as zero-sum lasts, the masses compete. The most selfish (eg “Cheaters” on that site) continue to win. Everyone else loses until they concede or are eliminated.

    This has been my operating assumption for the last decade, with substantial observation and experience proving it to be true.

  30. I amend my previous comment about social media after having just read this article:

    " What we’ve found now in multiple surveys, our summer survey and our fall survey, is that 21 million American adults agree with two radical beliefs: one, that the use of force to restore Donald Trump to the presidency is justified, and two, that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election and is an illegitimate president. That is, 21 million don’t hold just one of those beliefs—they hold both of those beliefs. It’s 8 percent of the body politic, but that’s really significant."

    "Our nationally representative surveys also ask about the media consumption of people. What we see is in the 21 million, the No. 1 set of news sources are conservative mainstream news sources. Forty-two percent of the 21 million report that it’s Fox News, Newsmax, One America. That’s their major source of news. The next set of sources, 32 percent report that it’s liberal or centrist media like CNN, NPR, NBC. You might say, well, wait a minute—how could that be? Well, just keep in mind that we’ve known for a long time as scholars that when you watch news that you disagree with, it makes you angry.

    Only 20 percent of these people report that their main sources are mainstream social media like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and only 10 percent report that it’s far right social media like Gab or Telegram. "

  31. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    That said, I’m not sure self-reporting is what I’d focus most on here. I think the number of people who report that their main sources of news are social media is a fraction of the number for which it is true. Water in which we swim and all that.

  32. From the article you cited:

    How does a person “disagree” with the news? The failure of logic suggests those people aren’t scholars.

  33. Either that or it isn’t real news … it could be fiat news or opinionated commentary disguised as news, which seems true regarding much of today’s mainstream “news”. I now regard “news” as insight into what brainwashing objectives the power establishment is striving for.

  34. That’s my point. If it’s something you can disagree with, it’s not really factual news- it’s narrative News!. But when going back “a long time” pre-CNN, the US (where the article author is from) had 30 minutes of fact news each night.

    So the author elevating himself to we “as scholars” knowing without citing his own study proving, or citing an actual scholar studying the effects of watching disagreeable News!, gives strong evidence that this is all narrative of how we are supposed to think about 1/6.

  35. I’ll be the first to say that I abhor throwaway wording in articles but help me to see the logic fail here. Does disagreeing with this point by the scientist mean that he isn’t a scholar? Keep in mind that the scientist quoted didn’t write the article.

    -Perhaps he did cite to the reporter background research that just got left out of the article for brevity sake. No article written about complex topics that may take years of research can ever be summed up in a paragraph. The soundbite problem.

    -Perhaps the professor took it as a given that readers already were aware of this. Research is built on research each a link in a chain. Aren’t lay people asking a lot for the entire chain to be laid out for them every time.

    From a quick unvetted search:

    The psychological impact of negative TV news bulletins: the catastrophizing of personal worries - PubMed

    IMO all “news” is narrative news else it wouldn’t sell papers, eyeballs et al. It’s up to the reader to decide how to think about it. Isn’t this what Epsilon is all about?

  36. I’m not as smart as most of the pack and certainly not as wealthy, but this piece alone is worth the $20 a month, bravo. @bhunt Rusty needs a raise, this level of thinking along with the brilliant prose keeps me signed up for another year.

  37. Rusty - thank you for this profoundly thought-provoking article. How rare it is to be left looking IN critically, rather than looking OUT critically. I didn’t realise my own Motte & Bailey positions that I have been carefully corralled into… until you shone my flashlight where it needed to go. Good journalism will do that :slight_smile:

  38. The solution is - live more in Reality World and less in Narrative World. Don’t go on Twitter, don’t watch Fox or CNN and spend some time outside. Listen to people, be friendly to them, empathize as a first principle. I’m optimistic that we are in the process of re-learning these habits and we will be better off for having gone through the process.

  39. it’s not “us” (tribe 1) against “them” (tribe 2), but just us (a world full of messy people that are on it together at the same time). "It’s not us vs them…It’s just us. Now let’s get to working thru this stuff.

  40. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Ryley, that’s kind of you to say (and FWIW writing an article like this usually leaves me with a very strong and similar conviction about myself).

  41. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    I hope so, Kevin. I think it’s true for the small we here. I’m not so sure about the big we out there. But either way, that’s the only way.

    By the way, great to see you. Hope your New Year is getting off to a good and healthy start!

  42. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Well, I don’t know about that, but I’m very grateful for your kindness all the same, Curt!

  43. Thanks for this, Rusty. I’m impressed by your calm and clarity in the midst of this mess.

    Would you care do speculate on who is/are the “they” that "wants to fight? And why?

    As to when, I think back to before the modern media and even the Nazis to the early work of Edward Bernyas (""an American Pioneer in the fields of public relations and propaganda) Edward Bernays - Wikipedia), and the later work of Guy Debord on The Society of the Spectacle

    And speaking of the Christmas Truce, John McCutcheon does a lovely musical rendering: "Christmas in the Trenches" - John McCutcheon - YouTube

  44. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Just my opinion, and bearing in mind this is a gross oversimplification of varied aims and motivations:

    Who: The collective wielders of influence in the two sociopolitical blocs of present-day US, along with those in media and other public-facing who have unintentionally or intentionally aligned themselves with the aims of those wielders of influence.

    Why: Because entrenching polarization entrenches their influence and ability to direct the energy and aims of their respective political blocs (including directing our energy, if we permit it). Missionaries for the Red Tribe and the Blue Tribe want the same thing - to make it seem existential to us that they receive our unquestioning support.

  45. Hi Rusty - great article. You & I don’t always agree, but you never fail to challenge what I do believe, and why. Thank you for that. In your discussion of the Tribes, it made me reflect on my years growing up in the 1960’s. Those that were against the Vietnam war ran up against a very strong narrative: that those who didn’t back our government’s decision to stop the red menace were unpatriotic. Protesters died (Kent State, et al). I lived through those times and remember them vividly. One of my favorite songs during those years was an obscure song called Reach Out in the Darkness, by Friend and Lover (who, you say?). One section of lyrics goes like this - “I met a man that I did not care for/ and then one day this man gave me a call/We sat and talked about things on our mind/And now this man, he is a friend of mine. Reach out in the darkness…” Someone has to make the first call, to find common ground and our shared humanity. Pray that can be me.
    Keep up the great work - we all need it.

  46. This is a fresh perspective. The current structure of “every debate” seems to persist, regardless of the topic of debate. An astute observation. The reason for motte and bailey debate structures is the absolute need to win by the opposed parties, red and blue. The greatest red or blue win is to capture the presidency. The president is the single official with the greatest authority.

    But America began with a revolution to prevent rule by a single official, the king, and then replaced that method with representative government by a legislature. The legislature contains many perspectives, and therefore the ability to edit out wholesale the bailey class of arguments. The motte class of arguments, both red and blue, are susceptible of meaningful and durable reconciliation by the legislature. Congress needs to reassert its central role in our government. They are the deliberative body that can model useful political debate, and can relieve us of the current duelling narrative cul de sac. Action by the executive should be limited and the executive should align with the entire Congress to be of service to the public, and to sustain our form of government. The president is the US president, not the captain of a team !! The authority of the president depends on this, not the latest ‘poll’.

  47. Avatar for 010101 010101 says:

    Marthinus Steyn, the future president of the Orange Free State gave an election speech in 1895 (shortly before the ghastly Boer War.) that included:

    ‘Our nation depend upon the power of God to deliver us a victory. With a deep understanding of what we can expect when we place our trust in the Almighty’

    Then Lord Kitchener is almost deified in this enduring WWI image:

    Possibly a mildly data mined progression of political sloganeering, but God does appear to die circa Christmas 1914 perhaps ironically a celebration of the birth of Christ.

  48. The “or” is inclusive, I believe.

  49. Chess, not checkers… I like it.

  50. Thank you Rusty for a wonderful, insightful essay. I think that the statements of Biden and Pelosi on Jan 6 about the events of last year are exactly what is described in this excellent piece. I’m red tribe and I forwarded a link to it to my 20 something blue tribe.children. We had long and interesting discussions over the holidays about racism and white privilege. They are mixed-race third culture kids so their experience differs greatly from mine.

  51. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Juan, that’s a powerful conversation you were able to have. Thanks for reading and for sharing. And yes, I agree there were definitely more than a few baileys to be spotted in the wild yesterday.

  52. “First, seek to understand” - Many thanks to Rusty and Ben for their continued excellence towards this goal.
    “They are pushing us to want to fight” is one of many takeaway messages, and the power to sustain this goal can be further clarified by understanding something about anger addiction. Anger is an emotional response which releases chemicals in our brains and bodies which are activating. It’s a pick-me-up for flagging energy levels. If one market loves caffeine, the other loves anger and circulating catecholamines and neuro-transmitters released into our bloodstream via political missionaries in various media outlets. When I’m nordic skate skiing and going up a particularly tough hill my mind wanders towards something which is very annoying - automatically. I’ve been doing it for years and boy, the hill appears to flatten out sooner as a result.
    Need a fix, or steady titration like an IV drip? Keep the media missionaries on all day. You’ll be chemically motivated to want to fight.

  53. I’ll be honest Ben, I did not read the piece to thoroughly as I do not have the time to, but your writing is exceptional. I have noticed, however, that you might seem to be approaching articles in more of a dialectic approach than in the past in that you take one thing, flip it to its opposite, and then taking the synthesis of that (abstract, negative, concrete or thesis, antithesis, synthesis).

    This is as opposed to an investigation of each side’s first principles, perspective, and history and then logically and charitably trying to discern the truth within the Epsilon Theory framework. That typical framework, I think, leads to some interesting places in terms of what people believe, why people believe it, how they got to believe it, and ultimately where the truth might lie.

  54. Eric, you would enjoy looking into Mattias Desmet’s theory of Mass Formation, which is built upon the work of the likes of Hannah Arendt and Gustave Le Bon. This is something everyone should be aware of and is, in my opinion, its popularization is the most important development of COVID. This link isn’t Mattias Desmet talking about it, which is preferable, but is a decent introduction nonetheless.

    https://malone.substack.com/p/mass-formation-2fb

  55. Dude, read it more thoroughly, it’s worth it.
    And it was Rusty, not Ben.

  56. I see Malone’s formulation of “mass formation psychosis” to be paranoid, pseudo-intellectual gibberish. Malone is full of grievances for not getting his share of credit for vaccine research, so now he is on a mission to prove to the world his nobility and victimhood. As for claiming that “mass formation psychosis” is created by leaders to make people do horrible things…people have always done horrible things, society is always manipulated, but there’s no evil plan to murder people or to “make up” something like COVID for corporate profit. That is a line sold to you to keep social power in the hands of “red tribe populists,” enticing you with wisps of truth.

    The entire COVID discourse got manipulated by different groups seeking different kinds of power and social status through various denials of reality, and through rituals of public shaming and displays of power. There is no COVID plot, it’s a viral disease, and governments are creatures of public opinion, they are inextricably tied to the social forces seeking power. So the government will reflect the tug of different groups, making everyone unhappy in the process, and benefitting some groups over others - especially now, and especially in America.

    There are scapegoats in America, and heroes and villains, and they are all created and perpetuated by us, just as they were in every other time period in human history, it’s just the nature of how it is happening that has changed.

    The actual plot is to sell you a story that says:

    That you know the special Truth.

    That you are part of the group that knows what is really going on and won’t be subjected to social pressure or manipulation and are superior because of this.

    That you are being victimized by evil forces beyond your control and that your suffering deserves recompense in the form of elevated social status.

    I think there is no deception greater than self-deception, and we’re hardwired for it, we are practically begging to be deluded by missionaries, peers, and social groups, and then we run with it ourselves after we internalize it.

    Edit: fixed a typo

  57. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Thanks, George!

    Given that the piece isn’t so much about what each side believes but rather about the narratives we observe being promoted about what each side believes and why that narrative construction is politically useful, I have to admit, however, that I am not really following your suggestion. What you suggest isn’t a different way to approach this question, but a completely different piece that would serve a completely different purpose and attempt to answer a completely different set of questions.

    To be fair, that piece seems like it might be perfectly interesting! But it isn’t this one.

  58. Avatar for 010101 010101 says:

    If increasing emphasis is on the central control of a crowd’s emotional responses, a recursive loop might form where the crowd look to the source of control for emotional results. In turn, the policies become delivery of drama, dopamine rushes from 24 hour news, where the reporting mostly focuses on the actors of policy and their emotional narrative laden stories.
    Long term strategy goes under reported and perhaps under scrutinised by the recipients of the potential outcomes, because it does not have a critical audience of viable scale.
    This might have the effect of marginalising quality in the production of long term policy strategies.
    The emphasis on number of kills per day instead of strategic achievement ('Nam)
    with the motte of jingoism. I can’t remember which Epsilon note discussed this in
    the usual glorious detail

  59. Hi Rusty

    Nailed it!

    Well you pretty much summed up 30 years of after dinner conversation with Dad.

    Can still hear Mom "Bill - you can’t mean that!

    Wonder what the equivalent of going outside to look at the stars and practice deep breathing would be?

  60. Avatar for Tanya Tanya says:

    Wow wow wow. I think Dr. James Hamblin has also come upon the motte and bailey concept (or something very similar) in his newsletter today. On innuendo

    Any thoughts, @rguinn? (Cheers!)

  61. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Very cool!

    I think Dr. Hamblin’s point about what he calls innuendo is certainly true. Plenty of people like to do the “oh, I’m just asking questions” / “I just want all viewpoints to be heard” gag in order to veer in the direction of some pretty toxic and absurd conspiracy theory nonsense - and then retreat when pressed. Certainly a great many similarities.

    What I’m not as supportive of, however, is Dr. Hamblin’s take on censoriousness that relates to the abuse of innuendo. I think that too many otherwise fine thinkers get caught up in gotcha-ing slightly less sophisticated folks who use the constitutional language of “freedom of speech.” In the usual template, they pompously point out that akshually, that freedom is just about restricting the government’s actions and doesn’t impact private citizens, etc. etc.

    But sometimes it’s OK to talk about how censorious we want us to be with one another. I really, really want a less censorious society. I want people to write the books they want, the blogs they want, the music they want. I want Joe Rogan to have a podcast guest that is just asking questions about whether gargling monkey vomit might cure hyperthyroidism. I want Neil Young to see if he can convince yet another producer not to roll off whatever frequency that nasal whine of his happens at.

    There’s a whole spectrum of legally permissible private activities which squelch public discourse, creativity and expression that I don’t like, and which I think it’s OK not to like. I don’t like it when people burn books. I don’t like it when they seek to ban books from libraries or schools. Despite being a person of faith, I don’t like ‘decency’ standards, even when effectively imposed by a non-government entity. I generally don’t like people or companies wielding commercial power to silence or reduce the platform for certain voices.

    There is a motte-and-baileyism strategy in trying to paint all promote free expression arguments as ill-considered legal arguments by people who don’t understand the constitution. I think Dr. Hamblin may be slightly guilty of that here, although he wouldn’t be alone!

  62. We have some politicians and pundits who have mastered praeteritio to the point where it’s simply normal to hear someone use it in casual conversation.

  63. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Yep. Systematically weaponized question-begging seems well-adapted to this social environment.

  64. How much of an element of fishing expedition for content that will get likes/dislikes and subsequently be picked up as prospective narrative for development to that versus an attempt to actually promote any particular premise is going on with that? To my eye a lot of that is bait.

    It seems to me the attempt to create content and garnish attention for the purpose of looking attractive to advertisers as a commercial endeavor plays a pretty strong hand here more than debate to argue any particular social / political outlook or position.

    Want a piece of the action on the high cost of freedom?

  65. Avatar for jrs jrs says:

    I’m curious about this too. I’m not sure how we’d actually get at answering it though.

    This general reasoning, that profit is the main cause of The Gyre, is the subject of Matt Taibbi’s book Hate Inc.

  66. Thanks for the recommendation. In regards to the 'get at answering it" I would offer that would be a bit like the fish breaking the aquarium to see what was on the other side ( borrowing heavily from past ET discussion threads).

  67. This is a bit of an idee fixe with me at this point…but I am convinced that a good amount of the “widening gyre” is caused by the complexity and ever-present nature of our social interactions along with a pinch of actual difficulties and disputes over allocation of scarce resources in a world that has changed radically over the last ~30 years…and the content machine dynamics that you mention helps deepen the fissure - IMO.

  68. A transition occurred when selling went from projecting (casting the net) to click-bait (Venus Fly Trap and the like) with a little Truman Show product placement on the side. This applies not only to physical products but also ‘content’ as well. I found the Bailey / Motte analogies most enlightening. Cheers!

  69. The discussion over the Florida parental rights bill and the subsequent disbanding of
    the RCID is like a nesting doll of Motte and Bailey arguments. From the “parental rights” Motte and the “teachers are turning your kids trans” Bailey, to the “corporate entities shouldn’t be directly controlling governments like RCID” to ‘Disney is actively grooming our kids’

    Its a Motte and Bailey all the way down.

    I shared the article with some of my pack, since Rusty’s explanation of the argument structure is a lot more clear than I could write myself.

  70. It is, frankly, a far better example than any I was able to give in the original piece…

    The demands on Disney - which have been almost perfectly bidirectional and bipartisan in their lunacy - are the most fascinating to me. There are thousands of giant corporations, some of which are deeply involved in discussions about public policy, and some of which stay silent on just about everything, because who wants to know what Emerson Electric thinks about student loan forgiveness (or whatever). And yet, knowing this fully, when The Narrative arises that “We must talk about how this company is / is not speaking out about public policy / cultural issue X”, we somehow become convinced that this whole discussion makes sense. We allow ourselves to be drawn in, knowing that there are 10,000 other companies who’ve said a lot or nothing about the same issue, and just completely ignoring that knowledge. Because of Narrative.

    As eusocial animals, we are infinitely vulnerable to this kind of manipulation.

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