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:
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.