The Inverse Motte and Bailey

The Motte and Bailey technique of argumentation basically involves defining a term or concept in a positive way intended to inspire agreement, and then actually using the term in a much less agreed-upon way. A commonly given example is, “Feminism is the belief that men and women are equal,” a statement that probably most Americans (and Westerners) agree with, while actual feminist argue for a great many things that are not covered in the original supposition, like, “Abortion should be legal and easily available for all women, at all points in pregnancy.” Since the vast majority of men don’t even have wombs, abortion legality isn’t exactly something that can fall under the doctrine of “full equality” (whether you like it or not.)

In the Inverse Motte and Bailey, instead of defining the term as something good that everyone likes, you define it as something bad, and then very carefully note that the thing that you are doing does not technically count as this bad thing. Racism is a good example of the Inverse M & B. No one wants to be called a racist–racism is generally regarded as extremely evil, and therefore anything that is racist is extremely evil. So when someone says, “Hey, you’re being really racist,” the general response is, “No, look, see, racism is clearly defined as XYZ, and this thing I am doing is clearly not XYZ, and therefore not racism.”

In the regular motte, the more-difficult to defend position, (say, abortion,) is effectively shielded from some amount of criticism by the easily defended position (“femism = equality”). In the Inverse Motte, the person has to argue that their position doesn’t fall under the easily defeated position.

An argument along these lines that comes up frequently is, “Is hating Islam (or Muslims) racist?”

One side argues that racism is the irrational hatred of races of people based on belief in inherited, racial characteristics, and that Islam is not a race or an inherited characteristic, but just a bunch of beliefs that people freely choose to believe and act on. There is no biological reason compelling Muslim women to wear headscarves–it’s just something people believe they should do. And things people believe are completely up for criticism, just as we criticize people who believe in UFO abductions or like books we think are dumb.

The other side argues that this is all just rationalization, because obviously most humans on earth do not freely choose their religious beliefs (otherwise religions would be randomly distributed and few people would practice the same religion as their parents,) not to mention that apostasy is illegal in many Muslim countries. Religion is an important part of most peoples’ cultural/ethnic identity, so attacking their religion may have the same effect as any other form of attacking peoples’ ethnic identities.

Ah, says the first side, but many anti-Muslim people are themselves ex-Muslims who love Muslim people but hate the religion.

Yes, says side two, but you are not one of these people. You are a white guy from America, so I think you are racist.

In short, Side Two wants to define racism broadly, in order to cover, “That thing you are saying.” Side One wants wants to define racism narrowly, in order to say, “This thing I am saying is definitely not racism.”

Of course, in reality, people are extremely bad at advocating their own positions, so what you actually get is “You’re racist!” “No i’m not, i hate all religions equally!” “Muslims Americans face all kinds of discrimination and it’s horrible!” “Yeah, well, ISIS kills tons of Muslims, don’t you care about all of the Muslims being murdered by other Muslims? I THOUGHT NOT. Clearly you are just posturing and don’t actually care about the evils being perpetrated against Muslims.” “Israel is a Nazi state committing genocide against Palestine and the UN should nuke it!”

Anyway, I feel like I still need a conclusion, but I’m getting really tired and can’t really think of one.
Supply your own!

2 thoughts on “The Inverse Motte and Bailey

  1. I think you’re making this too complicated by introducing “good” and “bad” to the concept. There’s no need for “Inverse Motte & Bailey.” It’s still all Motte & Bailey: the Motte being what’s narrow and defensible and the Bailey being what’s broad and difficult to defend.

    The Bailey is where you reap the benefits of the outer bounds of your definition or argument. Down in the Bailey, yelling “That’s Racist!!!” gets your opponents to go on defense or shut up. You get to play the victim. You’re attempting to define someone as so repugnant as to not be tolerable in polite society.

    The Motte is where you run when the white guy you’re accusing of racism turns out to have a black wife and to have adopted kids from Africa. “‘Racist’ just means that it’s supportive of a system of oppression, it doesn’t mean you did anything directly to hurt anyone.”

    Whether the thing you’re talking about down in the Bailey is good or bad, the important thing is that you’re using an expansive definition to try to get away with a lot. Whether the thing you’re talking about up in the Motte is bad or good, you’re defining it narrowly to defend yourself when what you were arguing down in the Bailey hit a snag..


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