Motte And Bailey

I’ve just run across (hat-tip to Nick Land) an excellent, and apparently oft-cited, essay by Scott Alexander on the unique terminological characteristics of the various “social-justice” movements.

The essay describes a splendid metaphor: the “motte-and-bailey” style of argument. Here’s Section II of Mr. Alexander’s post:

I started this post by saying I recently learned there is a term for the thing social justice does. A reader responding to my comment above pointed out that this tactic had been described before in a paper, under the name “motte-and-bailey doctrine”.

The paper was critiquing post-modernism, an area I don’t know enough about to determine whether or not their critique was fair. It complained that post-modernists sometimes say things like “reality is socially constructed”. There’s an uncontroversial meaning here – we don’t experience the world directly, but through the categories and prejudices implicit to our society. For example, I might view a certain shade of bluish-green as blue, and someone raised in a different culture might view it as green. Okay. Then post-modernists go on to say that if someone in a different culture thinks that the sun is light glinting off the horns of the Sky Ox, that’s just as real as our own culture’s theory that the sun is a mass of incandescent gas a great big nuclear furnace. If you challenge them, they’ll say that you’re denying reality is socially constructed, which means you’re clearly very naive and think you have perfect objectivity and the senses perceive reality directly.

The writers of the paper compare this to a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along.

By this metaphor, statements like “God is an extremely powerful supernatural being who punishes my enemies” or “The Sky Ox theory and the nuclear furnace theory are equally legitimate” or “Men should not be allowed to participate in discussions about gender” are the bailey – not defensible at all, but if you can manage to hold them you’ve got it made.

Statements like “God is just the order and love in the universe” and “No one perceives reality perfectly directly” and “Men should not interject into safe spaces for women” are the motte – extremely defensible, but useless.

As long as nobody’s challenging you, you spend time in the bailey reaping the rewards of occupying such useful territory. As soon as someone challenges you, you retreat to the impregnable motte and glare at them until they get annoyed and go away. Then you go back to the bailey.

Then there’s this, from Section IV:

If racism school dot tumblr dot com and the rest of the social justice community are right, “racism” and “privilege” and all the others are innocent and totally non-insulting words that simply point out some things that many people are doing and should try to avoid.

If I am right, “racism” and “privilege” and all the others are exactly what everyone loudly insists they are not – weapons – and weapons all the more powerful for the fact that you are not allowed to describe them as such or try to defend against them. The social justice movement is the mad scientist sitting at the control panel ready to direct them at whomever she chooses. Get hit, and you are marked as a terrible person who has no right to have an opinion and who deserves the same utter ruin and universal scorn as Donald Sterling. Appease the mad scientist by doing everything she wants, and you will be passed over in favor of the poor shmuck to your right and live to see another day. Because the power of the social justice movement derives from their control over these weapons, their highest priority should be to protect them, refine them, and most of all prevent them from falling into enemy hands.

If racism school dot tumblr dot com is right, people’s response to words like “racism” and “privilege” should be accepting them as a useful part of communication that can if needed also be done with other words. No one need worry too much about their definitions except insofar as it is unclear what someone meant to say. No one need worry about whether the words are used to describe them personally, except insofar as their use reveals states of the world which are independent of the words used.

If I am right, then people’s response to these words should be a frantic game of hot potato where they attack like a cornered animal against anyone who tries to use the words on them, desperately try to throw them at somebody else instead, and dispute the definitions like their lives depend on it.

And I know that social justice people like to mock straight white men for behaving in exactly that way, but man, we’re just following your lead here.

Read the whole thing here.

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