This is an entry in the Alt-right Playbook.
You can convince an audience that you’re winning an argument, or at least plant doubts in their head, by holding an offensive posture. Display the outward signs of winning – confidence, always have a comeback, speak in soundbites, attack attack attack – and the audience may think that you won even if your opponent refutes your argument.
You also notice the pattern of the conversation: he says something short, quippy, and wrong, you give a detailed correction, he says something else short, quippy, wrong, and only tangentially related to his last point, and the cycle repeats itself. This goes on and on.
The running theme here is all these people who ostensibly want a frank exchange of ideas spend a lot more time making accusations than asking questions. Because, why ask what you believe when they can tell you what you believe and make you correct them? And if you ever don’t correct them, must be because they’re right.
And you’re not naive; you see what’s going on here. This isn’t about conversation, it’s about boxes. When you say something cogent that they don’t agree with, and they get the sinking feeling that you might start making sense, they need a reason not to listen to you [Cognitive dissonance]. So they reach for a box to stick you in: dishonest feminism, fake progressivism, daddy-issue liberalism. No one in those boxes is worth listening to, which means, as long as they’ve got you in one, they’re not at risk of having their minds changed. This isn’t even an argument with you, not really; their presenting themselves with arguments for why they don’t have to listen to you.
So your first reflex is to defy their expectations. “Actually, my dad was a draft-dodging hippie who told me he loved me every day.” “And I never said what genders my partners are but I promise they’re all feminists.” “As for my accent- actually, I don’t know what to do with the accent thing.” But the point is, “I refuse to fit in your box.” And if they can’t put you in one, if they can’t dismiss you outright, they’ll have to engage with your argument.
But if you’ve spent any time arguing with angry dudes online you know what I’m about to say: They don’t. This accusatory, condescending attitude never falters. Because a technique that has permeated anti-progressivism is to Never Play Defense.
Now don’t get me wrong, what I said about the Right fitting the Left into simplified boxes as a way of preserving their own egos, I do think that’s a thing, at least for many people much of the time. And I think the reassurance it brings is why the technique stays so popular. But that framing is about how individual people are feeling in isolated moments, and leaves out the larger game that’s being played. Because there is a long-term strategic value to never playing defense, and it’s less to do with arguments than with attitude.
From your perspective, this debate about the feminist is a joke. This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he comes in hot without confirming any of his assumptions, the whole conversation is you repeatedly schooling an ignorant dipshit. But that’s only if you’re the fool who listens to what’s actually being said. Never Play Defense is a strategy that looks past language to posture; the tone, word choice, even the expressions on your faces. If you half-focus your eyes and look not at the words but the flow of the conversation, you can see the dynamic at play:
He says his short, quippy statement, and you give your detailed rebuttal. He then picks a single point from your response and attacks that as the new subject. Now, to an onlooker, the logical brain would register that he’s leaving 90% of your argument on the table, and that, by changing positions, he’s conceding he lost the first round. But the lizard brain notices that he’s always making the accusations, always in the dominant position, that he’s always acting and you’re always reacting. Regardless of what is said, he displays all the outward signs of winning. So, on a purely emotional level, he leaves the impression of being right.
I have never had an argument look like this that wasn’t in public. This is a technique that means speaking not so much to the other person as to the people watching [Speak directly to the audience]. Liberals tend to operate as though voters are beings of pure reason, and neglect that rational people still have emotions, and those emotions factor into what they believe. And that long after this argument is over, when people only half-remember what was said, what lingers on is what impressions the speakers made.
Ronald Reagan coined the phrase, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” The trick is, if he’s always accusing, then you’re always explaining.
[…] if you never look like you’re losing, you can convince a lot of people that you’re [winning]. And, if you keep your statements short and punchy, people will remember what you said better than they remember the long explanation of why it’s untrue. If done correctly, you might even convince yourself you know what you’re talking about.
This argument isn’t just about sticking a woman in the Lying Feminism box so she doesn’t have to be listened to, it’s also signaling to anyone watching what box they should stick her in. Even if an onlooker recognizes that she literally did not con anyone out of their money, the idea that how much she asked for and how long she took to deliver are relevant to her credibility is still planted in their heads. It subtly suggests that, the next time they feel threatened by a female media critic, maybe they should look at how much money she makes, how long her work takes to produce; maybe they don’t have to listen to her, because they’ve got this handy box.
[…] The Alt-Right is a box factory, putting huge swaths of Leftist rhetoric, most especially that that would rebut their core positions, into categories where they can be summarily ignored.
A detailed explanation lands a lot better when it’s not being contrasted with a sound bite.