Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

That Old Bag of Defensive Rhetorical Tricks

You've got to know the bag but try to keep your hands out of it.

When Bush became an embarrassment even to Republicans, I prayed they would abandon not just the man but his bag of rhetorical tricks for dismissing all challengers and inconvenient truths.

My prayers weren’t answered. That bag of rhetorical tricks is just so irresistible, and not just to Republicans. In a pinch, any of us reach into it. The tricks are generic, good for deflecting any challenge and defending any belief whether it’s political, spiritual or personal.

In the bag you’ll find a wounded, “Hey, that’s not nice” that turns you into the high-minded moral referee and turns attention away from the challenger’s message to how it was delivered.

You can say a concerned, “My! What’s gotten into you?” becoming the caregiving social worker concerned about your challenger’s mental state. 

You can say a haughty “You’re not seeing the whole picture” becoming the deity who does, privy to the highest truths that render your challenger’s truth inconsequential.

You can say a skeptical, “Now, I wouldn’t be so certain” becoming the esteemed scientist too rigorous to fall for anything less certain than your own absolute truth.

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You can say an accusatory “You’re just trying to win” becoming the selfless collaborator, only interested in what’s best so long as you win.

You can say “No, trust me, on this one” which translates as “I know you don’t believe me but believe me, you can believe me.”

There are few more tricks in the bag, surprisingly few, but always enough. If you cycle through them, varying the wording and delivery you can stay unreceptive long enough that your challengers sulk off, leaving you looking virtuous and high minded, receptive and rational in the bargain.

Everyone dips in the bag sometimes, but some people seem to have their maws in it all day. Since the tricks are generic you’ll find some strange bedfellows sharing the bag. I know a few lefty spiritual types who argue just like Sarah Palin.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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