Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Tax Day, or Dismantling Right-Wing Frames, One Person At a Time

I paid the government the $3200 or so I owed it today, with a whole day or so to spare. I had a rather interesting conversation with the clerk at the bank, who said something about my not wanting to pay "the government," and I said, "Eh, it's not so bad. I like the stuff I get for paying taxes. I've probably used that much in doctor's appointments last year alone. So fair's fair." He got this wonderful "I didn't think of that before" sort of look on his face, said, "Yeah, that's fair," and handed me my slip back.

Side Note: Hello friends here to read the "How to Argue..." series. My spoons took a wrong toin at Albuquoique and there's just no way I'm going to be able to write anything else today. Fear not, I shall return with more argument analysis anon. In the meantime, go read Streetcars -- a simple thought experiment."

Saturday, April 26, 2008


My friend Rustin has (finally!) started a blog of his own. It's called From Streetcars to Spaceships. A few choice samples:

A Smoking Gun In The Hands of the Transit Monopolists:
I found a stack of old newspapers at an estate sale last weekend. One from right about the end of World War II caught my eye. I think that what I found is pretty damn important since it documents a transit monopoly that isn't in the much-discussed Snell Report. ... I'm hoping that by posting this sort of thing I can shed a bit more light on what really created our current appalling situation. (This relates directly to my Streetcar Series, linked in the sidebar, for what it's worth.)

I walk. That shouldn't be a problem.
Move transit stops closer to destinations. As with cabs, most pedestrians also use buses and having the bus or the MAX stop allllll the way at the far edge of a mall or, say, the Portland Expo Center just adds one more impediment to leaving the car at home. Why should access for transit only be put out past the furthest possible space beyond the worst possible parking spots?

Jet packs -- some history to think about
Allegedly one day during the Nixon administration a couple of folks from the White House just showed up at the project and said, "as of now you're all reassigned. Your work is all classified; you're now funded. ... Welcome to the cruise missile program." And so the jetpack project morphed into cruise missile engine work and the original project got uncreated.

He's also been a mad posting maniac lately, so watch for lots of activity there (unlike the kind of output you get out of Your Humble But Poky Narrator).

Monday, April 21, 2008

How To Argue Like a Right-Winger, Part 2

Author's Note: This is the second part of a multi-part series. Part 1 appears here.

In the first part of this series, I looked at six common tactics used in fallacious arguments, primarily drawn from right-wing sources. (For what it's worth, various factions on the less reality-based segments of the political left tend to use these too, but they're neither germane to the target audience for this series, nor a particular problem at the moment.)

For those of you playing along at home, there may very well wind up being enough of these to fill a Bingo card. If anyone with better graphics skills than I would do one, I'd appreciate a link!

  1. The Windows Fallacy, or Keyword Triggering.

    What is it? This is one of the key cognitive and argumentative strategies employed by hard-core right-wingers. I've taken the name of the phenomenon from something that the Microsoft Windows operating system used to do (it may very well still, but I've beaten XP into submission years ago, and have no plans to downgrade to Vista), where you would perform an action, and Windows would interpret it differently to how you had meant it, in effect saying, "You just tried to do X! You must mean 'Do Y!' instead!" (Picture Clippy the Psychopathic Paperclip speaking that line, and you'll have it perfectly.) Likewise, this phenomenon refers to the unusual tendency for right-wingers to think they know what you're talking about based on hearing (and only hearing) keywords and not parsing what you're actually saying. From there, they feel perfectly free to assume they know what you're talking about, and generally feel free to dismiss, discard, and refuse to respond to the rest of your argument. In essence, you could say this behaviour is a synthesis between the Strawman (the caricature has primacy over your actual speech acts), Conflation (two things confused), a lack of understanding of figurative speech, and overall intellectual laziness. It also ties in nicely with denialism, which seems to have a lot in common with radical right-wingery.

    For example, my friend Rustin just had a conversation regarding sewer storm peak with an apparently very right-wing member of the Portland, OR city government. He was trying to pitch a solution he'd come up with to help ease water overflow problems by slowing off-roof outflow, essentially by attaching a gizmo to a downspout that would function not unlike a large plastic bottle with small holes punched in the bottom. Try as he might, he couldn't get the guy to understand what he was talking about. "Think about it like a rainbarrel with holes in the bottom," Rustin said. "That won't work," answered the municipal mook, "Rainbarrels only solve the problem for the first surge of the first storm of the season," and shut his ears off again. Apparently there were several iterations of this, with Rustin trying ever more exotic ways of framing the concept, and the RW shooting down what he was thinking he was hearing every time.

    Where Do People Use It? This one is nearly universal. You'll see this in discussions about public policy, politics, evolution, and just about everywhere else.

    What Does It Do? It allows the RW to maintain his or her protective bubble of stereotypes, preconceptions, prejudice, and ideology, because nothing you're saying will actually penetrate. Because the preconceptions and ideology are so ingrained, it also reinforces political divides where people might be able to find common ground.

    How to Combat It. Point out that the RW is using the tactic. Ask the RW to define the terms they think they're hearing. Define your terms. Try to reframe the issue in completely unfamiliar and unexpected ways so that the RW in question doesn't have any easy cubbyholes to stick your arguments based on their existing set of keywords. This is probably not easy, and may not even be possible, however.

  2. Argument By Assertion

    What is it? This name refers to RW's tendency to argue by asserting that certain things are true or valid without actually having to provide any evidence that they actually are. A clever RW debater will actually say something like, "I hope you'll grant me the point that..." or "Of course, we can all agree that..." (Don't do it! Never let them get away with this! Give your opponent the first premise, and you've just lost the argument.) Another tactic a clever RW debater will use in conjunction with this one is to assert (or assume) that it's up to the other side to prove them wrong. Bzzzt! Sorry, no. Claims require evidence, and the person making the claim is obligated to provide the evidence for that claim.

    Where Do People Use It? Everywhere.

    What Does It Do? Ideally for the RW, it either gives them a leg up on the whole argument by granting them the first premise, or else it diverts and derails the discussion into having the helpful liberals do the RW's homework for them, which they will then ignore or use to nitpick (see "Changing the Subject" from Part 1).

    How to Combat It. There are several things you can do to combat this one, including the old high school debate-team tactic of repeating "State your sources" over and over. Try to get the RW to pony up their sources. Point out to other readers that they won't if they don't. If they do, point out any biases or known deficiencies in the source. Secondly, don't fall for either of the two traps outlined in the first section here. Don't give the RW the first premise. (I'd recommend not giving them the time of day, but I'm not one of these "nice liberals.") Don't do the RW's homework for them, and don't let the claim that they have to be "proven wrong" stand unchallenged, either.

  3. False Comparison

    What is it? This is a comparison supposedly made for statistical or analogical purposes (but note that right-wingers are really notoriously bad at analogy; they tend to be disturbingly literal-minded for people who have seriously broken user-to-world interfaces) that for some reason or other simply does not work. Examples include the scarily innumerate "Iraq is less dangerous than Washington, DC" canard, and, as I mentioned earlier, the "male circumcision is exactly like female genital mutilation!" problem that occurs every single time a feminist blog attempts to discuss FGM.

    Where Do People Use It? Generally this one gets used anywhere the RW wants to either exaggerate or deprecate a particular point (as in the examples above, one of each). By making a false comparison, they're drawing an equivalence between the two things that doesn't belong.

    Aside: Formally, in metaphorics, we'd call a false comparison a "mismatch between the source and target domains," meaning that the trait selected for the comparison doesn't actually have what we'd call "congruence" (similarity) between the thing we're comparing and the thing to which we're comparing it. You can see how this works in the examples above. For more information, you can get a small taste in section II:1 of this paper, or you can go look up George Lakoff's original work on metaphorics and conceptual metaphor theory.

    What Does It Do? As I stated above, this one either heightens or lowers the importance of a point unduly. It's used to minimise important issues and make mountains out of molehill issues. (No word on the whereabouts of the mountain's Mohammed, however.) It also can act as fodder for a derail, as various people will be tempted to leap in and correct the false comparison, bad statistics, or other falsehoods.

    How to Combat It. Correct the falsehoods if necessary, then return to topic. Point out that the exaggerated or minimised topic is as (un)important as it actually is.

  4. Argument from Tone Problem or the Plea for Civility

    What is it? Pretty much everyone in the liberal blogosphere is familiar with this one. Some RW will enter an argument spewing the same damn tired stupid canards that have already been debunked seven hundred thousand times as though they're new, exciting, and original. (I was saying about a lack of imagination? Guys -- you need a better farm system, because your fresh talent is looking like it turned into sludge in the icebox a couple years ago.) Various commenters will leap on them, perhaps intemperately, and the RW will immediately put on a big show about being offended by the very nasty words s/he hoped to provoke in the first place. You also see this a lot in right-left blog wars, where the right side of the blogosphere basically writes off the entire left side on the grounds that we DFHs fucking swear too fucking much. You also saw a variant of this when faux-moderate right-wing blogger Ann Althouse tore into feminist blogger Jessica Valenti for daring to wear her breasts while in the same room as Bill Clinton. How incivil!

    This one is a key component of the phenomenon known as concern trolling.

    Where Do People Use It? This one comes out pretty much anywhere tempers get hot and someone uses invective. Which, in liberal circles where we tend to both not be so uptight about looking proper in public and the power of malediction in general, this one gets used a lot.

    What Does It Do? It's a distraction, a way of changing the subject, a way of derailing, and a "make the bastard deny it" tactic.

    How to Combat It. Ignore it if possible. Point out to the other commenters that the RW is attempting to change the subject by using this tactic. Stay on topic.

This essay is getting very long, so I'm going to wrap it up here, but I will apparently be writing another part, since there's still so much more to cover. Stay tuned...

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Propaganda Alert: Biofuels and Food Shortages

I notice that every article is blaming rising food prices worldwide on rising production of biofuels based on corn and wheat. Interestingly, I can't actually find any statistics on how much diversion of the total staple crop the rise in biofuels production supposedly accounts for. The closest I can come is this blurb from this article, which seems speculative at best: "Most look at a scenario in the year 2015 where the American farmer will produce 15 billion bushels of corn, said Renewable Fuels Association spokesperson Matt Hartwig. If the ethanol industry can produce three gallons of ethanol per bushel, that will mean using about one third of that crop to make 15 billion gallons of ethanol as mandated by the Renewable Fuel Standard in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA)."

Also, not one of the myriad articles, blog comments, and suchlike I've seen mentioning biofuels as one of the causes of the problem (if not the primary cause, which I find extremely hard to believe) mentions the Ug99 wheat blight, a new, emerging strain of wheat rust to which every major wheat strain in commercial production is vulnerable, and which has been devastating wheat crops in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The most populous regions in the world are losing most of their wheat crop to Ug99 (the "breadbasket" area of Africa has been especially hard-hit), and demand is spilling over -- people have to eat, whether they're eating wheat, corn, rice, or other staples. Given that, I'm calling bullshit on the biofuels scare tactics.

That absolutely reeks of propaganda, for three reasons. First of all, it's easy to enforce the petroleum status quo if you can say to people, "Oh, the hippies with their biodiesel are the reason you're now paying two and a half bucks for bread, and why half of the world is starving." Secondly, since corn ethanol in particular is being heavily subsidised by the US government, you can pretty much tell that EISA is a straight-up Bush Administration gift-with-a-bow-on-top to Archer Daniels Midland, Monsanto, and other big agribusiness players. Thirdly, it's easy to discredit biofuels if you make them synonymous in most people's minds with inefficient, wasteful, high-maintenance products like corn ethanol -- in many people's minds, reinforcing ideas like that leaves no conceptual space for other alternatives. So if corn ethanol = biofuels, and corn ethanol sucks, then biofuels suck, right? After all, it wouldn't do for the energy plutocrats in the Bush Administration to have people know that the most efficient way of doing biofuels is using no-till, low-maintenance, fast-growing crops like switchgrass... (Good thing the Manitoba government is a bit smarter and less evil than the Bushies.)

What an impressive hat trick.

h/t Bark Bark Woof Woof for the idea.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

At Least If I Put My Foot In Your Ass, the Heel Won't Split Your Cute Little Skirt

Dear Claire Coleman,

People like you make it harder for people like me to be people like me. You see, there's no way I could be "on trend" when the trend is five, six, seven-inch stilletto heels. I can't walk in heels. I mean, can't. (This is one of the downsides of having cerebral palsy; look it up.)

On top of that, people like you being so enthusiastic to embrace sartorial trends that sacrifice functionality for some warped bizarre version of "looks" (have you ever really sat down to think about why, for women, "vulnerable" is synonymous with "sexy" in many people's minds?) raises the bar for the rest of us, increasing the cultural demands on all of us to perform more and more extreme iterations of conventional femininity.

While I actually am a man-hating, hairy-legged radical feminist, I'm not telling you to give up your fashion-forward ways, or even throw your conspicuous-consumption limo shoes in the wheelie-bin (although I might strongly urge you to do so for reasons having more to do with your health than anything else). But for the love of all that's non-patriarchal, think a little bit. You don't have to be a stereotype, even if you do write for the Mail. Embrace your inner Birkenstock-wearing flannel-shirted lesbian, and let it go a little bit. Shoes are not power, contrary to what you might believe. (Then again, what do I know? I'm probably taller than you are when you're in heels and I'm in flats.)

Earning your own money, having your own place, being able to kick the asshole to the curb when you need to -- that's power, and it's an awful lot easier to accomplish in sensible shoes than when you feel like you're trying to "climb Everest on stilts."

Just a thought.



Saturday, April 12, 2008

I Win the Internets

This blog is currently the only hit for "scrofulous bastard." Congratulations, Stephen F. Harper, you scrofulous bastard you, for giving me a fleeting moment as someone's Googlewhack.

Friday, April 04, 2008


Author's Note: A much shorter version of this essay appeared in comments at Orcinus.

Normally, I agree completely with David Neiwert, who is wise and intelligent and one hell of a writer. His commenters, on the other hand, often get up my nose, sometimes in surprisingly amusing ways. However, today he wrote something I just can't let rest. He said, "Indeed, it is not just hard, it's practically impossible for a white person to understand the resentment that young African Americans feel after a lifetime of having doors slammed in their faces and being treated as second-class citizens."

I don't know that it's "practically impossible." I'm white, and it happens to me every day. Let me tell you about it.

Try being a white person with a visible disability for a while. If you don't notice someone visibly recoiling at your dysfunctional carcass, you'll notice the questions. (I seem to get "How did you hurt your leg?" and "Are you blind in that eye?" most often; it's not unlike how pregnant women find their bodies are suddenly public property. If I were going to be really full of hubris about it, I'd imagine it's similar to the questions people of colour get about their hair, getting sunburns, and that sort of thing.)

That's assuming of course people don't just skip straight to talking to you like you're five years old even long after you've been buying alcohol regularly without getting carded.

Hell, even the landscape discriminates against you -- how many restaurants/public facilities have you been in lately where the bathrooms are in the basement, and/or where the front doors aren't level-access? (Aren't "grandfathered" building code exemptions great?) Try waiting hours for a paratransit bus booked days in advance, only to have it not show up, which makes people think you're unreliable and irresponsible for not making your appointments.

Try hearing statistics like that anti-disabled hate crimes are rising.

Or that where you live, almost one in three disabled people who want to work and are capable are unemployed anyway (compared with an overall rate of six in a hundred). If you actually do manage to find and keep a job, try looking at the dismal state of your finances and then hearing that other, able-bodied people with your level of skill and education are making tens of thousands of dollars a year more than you, and have been for their entire careers. Think about what that means for your retirement, which, for health reasons, will probably come earlier than most people's. (Not being American, I don't even have to worry about being trapped in a crappy job I hate because I desperately need the health insurance -- just being trapped in a crappy job I hate because if I quit I can't be sure I'll get another one before I go broke and wind up "at no fixed address." Again.)

Try hearing things like that the actual medical name of your condition is considered a rather severe pejorative. Try hearing that it's considered to be the worst thing you can call someone. I don't live in the country where it is, but the fact that there is a country where that word is considered to be the worst possible insult should give you some pause.

(I am a spastic, and can people please not use the term as an insult anymore? "Spastic" is the actual medical terminology. It means "muscular rigidity." Have a nice rigidly muscular day.)

Try hearing, "When I first met you, I thought that thing with your eye was really creepy/freaky/weird"...

...from your boyfriend of two years. And your best friend. And various other friends and acquaintances who all sound suitably shame-faced about it, but still.

Bonus points: Watch how it freaks certain people out that you even have a boyfriend, because, ew, disabled people want to have sex?! The upside to the residual cultural freakiness about gimp sexuality is that at least if you're female, the normal rigid looks-based patriarchal gender enforcement doesn't apply to you quite as much. On the other hand, since you're obviously not a sex object, you're going to be trained from the age of awareness to be helpful and obsequious to anyone and everyone, that is, trained as a service object.*

Then try having the humbling realisation that compared to what you would have gone through if you'd been born thirty, fifty, a hundred years earlier, you've got it good. I mean, systemic, looks-based prejudice beats being dead, caged in a crate, locked in an attic, or institutionalised just on general principles.

Then, if and when you admit how angry you are about how bad things still are, people say "I think you're overreacting," "You're reading too much into it," "If you were nicer to people, they'd be nicer to you," "Why are you so bitter?" "There's nothing you can do about it."

While you're watching how few depictions of people like you there are in the media, and how most of them are either tragic characters or victims of violence, watch people blame you for prejudice-related problems. Watch it happen over and over again. Watch them tell you: If you can't get a job, you must be doing something wrong. If you can't catch a break, you just can't get out of your own way.

Count the number of times someone tells you that "you have to stop feeling sorry for yourself." Count the number of times someone tells you that you'd do better if only you would stop feeling sorry for yourself. Count the number of times the same people confuse (conflate) being angry with "feeling sorry for yourself." Count the number of times you suspect they're doing it on purpose because it makes them feel better.

Count the number of times you manage to say something polite back. Count the number of times you don't call someone out on being rude.

Count the number of times you feel ashamed of yourself for wanting to punch that person in the face.

On the other hand, watch able-bodied people insinuate and argue behind your back that you're getting something you don't deserve if you happen to be a beneficiary of government largesse/an assistance programme/affirmative action.

So yeah, I think at least some white people can kind of get an inkling of why black people are pissed off due to the white overclass treating them like shit.

I can only imagine what handicapped people of colour go through...

(Keep in mind, I have had every conceivable advantage of skin colour and inherited class privilege**, this stuff still happens to even me.)

* I can't count the number of times my own mother called me "inconsiderate," and I don't actually think I was really any more "inconsiderate" than any other white suburban kid, especially since the offenses for which I was being called out for were things like grabbing a drink from the fridge without first asking if everyone else wanted one too (and then serving everyone who did before myself, of course).

** Despite having wealthy parents and an excellent education, I'm downwardly mobile; my parents were the first generation in their families to leave the working class, and, despite being a "professional" in that I sit at a desk all day and am not doing manual labour, I'm not in a managerial or supervisory job at all (which makes me "working class" by some definitions). I make less money (in inflation-adjusted dollars) now as a mid-career professional than my mother did in her first job...in 1965. Fuck your "screen inches index," this is reality.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

I Didn't Like You Much Before; I Like You Even Less Now


If I were a politician and a tape came out where I said, ""The A's are guys like me, the B's are homosexual faggots with dirt on their fingernails that transmit disease," do you think I'd be ripe for my political party kicking me out of my seat?

Apparently, according to Stephen Harper and the CRAP Crew, it's ok to make mean-spirited homophobic remarks as long as you really and sincerely apologise...

...after you get caught, of course.

And naturally, "House Leader Peter Van Loan says Regina Lumsden Lake Centre MP Tom Lukiwski has apologized for his remarks and the Conservatives are convinced he does not hold those same views today."

You got any, uh, evidence for that? This is after all, a guy who gained his seat because his predecessor got kicked out of the party (probably strictly on an optics deal) for suggesting that homosexuality be recriminalised. Note to Saskatchehoovian LGBT people: Avoid Regina like the plague; they grow the bigots thick up there.

Apparently someone else on the same tape said "Roy Romanow's got his head up his ass I don't even know how he walks upright with his head so far up his ass," and a third person on the tape said that "Grant Devine will ... kick the balls right off of that hard-headed slut [former Saskatchewan Liberal party leader Lynda Haverstock]." (Obligatory radical feminist moment: Note that in the mind of whoever said that, Lynda Haverstock is a "slut" because she's "hard-headed" but she apparently has "balls" to boot. So which is it, boys, balls, or sluttiness? Seems the way you patriarchal rubes construct this stuff, you can't really have both in one feminine package... Unfortunately, the rank misogynistic comment is also the only one quoted where the speaker isn't named. Whoever you are, you have problems. Lots of problems.)

Nice going, guys. Throw in some gratuitous comments about "drunken Indians," "Pakkies," or whatever the hell the current cool ethnic slur is, and you'll have hit the bigotry trifecta.

Jesus. If I were Stephen Harper (which I'm not, thank goodness) I'd throw all of these guys out of the party just for the optics. It's disgusting how many people actually vote for people who think this way. (It's more disgusting how many people actually think that way, but they're also not usually enacting public policy.)

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

How to Argue Like a Right-Winger

As a student of rhetoric, I like to read a lot of blogs where people of opposing political philosophies crash together. Very few things make me happier than a huge thread on, say, Pharyngula where one of the usual cre(a)ti(o)nist trolls shows up, ditto the anti-vaccinationists or HIV-AIDS denialists at denialism blog, the usual gang of Deepak Chopra fans, woo-believers, and miscellaneous freaks and flakes who show up at Respectful Insolence. You see about the same things when the Ron Paul brigades were descending en masse onto David Neiwert's Orcinus, and see it there still in the form of anti-immigration types, the usual neo-Nazi nutcases (sorry, David, I'm still chuckling over "fat, ethnically Israeli forehead"), and assorted other off-their-meds hangers-on. The trolls spew things out, and people respond, and the trolls counter-spew, and people respond to those, and you get these marvellous multithreaded arguments happening. It's extremely useful to watch these arguments, because you can see the same tactics coming up over and over again.

So, that said, allow me to present a few of the rhetorical tactics you're likely to see in these sorts of arguments. Watch for them. (You could even make a Bingo card, if you felt so inclined.)

  1. Moving the Goalposts.

    What Is It?   In this tactic, the person using it demands a "burden of proof" (so to speak) progressively farther beyond the original scope of the argument. For example, the RW will say, "You haven't demonstrated X, show me some proof of X," and when people provide that, they say, "But that didn't actually prove anything. Now you need to demonstrate Y," and so on, until people either stop responding or the discussion gets bogged down in tiny irrelevant minutiae.

    Where Do People Use It?    You see this one all the time, especially when talking about "controversial" areas of science. It's commonly found in discussions about evolution. People are going along having a lovely conversation about the vagaries by which living things change over time (because no individual is identical to their parents), e.g. evolution, and some creationist troll pops up and starts demanding that people on the thread account for the origins of life itself (abiogenesis). Pretty soon everyone on the thread is talking about abiogenesis and the various hypotheses surrounding that.

    What Does It Do?    It's basically a technique for muddying the rhetorical waters and derailing comment threads away from the original point of discussion.

    How to Combat It    Use the "I see what you did there" method -- mention that the RW poster is moving the goalposts (for the benefit of the other commenters and readers if nothing else), then stay on topic. If the RW in question is using the tactic to avoid answering an uncomfortable question or addressing a point, repeat the item the RW is avoiding. Above all, encourage other commenters to stay on topic.

  2. The Gish Gallop.

    What Is It?   This tactic, named after notorious professional creationist debater Duane Gish, is also known as the "fling shit at the wall and see what sticks" technique. People using it spew out as many premises in their argument as they can, combining fact, lies, bullshit, and opinion in a non-stop avalanche. A really good example of this tactic is here, where you see a right-winger construct a strawman (we'll get to that) composed of no fewer than six beliefs and then refer to it as one belief.

    Where Do People Use It?    This one occurs most frequently in evolution/creationism debates, but it does occasionally come up in political debates. Denialists of all stripes also seem to be fond of using it.

    What Does It Do?    Essentially, it's a form of "tinfoiling the radar," making it impossible for your opponent to refute your argument because it takes ten times as long to unpack and refute (every single point) than it does to argue in the first place. It's also a great favourite of RW debaters in public fora, because it allows the RW in question to dazzle the audience with bullshit.

    How to Combat It    This is one where you can't really combat it effectively once the RW doing it has the bit between their teeth and has started to run away with the discourse. You can really only combat a Gish Gallop effectively by forcing the RW to stop after each point and refuting the points one at a time. Countering it in a written medium is a little easier, because you can pick apart each claim, but be prepared to write things like the judge's commentary here.

  3. The Strawman

    What Is It?    The essence of this tactic is to set up a caricature of your opponent (most amenable to demolishing by your preferred line of argumentation, of course), then proceed to knock it down. You can see an excellent discussion of this tactic (carried on at book length in the Left Behind series!) at Slacktivist's post "The Imaginary Liberal." Jonah Goldberg's exercise in historical revisionism Liberal Fascism is essentially one long exercise in building strawmen.

    Where Do People Use It?    Everywhere. This one is so ubiquitous, it turns up in discussions of politics, feminism, denialism, crankery, science, economics and everywhere the reality-based mindset conflicts with right-wing ideology.

    What Does It Do?    It gives the RW arguer an "easy score" (against a completely imaginary opponent). It also forces the RW's opponents to have to deny the specific accusations against them.

    How to Combat It    Point out that the RW is using the tactic, for the benefit of the other commenters and the readers. Reframe the argument using positive terms, if possible.

  4. Changing the Subject

    What Is It?    This is probably the most transparent rhetorical trick in the RW arsenal. Basically, when confronted with an argument they don't like, they proceed to talk about something else. More sophisticated RW arguers will make sure that the attempted subject-change is related (but tangential) to the subject. Really clever RW arguers will attempt to cement the relationship between the original subject and the subject of the derailment by drawing an equivalence (usually false) between the two things. (In feminist circles, this argumentation tactic is generally referred to as the "But What About The Menz" gambit.) An example of an arguer using this tactic would be that any time a feminist blog attempts to discuss female genital mutilation, anti-feminist trolls invariably descend and try to change the subject to talking about male circumcision, and almost always attempt to draw a direct equivalence between the two.

    Where Do People Use It?   Everywhere. Changing the subject is often the first tactic RW arguers use.

    What Does It Do?   It essentially derails the discussion, luring commenters into talking about a subject controlled by the RW, and not the original arguer or other commenters.

    How to Combat It    Don't give the subject-changer the control. Stay on topic. Point out the attempt to derail the discussion by changing the subject for the benefit of other commenters and readers.

  5. Conflation

    What Is It?    This tactic is used to generate a long-lasting pollution of terms by confusing two dissimilar things. An example of conflation would be the Bush Administration's relentless linking of Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein in speeches leading up to the invasion of Iraq and afterward. You can see a similar thing happening in John McCain's recent speeches, where he's (deliberately or not) confusing Sunni Iraq and Shia Iran. The tactic works similarly to the sleeper effect, in that over time, the two items can become indistinct in people's minds (similar to how, in the sleeper effect, a viewer's skepticism of a biased source may disappear over time in relation to how persuasive the message is).

    Where Do People Use It?    Conflation occurs when there are two demonised elements in the discussion, so it happens a lot in political discussions (Iraq/Al Qaeda, Iraq/Iran) and anti-vaccination denialism (where the element shifts between "mercury" in vaccines -- until it's pointed out that there isn't really any mercury left in vaccines -- to the more general "toxins"). Oftentimes, both of the demonised elements are treated as equivalent, if not identical.

    What Does It Do?    Conflation is designed to muddy the waters in an argument, to pollute the semantic environment. It's also designed to degrade the meaning of certain terms into meaninglessness, thereby decreasing their rebuttal value. RW arguers often use conflation in conjunction with Moving the Goalposts, for extra rhetorical effect, in essence creating a mass of shifting argumentative objectives overlaid with a layer of ill-defined terms. If the terms of the argument are unclear, the argument is nearly impossible to refute.

    How to Combat It    Point out that the two elements are not, in fact, the same, for the benefit of the other commenters and the readers. Define the terms. Ask the RW arguer to define their terms. Do not allow the RW to set any of the terms of the argument (that is, don't buy into any of their frames).

  6. Projection

    What Is It?    This is another classic of RW argumentation -- basically, accuse your opponent of everything you're doing. As mentioned above, the book Liberal Fascism is also a classic example of projection, as David Neiwert has demonstrated in his series "If conservatives really, really hate being called fascists..." (See the sidebar for links to parts 1-6.)

    Where Do People Use It?    Arguers who are projecting usually use it in ad hominem attacks, or to attempt to cement a conflation. You're pretty much going to see RW arguers using psychological projection in every area of dispute.

    What Does It Do?    It does three things. First of all, it muddies the waters in the argument, by attempting to force the RW's opponents to answer the allegations. Secondly, it turns control of the argument over to the RW. Thirdly, it can be used in conjunction with a number of other rhetorical techniques (such as the Strawman, Changing the Subject, or Conflation) to make them more potent.

    How to Combat It    Point out that the arguer is projecting. Provide evidence that the arguer is projecting, then, where applicable, move back to the original topic. Refusing to allow a projection to become a derailment is particularly important in certain fora, and not so much in others. (In a comment thread, it's important. When dissecting articles by RW arguers that use the tactic, discussing the projection is the topic.) Above all, don't give the RW arguer control over the debate.

There are several others I could have gone into here, but these seem to be the most universal and widely-used. The object to using these tactics is, of course, to prevent people from having productive discussions of topics of their own choosing; it is vitally important to the RW arguer to have control over even fora they don't own, and can be seen as central to the overarching RW rhetorical mission to dominate the discourse to the exclusion of all other viewpoints. (As Jello Biafra says, "You can have right wing or extreme right wing.")

A Short Note On Purpose: The object of this essay is to teach liberals and people in the "reality-based community" how to win arguments. The object is not to persuade the opponent; I'm pretty much convinced that in most cases, that's impossible anyway. The point is to make sure you can answer and deflect the arguments when they appear in various media, whether online, on television, or in print, and rebut them effectively. The RW's opponent, in this case, is not practicing the art of suasion towards the RW, but rather pointing out to the other participants in the discussion why the RW is making a bad/fallacious/untrue argument, and how.

Update: Hello readers from TPM Cafe! If you liked this essay, please bookmark it and come back later, because there will be a Part II. In Part II, I'll be talking about the Ad Hominem logical fallacy, quote-mining, and other hits from the same album. --?!

Update Two: My buddy Spocko reminded me of a post he did quite a while ago called "How to Talk to Wingnuts," which contains many of the same points as in this first pass by the topic, although from a slightly different frame of reference. So, credit where credit is due, as I'm sure I read the post originally. By the way, if you're not reading Spocko, what the hell are you waiting for?