Top left, a castle on its high "motte" with its vulnerable "bailey" sprawled below. The "Motte and Bailey" is in fashion as a rhetorical device now, whereby an indisputable Motte assertion -- i.e., lower-case "black lives matter" -- is used to defend a vulnerable agenda.
By John Murawski, RealClear Investigations
June 19, 2020
At first blush, the most incendiary political slogans of our time come across as calls for kumbaya.
What sort of person wouldn’t believe that black lives matter?
What’s wrong with believing women?
Who doesn’t want to make America great? (Maybe ISIS doesn’t, but you get the idea.)
Those almost anodyne claims turn out to be deeply divisive because they can provide linguistic cover for far more controversial corollaries: abolishing the police, suspending due process, or voting for Donald Trump’s border wall.
While such tactics are not new, they are becoming a weapon of choice as political disputes morph into hashtag wars. So much so that academics have pinned a name on this debating trick: the Motte and Bailey.
The Motte is the slick sales pitch used to sell you a package; the Bailey contains lot more than you bargained for.
“This is a very powerful device of sophistry,” said Nicholas Shackel, the Cardiff University philosopher who first identified the trick and coined the term in 2005. “This way of defending their precious beliefs is used by many people with many different doctrines.”
Usually proponents start with the Motte, but sometimes they lead with the Bailey. Consider the most recent example currently active on the Twittersphere: “Defund the Police” – which in its unadulterated form can function as a Bailey. When the proposal was criticized as impractical and dangerous, the demand was softened to a suggestion (the Motte) no reasonable person could disagree with: demilitarize or reform the police to make encounters between police and civilians less violent. As soon as the critics calmed down and let down their guard, activists resumed their Bailey calls for abolishing the police.
Such toggling back and forth between the radical and mild versions, confounding your opponent into submission, is a key feature of the Motte and Bailey, said Christopher Anadale, an associate professor of philosophy at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md. He has taught the Motte and Bailey to students and thinks its effectiveness is underappreciated.
That richness and complexity help explain why the Motte and Bailey is more than a simple fallacy. Rather, Shackel calls it a “doctrine” because it is a rhetorical strategy that encompasses a range of logical fallacies and rhetorical feints – such as bait-and-switch, good cop/bad cop and strategic equivocation – that serve as evasive maneuvers in intellectual jousting. As it identifies, for the first time, a unifying principle for these various strategies, it provides a name for an increasingly common method of discourse.
Several philosophy scholars contacted by RealClearInvestigations said a widely circulating example that is prone to Motte and Bailey manipulation is “black lives matter” (the Motte) and “Black Lives Matter” (the Bailey), two very different concepts that can be interchanged almost without notice.
The lower-case form is a self-evident truth where an activist can safely retreat if pressed on the politics of the organization that bears the same name. The capitalized version is a political movement with an agenda that includes slavery reparations, queer advocacy, anti-capitalism and “disrupt[ing] the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure.”
The result: Well-intentioned people -- and virtue-signaling companies and other organizations -- may hesitate challenging Black Lives Matter for fear of being accused of rejecting the unassailable idea that “black lives matter,” as if the two were identical. As brazen as it appears, many people become flustered, unaware that the stratagem depends on a simple equivocation.
“I think it’s a very useful concept to have in my arsenal of concepts to analyze what’s going on,” said Kenny Easwaran, philosophy professor at Texas A&M University and co-editor of the Journal of Philosophical Logic. “It’s behavior we’ve seen, but we see so much more of it now.”
James Lindsay, an independent academic and blogger, noted that “Make America Great Again” functions in much the same way, exposing critics to the charge of being unpatriotic and not wanting to “make America great again.” The lower-case version is a harmless cliché (the Motte) that is almost undeniable, while the upper-case political slogan (the Bailey) is associated with such controversial propositions as “Build the wall,” “Lock her up,” “Fake news,” “Deep State” and other aspects of President Trump’s rhetoric that many people find odious.
The Motte and Bailey formulation derives from the Norman French words for a high mound and an enclosed area -- common features in hundreds of medieval English castles. The pairing, which sounds like the name of a law firm or description of a chess move, describes the castle’s defense fortification, making it easy to conceptualize and to remember. The Bailey is the productive area around the castle containing stables, workshops and other places exposed to enemy attack and difficult to defend; in the modern usage, it represents the controversial doctrine that is hard to defend philosophically but produces the desired political results. The Motte is a steep mound topped with an impregnable tower, or a keep, that’s good for a hasty retreat and for shooting arrows at the encroaching foe. In philosophy, the Motte is the easy-to-defend, fallback pabulum that has no political value or cultural stock except as a bad faith evasive maneuver to save the Bailey.
“You shuffle between two claims like a three-card monte dealer,” said Anadale.
“This one has the advantage of having a cool name and a really easy to visualize metaphor for what’s happening: skirmishes in the Bailey, and then you retreat to the Motte, and then you come back out to plant your victory flag in the Bailey and pretend as though there is this identification between the claims,” Anadale explained.
Part of the Motte and Bailey’s mystique draws on its relatively recent application to philosophy and addition to the Western panoply of logical fallacies – which include straw man arguments, ad hominem attacks, appeals to emotion and false dilemmas. The Motte and Bailey is so new that it still hasn’t worked its way into textbooks and general parlance, but some logicians who specialize in rhetoric say that given its prevalence in public discourse, it’s only a matter of time.
It is finding a receptive audience online, where the strategy is often deployed in the culture of digital dueling. It’s been mentioned almost daily on Twitter lately, but documenting its rate of adoption is nearly impossible because the term is still commonly used to refer to actual medieval castles, not just the rhetorical trickery that shares the same name.
More broadly, though, the Motte and Bailey functions as a mirror reflecting our post-truth age of fakery and deceit. It’s one of a number of new debating gimmicks and fallacies that seem to have surfaced in recent years, almost all of them tied to the scorched-earth ideological warfare waged on social media. The toxic realm of cancel culture has given rise to such digital psy-ops as gaslighting; what-aboutism; well-poisoning; as well as sea-lioning, or wearing down your opponent with incessant demands for evidence and proof; and Kafkatrapping, a debating trick that treats a denial, or attempt at self-defense, as evidence of guilt.
Shackel originally posited the Motte and Bailey to analyze a duplicitous tendency he saw with Michel Foucault and other post-modernist philosophers in academic treatises. That was a year before Twitter was established in 2006 and long before Shackel could have foreseen that his apposite discovery would become amenable to a broader application. But he intuited that the Motte and Bailey was connected to something devious and dangerous in human nature.
“I saw this as being a feature of belief systems in general that worried me,” Shackel said in a phone interview. "It is scary to see how the belief systems that motivate people are able to defend themselves against the obvious refutations that can be given."
He wrote that the simplest way of setting up a Motte and Bailey is through the arbitrary redefinition of a word. To illustrate the stratagem, Shackel’s 2005 paper offered an example from Lewis Carroll’s children’s classic, “Through the Looking Glass,” in which Humpty Dumpty petulantly redefined the word “glory” to mean “a nice knock-down argument.”
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
When Alice objects to this 19th-century version of the Motte and Bailey, Humpty offers a retort presciently expressing the post-modernist tenet that the function of language is not to express truth but to consolidate power:
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”
Shackel’s ingenuity may have lain dormant forever if not for its citation in 2014 in the Slate Star Codex blog that has an avid following among technologists, scientists, philosophers, and other academicians and intellectuals.
'The Thing Social Justice Does'
At a time when Black Lives Matter was taking shape and social justice activism was taking over college campuses, Slate Star Codex noted that the Motte and Bailey “is a term for the thing social justice does.” The “thing” the blog had in mind was the redefinition of two common words – privilege and racism -- that were expanded and deployed to cow people into submission.
“Why couldn’t people who want to talk about structural oppression make up their own word, thus solving the confusion?” the blog asked. “And how come this happens with every social justice word?”
Slate Star Codex revisited the Motte and Bailey in another blog post that same year, noting that the fallacy is not limited to social justice activism but widely used to make unprovable claims in religion, feminism, pseudoscience, and rationalism as well as by singularitarians, or futurists who believe in the inevitable evolution of computers into a god-like super-intelligence that will guide human affairs.
“The motte and bailey doctrine sounds kind of stupid and hard-to-fall-for when you put it like that, but all fallacies sound that way when you’re thinking about them,” Slate Star Codex said.
The Motte is often presented in the form of a taboo, rendering it immune to attack. The example given from feminism will look familiar to any habitué of academe:
Bailey: A demand that everybody support controversial policies like hiring preferences for women and affirmative consent laws.
Motte: “But feminism is just the belief that women are people!”
Dubious science comes in a similar flavor:
Bailey: Such-and-such unregulated and unapproved treatment will cure cancer or alleviate pain.
Motte: “People need hope, and even a placebo solution will often relieve stress and help people feel cared for.”
Case in point: President Trump saying, "What do you have to lose?" in urging people to try unproven hydroxychloroquine against COVID-19.
This writer was recently treated to a Motte and Bailey during the course of reporting an earlier story that looked at teaching elementary-schoolers to celebrate gender pronouns and gender fluidity.
When asked if that was the intention of the original policy, which was billed as promoting the teaching of LGBTQ contributions in history and culture, the sponsor of the legislation hid behind a Motte:
“To me it sounds like all they’re teaching children is to be tolerant, kind and respectful of their classmates – that’s the underlying intention.”
In other words: Questioning the age-appropriateness of teaching first-graders about non-binary genders was akin to intolerance, unkindness and disrespect for trans folks.
Andrew Aberdein, a philosophy professor at the Florida Institute of Technology, said the Motte and Bailey is memorable as a meme and as an idea, making it an ideal concept for the digital era. What’s more, he said, it was much harder to expose a Motte and Bailey in the past, when most informal communications were spoken and not recorded; but now Tweets and other social media posts are preserved online and searchable, which “makes it that much easier to indict the speaker with a Motte and Bailey.”
“The Motte and Bailey fallacy allows the arguer to claim that he’s never actually been refuted,” Anadale told Mount St. Mary’s seminary students in a 2018 lecture posted on YouTube.
“Your arguer might claim that the critic is himself a fool or morally deficient for rejecting or calling into question the obvious Motte claim that everyone agrees with,” he said. “This is obviously a planned maneuver, just as if you’re defending a castle: You skirmish in the courtyard and withdraw behind the tall walls and just shoot arrows or throw filth at people.”