Distortions and Obfuscations in Discourse

Recently, I have been struggling with arguments in print, on the internet, in podcasts, and on news programs that fail to provide meaningful support or refutation but, instead — for me, anyway — only appear to distort and obfuscate. In many cases these strategies appear to be used with the authentic belief that they are effective and convincing. Other times, I think they are deliberately used as sleight-of-hand trickery to distract from whatever real issue is being debated. As I find these strategies unconvincing in others, I want to be aware of them for myself, to identify and avoid them whenever possible.

As this list is a work in progress, I expect to think further about it and revise it based on future observations and experiences.

Comparison Strategies

These strategies compare some value between the disagreeing parties that is alternately framed as the measure of effectiveness rather than the actual issue under debate.

Certainty > Uncertainty: “I know I am right, therefore it is clear that you are wrong.”

Strident > Less strident: “If I scream louder than you, I am right and you are wrong.”

Care more > Care less: “If I care more than you, I am right and you are wrong.”

Care less > Care more: “Why do you care so much? It isn’t that big of a deal; you’re just blowing things out of proportion.”

Frequency > Infrequency: “The more I repeat my assertions, the less credibility your assertions have.” This is similar to “My insult for you = your identity.” Both use brute-force repetition to influence the limited attention/endurance of others. This strategy makes use of familiarity: a familiar concept is accepted more easily than an unfamiliar concept, so repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat until your statement is accepted as unproblematic.

Having been wronged > Everyone else: “I was a victim, therefore you have no right to question me.”

Indignation > Any other claim: “How dare you question me?” This is similar to “Having been wronged > everyone else” except with “Having been wronged,” there is either actual or perceived victimization; with “Indignation > any other claim,” there’s only offense. “I’m offended and therefore have no need to justify myself” could be another way of explaining this.

Any assertion > No assertion: “My statement is stronger than your lack of a statement.”

My moral high ground > Your moral high ground: “As I have connected my statement to moral conditions, it is better than your position which does not have the same level of moral conditions connected to it.”

My vocabulary > Your vocabulary: “I have more grandiloquence than you, therefore you are wrong.”

Consequential Strategies

Consequential Strategies move from a cause to an effect and use a since/then or because/then type of construction.

Any error = Irredeemably erroneous: “Because you were wrong once, you will always be wrong.”

Accurate Once = Always Accurate: “Because I was right once, I will always be right.”

My insult for you = Your identity: “I have called you an insulting or degrading name; I have used that name repeatedly; through repetition, I have made my name for you familiar to others so that it is no longer novel or unexpected; for all of these reasons, my insulting or degrading name for you is now your identity.” This is similar to “Frequency > Infrequency” because both strategies rely on repetition.

My disagreement with you = You are always wrong: “Because I disagree and because you have failed to agree with me, you are an irredeemable idiot whose judgment cannot be trusted on any subject.” This isn’t exactly like “Any Error = Irredeemably erroneous” because it’s not based on someone’s error but instead on the act of disagreeing.

My disagreement with you on subject A = My disagreement with you on subjects B, C, D, etc.: “Because I disagree with you on one subject, I will not agree with you on any other subject.” This is particularly distorting because it means that disagreements (including any strategy listed here) may not actually be genuine; one party may be transferring its disagreement to an entirely unrelated subject, and because the end goal is to undermine the credibility of an opponent, it may be that multiple strategies on different subjects are used to overwhelm the opponent or perceptions of the opponent.

Cthulhu Teaches Diagramming

Diagramming with Cthulhu

This week one of my students from last year stopped by my room to give me a stuffed Cthulhu. In the life of a teacher, there are very few honors greater than when a former student gifts you an elder god, especially one that is hand-stitched.

I think Cthulhu makes an excellent co-teacher, though his choice of sentences to diagram leaves something to be desired. I’ve discovered, however, that whether I teach diagramming in English or in the language of the Old Ones, the results are equally abysmal. Classroom discipline will definitely be impacted when Cthulhu turns his cute, fuzzy stare on a disrespectful or disobedient student, waves his tentacles, and drives them to madness or at least, reminds them to pay attention and stop trying to hack GoGuardian.

Some of my students have asked me why I have a stuffed frog, and even when I explain, they look at me in confusion. That’s when I realize that their brains simply can’t handle the idea of Cthulhu, and seeing a frog is a coping strategy that allows them to continue to hold on to the scraps of seventh-grade sanity still in their possession.

There are many moments during a school day when I look at a room of seventh graders, some pinballing from the walls, others comatose, some non-stop gossipy under their breath with heads leaning toward one another, others insouciant, some chewing surreptitiously on Cheetohs, others — those very few — thankfully engaged, and I ask myself that question from Talking Heads, “My God! What have I done?” Then a stuffed, green elder god arrives. And I remember what I always have known but forget when I get wrapped up in my daily life: it’s not the diagrams or the grammar or the IAR (or whatever it’s called this week) or the grades or the lesson plans or the rubrics. It’s the kids, those microcosmic elder gods of chaos and creation.

Thank you, L., for the reminder.