Saturday, September 5, 2015

Using Sady Doyle to illustrate the Motte and Bailey Doctrine

The most useful tool for understanding online debate that I've encountered in the last year or so is the Motte and bailey doctine (pdf). Scott Alexander explains:
The motte-and-bailey doctrine is when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you claim you were just making an obvious, uncontroversial statement, so you are clearly right and they are silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.
The name comes from a traditional plan for European castles, which had a tower ("motte") and a courtyard ("bailey"):


If the defenders are strong, they fight from the bailey. But if they're losing, they retreat to the motte and only return to the bailey when they believe it's safe to go there.

The practice can be observed in Sady Doyle's PC Comedy and Paul Revere. First she creates a link between a rape in 1989 and the Beastie Boys' song, "Paul Revere"—by doing that, she makes a bold attack in the bailey.

But knowing there's no solid evidence linking entertainment and violence, she  retreats to the motte and says:
The rape joke in “Paul Revere” did not cause Christopher Archer to become a rapist. No rational person could argue such a thing. Millions of people heard the same song without raping anyone. And the “cause” of the rape in Glen Ridge — to the extent that we can offer up any cause, beyond the boys’ decision to do it — is more complicated than any one factor.
Then, having made a safe statement from the motte that few people would disagree with, she returns to the bailey to reinforce her link between entertainment and violence:
Chris Archer sure did like “Paul Revere,” though. It didn’t tell him what to do. It didn’t make him do it. It just made him laugh. It entertained him. It did what all good art does: It inspired him. It ran through his head, and intermingled with what was already inside of him, until he got an idea.
She then moves between motte and bailey a few times until, feeling safe in the bailey, she claims,
Because rape culture was not something that they’d thought through or considered their position within, at that point in their lives.
She expects her readers to accept the idea that the US is a "rape culture" because she has acknowledged that a song did not make Archer a rapist. Then she immediately retreats to the safety of the motte to talk about empathy as though empathy requires accepting the idea that "rape culture" theory is valid and entertainment causes violence. She talks about how the people who violate the precepts of contemporary feminist theory are actual human beings who wouldn't want horrible things to happen because of their art—but she's clearly uncomfortable up in the motte, because she just can't be nice about Patton Oswalt who refuses to be converted to her ideology.

But she knows she needs to do most of her fighting from the motte. So she says reasonably,
I don’t believe that offensive comedy should be prevented from existing, or forcibly suppressed.
And then she returns to the bailey:
it seems like the “PC” critics are the people who actually value comedy the most in this discussion. They’re the people who believe comedy has power and influence. They’re the ones who really believe comedians can change lives, or change the world. It’s because they believe all this, in fact, that they’re so worried about what comedians do. People who understand the power of something are anxious about how that power is used. Adults scream if they see a toddler holding a loaded gun, because they know what guns can do.
After saying she believed offensive comedy should not be "forcibly suppressed", she compared offensive comedy to a toddler holding a loaded gun, saying those who believe as she does "know what guns can do." She never tries to establish what her argument requires: is "offensive comedy" a loaded gun? She simply declares it from the bailey, and trusts that no one will wonder if she has confused real guns with squirt guns.

Knowing that she's in dangerous territory with her loaded gun analogy, she returns to the motte where she can't be attacked, saying,
We don’t create the Christopher Archers of this world. We don’t control them, either.
And then she concludes her essay on the steps between the motte and the bailey, trusting her audience will draw the conclusion made from the bailey because we have been reassured by claims made from the motte:
The only thing “PC” critics are asking you to do in the end, is that. It’s to realize that your voice runs through minds. Maybe a few dozen; maybe millions of them. They’re asking you to think about what else might be in there — what we know, from history, is too often found in there. To know that some people are flammable, and to be careful where the spark lands. Because, in the end, I don’t believe you when you say you don’t care. You are human. You are too good to want the innocent creatures burned.
Yes, we are human, and we are too good to want innocent creatures burned. But for all her running between the motte and the bailey, Ms. Doyle only circles the crucial question: Does entertainment cause violence?

Relevant: debunking rape culture theory, a linkfest

ETA: To clarify, I am not suggesting that Ms. Doyle or anyone who engages in motte and bailey tactics is trying to deceive anyone. I believe their belief systems prevent them from realizing what they're doing. Having no facts to support their beliefs is irrelevant. All they can do is link their beliefs to truisms in the hope their listeners will be convinced just as they were.

ETA 2: To be clear, I hate rape jokes and don't tell them. I hate a lot of things that I tolerate. When I was young, people used to say that if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. There's truth in that, but not complete truth. If you're concerned with the problem, focus on the solution.