The year of Motte & Bailey arguments



This is the year of political arguments that are typified by the “Motte & Bailey” fallacy. What is Motte & Bailey, you ask? 

In the years following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, William the Conqueror erected fortresses to overawe the surrounding countryside and discourage rebellion. These crude castles were called Motte & Bailey structures. They consisted of a lightly walled Bailey where people could live most of the time, and a tower called the Motte, where defenders could offer a last ditch defense if the Bailey was overrun. 

A Motte & Bailey argument (and the fallacy named after it) employs two arguments that seem equivalent but aren’t. In it the person making the argument makes a wild claim that is hard to support, and upon pushback, retreats to a much easier to defend position.

So, for instance, someone who believes in all of the various positions associated with the Green New Deal, would, when challenged on one of the particulars, such as the extreme economic cost, fall back on the position: “Oh, I just want to keep the earth from being destroyed by the Heat Death.”

Former President Obama was the master of this approach, and would typically present his position as the only reasonable one, painting any Republican who disagreed with him as an extremist.

Someone who says that perhaps society should look at police reform in the wake of the death of George Floyd but doesn’t support “defunding,”  might find himself defending against, “Oh, you don’t support law enforcement” on the one hand, and on the other, “Black lives don’t matter to you! You’re just a white guy who doesn’t want to give up power!”

Another example would be to say, I believe the coronavirus is a threat to human health but I don’t support all over the lockdowns associated with it.  The Motte & Bailey argument from one end of the spectrum would be: “You don’t believe in science” or “You want my grandmother to die.” The arguments from the other end would be, “Making me wear a mask is tyranny” or “COVID is a hoax.”

Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee for president in 1964, famously declared in his acceptance speech, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. . .moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” For which Goldwater was thereafter besmirched as an extremist. However, his quote is an example of a Motte & Bailey argument, exemplified by the assumption that there is no middle ground.

The absence of a middle ground in the debates of the day is largely what accounts for the toxic nature of what passes for discourse in this country. The columnist and pundit Jonah Goldberg, author of “Liberal Fascism” and other excellent books, has attributed this atmosphere to two factors: the decline of the power of the political party and the rise of hyper partisanship. They may be different sides of the same coin.

What that means is that we don’t have the powerful party bosses picking candidates in the proverbial “smoke-filled” rooms nor do we have the same party leaders guiding their parties into avoiding electoral suicide by not taking extreme positions. Or preventing dicey candidates from being nominated. When party bosses lose control, you get someone like Trump being nominated by a national party when he had no history as a Republican before announcing his candidacy in 2015. Or, conversely, the near Marxist Bernie Sanders nearly clinches the nomination as a Democrat earlier this year when, he too, had no history as a Democrat.

You also get members of each party who so focus on what they personally dislike about each other that they can’t negotiate compromises, even if they might be for the good of the country.

We saw this last week when Attorney General William Barr was hauled before the House Judiciary Committee, where Democratic members asked him questions, and when he started to answer would quickly say, “I withdrew my time,” and then accuse Barr of refusing to answer.

That sort of disrespectful treatment, which, to be fair, Republicans used when former Attorney General Eric Holder used to appear before their committees, is a pretty good sign that you don’t think someone you disagree with is even worth listening to, and you don’t care to even make the pretense.

Sadly, half of our country regards the other half as irredeemable, or as Hillary put it, a bucket of “deplorables.” 

I’ve never felt this way about liberals, Democrats and progressives. I’ve been around enough and been friends with enough that I know how their minds work and while it’s not how my mind works, I respect their opinions.

Until we are willing to listen others’ opinions and resist retreating to our towers and defending them against all comers, the country will never be able to have a national conversation about, well, anything.

*Note: Opinions expressed by columnists and letter writers are those of the writers and not necessarily those of the newspaper.

2 responses to “The year of Motte & Bailey arguments”

  1. Dave says:

    Another clear cut factual analysis. Thank you!

  2. larry r markey says:

    Clearly stated!

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